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Which is Better: Open Source or Proprietary Drone Software?

Just like Google vs. Apple

When the Apple iPad first appeared on the market in 2010, I didn’t jump in to buy one. I didn’t own an iPhone, I had a company-issued Blackberry, so I wasn’t motivated. Besides, I figured there would be a better model a year or so later. So I waited. By the time Apple released the iPad 2 in 2011 all my friends had one. It looked and felt great in the hand. I thought the user interface (UI) was pretty slick. But I also heard about this thing called Android in development by Google and the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) with a similar and perhaps better UI. I was conflicted about which to buy first. I eventually got an Android tablet on the promise of what could be an open source model. However, after one disappointing experience after another, I got rid of it and switched a year later to an iPad first generation. I stayed on that path and haven’t looked back since.

As Diffen says:

Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS are operating systems that provide a good example of open source vs. proprietary. Both are used primarily in mobile technology, such as smartphones and tablets. Android, which is Linux-based and partly open source, is more PC-like than iOS, in that its interface and basic features are generally more customizable from top to bottom. However, iOS’ uniform design elements are sometimes seen as being more user-friendly.

But wait, I thought we were going to discuss drone software. We are.

For all drones, the interaction between the user and the aircraft, and the aircraft and its hardware is mediated by software. As I have written here, the quality of the pilot experience can be driven by the features and the quality of implementation, but the comparison with tablet and smartphones is a good one. Just as with your smartphone and tablet systems, choosing the wrong software platform for your drone can produce some very high switching costs should you decide later you need to change. In this post, I’m going to look beyond manufacturers’ claims and help you understand the differences with the following explanations of what is it, who makes it, who uses it, and what you need to know.

Open Source Drone Software – the Google Android model

What is it?
The term open source refers to software whose source code — the medium in which programmers create and modify software — is freely available on the Internet. By contrast, the source code for proprietary commercial software is usually a closely guarded secret. The most well-known example of open source software is the Linux operating system, but there are open source software products available for every conceivable purpose.

Open source software is distributed under a variety of licensing terms, but almost anyone can modify the software to add capabilities not envisaged by its originators. Most often the software originator or distributor declare a group off standards or technology specifications and make them widely available, allowing many companies to create products that will work interchangeably and be compatible with each other. One such standard is an Application Programming Interface (API). An API is a feature of a software application that allows other software to interoperate with it, automatically invoking its functionality and exchanging data with it.

Who makes it?
The best example of an open source software product for drones is 3DRobotics’ ArduPilot Mega or ‘APM.’ APM is the leading open source auto-piloting software. It’s billed as the first universal autopilot, which means it enables same hardware to provide fully autonomous control to a multitude of vehicles, from multicopters and traditional helicopters to fixed-wing planes and even ground rovers. APM is a full UAV autopilot, which means it supports both piloted and unpiloted (fully autonomous) flight, including hundreds of GPS waypoints, camera control, and auto-takeoff and landing.

At a recent small unmanned systems business expo in San Francisco, Chris Anderson said his company 3DRobotics and its ecosystem of partners are in the process of “Building the Android of UAVs.” He compared the APM firmware, software, and its partners with the Android operating system open source software stack. You can watch that presentation here beginning at 3:51:40.

Parrot, maker of the AR. Drone, Bebop and parent of Sensefly is another open source vendor. Theirs is an open API platform with shared source code released under the terms of the AR.Drone License. You can read about their software development kit (SDK) here.

Who uses it?
Thousands of hobbyists and researchers, but very few commercial drone operators – at least not yet.

What do you need to know?
Pros - The common theme of “openness” in the above definitions is the ability of diverse parties to create technology that interoperates. When evaluating your drone business’ current and anticipated software needs, a software solution’s capability to interoperate is an important criterion. To extend the value of your physical aircraft investment, you may want to select a software solution that is based on open standards and APIs that facilitate interoperability and has the capability for direct integration between various vendors’ products.

