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Open Source Series - Blog Post 7: Open Source and Infrastructure

Updated: Apr 16

Drones and Data

Drones have quickly integrated their way into society as powerful and intelligent flying machines. While some of use might immediately think of drones as pesky helicopters that might hit us as we're walking, they provide incredibly valuable services and information.


Many tasks can be simplified, accelerated, or made possible with drones. Organizations and institutions deploy drones to collect a wide variety of data used for including remote sensing for map developments, delivering packages, monitoring crops, and so much more (Joshi, 2019). Especially in an age where global warming is increasing in concern, drones will be critical data collectors in mitigating climate change from planting new trees to monitoring air quality (Folk, 2018). While these drones are key to performing these tasks, they require software that powers the vehicle which can integrate its drone workforce into enterprise workflows.


PX4 aims to bridge that gap of drone hardware and the need for highly agile flight and data collection functions by capitalizing off an open source model with its drone software.


What is PX4?

PX4 is an open source flight control software for drones and other unmanned vehicles. The software is owned by Dronecode, a non-profit organization administered by Linux Foundation to foster the use of open source software on flying vehicles. The project provides a flexible set of tools for drone developers to share technologies to create tailored solutions for drone applications. PX4 provides a standard to deliver drone hardware support and software stack, allowing an ecosystem to build and maintain hardware and software in a scalable way (PX4, 2020).


As an open source drone software, PX4 is free to use and modify under the terms of the permissive BSD 3-clause license. Which means the software also allows proprietary use and allows the releases under the license to be incorporated into proprietary products.


Auterion is a company that builds an open source enterprise operating system for drones, providing a single platform, based on camera and cloud technology, that is capable of capturing data no matter the use case or the vehicle type. The company is largely based on PX4 and Pixhawk which are claimed to be the most widely adopted permissive open source products in the drone industry (Auterion, 2020). Their PX4 software includes everything it takes for safe and autonomous flights, including flight control and the processes and algorithms running on an embedded Linux computer.



Source: Auterion - An introduction to the drone company


What benefit do they provide?

PX4 is highly modular and extensible both in terms of hardware and software. It utilizes a port-based architecture – which means when developers add components, the extended system does not lose robustness or performance.

Additionally, PX4 is co-developed with a global development community. The flight-stack is not just fulfilling the needs of one lab or one company, but has been intended as a general toolkit and is widely used and adopted in the industry.

Another benefit of being open-source is that PX4 offers optimized APIs and SDKs for developers working with integrations that provides high configurability. All the modules are self-contained and can be easily exchanged against a different module without modifying the core. Features are easy to deploy and reconfigure.

Lastly, PX4 brands itself as an autonomy stack which means it is designed to be deeply coupled with embedded computer vision for autonomous capabilities. The framework lowers the barrier of entry for developers working on localization and obstacle detection algorithms

(PX4, 2020).


Source: PX4 - An Introduction to the PX4 Software and a History of Projects


How is Drone Software Infrastructure Evolving Society?

While Auterion is the leading contributor to the PX4 ecosystem, they aren’t the only ones: and that’s meaningful to the drone industry. Continued contributions from universities and research institutions indicate that research projects continue to use and develop the ecosystem (McNabb, 2020).  And more diversity in the list from corporate institutions means that the industry can expect to see more open source powered hardware offerings on the market, either this year or next.


What About Climate Change?

As more companies innovate using drone software like PX4, they will be able to solve some of society's largest climate change issues. For example, deforestation is responsible for more than 15% of net global carbon emissions (Hitatchi, 2019), making the protection of forests vital in the effort to reduce emissions. In Costa Rica, drones are the key infrastructure in a project called “Deep Forest” which uses drones to monitor tree degradation and the impact of illegal logging. By collecting data about the forest, conservation efforts will be more impactful. Additionally, drone software is essential in helping with the large-scale planting of trees. For example, a startup called BioCarbon Engineering has created drones that can plant as many as 100,000 trees per day and has spent years replanting the mangroves around the Irrawaddy river in Myanmar. While these startups may have the hardware to mass produce these drones to develop key sustainability initiatives, they will need to use open-source software like PX4 to manage solutions and collaborate on these operations.



References


Drones are reaching new heights in the fight against climate change. (2019, December 12). Retrieved April 3, 2020, from https://www.hitachi.eu/en/social-innovation-stories/technology/drones-are-reaching-new-heights-fight-against-climate-change


Folk, E. (n.d.). This is how drones could help to fight climate change. Retrieved March 2020, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/05/the-surprising-way-drones-can-help-fight-climate-change


Joshi, D. (2019, December 18). Drone technology uses and applications for commercial, industrial and military drones in 2020 and the future. Retrieved April 9, 2020, from


McNabb, M., & McNabb, M. (2020, January 30). Open Source Drone Operating Systems Continue to Gain Ground: The Year in Review for PX4. Retrieved April 9, 2020, from https://dronelife.com/2020/01/27/open-source-drone-software-is-continues-to-gain-ground-the-year-in-review-for-px4/


Product. (2020, February 12). Retrieved April 9, 2020, from https://auterion.com/product/


Software Overview. (2020). Retrieved April 9, 2020, from https://px4.io/software/software-overview/





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