3D Robotics

Nine years and 80,000 members ago, we started with this


That first Lego Mindstorms autopilot was feeble, sure, but it was also possible. Inspired by the availability of cheap and increasingly good GPS, MEMS sensors, cameras and digital radios, we talked about the "bottoms-up disruption of the aerospace industry", just as the Homebrew Computing Club (birthplace of the Apple II) did for computers.

The aerospace industry followed the classic path: first they ignored us, then they laughed us, then they fought us. 

But thanks to this community, the technology got better, fast. 

The great-great grandchild of those first DIY drones is the 3DR Solo. 


Today we have this announcement on the US Department of Interior home page. We've come a long way, DIY droners!

Drones will allow Department missions previously deemed impossible


Boise, Idaho – The U.S. Department of the Interior has awarded a contract to 3D Robotics of Berkeley, California for up to 40 small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The award follows a lengthy process to develop performance requirements and select the most useful type of aircraft.

“The contract is extremely important to the Department, as it will allow us to conduct many missions that were previously impossible due to limited resources and costs associated with using manned aircraft,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Safety, Resource Protection, and Emergency Services Harry Humbert.  

The aircraft weigh 3.3 pounds, are capable of carrying a variety of sensors, and are easily customized for the types of fieldwork and emergency response operations performed by the Department. The size and weight of these small UAS provide operators a simple, efficient and inexpensive tool to collect aerial data. Their design allows for rapid deployment of new payload options, as new sensors become available.  

“The Department expects to use these aircraft for a diverse set of missions including, wildlife and vegetation surveys, fire management, search and rescue, hydrologic study, cultural resource inventory, and surface mining monitoring, just to name a few,” said the Department’s Office of Aviation Service Director Mark Bathrick. “These UAS will not only provide us with better science and reduce the risk to our employees, but they will result in cost savings and better service for the Department and the American people.”

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  • I vividy remember this i first stumbled upon this blog from some blog post about you making an arduino based flight controller then some more year and versions of ardu mega and jordi munoz came on board then we're here 

  • I vividy remember this i first stumbled upon this blog from some blog post about you making an arduino based flight controller then some more year and versions of ardu mega and jordi munoz came on board then we're here 

  • Thanks for the clear and balanced statement Chris.  I can't disagree with any of that.

    Most commercial companies only want to put money into IP that they own.  For that, the BSD license is more attractive.  I think it's short-sighted, and somewhat selfish, but it is what it is, can't change it.

    But that is not to say that GPLv3 is incompatible with business.  Since one of it's core tenets is "share and share alike", the core open-source code-base can grow faster than the BSD code base does. And we see this is exactly true today. Ardupilot is just far more feature-rich, high-performance and reliable than the PX4 core is.  I don't expect that to change.  Large companies will think nothing about pouring millions of dollars in development work to make their own closed-source fork of BSD comparable to Ardupilot.  But the beauty of BSD, is that it allows small and medium size business to compete with the large corporations, by essentially pooling their resources.  100 small companies investing $10,000 into a GPL project, will equal one giant investing $1,000,000 in a closed-source fork of a BSD project.  Or, 500,000 users each giving just $2, will do the same.  This can be split an infinite number of ways.  But just to say, that people working together, can accomplish a lot.

    GPL projects can also be more attractive to many customers, as they know that if the company ceases operations or drops a product, they can actually get at the source code, and patch or improve it as they desire.  I think that many companies that use BSD code recognize this, which is why they too market their product as using open-source code.  But, IMO, if they do not make their fork of the BSD core open-source, then, frankly... it's a bit of a lie.  It's just a marketing line used to fool the unwitting. They think they're getting a product that they have a right to repair or adapt.  But without access to the actual forked code, they really don't.

    This is one area where I have a pretty strong, philosophical problem with some BSD products.  There's a lot of obfuscation going on, and it's not fair to customers. 

  • PX4 is the future, perhaps because the licensing is more amenable to commercial closed-source enterprise?

  • Oh, and what future products do you guys have coming out??

  • OK, SO how long do you think Solo will stay available and updated?

  • 3D Robotics

    John: No, that's not correct. Solo will remain APM. I was referring only to future products that will switch to PX4 as the preferred stack (although they will ideally also support APM if customers want to use that). 

  • So if I am getting the vibe right, there will be Solos running some sort of PX4 hardware. And only for Enterprise customers? I can understand the PX4, but dropping the customer base??

  • 3D Robotics

    @Marc: thanks for the thoughtful reply. It's confusing because I wear lots of hats (3DR, Dronecode, DIY Drones, personal and ArduPilot founder) and sometimes what's right for one domain is not best for another.  Personally, I use APM/ArduPilot for most of my side projects (especially Rover) and love it. Professionally, 3DR used APM for Solo and it was very much the right choice there at the time. But going forward, we're moving to PX4 for future products because that's what our partners and enterprise customers want and we feel that it's a better fit in a professional context. 

    This just reflects the maturing of the industry. The fact that big companies want to use open source code for drones is fantastic, but that also means that the licences chosen by those open source projects become increasingly important. GPL v3 (used by APM/ArduPilot) is great for community engagement, but it has become a no-go zone for most companies. BSD (used by PX4) is much more company-friendly. This is true across the industry, not just in UAVs, and reflects a larger division within open source between "permissive" and "copyleft" camps.  After much research and experience, I'm now in the permissive camp, but intelligent people can disagree on this and one size doesn't fit all.

    Permissive software license
    Copyright <YEAR>, <AUTHORS>Copying and distribution of this file, with or without modification, are permitted in any medium without royalty, provided…
  • @James. Yes. It is frustrating. My take is that 3DR is going to champion PX4 and use it as a basis for future developments. I suppose it makes sense as the license is more forgiving and you cannot build a RTF UAV business on open IP easily. So Arducopter, although it was the basis of Solo in many ways, will not be in the frame for the future. It is just business and reality. But IMHO Arducopter is rather more capable then PX4 now. It is all down to those that want to support and use truly open source to pitch in and support it. It is not written in stone that anything stays the same forever. And to Chris Anderson's defence he did a lot to elevate Arducopter when it was central to 3DRs business.

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