APM offers this, plus some great features like point-and-click programming/configuration, multiple command modes, failsafe programming options in the event of lost control signal or low battery conditions, camera gimbal control and stabilization, some limited real-time telemetry and data logging, and of course, APIs to third-party software and hardware.

Cons - Like the early versions of Android, the APM interface and basic features are generally more customizable. That means ‘partial assembly required’ for commercial use. In other words, you’ll need to tap a community of engineers to determine the compatible components and integration possibilities if you want extended capabilities like the support of large heavy-lift multirotors. Granted, 3DRobotics has made progress with the release of its IRIS quadcopter, which contains the Pixhawk open source hardware unit. While Pixhawk with its 32-bit architecture, faster processor, more memory, etc., is shaping up to be the successor to earlier APM-supported hardware, it’s still not quite ready for multi-duty aircraft where you need to hot swop configurable sensors. Other companies will need to aggregate more reliable components on top of Pixhawk or wait for the next generation of APM to accomplish that.

Proprietary Drone Software – the Apple iOS Model

What is it?
Proprietary software, or closed-source software, is drone software licensed under exclusive legal right of the copyright holder with the intent that the licensee is given the right to use the software only under certain conditions, and restricted from other uses, such as modification, sharing, studying, redistribution, or reverse engineering. Usually the source code of proprietary software is not made available.

Vendors typically distribute proprietary software in compiled form, usually the machine language understood by the drone’s central processing unit. They typically retain the source code, or human-readable version of the software, written in a higher-level programming language. By withholding source code, the software producer prevents the user from changing how it works. This practice is denounced by some critics, who argue that users should be able to study and change the software they use, for example, to modify unwanted features, or fix malfunctioning vulnerabilities.

Who makes it?
Just about everybody other than 3DRobotics and AR.Drone. Examples of commercial-grade software embedded in small drones include: PrecisionHawk, Draganfly, and Aeryon, to name a few.

Who uses it?
Thousands of civil and public small UAS operators and a few hobbyists worldwide.

What do you need to know?
Pros – The fact is, proprietary source is better than open source in certain situations — like when you want a turnkey hardware / software solution to support a commercial sUAS service such as mapping, agriculture, or industrial inspection. Just know that you will pay more and be limited to the improvement roadmap of a single vendor.

Some of the other benefits are less apparent.

Tech support. First, you’ll never have to fix inherent problems when something goes wrong. With any software, things occasionally go wrong. When this happens with open source software, you, or an engineer who owes you a favor, may need to spend time debugging the problem. This entails reading through code, working with an open source community, or your open source support provider, and applying a fix. With closed source, on the other hand, once you determine that the problem lies in your vendor’s code, you’re all done! All you have to do is file a ticket and wait. It can take some time to decide whether you want Service Level Agreement (SLA) support with guaranteed response times, or if you feel comfortable posting issues on forums or doing your own support. With closed source, you pretty much never have to worry about where you’re going to get support. Sure, you might not ever get to speak to an actual engineer, but at least you always know who to call. Sure, you may have to wait for the next software release version for the fix, and sometimes it never comes at all, but there’s nothing you can do about that. Just kick back, relax, and hope for the best.

Fewer options. Yes, sometimes fewer options is a benefit. With closed source, you don’t have to contend with so many options. You only have to explore two or three large vendors in each market. You can save time. Open source offers lots of solutions when considering a motor, electronic speed controller, camera trigger, telemetry downlinks, etc. In practically every category, you can find robust offerings built by a variety of vendors with different architectural approaches. It’s also very common to find similar tools that are optimized for different use cases (e.g., performance versus scalability versus simplicity). To make sure a tool will work best for your particular use case, download it and give it a try.

