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Drone Makers Get Help From the Open-Source, DIY Crowd

A researcher at ENAC handles Blender drones during the 2012 UAV Show Europe, an international drone fair in France

Photograph by Pierre Adriue/AFP via Getty Images

A researcher at ENAC handles Blender drones during the 2012 UAV Show Europe, an international drone fair in France

The Federal Aviation Administration isn’t expected to approve unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial use until at least 2015. Even so, manufacturers are already preparing to jump into the market—relying on the open-source movement for free research and development. Amateur designers and manufacturers are building prototypes at home, then e-mailing or posting the results, often with how-tos that can be completed using part-making 3D printers.

That’s giving far more people, including startups, an opening in the $1.6 billion market for drone design, which will almost double in a decade, according to the aerospace and defense consulting firm Teal Group. Online support is “quite a game-changer,” says Jeff Moe, chief executive officer of open-source 3D printer company Aleph Objects. “You have collaborative worldwide development of hardware and electronics.”

The teamwork extends from pilotless aerial vehicles that spray crops or map coral reefs to those that detect radiation. DIY Drones, an online community founded by former Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, has more than 35,000 members and provides free access to thousands of schematics. Its pages receive more than 2 million views per month, says Anderson, whose own company, 3D Robotics, is making use of the crowd-sourced R&D. “We’ve been able to bring this huge amount of energy, ideas, and talent to bear for free that otherwise would have taken millions of dollars,” he says, citing his drone autopilot software, radios, video components, and camera controls among the designs he developed with help from DIY.

Anderson’s San Diego-based company is pitching, among other products, farm-mapping drones that he says will retail for under $1,000. The vehicles, which look like small airplanes, are launched from a person’s shoulder and fly on autopilot around a field, snapping photos to provide farmers with a quick view of which crops need attention. Anderson says users in the open-source model can help tailor apps to their needs, such as programs that allow tomato farmers to analyze crop density and determine the best time for harvest. Monsanto (MON) is already using the devices to show customers data on crop yields from its genetically modified seeds.

U.S. Department of Defense officials spent $1.94 billion on drones in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, including $35 million on direct contracts for nondefense drones. Most of that money went to leading drone makers such as General Atomics, General Dynamics (GD), Lockheed Martin (LMT), Boeing (BA), and Northrop Grumman (NOC). At the same time, the Pentagon reached out to open-sourcers through UAVForge, a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “The U.S. military is now calling to the open-hardware community to accelerate the development of their drone technology,” says Cesar Harada, CEO of sailing-drone startup Protei. Harada says development is so expensive that the open-source model is essential for most companies. His meter-long vessel, which can sail upwind and change the shape of its hull, required help from designers, coders, and engineers around the world.

The prospect of private drones prompted House Republican Ted Poe of Texas and Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California to introduce legislation in February that would require users to obtain consent from anyone they surveil, to head off “a nosy neighbor,” as Poe put it when he introduced the bill. He added that fears of government spying were a principal concern. “There are countervailing values when it comes to the private use of drones, such as the importance of allowing private-sector innovation and creativity, as well as the First Amendment rights of photographers,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.

House Republican Paul Gosar of Arizona, a member of the so-called Unmanned Systems Caucus, says that while he’s wary of “Big Brother,” he sees private drones as an engine of job growth. His constituents already use drones for help with farming and logging, he says: “There are so many applications in the private sector, and I am very enthusiastic. We want to make this very inexpensive.”

The bottom line: Drone makers, including the Department of Defense, are making use of open-source developers to save on research costs.

Raskin is a reporter for Bloomberg News. Follow him on Twitter @maxraskin.

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