Linux in the Air: Drone systems go open-source

Ten drone systems that use Linux.

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Look! In the sky! It's a bird, it's drone ... it's Linux!

Not only is spring in the air, so is Linux. But this wasn’t always the case. Early drones relied on either proprietary OSes or simple Arduino-based controllers such as the ArduPilot. While both of these approaches to drone control have been successful, they implicitly limit innovation -- the former because they are closed systems, and the latter because of limited computing power. The recent introduction of Linux-based drones will stimulate the UAV (Unpiloted Aerial Vehicle) market by creating more flexible, open platforms. Here’s how Linux takes off … literally.

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The first Linux-based drone control system was the Erle-brain which was launched early in 2014. Based on the BeagleBone Black single board computer running Linux (specifically Debian Wheezy 7.5) paired with the PixHawk Fire Cape flight controller (otherwise known as the APM4.0) as a daughter board, the Earle-brain package includes 29 sensors (including gyros, accelerometers, magnetometers, and barometric pressure many of which are duplicated for redundancy) and can execute custom applications. Both the hardware and software are open source.

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In May last year Parrot launched the BeBop Drone. This UAV runs Linux (kernel 3.4.11 #3 SMP PREEMPT) on a Parrot P7 dual-core CPU Cortex 9 with a quad core GPU and 8GB flash memory, and a free open source software development kit is available. The BeBop provides a real time pilot’s view on your smartphone or tablet and is a very sophisticated UAV sporting a 3-axis magnetometer, a 3-axis gyroscope, a 3-axis accelerometer, an optical-flow sensor, a vertical stabilization camera, an ultrasound sensor for altitude determination below 8 meters, a pressure sensor for greater altitudes, and GPS. It also has a very impressive 22-minute flying time. That said, from some of the forum comments, Parrot’s BeBop software isn’t totally reliable yet.

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3D Robotics, one of the fastest growing startups in the drone market, recently released the Solo, a Linux-powered UAV. Both the onboard computer and the ground control unit use 1GHz Cortex A9 processors and run Linux. The ground and onboard systems connect to the drone's Pixhawk 2 flight controller. Impressively, the Solo streams real time video from up to half a mile with a latency of 180ms. 3DR goes out of its way to make its platforms open and is the founder of Dronekit (up next) ...

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Building a drone of your own? DroneKit is a free SDK and open API from 3D Robotics for building drone applications with course planning, autonomous flight, and telemetry for drones, ground stations, and cloud services with support for Android, iOS, and Python. In fact, DroneKit is for any type of drone including copters, planes, rovers and even blimps. The platform also includes DroneKit Cloud, which “lets you create web services that communicate directly with drones all over the world. Looking for inspiration? Check out DroneShare, a flight log sharing service built with DroneKit Cloud.”

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The BeagleBone Black is a popular single board computer and its open source UAV incarnation, developed by Andice Labs, is called, not surprisingly, the BeagleDrone. Still under development, the BeagleDrone runs Linux and the system will include a 3-axis magnetometer, 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyro and a barometer via a daughterboard or “cape” as these boards are called in the BeagleBone world.

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Paparazzi Project

If you’re developing a drone platform and looking for an alternative for both computing hardware and flight control software consider the Paparazzi Project, whichuses Linux as its foundation and is “a free and open-source hardware and software project encompassing an exceptionally powerful and versatile autopilot system for fixed wing aircrafts as well as multicopters … The project includes not only the source code with great code like Kalman filtering code, but even all airborne hardware information needed … a powerful ever-expanding array of ground hardware and software including modems, antennas, and a highly evolved user-friendly ground control station is included as icing on the cake.” You can also run Paparazzi on the Parrot Bebop! The Paparazzi documentation is extensive, impressive, and well worth checking out.

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Ground control

Ground station software for UAVs is crucial to just about every aspect of flying drones from mission planning, through data collection, to safely launching and landing so one size doesn’t fit all drones. For some pilots a GCS such as QGroundcontrol is preferred because it’s platform agnostic (Linux, Windows, and OS X) and open source as well as loaded with features and a sophisticated user interface. It supports in-flight manipulation of waypoints and onboard parameters, real-time plotting of sensor and telemetry data, logging and plotting of sensor data, multiple autopilots systems, a heads-up display, and digital video display.

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Here’s a Linux-based weaponized UAV. Named the “Panopticopter”, three MIT students calling themselves DIY Drone Labs have launched a Kickstarter to develop what they claim will be a more “surgical” drone strike platform (it doesn’t look like they’ll reach their funding goal of $10,000). They plan to use a BeagleBone Black running Linux with an Arduino-based flight controller and, from the Kickstarter pitch, it appears they even have ideas for their own version of the Hellfire missile. They believe they can produce just what the world needs: A more precise way to kill people who are a long way away from you. The entire project seems a little ambitious considering that the US military has spent biblical sums of money on UAVs but hell; let the kids have their fun.

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While the projects we’ve covered have business potential, using drones within enterprise environments is a much more complex than just implementing flight control systems. To tackle the issues involved Airware is building software to integrate UAV flight planning and data collection with enterprise solutions. The goal is to create “a common operating system that enables businesses to safely operate drones … and integrate aerial data into design, engineering, asset management and decision workflows.” They envisage enterprises deploying drones for everything from infrastructure inspection to damage assessment, environmental monitoring, search and rescue, land management, public safety, and surveying and mapping. Their platform of choice? Linux. Airware’s products are still in development but keep an eye on what they do.

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APM Planner

Another emerging force in the drone world is the Dronecode Project, “an open source, collaborative project that brings together existing and future open source drone projects under a nonprofit structure governed by The Linux Foundation.” 3D Robotics is one of the founding members along with Yuneec, Baidu, Intel Qualcomm, and Box. According to the project: “Dronecode includes the APM UAV software platform and associated code, which until now has been hosted by 3D Robotics ... More than 1,200 developers are working on Dronecode with more than 150 code commits a day on some projects.” The list of current Dronecode projects is impressive and includes software for all major OSes including Linux.

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Drop us a note

Linux and drones are an excellent combination in the quest to create the highly functional UAVs of the future. Despite the lure of proprietary solutions (ready-to-fly and often somewhat cheaper), it seems certain that the real innovation in the drone market will come from open source projects on which novel products will be developed. In this slideshow we’ve covered the leading edge of Linux and drones but, obviously, with such a vibrant market evolving so quickly there’ll be new products and platforms appearing all the time. If you know of a project or service related to drones and Linux that we’ve missed, drop us a note at or comment below. Thanks for viewing and please tell your friends …

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