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One code to rule them all: Dronecode


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Drones have just found their new best friends: coders. On Oct. 13, the Linux Foundation unveiled a nonprofit organization called the Dronecode Project, an open-source development initiative uniting thousands of coders for the purpose of building an aerial operating system for drones. Hopeful that the project will bring order to the chaos that has surrounded software developers as they sprint to carve out a share of the bourgeoning market for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), UAS operators are now asking whether Dronecode will finally provide the horsepower and industry-wide support needed to launch a universal drone operating system.


Dronecode’s instant edge in the industry is the result of combining the responsive and creative culture of an open-source development platform with the institutional knowledge of founding members like 3D Robotics, Baidu, Box, DroneDeploy, Intel, Qualcomm and Walkera. While the Dronecode Project appears to have the heft for a home run, its success will depend upon whether the aerial operating system it ultimately produces can win the hearts of the operators who rely on UAS day in and day out for filmmaking, firefighting, precision agriculture, pipeline inspection, package delivery pilot programs and hundreds of other applications.


Meeting this challenge will require more than just talented coders. In addition to relying on user-friendly platforms and systems that intelligently adapt to flight in new environments, UAS operators now expect a system that is engineered with an eye toward the regulatory environmentswithin which they operate. The Federal Aviation Administration’s September 2014 approval of several petitions to operate small UASs weighing 55 pounds or less under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 provides a preliminary road map for operational compliance. To become the industry standard, Dronecode will have to build a practical platform that takes the FAA’s road map into account and makes it easy for operators to comply with federal aviation safety standards.


Monitoring and controlling altitude, for example, is a primary consideration of the FAA in ensuring that commercial UAS operations do not interfere with manned aircraft. The FAA’s Sept. 25 Grant of Exemption to Astraeus Aerial expressly limited operations to below 400 feet and included an in-depth analysis of the system’s altitude reading capabilities prior to granting authorization. Since most UASs do not include a typical barometric altimeter, the FAA has approved operating systems that provide altitude information to the UAS pilot through a digitally encoded telemetric data feed that downlinks from the UAS to a ground-based, on-screen display.


But what happens when the connection to the UAS operator on the ground is lost? While many coders could build a GPS-based altitude reading system before having their morning coffee, it is the challenge of preparing for lost-link events that will require collaboration between the greatest minds in software, artificial intelligence and “sense and avoid” systems — precisely the type of collaboration Dronecode aims to facilitate.


To date, the FAA’s analysis of lost-link events has focused on the ability of the UAS, upon losing a connection, to perform preprogrammed maneuvers that include flying to safety without the control of an operator. Thus, while improving the operator experience is an important factor for Dronecode’s success, lasting success in the UAS software industry will require systems to perform safely and reliably without an operator. These systems will truly be “unmanned.”


With hundreds of thousands of lines of code already written, only time will tell whether Dronecode’s operating system will be tailored to the operating parameters defined by the FAA and accepted in the UAS community.


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