The majority of non-DJI drones out there have one surprising feature in common: they use open-source tech.
Drone brands leveraging open-source tech account for 16% of all commercial drones out there. What’s more, they account for 60% of non-DJI drones. That’s according to the latest report from commercial drone research group Drone Analyst on the rise of open source drones.
“With much of the industry discussing the pressures on DJI, rise of Blue sUAS offerings such as the Skydio X2 and the promise of autonomous drones, there has been one consistent force driving many of these larger trends…the rise of drones relying on open-source technologies, and the strengthening of open-source protocols themselves,” according to a new blog post from Drone Analyst.
What is open-source?
An open-source drone refers to one that operates via a a free-use license, that’s openly and publicly worked on by developers. Rather than a company building proprietary technology and software that they keep for themselves, companies may choose to contribute to open-source technology. In turn, others can build upon it and improve their technology — often a win-win for all parties.
Open source projects in the drone industry can include everything from flight control software and communication protocols to battery management systems.
These days, big players in the open-source drone world include Auterion, the largest open-source drone software platform in the world, building an ecosystem of software-defined drones, payloads, and third party applications.
Most open source drone projects are facilitated through the Dronecode Foundation— a U.S.-based, vendor-neutral non-profit foundation for open source drone projects that operates under the Linux Foundation and has received support from big players like Microsoft.
Why are more than half of non-DJI drones open-source?
If 60% of non-DJI drones are open source, and 16% of overall commercial drones out there are, why is that? A few reasons:
Cost: It’s expensive to build your own proprietary flight controller algorithm. New companies without DJI’s massive budget would likely want to use a flight controllers with open-source software rather than pay multiple developers to, in a way, reinvent the wheel.
Potential to mitigate cybersecurity risks and enforce standards: And open-source isn’t just beneficial to smaller companies with fewer resources Drone Analyst also suggested that open-source has a benefit to larger companies.
“With strict enforcement of standards, large enterprises can test or deploy multiple systems nearly interchangeably,” according to a Drone Analyst note. “Vetting of cybersecurity risks can similarly be streamlined, as code is published and commonly tested before procurement.”
Blue sUAS Group: The Blue sUAS Group is a project created by the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit as a way to partner with private, American drone companies that would then build “trusted” drone systems for the DoD and other U.S. government partners. Often, one of the DIU’s Blue sUAS solicitation requirements is use of open-source technologies.
“It’s fascinating to see the US military move quickly on open-source technologies, and speaks to the influence of the Defense Innovation Unit in changing US DoD procurement culture,” Drone Analyst wrote.
Preference for Made in America: We’ve heard a lot about U.S. tensions with China — and there’s a specific preference to use drones that are made in America. Blue sUAS Group or not, many companies are leaning toward purchasing drones made in China.
That sentiment largely gained traction after the U.S. Army in August 2017 temporarily banned its teams from using DJI drones because of cyber-security concerns. A couple years later, Department of the Interior, which uses drones for use cases like wildlife conservation and monitoring infrastructure, said it would stop using any drones made in China or made with Chinese parts. Other private organizations and arms of government arms have implemented bans or at least encouraged use of drones made from anything other that American drone companies.
What does the future of open-source drones look like?
In short, it’s likely to grow. While DJI still has far and away the largest market share, it’s losing steam. In 2019, DJI market share dropped for the first time ever.
Some of that might already be attributed to the rise of open-source drone companies. After all, some experts believe that while no single company might ever be able to compete against DJI, open-source drone tech together could break DJI’s stronghold over the competition.
Meanwhile, open source companies are definitely growing. Auterion, which is leading the way in open source by a lot of metrics, has recently made a number of high-profile hires. Other notable companies contributing to the open source drone community include Drone Solutions, which is a consulting firm that works on drone technology development for other companies including delivery company Vayu and precision agriculture company Airlitix. There’s also AirMap, which works on a number of projects including Remote ID and UTM; and drone delivery company Volansi.
“As the drone industry keeps growing, the collaboration among industry players becomes increasingly important to ensure the development technology that is both safe and scalable,” said Auterion cofounder and Dronecode board member Kevin Sartori in a prepared statement earlier to year to The Drone Girl. “In 2021, an open approach beats closed ones.”