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Linux-based autopilots target commercial UAVs

Aug 16, 2013 — by Eric Brown 5,764 views

[Updated Aug 20] — Airware demonstrated its Linux-based os-Series autopilot computers for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The os-Series osNanoPilot, osFlexPilot, and multi-rotor capable osFlexQuad autopilots include radios, GPS and inertial systems, servo interfaces and I/O ranging from USB to CAN, and are preinstalled with the company’s configurable, royalty-free AirwareOS Linux software.

In May, Calif.-based Airware won $10.7 million in funding from investors led by Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures. This week, at AUVSI Unmanned Systems 2013 in Washington D.C. the company announced the opening of a new office in San Francisco and a partnership with Insitu on cross-compatibility with the latter’s ICOMC2 ground control software. Airware, which was formerly called Unmanned Innovation, also demonstrated its Linux-based AirwareOS development platform and os-Series embedded autopilot computers.

Airware osFlexQuad autopilot being installed in a test UAV
(click images to enlarge)


Airware’s technology is already in use around the world in commercial drones selling in the $20,000 to $50,000 range used for agriculture, mining, and even cargo operations. Among other applications, Airware-based drones are currently searching for rhino poachers in Kenya, inspecting open-air mining operations in France, and delivering vaccines in remote areas of Africa and Southeast Asia.


UAVs, also known as unmanned aerial systems (UASes) or drones, are banned for commercial use in U.S. domestic airspace. However, the U.S. Congress and the FAA are hashing out plans to enable guidelines for safe usage of drones by 2015, and most countries around the world have fewer restrictions. The Airware technology is said to be free of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) restrictions.

The os-Series autopilots are enabled with autonomous takeoff and landing, as well as autopilot-assisted manual steering modes. Additional functionality includes waypoint following, control modes, loiter and precision 3D hover-hold, data logging, telemetry downlink, and “GPS stare-at.” They also support pan and tilt servo control of cameras and various fail-safe modes.

Airware osFlexQuad, osFlexPilot, and osNanoPilot autopilots
(click images to enlarge)


Each os-Series autopilot is equipped with a 1GHz embedded Linux computer with 512MB of RAM and 8GB of flash, combined with a choice of datalink radios including Digi XBee and Microhard RF modems. There’s also an INS/GPS navigation system with air data functionality. The INS/GPS system combines GPS positioning with an inertial navigation system (INS) based on accelerometers and gyros working in concert with magnetic and pitot-static (pressure-based monitoring for airspeed) sensors.

The autopilots also include RC- or PWM-based servo interfaces, depending on the model, as well as a variety of modular interfaces including USB, serial, CAN, I2C, and GPIO. These support payloads including laser range finders, HD cameras, radar altimeters, transponders, and additional sensors. Input voltage ranges from 5V to 30V, depending on the model, and battery support and monitoring features are available.

The three os-Series computers differ in size, weight, interfaces, available radios, and other features, but are similar enough that we’ve put together a common spec table (see farther below). Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the three computers:

  • osNanoPilot — Designed for small fixed-wing and VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft that require a compact footprint, low weight, and a lower price, the osNanoPilot weighs 32 grams and measures just 2.65 x 1.15 x 0.8 inches. The computer uses short-range, peer-to-peer Digi FHSS (frequency hopping spread spectrum) modems, and includes eight PWM-based servo interfaces. The osNanoPilot is limited to single helpings of USB, I2C, and CAN interfaces, as well as 14-bit analog GPIO and up to two serial ports.

  • osFlexPilot — The osFlexPilot is the only os-Series computer with an EMS shielded aluminum enclosure, which boosts the weight to 200 grams. Almost twice the size of the osNanoPilot, the osFlexPilot similarly services fixed-wing and VTOL aircraft. The osFlexPilot is available with RF Monolithics or Microhard modems, and offers eight PWM servo outputs. Its more extensive I/O includes up to two USB hosts, up to four serial ports, as well as SPI, I2C, CAN, and GPIO.

  • osFlexQuad — This is the only model that supports multi-rotor vehicles, including quad-, hex-, and octa-rotor craft, and it also supports custom vehicle configurations. Instead of using PWM outputs it uses higher speed RC servo interfaces, and also provides digital ESCs (electronic speed controls). An RC receiver can be interfaced to the autopilot, allowing for manual control. The autopilot offers a choice of short-range XBee or long-range Microhard modems, with the latter offering a range of up to 60 kilometers.