Cons – In some instances proprietary isn’t the best option. For example, you may want to take advantage of the growing use of the air vehicle communication protocol standard MAVLink. MAVLink has been extensively tested on the open source platforms and serves there as communication backbone for the MCU/IMU communication as well as for Linux interprocess and ground link communication. This protocol has enable companies like DroneDeploy to create a very user-friendly web-based mission planner which allows control of multiple drones. I suspect this protocol will become the de-facto standard in the growing ‘mission planner’ functionality race and proprietary protocols will leave their solutions inadequate.

So, there you have it. A few good reasons why you want to consider closely whether you want your business to use open source or proprietary drone software. Do you have others you’d like to share? Please comment below. If you have questions and would like to discuss further, email me at colin@droneanalyst.com. Cheers.

Image Credit: Shuttestock

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Will Future FAA Rules Kill The Small Drones Market?

I just released the findings of my two-month survey studying the impact of FAA rules on small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) in the U.S. You can read the press release here.

Among the many insights I got from the research, these two are the most significant: Unfavorable rules will disintegrate an already fragile market for sUAS in the U.S. Significant market growth awaits once FAA regulations allow.

“Impact of FAA Rules on sUAS Business” examines the economic impact of current FAA policies for sUAS operating in Class G uncontrolled airspace. It evaluates how commercial service providers and operators perceive those rules and assess their importance.

Since 2007, the FAA has attempted to prohibit commercial use of sUAS in the U.S. through a series of statements and policies aimed at controlling activity until actual regulations are put in place. The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 authorizes the FAA to issue licenses for commercial drone use in the U.S. The FAA modernization law was widely expected to result in tens of thousands of commercial drones being licensed to fly over U.S. airspace. So far, however, it has produced only uncertainty: a combined 71% of participants in the survey say current rules are unclear and indicated confusion around conditions under which it is currently legal to operate sUAS for commercial purposes in the U.S. In fact, when offered 12 possibilities for conditions conducive to legal sUAS operation, the third most-checked condition was “the FAA does not regulate Class G air space.”

This research investigates the potential economic impact of both favorable and unfavorable future regulations, including revenue growth forecasts and hiring plans. Participants clearly identified five types of FAA regulations that would be unfavorable for their businesses, with 61% indicating they would simply not start or shutter their existing business operations if those unfavorable FAA regulations were in place.

In light of those findings, I conclude the overall market for sUAS in the U.S. would disintegrate if unfavorable regulations come into being. All the positive economic impacts like revenue, job creation, and tax base creation—not to mention the practical benefits of U.S.-based drone business services—would not be realized.

To get a copy of the research visit this page: http://droneanalyst.com/research/purchase/.

And, if you have questions and would like to discuss one-on-one, email me at colin@droneanalyst.com

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Drone Businesses: Three Social Media Platforms You Can’t Afford To Ignore

For some the thought of using Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn for their small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) business seems, well, just wrong. What good are they? Aren’t they just platforms for people who want to share what they had for breakfast? It’s not my audience. These social networks seem like a lot work for very little return – and besides aren’t there better things to do?

I understand. I believed this for many years. The very thought of having to maintain a ‘virtual image’ of my company or myself seemed un-human like, let alone un-business like. But a few years ago I started consulting with small and medium businesses, and my job required me to learn social media and actively participate. At first, I went kicking and screaming. What I saw initially was a lot of experimenting. I didn’t see compelling business content (e.g., the breakfast thing). But that was then. Things are very different now. Not only has the strategic role of online social networks progressed, but the media itself has matured. In that progression I have learned some valuable business lessons.

In this post want to pass on three of those lessons to inspire your participation.

Twitter – It’s been said here that

Twitter is a like huge, successful cocktail party. Groups of people are chatting about different things in different parts of the room. Some are laughing together, some are noting down an interesting book title the person next to them mentioned. One group may be commiserating with someone who just received some bad news, and another is congratulating a guest’s good fortune. You are never the first to arrive nor the last to leave. But when you do leave, you might do so with a few new numbers in your smartphone and a book you want to read.

