On Developing Open-Source Drone Software: Q&A with Kevin Sartori

October 30, 2018 | 02:27
The drone and autonomous robot industry is rapidly growing. Kevin Sartori talks about Auterion’s mission to extend the reach of open-source technologies to meet enterprise-grade requirements of companies in the commercial drone space.

Innovative Drone Solutions

C. J. Abate: When did you first get involved with drone technology?
Kevin Sartori: I got involved with drones even before they were called so. In 2008, I did my semester thesis on control algorithms for micro air vehicles (as they were called back then) during my studies at ETH Zurich.
Kevin Sartori  ​(Co-Founder, Auterion)
Kevin Sartori
(Co-Founder, Auterion)
The next year, I joined Lorenz Meier’s Pixhawk student team and developed optimal control algorithms for their first quadcopter. After some years in strategy consulting, I came back to the drone industry and in 2015 joined 3D Robotics in Berkeley, CA. I helped the company make the transition from consumer hardware to enterprise SaaS and drove the commercial adoption of drones for many use cases such as construction and civil engineering.
C. J.: What led you and Lorenz Meier to launch Auterion?
Kevin: Up until recently, the drone industry was largely consumer driven and consumer technology was leveraged for commercial use cases. It has taken years for enterprises to experiment and identify the areas where drones actually add value. As businesses move past the initial experimentation phase and are more clear about what they need, the urge for commercial-grade features emerges.
At the same time, the industry is still too small to be able to justify large investments in R&D as happens today for self-driving cars, where automotive and tech companies are able to invest billions of dollars to bring the technology into products. For this reason, more and more drone companies are using open standards as PX4 and MAVLink as a way to consolidate their efforts on a common platform and stay on the technology curve. However, technological complexity and customer requirements increase and companies have needs that the open-source project on its own cannot satisfy. This is why we started Auterion.
At Auterion, we help drone service providers and drone OEMs focus on their core differentiation, save time and money when bringing new products to market, and offer them the right tools to operates drones safely. Auterion strongly supports open-source development and distribution of PX4 and Pixhawk, while extending the reach of open-source technologies to more closely meet enterprise-grade requirements in the commercial drone space.
C. J.: What is your business model? How do you make money in the open-source software space?
Kevin: Auterion is committed to contributing and working with the PX4 community. However, PX4 is only a tiny fraction of the operating system required to build and fly a complete commercial drone. It is the “kernel” of the drone, but it does not manage cameras and sensors, it does not communicate with the cloud, it does not support remote software updates.

The Auterion enterprise operating system (Figure 1) is a holistic one-stop-solution that adds enterprise features that companies care about, such as reliability, security, and support. The Auterion operating system includes additional services that enable online workflows, log file analysis through advanced deep learning algorithms, and Auterion-specific integrations (e.g., with Sony commercial cameras). Finally, we support our customers with our customer success program, consisting of a team of experienced PX4 engineers, support personnel, and data scientists. All these features are available as a subscription service (SaaS).
 The Auterion OS for drone tech
Figure 1: The Auterion OS powers commercial drones
and offers the visibility into drone operations
with its cloud-based analytics platform.

Drone Software

C. J.: Can you describe the Auterion Software Platform?
Kevin: The Auterion software platform allows drone OEMs and drone service providers to build and safely operate drones for commercial use case as inspection, search and rescue, mapping, and transportation. The software platform includes the Auterion Operating System, the software that runs on the drone, and Auterion Insights, the cloud software. The Auterion Operating System runs on the embedded flight controller and on a Linux computer on board of the vehicle. The flight controller takes care of the flight performance and payloads (position, attitude, camera control) whereas the more performing Linux computer can run custom third-party apps like obstacle avoidance, flight performance analytics, and take care of data streaming over LTE. Auterion Insights includes most of the features that are key for commercial deployment such as software updates, device management, compliance reports, and preventive maintenance. Large operators use Auterion insights to visualize the performance of their fleet and make sure they remain compliant with regulations.
C. J.: What is the IF750A reference drone?
Kevin: The IF750A (Figure 2) has been built as a reference hardware platform to showcase Auterion’s Enterprise software capabilities. It leverages the experience we have in building computer-vision-enabled drones and takes away most of the pitfalls that companies typically hit when trying to build their own commercial design. It accelerates the time-to-market by months, if not years, for its adopters. The reference platform is fully operational and customizable, and we are working with our partner, Inspired Flight, to bring the IF750A to the market as a commercial drone for industrial inspections and mapping.
The IF750A reference design for a commercial drone
Figure 2: The IF750A is a reference design for
a state-of-the-art commercial drone for inspection
and mapping use cases.

