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DJI spices up Matrice drones with 2nd Gen Manifold computer running Ubuntu with snaps

Jun 17, 2019 — by Eric Brown — 4383 views

Canonical announced Ubuntu snaps support for DJI’s second-gen Manifold companion computer for its Matrice drones. The Manifold 2 offers a choice of Jetson TX2 or Intel Coffee Lake-U chips.

DJI’s industry leading drones such as its Phantom and Matrice models are directed by flight controllers that run a proprietary operating system. Yet, in 2015, the company announced a Manifold development computer for its Matrice 100 drone that runs Ubuntu on an Nvidia Tegra K1. A few weeks ago, DJI unveiled a more powerful Manifold 2 computer with a choice of Nvidia Jetson TX2 and Intel Core i7-8550U processors (see farther below). Canonical has followed up by announcing that not only will Ubuntu 16.04 return as the pre-installed OS for the device, but that it will include support for Ubuntu snaps application packages.

Manifold 2 GPU Model with Jetson TX2 (left) and CPU Model with Intel Coffee Lake-U
(click images to enlarge)

Ubuntu snaps are containerized software packages that work interchangeably across embedded, desktop, and cloud-based Ubuntu distributions. Found on embedded Linux devices ranging from LimeSDR boards to Orange Pi PCs, they offer built in security, automated updates, and transaction rollback support. They also come with an online marketplace for sharing and selling different snaps applications.

The Manifold 2 will be the first drone to offer snaps, which will enable its functionality to be “altered, updated, and expanded over time,” says Canonical. Snaps will make it easier to manage large fleets of drones, as well as develop vertical applications that can be shared and modified for other use cases.

DJI drones and controllers supported by Manifold 2 (left) and Manifold 2 GPU Model
(click images to enlarge)

Ubuntu offers DJI drone users support for Linux, Nvidia CUDA, OpenCV, and ROS (Robot Operating System). The Ubuntu-driven Manifold 2 will be “ideal for the research and development of professional applications, and can access flight data and perform intelligent control and data analysis,” says Canonical.

Inside the Manifold 2

The Manifold 2 can be integrated on DJI enterprise drones including the Matrice 210 series and Matrice 600 series, as well as its separately available N3 Flight Controller and A3 Flight Controller. The computer can “process complex image data onboard the drone and get results immediately, and can program drones to fly autonomously while identifying objects and avoiding obstacles,” says DJI.

The Manifold 2 can act either as a companion computer or as a control computer over the flight controller. The system “can be integrated into the drone’s internal systems and sensors using DJI’s powerful software development kit,” says DJI.

The Manifold 2 offers users a choice of two processing platforms, both of which run Ubuntu 16.04 with snaps. The first is the “GPU Model” (Manifold2-G) with Nvidia’s Jetson TX2, which offers a more powerful, hexa-core update to the Manifold 1’s Nvidia Tegra K1.

Whereas the Tegra K1 has 4x Cortex-A15 cores, the TX2 offers 2x high-end “Denver 2” cores in addition to the 4x Cortex-A57 cores. As DJI’s naming scheme suggests, the TX2 is known primarily for its powerful, 256-core Pascal GPU. Like the Tegra K1’s 192-core Kepler graphics, the Pascal GPU supports Nvidia’s CUDA libraries for running deep learning and vision processing algorithms.

Specs for Manifold 2 GPU Model (left) and CPU Model
(click images to enlarge)

Alternatively, you can opt for more CPU power, but with somewhat higher power consumption and somewhat reduced graphics, and without the built-in AI smarts GPU Model. The “CPU Model” (Manifold2-C) features Intel’s 8th Gen Coffee Lake U-series Core i7-8550U, a quad-core, 8-thread 14nm processor that runs at 1.8GHz/4.0GHz. The i7-8550U offers Intel UHD Graphics 620 and a relatively low (for Core chips) 15W TDP. Presumably, there’s also the potential for integrating an Intel Neural Compute Stick 2 with Intel Movidius Myriad X AI acceleration via one of the USB ports.

DJI lists different applications for the two models. The GPU Model is said to be designed for AI, object recognition, motion analysis, and image processing. The CPU Model is for autonomous flight, real-time data analysis, ground station connectivity, and robotics.

