Chris Anderson: Dronecode and the Regulatory Embrace of Open Source

As we head into the last few months before the Bay Area Hackfest in November, this blog will feature a series of abstracts of the talk that our speakers, each of them a thoughtful and engaging expert in their field, will be sharing in November.

a photograph of Chris Anderson
Chris Anderson
Founder, CEO, and Author in
Berkeley, California

Dronecode, which is part of the Linux Foundation (and chaired by me), is the industry’s leading open drone software consortium. Backed by Intel, Qualcomm, 3DR, Airmap, and nearly two dozen others, it is building the “Android of UAVs”—a full stack, open source software platform that covers every aspect of a drone system, from the cameras and other payloads to the flight control, communications, ground stations, and cloud data processing.

At the same time, the FAA is trying to figure out how to integrate drones more fully into the National Airspace. The “Part 107” process, which launched last year, made it easier for commercial drones to operate without a complex approval process and pilots’ licenses, but only under some relatively restrictive limits: no flight over people, no flight beyond visual line of sight, no flight at night, etc. But many drone applications do need to go beyond the Part 107 limits, and right now the only way they can do that is by requesting a waiver, and the FAA is hugely backlogged on those, which have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

What would make this much easier is aircraft pre-certification, but the way that’s done in traditional aviation—rigorous inspection of the code, the hardware, and every step of its development, and freezing the design after it’s been certified–is way too slow and expensive for a fast-moving industry like UAVs. Fortunately, Congress has mandated that the FAA (and other agencies) use “industry standards” whenever possible. And fortunately, that’s exactly what the Dronecode stack is–the leading industry standard.

So the FAA is now working with Dronecode to define all the elements of a “certifiable” software stack, from the safety features of that stack (everything from failsafes and data logging to redundancy and encryption) as well as the code development and testing process that the community uses to create the software in the first place. Once the Dronecode stack has been certified, any vehicle that uses it will have a much easier path to certification and thus overall approval for operations beyond Part 107. This is a great example of open source standards becoming a foundation for federal regulation.

This talk will describe this process and focus particularly on the communications layer of the stack. I will also discuss the opportunity to work with industry to set a standard for a secure but also flexible standard based on MAVLink 2.0, which can use a hybrid of point-to-point wireless and 4G/5G infrastructure links to ensure constant communications and to ensure that operators can always monitor missions and take control if necessary.