 Some of the state-of-the-art capabilities of the reference design include RTK GPS, for centimeter-level accuracy, computer vision for obstacle avoidance, long-range communication link, integration with Sony cameras, and LTE connection for online workflows. We expect that drone service providers will leverage it as a ready-to-fly platform for specialized applications where consumer hardware is hitting its limits or where they need to integrate specialized cameras and sensors. 

C. J.: Is Auterion working on new software solutions? If so, can you tell us about what you are working on?
Kevin: Auterion is building a software distribution for drones and other autonomous robots. The same way as any Linux distribution needs the kernel to constantly improve, we need PX4 to improve and expand. Auterion is fully aligned in its mission with the open source community and already today pushing key capabilities like computer vision. Auterion is contributing many of the capabilities that PX4 is missing to satisfy for commercial applications, like 360-degree obstacle avoidance and flying in GPS-denied spaces.
One of our largest current investments is into Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operations. This requires the improvements of the overall flight controller robustness using a functional safety standard approach, the hardening of the communication protocol, and the integration of new sets of sensors.
C. J.: Tell us about Pixhawk.
Kevin: Pixhawk is one of the key drivers, perhaps the most influential, that empowered the drone industry and enabled thousands of people and companies to build drones. Pixhawk is an open hardware reference design that explains how to create the electronics for an autopilot so that they are compatible with the open-source flight control software, PX4. The design is open and was created by Lorenz Meier (it is named after his student team from ETH Zurich) together with the development community. It was successful because for the first time an integrated system included all the needed components of an autopilot (IMUs, compute, GPS) for a low cost and in a very small form factor.
C. J.: Are there business opportunities for Auterion outside of the drone industry? Can your software solutions be implemented in, say, the autonomous car space?
Kevin: The software platform that we are building for drones also scales to other mobile robot applications. Today, automatic lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners and delivery robots share the same fundamental technological challenges as drones and can therefore be served by our software platform. Autonomous cars, on the other hand, undergo a whole different level of regulations and require a magnitude of investment that would be unthinkable for the drone industry today. However, as we grow the capabilities of the open-source software platform to meet the growing requirements of commercial drones, our technology curve could in the future intersect the one of flying cars. 

C. J.: Why does open source make sense for the drone industry?
Kevin: We see many commercial companies reach their glass ceiling in R&D. It is not enough anymore to put a camera in the sky and download pictures on an SD card. Today, in any robotic system, nothing is more important than the ability to perceive, communicate, and navigate the world around it safely and in compliance with regulations. Furthermore, businesses require seamless workflows to capture, use, and integrate data into their systems. Many of these technological challenges are too large for individual companies to solve on their own. Open source is an R&D model that has been a critical enabler in the industry so far. It created networks effects among the fragmented landscape of companies, allowed them to share the development cost, prevented same from making redundant investments, and helped them gain market access for their product and services.

The Future of Drone Technology

C. J.: Will tomorrow’s advances in drone technology be driven by software or hardware innovation?
Kevin: To reach the next level of adoption, we need further development on both hardware and software. Drone hardware needs more visual computing power and better sensors at lower cost. Luckily, the automotive industry is solving the same autonomy problems and will be the primary driver in reducing cost because it offers much larger scale and returns on investment than the drone industry. At the same time, we need a common software infrastructure so that both hardware suppliers and service companies can scale their go to market.
C. J.: Where is drone technology headed? Where do you see the industry in 5 to 10 years?
Kevin: The years 2016 and 2017 were challenging for the drone industry. Some drone companies had to change business models, many others changed their leadership teams to help steer the company in new directions, and some are no longer active in the drone industry. The industry is consolidating and shifting from vertically to horizontally integrated; it’s a trend that happened in many maturing industries.
It’s becoming clear that a global standard and a common infrastructure are needed. More and more drone companies are relying on open-source standards as a way to consolidate their efforts. It allows them to share the development cost and scale market access to remain competitive. Because of this, we will see a stronger push towards ecosystems.
C. J.: Where would you like to see your company a year from now?
Kevin: At Auterion we aim to bring the level of professionalization to drones that Red Hat brought to Linux. We released the first version of our tested, certified and reliable operating system for drones on a validated hardware platform at Interdrone. We will enable safe deployment of software for all stages of the lifecycle of a commercial drone – from prototyping to large scale drone operations. At the same time, we will keep working together with the open-source ecosystem and with our software and hardware partners to update our operating system and bring new technologies and services to the ecosystem and enable the next level of safe drone operations.

This article will also appear in the November 2018 edition of Elektor Industry magazine.
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