Software Defined Drones and the Path to Standardization and Scale in the Drone Industry

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At the InterGeo conference in Stuttgart today, Kevin Sartori, Co-Founder of Auterion and an ambassador for open source software for drones, says the drone industry is going through a transformation – and his analogy to the auto industry is both fascinating and a bit frightening for industry watchers.

The Model T and the Start of Scale for an Industry

100 years ago, says Sartori, the Ford Model T represented the very beginning of scaling the auto industry.  The Model T had product market fit, and it has many of the same components that we recognize in cars today.  “Standards bodies began to be created,” explains Sartori, “to make sure that an M12 screw was an M12 screw, and we all understood the tolerances around that definition.”

“Before that point,” says Sartori, “Every auto manufacturer built every component of their own car.  That doesn’t scale.”

But in the 100 years since the Model T was manufactured, the automotive industry has gone from over 5000 manufacturers to the relatively few that we recognize today.  And like it or not, the drone industry has seen a few leading players close their doors over the last couple of years, heralding that same cycle of consolidation.

Software Defined Drones

Software is how we define things now, says Sartori – like phones, that we automatically categorize as iOS or Android.  And software is how we will come to define drones, too, as it comes to define not only the aircraft but an entire ecosystem.

Sartori is the co-founder of Auterion – they’re the Red Hat of the drone industry, serving as a distributor and enabler for open source software for drones.  He’s a proponent of open source, and a believer that open source software is the key to scalability in the drone industry.  There’s data and history to support the idea.  As drone manufacturing giant DJI is often compared to Apple, open source drones are frequently compared to Android – and Sartori points out that Android is based on open source Linux, and as more than 87 percent of phones are now Android, that makes it the most used software in the world.

Software Defined Drones: the Components are in Place

“In a software defined drone system you don’t care about the drone,” says Sartori. “You care about getting the data and using it.”  To do that, you need an ecosystem of software products: something to plan flights, something to fly the aircraft, and a way of communicating the data as it’s collected.  Based around PX4  – which Sartori says is like the Linux kernel – that whole ecosystem is already in place.  PX4 autopilot, MavLink Communications and MavLink SDK, Q Ground Control: all of the software is open source.

The open source aspect means that hundreds of professionals are working on the code – and that’s an advantage the vast majority of drone companies can’t compete with.  Just as the top contributors to Linux are now major companies like Microsoft and Intel, so are the top contributors to open source software for drones.  Governments are investing heavily in open source for drones; so are large legacy companies and industry organizations.

Don’t.  Just Don’t.

All of this, says Sartori, indicates that open source drones are poised to scale dramatically – just as the auto industry did.  So Sartori has a clear message for new drone companies.  “Open source software is enabling the next level of scale in the drone industry,” says Sartori.   “Don’t reinvent the wheel.   Don’t be redundant.  Use what’s out there.”

“Technology doesn’t differentiate you,” Sartori says. “It’s the service that you provide that differentiates you.”


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