Air Force Maj. Joshua D. Pitler, 81st Operations Support Flight commander, flies a drone at Keesler Air Force Base in 2015.

Air Force Maj. Joshua D. Pitler, 81st Operations Support Flight commander, flies a drone at Keesler Air Force Base in 2015. U.S. Air Force / Kemberly Groue

US Drones May Soon Run on Open-Source Software

The Defense Innovation Unit is exploring whether a popular commercial platform could help the military keep up with the rapidly advancing drone industry.

Rapid advancements in the commercial drone industry are pushing the Pentagon to rethink how it operates and upgrades its own unmanned aircraft.

On Tuesday, the Defense Innovation Unit announced a $2 million deal with the Swiss-based startup Auterion to enhance its open source drone software. The PX4 platform, which would standardize the operating system for different drone models, could one day power the Army’s entire fleet of small unmanned aircraft.

The contract will support the Defense Department’s broader effort to advance the small unmanned systems—think backpack-sized quadcopters—available to troops in the field.

Today the Defense Department’s drones run largely on custom software that’s created and maintained by a handful of military contractors, but in the commercial sector, open source is king. This more decentralized approach allows the drone industry to quickly build and roll out new tech, while the Pentagon is stuck trudging through the lengthy federal procurement process whenever it wants fresh systems or software.

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But using an open source enterprise platform like PX4, the Pentagon would have constant access to the latest innovations in the commercial market without waiting on vendors to upgrade their proprietary systems.

"The software is continuously being improved, which allows the [Defense Department] the flexibility to iteratively pull the latest and greatest [software] version and build-in any additional [department] specific requirements quickly and easily on a sustainable cycle,” Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith told Nextgov.

Auterion co-founder Lorenz Meier said he views the PX4 system as “the Android of drones.” The platform, which he developed in 2011, standardizes the controls and communication protocols across a wide range of drone models. The tech’s versatility would make it easy for military pilots to translate their skills from one aircraft to another, and prevent the Army from getting locked in to any single drone vendor.

“You can say pretty much anything that flies and doesn't have a pilot in it can leverage PX4,” Meier told Nextgov, adding that people have even experimented with the platform for unmanned land rovers and sailboats. Auterion also recently partnered with GE Aviation to integrate PX4 into its drone operations, and Meier said numerous smaller drone developers already rely on the platform.

The demand for Auterion’s platform reflects the wider tech community’s shift toward open source software—Microsoft in October finished its $7.5 billion acquisition of Github, the world’s most popular open source development platform, and IBM is currently in the middle of a record-setting $34 billion merger with the open source cybersecurity firm Red Hat.

With the funding from DIU, Auterion will spend the next year improving the platform’s cybersecurity, user interface, communications protocols and computer vision system, which helps drones detect and classify objects on the ground below. If all goes well, Meier said, the ultimate goal is to scale and integrate the platform across the Army’s entire fleet of small drones.

Earlier this week, DIU announced it would partner with the Army’s aviation program office on the Short Range Reconnaissance program, which aims to rapidly expand branch’s arsenal of small, inexpensive unmanned systems. Thus far, the Pentagon has awarded six contracts worth a combined $11 million under the program.

The Auterion contract wasn’t awarded under the SRR program, but its efforts will support a “complementary" program focused on advancing drone technology at individual Defense components, Smith said.