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6 November 2015

DJI opens up drone possibilities with new development platform

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) manufacturers are beginning to realize that such a multi-purpose product requires a more open development platform – as well as expanding their own customer base, it expands the opportunities for drone implementation within the IoT.

Chinese drone vendor DJI is the most recent to open up, unveiling its Manifold hardware developer board running Ubuntu 14.04 and powered by an Nvidia Tegra K1, in collaboration with Canonical, the company that pushes the Ubuntu Linux distro. The Manifold module fits into the Matrice 100 drone, and will allow developers to experiment with adding components to a capable UAV platform.

DJI says the Manifold has obvious AI applications in machine learning and computer vision, but say that the amount of AI processing is limited by its physical and technical specifications of the drone itself. The Manifold represents a major step forward for developing autonomous drones, as it can be easily secured onto the Matrice 100 to give software developers a lot more freedom to develop compute-intensive applications – the sky is literally the limit (apologies, it had to be done).

The Matrice 100 quadcopter has already been put to use in China, enabling city planners to identify illegally parked cars (apparently not autonomously yet, but still saving a lot of man-hours). But with the drone builder opening up its hardware to other developers looking to include their own functions, this has some far more exciting prospective applications in the IoT – traffic management, environmental monitoring, or even autonomous fleets of drones delivering aid supplies, to name but a few.

Drones haven’t had an easy ride so far, with many seeing the only mainstream uses as trivial toys, military spy machines, or Amazon delivery vehicles – and employing them as flying parking attendants certainly isn’t going to help the case. The word itself is synonymous with the UAV weapons platforms used in the Middle East, but even those are manually piloted – for the time being. The truth is that drones are some way off from reaching their true potential, but with the help of other developers utilizing modular drone development platforms like the Manifold, we expect some interesting announcements in the coming months.

Trials of drones fitted with sensors such as gas or temperature detectors have been carried out, but another possible future implementation is for the use of carrying a network gateway payload – bringing network connectivity capabilities and reading various sensors, by roaming around the city to provide a periodic internet connection.

The high-performance CPU runs Ubuntu 14.04 supporting CUDA, OpenCV, and ROS, as well as hardware compatibility with third party devices such as cameras, atmospheric research devices, and geographical surveying equipment. The Manifold has an Nvidia Tegra K1 quad-core ARM processor with 192 GPU cores – with a max clock speed of 2.2Ghz. Network connectivity is handled through Ethernet, although the Matrice drone communicates via DJI’s 2.4GHz Lightbridge technology that relays video and commands to and from the drone.

However, the Manifold is not the first of its kind. GPU and SoC manufacturer Nvidia produces a Jetson TK1 developer kit which is quite similar – with a board support package and software stack that includes CUDA, OpenGL 4.4 drivers, and support for the OpenCV library of Tegra. The TK1 can be used by developers in fields spanning robotics, medicine, security and automotive.

Upgraded specs for DJI’s Matrice 100 include a dual-battery option, a lighter frame, and more power-efficient motors, combining to boost the flight time to 40 minutes – which is quite impressive considering very few drones offer more than 10 to 20 minutes of battery life. The cheapest drones on the market with 20 minutes of battery life sell for around $1,000, while the Matrice 100 will set you back $3,300 and the Manifold another $500. Of course, heavier payloads result in lower flight-times.

Reportedly, DJI is sourcing a new wave of funding from ongoing negotiations with Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, after it recently raised $75m from Accel Partners. Sources familiar with the negotiations say DJI reported around $500 million in revenue for 2014, around four times what it did in 2013, and is set to hit sales of $1 billion this year.

Recently, US drone company 3D Robotics (3DR) opened up its hardware add-on program for its gimbal and accessory bays – allowing developers to build their own hardware add-ons. DJI is not currently promising any similar open hardware customization for the Manifold.

Shenzhen-based DJI is the dominant leader in the drone market, but another Chinese drone manufacturer, Yuneec, recently said it would be one of the first quadcopters to use an autopilot based on Qualcomm’s new Ubuntu-based Snapdragon Flight development kit. Yuneec received over $60 million worth of investment from Intel earlier this year.

It was previously exceptionally difficult to gain legal permission to fly a drone for commercial purposes in the US. At the start of this year just a dozen companies had been given exclusive go-ahead by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly – mostly for closed set filming purposes. However, there has since been an explosion of new businesses given permission to fly. Over 900 FAA exemptions to fly drones have been handed out to farmers, railroads, security services, and medical facilities – with Amazon and other shipping companies beginning early trials.