The current commercial and government drone landscape has a major problem: It's completely fragmented. Proprietary airframes, hardware, and software are all struggling to compete in the shadow of Chinese firm DJI, which has around 70% of the global market and has battled rumors (which it insists are false) that it shares user data with the Chinese government.
The consequence? The commercial drone industry is not scaling as many predicted it would. What's the solution? Standardization in the U.S.
That's the thinking behind Skynode, a family of drone avionics modules built by Auterion, an open-source-based software platform provider for enterprise and government drones. The idea is that drone developers and manufacturers can plug these physical modules into their stacks instead of starting from scratch building proprietary modules for their hardware or keeping existing modules compliant in a fast-changing regulatory environment.
The modules come with the flight systems baked in. Skynode combines the latest Pixhawk flight controller, the industry's de-facto standard for drone hardware autopilots, mission computer, and wireless networking (LTE, WiFi). It also comes pre-installed with the Auterion Enterprise PX4 operating system, providing a comprehensive payload SDK, the communication interface for remote operations, and real-time video over LTE. Skynode also enables obstacle detection and avoidance, VIO positioning, Remote ID, and UTM.
A similar strain of thinking in the parallel field of robotics has led to a wave of development thanks to ROS, the open-source robotic operating system, which give developers a huge head start in development and has helped sow seeds of standardization in the automation industry.
This is a step in the right direction. What the commercial and government drone sectors need are comprehensive software and hardware solutions that can be standardized to accelerate the growth. This is especially true with the strict new compliance rules outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 and the proposed American Drone Security Act of 2019, which will make it very difficult for many manufacturers and drone service providers to do business with all branches of the US Government, traditionally a large customer for drone businesses.
"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," says Lorenz Meier, co-founder of Auterion.
Skynode is set to launch in July during a rollout of four configurations: an enterprise module, a module certified for U.S. government users, the core board for tighter airframe integration, and a version built by launch partner GE Aviation with Run-time Assurance (RTA) for drone operations that go beyond what Part 107 allows and require special waivers. The Skynode design can also be licensed to Auterion customers to build their own implementations for even deeper integration.
"GE Aviation's new RTA product, combined with the Skynode reference design, is available to drone manufacturers and operators and will help them meet regulatory requirements for a multitude of BVLOS missions and flights over people including commercial and humanitarian deliveries, mapping and inspections," says Larry Martin, vice president of Avionics Systems for GE Aviation.