With 58 million tweets being shared on Twitter daily, and over 190 million unique visitors per month1, isn’t it time for your sUAS company to join that party? With Twitter, you can either observe or participate in the world-wide drones revolution.  If you decide to participate, then by all means use Twitter to define your brand and generate leads. The more you tweet, the more followers and exposure you will get.

If you decide to join the party, create an account for your business. See this article for 31 Twitter Tips: How To Use Twitter Tools And Twitter Best Practices For Business. Once you’re on – or if you are already on – I invite you follow me @droneanalyst and follow the people I follow.  See what we have to say. Search on #drones or #UAS or #UAV and discover who else is at the party. (By the way, those “#” symbols are called hashtags and are a great way to tag your tweets and/or search on other tweets whose content includes that hashtag.)

While at the party, you’ll find an article or two on the latest drone application – like precision agriculture, or positive use cases like a successful search and rescue mission, or even a university research project you might want to participate in. You will learn about the latest FAA delay or the latest legal battle.  The good fortune you will find is a company’s latest product release – like a cool new piece of software, or that lightweight LIDAR you’ve been waiting for. Twitter is “the” place where all this is happening and much more. For the UAS industry and many other emerging businesses, these innovations are being tweeted about at breakneck speeds. Join now or fall behind.

Facebook – Take a look at this infographic. At last count, Facebook has 1.15 billion users and about 700 million daily users. The average visit is over 20 minutes. That’s a lot of time on one website. But the richness of Facebook is not the volume– it’s the connection between local people and businesses. Consider this: 47% of Americans say that Facebook has a greater impact on their purchasing behavior than any other social network, and 50% of users follow their friends’ product and service recommendations.

So why doesn’t your drone business have a Facebook page? Why aren’t you posting regularly? Facebook offers a chance for lots of eyeballs to see you, make a connection, and hear your story. Let’s face it, you need to tell your story and connect with a broader audience if you want new business. That’s what Facebook offers. Pssst, it’s free mass marketing.

What kind of information should you post on your page? Well, for one, give your audience a behind-the-scenes glimpse of your company: Think theater, applied to content. You need to answer the question of what your audience will find interesting, compelling, and useful. The strength of this type of information is that it doesn’t need to be created in the same format as the rest of your marketing content. In fact, it’s often better if it’s not. Post an informative article you learned about at the Twitter party. Pictures of your employees are good. A post pointing to a YouTube video is even better.  Important though–keep posts simple. Don’t jam a lot of content and text together. Think headlines that attract attention. You need to get above the noise and the latest cat video post.

LinkedIn - If Twitter is the cocktail party, then LinkedIn is the dinner party. This is where real connection and deeper conversation happens. At its core, LinkedIn is your resume online. That resume or ‘profile’ contains your schooling, work history, and business experience. Think of it as your ‘virtual business self’. Your profile is the window through which others perceive you. Your profile provides others context and gives you credibility, and you need both if you want others to connect with you and trust you.

However, be careful not to sit on your laurels. Just because you are on LinkedIn and it shows you were in the aerospace industry or in the military and worked on UAVs it does not mean that people understand your business acumen. In fact, probably just the opposite is true. You have to prove your acumen for civilian UAS application, and the way to do it is by joining groups. Groups allow you start discussions and comment on others’ discussions. Just as in Facebook, people will ‘follow’ you if you prove you have something salient to offer.

These days, there is a lot lively conversation about unmanned aerial vehicles and systems on LinkedIn and you don’t want to miss it. Many of the UAV / UAS industry groups are private, so you have to ‘ask’ to join the group.  Here are a few groups I recommend you join:

Unmanned Systems Network UAV Entrepreneurs UAV Industry

There’s a lot more to say about using social platforms to grow your small business, but this is a good start. If you have questions and would like to discuss further, email me at colin@droneanalyst.com. I’m here to help. Otherwise I’ll see you online.

Image Credit – Shutterstock

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Do FAA Rules Hurt Your Small Drone Business?