Manifold 2 GPU Model detail view: 1) GbE, 2) 2x USB 3.0, 3) HDMI out, 4) antenna, 5) power, 6) power LED, 7) micro-USB, 8) 2x UART, 9) 2x CAN, 10) I/O port
(click image to enlarge)

Both Manifold 2 versions have a -25 to 45°C tolerant, 91 x 61 x 35mm enclosure, down from 110 x 110 x 26mm on the Manifold 1. Despite the smaller footprint, the new models are heavier than the under 200-gram original. The Jetson TX2-based GPU model weighs in at 230 grams while the Coffee Lake based CPU Model is 205 grams.

Manifold 1

The extra weight may be due in part to the new SATA-based SSDs: 128GB for the GPU model and 256GB for the CPU model. The GPU model also offers 28GB of user accessible eMMC from the Jetson TX2 module’s allotment of 32GB. Both models offer a lot more RAM: 8GB DDR4-1333 compared to 2GB DDR3L on the original.

Both the GPU and CPU models are equipped with a GbE port, 2x USB 3.0 host ports, a micro-USB 3.0 OTG port, and a four-port, external USB hub. There’s also a UART interface and an “I/O port.”

The GPU model adds a second UART port plus 2x CAN ports and I2C and SPI interfaces. It also adds the Jetson TX2 module’s built-in 802.11a/b/g/n/ac radio, which is supported with an antenna. The spec list on the product page skips a few features found in the manual, such as the continuing existence of an HDMI port on both models.

The Manifold 2 provides dual independent, wide-range power inputs. The GPU model supports 13.2 to 27V power and offers 3-25W consumption while the CPU model has a 15.2 to 27V supply with 5-60W consumption. There’s an external power adapter and a power distribution unit for powering peripherals. The standard package also ships with an antenna, bracket set, and a variety of cables.

DJI promotes the Manifold 2 for its expandability, although the mini-PCIe slot found on the original is no longer mentioned. There is an external Button I/O Extension Unit that connects to the I/O port, but this is said only to “control some specific functions” such as power, recovery, reset, in addition to offering an I/O expansion capability.

Two Manifold 2 computers with LAN switch and power distribution unit in between (left) and kit contents
(click images to enlarge)

DJI says that developers can “link multiple Manifold 2 processors and build on top of them,” but offers no further details. The image above shows two stacked Manifold 2 computers with two units sandwiched in between. One is the standard power distribution unit and the other is a $72, 4x GbE port Mini Network Switch. The only other option listed is the $129 Mounting Bracket for attaching the computer to a Matrice drone.

Drone market expanding

In its snaps announcement, Canonical promoted the benefits of drones, including DJI’s claim that its drones have helped rescue at least 230 people since 2013. Canonical also noted that the high-end industrial drones offered by Appellix run Ubuntu. The Appelix inspection drones including the Ultrasonic Testing (UT) and Dry Film Thickness (DFT) models “alleviate the need for humans to be at the forefront of work in elevated, hazardous environments, such as aircraft carriers and oil rigs,“ says Canonical.

Ubuntu-powered Appelix DFT drone inspecting a ship hull
(click image to enlarge)

Drones are often criticized for being noisy and potentially dangerous on many levels, including crashes, wireless interference, and the capacity to be militarized. Like most new digital technologies, they also provide a new way to invade privacy. The curmudgeons of the coming decades are likely to replace their battle cry of “Get off my lawn!” with “Get out of my vertical airspace!”

Yet, as prices drop, capabilities improve, and regulations begin to open up, drones are growing increasingly necessary. Canonical cites FAA estimates (PDF) that there will be 2 million drones operating in the U.S. in 2019.

Use of drones has grown even faster in other, less-regulated countries. Teal Group has just released a study projecting that the worldwide market for non-military Civil Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) will rise from $4.9 billion in 2019 to $14.3 billion in 2028. Although we hear a lot about the use of drones in agricultural inspection, inspection drones in construction sites and factories are expected to be lead the way over the next decade.

Applications are also continuing to expand in scientific research as well as the production of movies and videos. Canonical also notes increasing adoption in fields such as distribution and even healthcare. (Open wide for the dental drone!)

Further information

DJI’s Manifold 2 is available now for $1,099 (GPU Model) and $1,379 (CPU Model), both with pre-installed Ubuntu 16.04 with snaps. More information may be found in Canonical’s snaps on Manifold 2 announcement, as well as DJI’s Manifold 2 announcement, product page, and shopping page.

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