With the U.S. government and military eager for a profitable domestic small UAS industry to emerge, software developer Auterion seeks to be part of the solution by bringing together the fragmented industry around its hardware and software solutions, built off of the open-source PX4 ecosystem used by millions of drones flying today.
The Switzerland and California-based startup this week released Skynode, an avionics and wireless connectivity package that drone manufacturers can either purchase as-is and integrate into their platform or license and re-design to fit their requirements.
"Built on top of open standards like FMUv5x, PX4, and MAVLink, Skynode with Auterion PX4 enables drone manufacturers to rapidly enter new markets by making their products compatible with an ecosystem of payloads, components, services, and workflow integrations that give companies the tools they need to deploy large fleets of drones," said Lorenz Meier, co-founder of Auterion and original creator of the open-source PX4 software base.
Auterion also partnered with GE Aviation on Skynode RTA, a version of the product that scales down GE's commercial airliner-class autopilot system, used on the Boeing 777 and 787, to make Skynode certifiable for operations that require higher safety standards, such as cargo delivery in urban areas.
Skynode is a key component in Auterion's strategy to help drone service providers and manufacturers focus their limited resources, avoid reinventing the wheel and in turn lower their costs – all goals shared by the U.S. military, which continues to raise concerns about the security of Chinese-made DJI drones.
"The Pentagon has to sign off on every Department of Defense use of a DJI drone," said Dr. Will Roper, Air Force acquisitions chief, during the recent Agility Prime virtual launch – a program aimed at ensuring the military won't face similar domestic supply problems with electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
DJI controls 75-80 percent of the small UAS market worldwide and, through its scale, has prevented the formation of an economically viable competitor in the United States. Through the action of Congress and the White House, DJI is swiftly being pushed out of the U.S. military and government markets, creating a billion-dollar opening many small UAS manufacturers – most with less than 1 percent current market share – are seeking to capitalize on.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law December 20, prevents the military from operating, acquiring or renewing contracts for Chinese drones or drone components, including flight controllers, ground control systems and operating software. Auterion's Skynode and the PX4 software ecosystem comply with the NDAA's restrictions as well as the proposed American Security Drone Act, which is yet to pass either house of Congress.
In May 2019, Auterion was awarded a $2 million contract by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to enhance its software architecture, moving toward standardizing the operating system for all small UAS used by the government and making every drone application – unmanned traffic management, data analysis, detect-and-avoid – plug-and-play across different hardware providers, reducing integration costs and training requirements while providing the Pentagon access to the rapid innovation of an open-source development ecosystem.
"That is a primary reason why DIU first – but now U.S. Army, Air Force, [DHS] Customs & Border Patrol, a lot of other departments – are looking at PX4 as an ecosystem and Auterion as the enabler of that ecosystem. Because they can jump on this technology curve," Auterion co-founder Kevin Sartori told Avionics International. "And no single company can do that, apart from of course DJI because they have 4,500 engineers on staff. A small drone company like Vantage Robotics or Quantum Systems that has a dozen software engineers can't compete with that ecosystem."
That DIU contract was renewed this year, according to Sartori, and will convert into a program of record under the U.S. Army's Short-Range Reconnaissance (SRR) effort to purchase systems based on the PX4 ecosystem, such as Quantum Systems' Vector and Scorpion defense platforms, which were released in February in partnership with Auterion Government Solutions, a subsidiary company.
The original SRR solicitation, released in November 2018, includes requirements for "an open autopilot software stack" as well as "an open communications (mavlink) and video protocol," referring to the MAVlink protocol originally developed by Auterion cofounder Lorenz Meier in 2009. The Army's Long-Range Reconnaissance (LRR) program, to be released next year, is expected to include similar requirements.
"That first solicitation for the Group 1 software architecture already included PX4, MAVlink, QGC [flight control and mission-planning] – they came to it by using the technology first … and then asking for it more and more," Sartori said. "Now, it's a big part of DIU's strategy, and it's trickling down to other departments."
What's the easiest, cheapest way for companies to meet these requirements? To work with Auterion, Sartori said. His goal is to model Auterion after Linux Red Hat, which implements the open-source computer operating system for numerous enterprise, government and military customers.
"Red Hat works with 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies," Sartori said. "Some of them, the 2 percent, are big enough so that they can implement their own version of Linux, and those are Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google. Everyone else uses Red Hat Linux."
Red Hat's enterprise business was not built overnight, but Sartori sees the COVID-19 pandemic as an accelerant that may increase the adoption rate of Auterion's common platform.
"Crises change the way that we operate. There is a lot of cost pressure on the government as well as enterprises to save cost. Automation is one way, but not reinventing the wheel is another way," Sartori said. "I could argue that Red Hat Linux would not be what we know today without the Dot Com bubble that just eliminated a lot of companies that were doing their own implementation of Linux. It was normal at the end of the late 90s to build your own Linux. No one would do that today … I think the comparison is pretty similar to the maturity of our industry."
However, two of the aforementioned companies – Amazon and Google – are major players in the emerging drone delivery industry, through Prime Air and Wing respectively. It's not clear whether they would choose to adopt Auterion's technology, but Sartori isn't concerned about that.
The company is working with DroneCode and ASTM to develop industry standards around the PX4 ecosystem, allowing larger players like Wing – which started with PX4, according to Sartori – the freedom to branch off and build their own implementation of the open-source code, while smaller players can essentially outsource their flight controllers, detect-and-avoid, autopilot and other systems to Auterion and focus on their core competencies.
If Auterion's vision of the drone industry's future comes to pass, Sartori believes the Western drone industry could become much more price-competitive with DJI for enterprise applications rather than cheaper consumer drones.
"The market that we can really disrupt is closer to $5-10,000 and up, where you can build a drone made in the U.S. that rivals the [DJI Matrice] M200 at the enterprise level," Sartori said. "I think we can compete at that level today, provided that we have the hardware companies that will build such a system. And we're lining that up, so mid-year you will see a couple of manufacturers bring to market drones that have the same benefit as an M200 and are compatible on pricing too."
"The cost savings for an enterprise isn't buying a drone that is $2k versus a better drone that is $10k, but rather getting rid of all the integration steps in between," Sartori added. "It's not only the cost of procurement but the lifetime cost of the system."