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New DJI drone computer runs Ubuntu on Tegra, has open SDK

Nov 2, 2015 — by Eric Brown — 4,314 views

DJI’s $499 “Manifold” development computer for its high-end Matrice 100 drone runs Ubuntu on a quad-core Tegra K1, and is supported with an open SDK.

China-based DJI, which leads the market for commercial drones with models such as its prosumer DJI Phantom 3, has followed the path of 3DR’s new Solo quadcopter in opening up its quadcopters to Linux developers. The $499 DJI Manifold is not an autopilot, but an embedded development computer that can be mounted on the high-end Matrice 100 quadcopter, offering control over the autopilot via USB and Ethernet.

DJI Manifold alone (left) and mounted on Matrice 100
(click images to enlarge)

The Matrice 100 was launched this summer as a development-oriented drone, starting at $3,299, or $4,298 with the new obstacle-avoiding Guidance vision system. The system was released with an “open” Onboard-SDK that supports Linux, Windows, and Arduino. A similar Onboard-SDK with Linux support was also released for the $700 and up Phantom 3 and the photography-focused, $2,900 and up Inspire.

The Matrice 100 features a modular hardware design for easier customization, supporting optional companion computers for its standard N1 Flight Controller autopilot, such as the Manifold or the $1,000 Guidance vision system. 3DR’s $1,000 and up Solo also offers a modular design. Recently, 3DR opened up its hardware add-on program for its gimbal and accessory bays, letting selected developers build their own hardware add-ons. DJI is not currently promising any similar open hardware customization for the Manifold.

Matrice 100 without Manifold (left) and its N1 flight controller
(click images to enlarge)

It is unclear to what degree, if any, the DJI Manifold controls the Guidance, or whether both add-ons can be used at once. Guidance offers advanced obstacle avoidance technology, and has its own Linux-ready Guidance-SDK. While the Manifold cannot currently be fitted to a Phantom or Inspire, it natively runs a similar Onboard-SDK, suggesting that it could also be used for developing applications for all these DJI drones.

The Manifold enables developers to connect a wide variety of devices such as infrared cameras, atmospheric research devices, geographical surveying equipment, and other third-party sensors to the Matrice 100, says DJI. The Manifold collects and analyzes data in the air, providing “an efficient solution for developers in need of time-sensitive information,” and enabling “new artificial intelligence applications such as computer vision and deep learning,” says the company.

Manifold details

The 400-gram, 11 x 11 x 2.6cm Manifold runs on a maximum of 15 Watts, helped along by the Tegra K1’s power management core, claims DJI. It is unclear how this affects the previously stated Matrice 100 claims for 20 minute battery life, extendible to 40 minutes with the optional second battery, which fits into the expansion bay slot directly underneath the Manifold.

Manifold views from all sides
(click image to enlarge)

The DJI Manifold runs Ubuntu 14.04 Long Term Support (LTS) on an Nvidia Tegra K1 system-on-chip, which combines four 2.3GHz Cortex-A15 cores with a powerful, 192-core Kepler graphics GPU. The Kepler graphics enable image processing development with Nvidia’s CUDA libraries, as well as OpenCV and ROS (Robot Operating System.

The Manifold is loaded with 2GB of DDR3L RAM and 16GB of eMMC flash expandable with microSD. Communications with the N1 flight controller make use of a Gigabit Ethernet port, as well as a specially modified USB 2.0 port.

The Manifold is further equipped with a pair each of USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, plus a micro-USB port with both host and recovery modes. Other features include a mini-HDMI port, audio I/O, and serial I/O and mini-PCIe expansion. The Ubuntu 14.04 LTS build provides support and maintenance for five years from the 2014 release date, and supports both multi-touch devices and HiDPI screens, says DJI.