The computers offer pre-installed flight control and mission software built upon the Linux-based AirwareOS platform. The software is provided under a royalty-free license that enables modification, extension third party software, and inclusion in proprietary products, says the company. The Linux-based software is written in C++, and provides a single hardware-independent Unified Autopilot Interface (UAI) API to the INS/GPS solution, system status, sensor data, actuators, datalink radio, and payloads.

Other development tools and services include HiL (hardware-in-the-loop) simulation testing, and flight testing tools including debugging, data logging, and fail-safe mechanisms. Customized production services are also available.


Specifications listed for the os-Series autopilot computers — osNanoPilot, osFlexPilot, and osFlexQuad — include:

  • Processor — 1GHz processor
  • Memory — 512MB of RAM
  • Storage — SD slot with 8GB card
  • Wireless:
    • osNanoPilot — supports Digi FHSS modems; 868/900/920MHz, 2.4GHz; up to 156kbps link; up to 14-km line-of-sight rang; mesh networking support
    • osFlexPilot — RF Monolithics or Microhard modem (IP radios optional); 900MHz, 2.4GHz, military freq.; up to 1.2Mbps link; up to 60-km line-of-sight range; mesh and TDMA support
    • osFlexQuad — Digi XBee or or Microhard nano modem; unlicensed freq. available; up to 60-km line-of-sight range; mesh support
  • GPS/INS with Air Data:
    • GPS receiver with 5Hz PVT and WAAS
    • Extended Kalman-filter based
    • Tri-axial 2,000°/sec MEMS gyros
    • Tri-axial 12 g MEMS accelerometers
    • Tri-axial 8 gauss magnetometer
    • Static and dynamic pressure sensors
  • I/O:
    • USB host — 1x (Nano, FlexQuad); up to 2x (FlexPilot)
    • Serial (choice of RS-232, RS-422, RS-485, I2C, TTL UART) up to 4x except Nano (up to 2x)
    • I2C
    • CAN 2.0B
    • SPI (FlexPilot only)
    • GPIO (14-bit analog input) — “several” GPIO or 4x (FlexQuad)
  • RC Servo interface:
    • 8x PWM outputs and 1x RC servo link (Nano, FlexPilot) or 8x RC servo connectors (FlexQuad)
    • 1x RC servo link configurable for PPM or S.BUS
    • External or regulated servo power supported on FlexPilot (3 Amps) and FlexQuad (4 Amps)
  • ESC interface (FlexQuad only) — up to 8x ESCs (electronic speed controllers) available via RC servo interface; digital ESC comm. via I2C or CAN to unlimited ESCs
  • Other features — Remote power switch; remote LED and operator input button; speaker (FlexQuad only); EMS shielded aluminum enclosure (FlexPilot only)
  • Power:
    • osNanoPilot — 5V-22V; ideal for 2.5-cell Li-Po; 7.5W switching regulator; battery monitoring
    • osFlexPilot — 5.5V-30V; ideal for batteries, 12V, or 28V systems; 25W switching regulator; input voltage switch to payloads (3 Amps); battery monitoring
    • osFlexQuad — 5.5V-24V; ideal for 2.5-cell Li-Po; 33W switching regulator, battery monitoring and estimation
  • Weight/dimensions (with standard radio):
    • osNanoPilot — 32 g; 2.65 x 1.15 x 0.8 inches
    • osFlexPilot — 200 g; 4.38 x 2.2 x 1.13 inches
    • osFlexQuad — 41 g; 2.65 x 2.65 x 0.8 inches
  • Operating system — Linux (AirwareOS)


The os-Series autopilot computers and AirwareOS development platform are available, priced at $3,900 and $4,500 for osNanoPilot fixed-wing and VTOL models; $5,500 for the osFlexQuad; and $6,900 and $7,500 for osFlexQuad fixed-wing and VTOL models. More information may be found at Airware’s website.

(advertise here)

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3 responses to “Linux-based autopilots target commercial UAVs”

  1. Nubi says:

    > now at an unstated price.

    You can find the prices on their website (tab pricing).
    $3900 – $8500 / unit

    Clearly only for special applications ;-)

    • LinuxGizmos says:

      Yes, very special indeed! Thanks for pointing out the availability of pricing info; I located it in a PDF, although it doesn’t quite match your 8,500 number at the high end.

  2. Manfred Köberl says:

    Dear Sir,

    I´m working for a company in Austria and I got a request.
    We are looking for an Auto Pilot engaged in UAV´s.

    Now my concern:
    What are the measurements of your smallest product?
    What are the measurements of your product which can reach 200 kilometers?
    Is there anything available on Open Source?

    I would enjoy if you can send me the details and an offer.

    Köberl Manfred

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