Confused by the FAA’s small drone regulations? Feeling choked as a business?

As you know, the FAA declares they govern *all* airspace, even the 400 feet above ground in which you fly everything from a paper airplane to a kite to a remote-controlled kit-built airplane and, yes, your multirotor drone. But FAA regulations are being challenged, as I discussed here.

Given that, I’d like to take the pulse of drone business owners like yourself to assess and quantify the impact of FAA regulations on commercial use of low-altitude small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS). So I’ve posted a survey. If you’d like to speak your mind about this topic and have others listen without fear of recrimination, you’ve come to the right place.

You can access the survey (which is just 15 questions) online via this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/VHKR5FJ

What’s this survey about?

This survey explores the impact that current and future FAA regulations have on commercial use of low-altitude small unmanned aerial systems. The study is designed to expose both business sentiment about- and the economic impact of- FAA regulations.

I’ll keep results of the survey confidential and have designed it for those businesses that sell, operate, or intend to operate, their sUAS in the U.S. for commercial purposes. At the end of survey, responses will be aggregated, analyzed, and summarized in research reports to be issued within the next several months.

What’s in it for you?

If you provide your contact information at the end of the survey, I’ll send you a free report. A complete downloadable version will come later.

For best results we need as many respondents as possible, so I encourage every business involved in the sUAS market – whether established company or start-up – to take the survey.

For all surveys – including this one -there are no right or wrong answers. News agencies, companies, and research firms around the world rely on businesses and consumers like you to give them feedback on the latest trends, consumer sentiment, regulations, and products and services. If agencies created regulations and companies created products and services without consumer feedback, there would be a lot of failed products, wasted money, and failed businesses.

That is why they engage with companies like Drone Analyst to seek input from real consumers like you. We take your one opinion and combine it with hundreds of other opinions to create aggregate data. That data goes into research reports that help them create better regulations and products. Aggregate data is valuable in providing feedback to all parties – including you and your business. Your individual answers are confidential and are not shared in reports. Respondents who want to assure their anonymity further need not provide their contact information.

How to take surveys

Take the time to read each question carefully and provide sincere and truthful answers– your input is key to decision-making. Remember: Your answers are private. Any attempt to speed though the surveys, take a survey more than once or provide false or misleading information will result in bad data and unreliable conclusions.

And, if you have questions and would like to discuss one-on-one, email me at colin@droneanalyst.com

Image credit: Shutterstock

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The Business of Drones: A Tale of Two Cities

The year was 1775.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.. “

Ah, the famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. The Charles Dickens passage seems to create a sense of sweeping possibility: the age is everything and nothing at all.

Examined closely, the passage also suggests that this is an age of radical opposites with almost no in-betweens. And that is how I would characterize the current state of the small drones business – radical opposites. 

On the one hand you have the large public defense-related drone contractors like AeroVironment , maker of the Raven, Puma, and Shrike, looking now to capture commercial opportunities in the civilian market.  For our purposes they represent the London royal establishment. On the other hand, you have the small private startups like MarcusUAV and Vorobetz looking for a chance for liberty from restrictive air space regulations. They represent the Paris freedom fighters.

Just as in the novel, each city had its own drama and naiveté, so, too, do our players. While everything’s coming up roses in London, everything’s coming up dead in Paris. In fact, in Paris they are so unhappy that they’re beginning to band together as ‘citizens’ of a new republic. They are at their core a revolutionary group.  But we can’t tell that they’re revolutionaries, because they’re super-secret. For the most part, they operate their businesses in an underground – as you will see.

The Loyal Royals – As Patrick Egan points out in the article Skyjacked – The DoD Mega Billion Dollar Drone Payout, being a Department of Defense (DoD) contractor has its perks. Perks like private demonstrations of new drones, research and development at taxpayer expense – not to mention the benefits that come from large campaign contributions to key members of Senate and House oversight committees. Those benefits keep them feeding at the public trough.

