#005 – Making Drone Software with Nicholas Pilkington

In Podcast by Ian Smith


Ian is joined by DroneDeploy’s CTO, Nicholas Pilkington, who guides listeners down the rabbit hole of aerial ones and zeroes; revealing secrets from the extremely important—yet unfortunately mysterious—realm of drone software programming.

Show notes:

  • Nicholas Pilkington is cofounder and CTO of DroneDeploy
  • Learned programming in high school starting with Turbo Pascal
    • Did olympiad programming (competitions)
  • Program majority these days for DroneDeploy in Python but also Javascript
    • Python is mainly a programming language for back end
      • Useful for photogrammetry as well
    • Python for the back end, Javascript for the front end
  • Mike Winn got Nick into drones from a hobbyist perspective
  • Was it a conscious decision to focus DroneDeploy purely on software?
    • in 2013 had to identify biggest problems in the drone industry to figure where to start
      • Hardware unreliable, software nearly non-existant
    • Created the DroneDeploy CoPilot, a 4G LTE connected module that allowed for cloud-control and real-time drone mapping
  • DroneDeploy v1.0—how did it evolve to where it is today?
    • v1 was getting telemetry data from the drone back into the browser (over the internet)
    • Next step was sending basic commands to the drone (spinning up motors, changing flight modes, waypoints, camera control)
  • Advice for software developers/engineers who want to start a drone company
    • 2 ways to approach a drone company
      • Bottoms-up approach: enhance capability of hardware (C, CAN-BUS, canonical controls engineer)
      • Top-down approach: start with tools people are comfortable with (browser) and building down towards the drone (web developer, software engineer)
  • Advice for someone who is just passionate about the drone industry but doesn’t have software development experience
    • Learn Python, Javascript (Angular 2, React), understanding frameworks that connect back end to front end. You can build on top of existing platforms and integrate.
  • Nick’s thoughts on Part 107 and the current state of the drone industry
    • Really exciting. Previous 333 exemption process was long and expensive. Regulation held back adoption of the drone industry. Expect to see adoption of drones en masse.
  • South Africa drone regulations “The Wild South”
    • Seeing adoption in the area—vineyards, agriculture, anti-poaching. Likely needs more regulation and focus.
  • Anti-poaching drones in South Africa
    • Made efforts to try to stop poachers with drones but challenges like huge amounts of land to cover and connection/telephonic issues exist
  • Enterprise data security in the drone industry
    • As drones get more endurance and capture more data, challenges arise
      • Large enterprises are adopting drones and want to know where the data is stored, who can access, can you provide an audit log of who has accessed my data, etc.
  • Interviewing or trying to get a job at a drone company—how do the would-be software engineers view the drone industry?
    • Engineering-wise, the drone industry is really sexy. It’s enticing.
    • Initially, DroneDeploy looked for a “drone engineer” persona but the person didn’t exist yet. Good skills to have for a drone software company include GIS, photogrammetry, core algorithmic skills—know how to approach problems and break them down.
  • In the last 3 years, the drone industry has progressed greatly. What will the next 3 years bring?
    • Hardware development in last 3 years has been amazing—commoditization
    • Use cases of drones will go far beyond what we expect them to be for now—initially thought it would only be agriculture, construction, and mining but constantly seeing new ways they’re being used
    • Machine learning and computer vision—most effective when working with large amounts of data, which is being acquired now
  • Nick Pilkington is on twitter @NickPOnline
  • His blog is at http://nickp.svbtle.com
  • DroneDeploy’s blog is at http://blog.dronedeploy.com