Specifications listed for the DJI Manifold include:

  • Processor — Nvidia Tegra K1 “4-Plus-1” (4x Cortex-A15 cores @ up to 2.3GHz with 192-core Kepler graphics with CUDA, plus ISP, power management core)
  • Memory/storage:
    • 2GB DDR3L RAM
    • 16GB eMMC 4.51 flash
    • Micro-SD slot
  • Multimedia — Mini-HDMI port; audio mic/headphone jack
  • Networking — Gigabit Ethernet port
  • Other I/O:
    • 2x USB 3.0 host ports
    • 2x USB 2.0 host ports
    • Micro-USB port (host and Force Recovery modes)
    • Non-standard USB 2.0 interface to drone
    • UART interface
    • I/O expansion header (SPI, I2C, etc)
  • Expansion — Mini-PCIe (half-size) slot
  • Other features — Power, reset, and recovery buttons; mounting for Matrice 100 expansion bay
  • Power — External 14V to 26V AC adapter; max. 15W consumption
  • Dimensions — 11 x 11 x 2.6cm
  • Weight — less than 200 g
  • Operating system — Ubuntu 14.04 LTS with support for CUDA, OpenCV, and ROS.

Matrice 100 details

The Matrice 100 quadcopter, which is only slightly larger than the Phantom 3, at 26 inches, is notable for its lightweight, vibration-resistant carbon fiber construction, and 3-degree adjustable arm angles on the four quadcopter arms. The quadcopter can travel at up to 22 m/s, with no payload and no wind, or 17 m/s when using GPS.

The N1 flight controller provides DJI Lightbridge technology, which enables an up to a 3.1-mile range when the included remote controller is fitted with the same Lightbridge option, says DJI. A mobile app, supported with its own SDK, can also be used as a controller.

Optional obstacle-avoiding Guidance system (left), and the Matrice 100’s dual CAN and dual UART ports
(click images to enlarge)

The N1 features a GPS system, dual parallel CAN ports for connecting to add-on devices such as the Guidance sensor system, but not, apparently, the CAN-less Manifold. Dual parallel UART ports can connect other third party components, says DJI. The $3,299 price does not include camera and gimbal options, which include a DJI X3 camera/gimbal combo that provides streaming HD video.

Opening up drone SDKs

Until June, DJI’s drones, which have been rumored to run on OpenWRT Linux, were almost entirely proprietary systems. Yet, even before 3DR entered the market, DJI no doubt realized that such a multi-purpose product category would require a more open development platform. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) applications at this level include everything from shooting commercials to analyzing crop data to delivering medicines.

DJI is not alone in opening up its platform with Ubuntu Linux. In September, China-based Yuneec, whose Typhoon appears to be the second most popular quadcopter brand in the prosumer space, said it would be one of the first quadcopters to use an autopilot based on Qualcomm’s new Ubuntu-based Snapdragon Flight reference board. Aimed at lower-end consumer drones roughly in the same category as the Linux-based Parrot AR:Drone II or higher-end BeBop, Snapdragon Flight supports 4K stereo VGA video cameras and optic flow cameras, and it offers dual-band 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and 5Hz GNSS (GPS).

Snapdragon Flight provides a variety of sensors, including inertial measurement unit (IMU) and barometer sensors and offers ports for additional sensors. It will also support “advanced real-time flight control” with the help of the Snapdragon 801 system-on-chip’s Hexagon DSP.

Other Ubuntu-based drones include the Erle Robotics Erle-Copter, which is available with both standard and Snappy-based Ubuntu. Last week, Erle Robotics released its previously announced second-generation Erle-Brain 2 autopilot for the Erle-Copter and other devices such as its terrestrial Erle-Spider robot.

The Erle-Brain 2, which sells for 199 Euros ($219), switches from a BeagleBone foundation to a Raspberry Pi 2. The faster autopilot supports an optional 1080 HD 5MP camera, WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G/4G networks, USB, Ethernet, I2C, HDMI, and UART. Like the Solo and Snapdragon Flight, it supports the Linux Foundation’s 3DR-backed Dronecode project. No Dronecode support was announced for the Manifold.

“We are excited to be working with DJI, who like us, believe in pushing technology beyond the limits of possibilities and paving the way for creators, makers and developers,” stated Mark Murphy, Canonical’s VP, Devices Sales and Global Alliances.

Further information

The Manifold with Ubuntu 14.04 is available globally for $499, and the Matrice 100 is available starting at $3,299, at the DJI Online Store. More information may be found on the DJI Manifold and product pages.

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