But there’s trouble in that city. As the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the demand for small drones from the DoD is declining. The declining demand shows up in the backlog of companies like AeroVironment. Three months ago they had a backlog of about $134 million, and in the latest earnings report, it dropped to about $96 million. The operating cash flow in the latest report has declined more than 30% year over year. 

So, what do you think companies like AeroVironment are going to do to offset their losses? And how do you think they will go about it?

Well, for one, they’ve already started to look toward other government agencies for revenue. Take for example what’s happening at the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) National Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Project Office.  Under this program, the Department of the Interior has acquired Raven and T-Hawk small UAS systems valued at nearly $15M from the DoD to conduct proof-of-concept (POC) projects. But even if a POC works, someone would need to pony up about a half a million dollars of their scarce budget to secure a contract for just one Raven or Shrike VTOL and all the systems, training, travel and staff required. Why do that when there are proven civilian service providers that will come to your door and do the same work covering flight, post-processing, and analysis for only $3-$4 per acre?

As you can see, there is trouble ahead for this city.

The Freedom Fighters –  The way they see it, for decades the FAA has functioned as essentially a lawless agency making up arbitrary rules for small drones and enforcing them all without following fair rule-making procedures. Despite their six-year ban on civilian drone use, start-ups like Bosh Precision Agriculture and CineDrones perform commercial services every day in an underground economy.  Companies like these have been doing so – not with military-spec aircraft – but with sophisticated model aircraft. As I wrote in Drones Revolution Means Big Data Cloud Services, hardware is commoditized, and the barriers for entry are low. Their numbers are growing every day. At last count, the Remote Control Aerial Photography Association (RCAPA) has over 2,000 U.S. members. Keep in mind aerial photography is a very small segment of the civilian market. The big money appears to be in precision agriculture.

While it’s true the path of FAA regulations was supposed to have all players both large and small in a holding pattern until all the rules are settled, the scales recently tipped in favor of the small ones. The Pirker Decision finds that the FAA’s 2007 policy statement banning the commercial use of model aircraft is not enforceable. Just by looking at it through the eyes of Twitter #UAS and #drones it appears this will have a very significant impact. Even though the FAA has decided to appeal to the full National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), those closest to the case doubt it will be overturned.

Over the next few months, you can expect small drone service providers to be more public about their ventures. Still, the Pirker Decision reinforces the gravity of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which requires the FAA, through the Secretary of Transportation, to develop a plan for integrating civil UAS into the national airspace. It also specifies that the plan recommend rules for acceptable operating standards and certification of civil UAS.

So enforceable rules for drones of all sizes will come. The FAA is mandated to do so. But it’s pretty clear the rule making process will not account for community based standards written by and for small business. As Egan points out, “The DoD lobby and the jockeying for a spot at the [public feeding] trough has added years to the National Airspace System (NAS) integration for small unmanned aircraft. The byproduct of the chicanery has been the suppression and undermining of the small businessperson and academic end-users.”

The Naiveté of the Two Cities  - For the most part, start-ups are clueless about the advantage the Loyal Royals have from feeding off the public gravy train. These issues never come up in on-line forums. But the Loyal Royals’ influence is far reaching. Look no further than the list of corporate sponsors on the AUVSI website , a civilian drone advocacy group, to see what I mean. See any of the ‘Big 6′ defense contractor names there?

But take heart. Because equally clueless are the DoD contractors and their paid analysts about the power of what a model aircraft drone can do commercially or how overpriced military-spec drones are for the civilian market.  

Case in point: Here’s a simple price comparison of fixed wing drones capable of carrying multiple sensors. On the one hand, you have the AeroVironment Raven RQ-11 with a total systems cost in excess of $250,000. On the other hand, you have a MarcusUAV Zephyr2 system that goes for $17,995. Both are capable of doing mission planning and photogrammetry. Which one would you buy? Which city do you think holds the future of the civilian commercial market?

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