Pixhawk creators launch Skynode, a new “brain” for drones

The creators of Pixhawk, an open-source autopilot system designed for drones have their sights set on something bigger: Skynode.

Almost 10 years after building the first Pixhawk, creator Lorenz Meier co-founded a new company called Auterion. And that company this month released what they promise to be “the next big thing.”

Auterion in May launched Skynode, a sort of “drone brain” that merges the drone’s flight controller, mission computer, and wireless connectivity into a box the size of your hand. Like the Pixhawk, it’s an open-source product.

“The idea is to provide a standardized operating system for drones,” said Mike Blades, Vice President of Aerospace, Defense & Security at research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

With Skynode, essentially everything you need to operate the drone besides actually flying it is contained into one piece of hardware. In short, you build the physical drone, you put Skynode, and you’ve set yourself up with a system that allows you to customize what your drone is capable of doing.

“It cuts the time and cost of designing, integrating and maintaining hardware and software, so manufacturers can focus on developing products,” according to a statement from Auterion.

Since it comes pre-installed with Auterion Enterprise PX4 operating system, users would have access to a payload SDK (payload SDKs allow you to enable whatever your drone is carrying, like a camera, to communicate with the drone’s flight controller, GPS module, and transmission system). They’d also have access to enabling a communication interface for remote operations and real-time video over LTE.

And that’s just the start of how drones can be customized. Skynode also enables obstacle detection and avoidance, Remote ID, and UTM.

With one standardized operating system, you could deploy fleets of multiple different drones.

“It really is the best attempt, to date, to provide underlying systems which can support all drones for all applications,”Blades said.

Further, it opens the door for app developers to build software for unique drone applications. Companies like DroneDeploy would be able to have their app on the drone itself, Blades said.

Other companies have tried, unsuccessfully to make similar products. Airware tried making a similar product, though their’s was proprietary rather than open-source, like Skynode. Airware, started as a drone manufacturer, pivoted to software, and eventually shut down entirely after burning through $118 million in venture capital, selling off its remaining assets to French company Delair.

Auterion Skynode Pixhawk drone brain

There are actually four slightly different versions of Skynode available with the May launch:

  • an enterprise module
  • a module certified for U.S. government users (government edition products are starting to become more common in the drone industry after DJI announced a Government Edition drone intended for use use in high-security situations)
  • a core board for tighter airframe integration
  • a version built by GE Aviation (designed for drone operations that go beyond what Part 107 allows and require special waivers)

Another factor that might give Skynode an edge: it’s made in the United States. Drones made in the USA have been a hot topic recently in light of reports that the Trump administration could issue a controversial executive order to ban all federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones, citing a risk to national security. 

Auterion, which has offices in California and Switzerland, calls  the U.S. Department of Defense one of its clients.

Blades said that Auterion’s Skynode product is unique in that not only does it serve a real purpose in solving roadblocks for drone pilots today, but it sets the stone for being able to overcome roadblocks that the drone industry hasn’t yet even encountered.

“It really is a solution that seeks to either solve current operational problems/hurdles, or provide options for solving those problems,” he said. “It even allows for the latitude to support solving problems that haven’t even been identified yet.”

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