Way back in 2007, when I was getting started with UAVs, the only autopilot available for less than $15,000 was the UNAV PicoPilot.  I got one, stuck it in a plane (see above), and decided I could do better for less. Thus the open source ArduPilot project and the rest is history.  

On a whim, I went to see if UNAV was still in business. It isn't. The site is now domain squatted, selling herbal aphrodisiacs (see below). Anybody know what happened to them?

Other companies from the early days that seem to be gone include uThere (Ruby autopilot), AttoPilotGluon (Gluonpilot), and perhaps some others I've forgotten.  Amazingly, the thermopile-based (IR) FMA stabilization system I first used back then is still for sale (now just $39). One of the reasons we moved quickly into IMU-based autopilots was the FMA had a patent on thermopiles. We told them the thermopile era would end, in part because they were blocking others from using them, but apparently I was wrong ;-)

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Comment by Bill Bonney on April 9, 2016 at 11:22am

AttoPilot lives on in ning http://attopilot.ning.com (though i think you can't post)

Comment by Hellcat74 on April 9, 2016 at 2:48pm
I had a unav device which cost $450 just as a GPS steering module. Didn't like it much so built my own using pic micro. The game changer was the mems imu and haven't look back since.
Comment by Paul Bealing on April 9, 2016 at 5:13pm

The FMA Copilot was the first one I used. It worked well except on frosty mornings, on a Dynam Hawksky. It amazed me how well it worked when flown near hills where the horizon on one side should have appeared higher than the horizon on the other side.

Comment by Mark Harrison on April 9, 2016 at 6:39pm

It's an interesting thing about patents and innovation.

Sometimes they spur innovation by forcing everybody else to think of something new.

  • Wright brothers patent wing-warping, everyone else goes ailerons.  Better!
  • "compress" program uses LZW, Gnu produces gzip.  Better!
  • FMA patents thermopiles, everybody else moves to IMUs. Better!

Is this thinking way off base?  Can patents actually spur innovation?

3D Robotics
Comment by Chris Anderson on April 9, 2016 at 7:34pm

Mark, it can certainly go both ways. But I think they they're becoming more of a net negative these days, especially in software. They increase uncertainty and risk, and force reinventing the wheel. Although we have plenty of patents, we have committed to only using them defensively.

Comment by John Bond on April 9, 2016 at 7:35pm

Anyone who has been into sUAS for a while knows of UNAV.  They were always the low cost leader - and all that goes along with it.  To describe the guy as grumpy seems apt.  Maybe curmudgeon would be better.  Since I was into rotary-wing I never personally checked out any of their products.  I do remember many people complaining of poor performance though.  One of the things UNAV blamed poor performance on was weather affecting the GPS.  They said clouds could cause positional errors of many dozens of feet or more.  This is of course BS, but they wouldn't change their website even after this was pointed out.  It was probably too convenient of an excuse for their customers who didn't know better.

As for all autopilots costing more than $15000 in 2007 (except for UNAV) that isn't true.  In the interview link in the comments above you can read about the UNAV guy saying he is competing against systems in the $5000-$10000 range.  There were even rotary-wing autopilots available then for less than $15000.  Off the top of my head I can think of Carvec, Micropilot, and of course DJI who started selling helicopter autopilots in 2007.

Comment by Monroe King on April 9, 2016 at 7:39pm

I got a big boo from the drones discuss group for mentioning adding the thermopiles back into the Pixhawk code :) There are some good reasons to have it. The one thing I really liked about the thermopiles was you could do a reset in midair without recalibrating. I still think it would be a good back-up system incase a reboot on a complex system as a last ditch effort to save the craft.

Your redundancy would just be the thermopiles and GPS it might not be pretty but you could still RTL or atleast land more safely.

I can't remember if the thermopiles where fast enough for a copter though?

Comment by Andrew Rabbitt on April 10, 2016 at 5:52am

I think video odometry will at some point make the very idea of thermopiles for redundancy seem like a 20th century thing.

Comment by Gary Mortimer on April 10, 2016 at 9:19am

Video might well make things seem old fashioned but thermopiles certainly were good with vibrations. 

Comment by Monroe King on April 10, 2016 at 11:42am

Gary yeah my point exactly. Thermopiles have their uses and using them is actually not very hard if your a programmer. I think if I have to I can probably handle doing that myself after all these years hanging out with you guys :)

Neet article anyway Chris good to see you still active and thinking out loud on DIYD. I'm also glad the grumpy interview days are behind us. 


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