I would struggle to believe that any serious drone player in 2023 does not know what a Cube Autopilot is and has not used one in a development or production product. I know of several military primes that have used Cubes.
As it enters its tenth year I would like to be able to say I sat down with Philip Rowse to ask him about his autopilot journey, but I would struggle to be in the same country as him. In the last three weeks, the success of CubePilot has taken him to the USA, Taiwan UK and occasionally home to Australia.
Questions via email had to be, and Philip kindly fully answered them.
I know you have always travelled and have a background in manned aviation, could you unpack that a little?
I grew up between Australia, Kenya, and Tanzania, finishing high school at Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe Kenya
I then went to work/train as an aircraft engineer at Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF), a mission organization that uses aircraft to support remote communities around the world, after seven years with MAF, I jumped over to Boeing weapons and defence, and worked on the APC3 Orion program.
After this, I left the aviation sector and got into machine tools, doing laser cutting, running a laser cutting business, and then moving to a company that designed laser cutting tools and equipment.
After nearly a decade of this, I moved to a home-dad role and started a home-based business doing electronic design. at 38 I had a medical situation that led to me having to cancel all my current work, bored.
I designed my first Autopilot.
A little detail in the time before designing the Pixhawk Fire. I was into RC aircraft as a kid, and through high school, I got my first heli back in 1996, with an OS90 nitro engine. I was a terrible RC pilot and found that as much as I wanted to have the hobby, I sucked at keeping my aircraft in one piece. fast forward to about 2010, and FPV on planes was taking hold, Bixler aircraft were cheap and ready to fly, and with the encouragement of Mathew Herbert, I got into plane FPV… it was fun.. but I still crashed. I put in a kk2.0 and that helped reduce crashing.
I was part of a group called the AVR freaks.. the Atmel users group, and through the Melbourne group, I got to know Angus Peart, the founder of OpenPilot, he convinced me to join the Ardupilot team, and shortly after, I got my first APM.. this changed everything for my flying.
I wanted more out of the autopilot, it was focused on hobby use, and a hobby look and feel, but it was starting to be used in more critical applications.. million $ payloads, heavy vehicles flying over people etc.
Redundancy and predictable setups were needed. Hence the concept for a modular flight controller, with redundancy built in.
My focus at the time was on an ISR package for the fire department. However, what I wanted it to do, was not possible with the technology available at the time. The path we took became the Pixhawk Fire, it started with a Raspberry Pi-based flight control system, and the work on this later got picked up and used by NavIO.. at the time the Raspberry Pi was seriously lacking in performance, so we bet on the BeagleboneBlack…. yep, we bet on the wrong horse.
From this project the Pixhawk Fire was born.. this would be finished later after the Pixhawk 2 was born, then dumped as we came to what seems like an obvious conclusion now, that the flight controller doesn’t belong on a Linux system, it belongs on a dedicated microcontroller.
Continuing the Pixhawk 2, it was designed to be modular from day one, it was going to be sold with a standard carrier board, and many other carrier board options, one of the first was the IRIS++ which many will remember was a great platform in its time.
Then SOLO was born. 3DR restricted development focus and refused to allow the cube to be released to the public to give the Solo a massive market advantage, at the time, it felt like the right path, but hindsight says otherwise.
Skipping the 3DR disaster.. that’s old news, we partnered with Hex and made Cube the world standard, more recently, CubePilot was born, with Michael Oborne, Siddharth, and myself at the helm, we have taken the cube and made it the standard of the industry worldwide.
CubePilot Global is an Australian company, headquartered in Australia, and with manufacturing in Taiwan, and the USA.
Where did you think the industry was heading in 2013, what surprised me you most?
The rise of DJI and the self-sabotage of the USA drone industry.. the DOC banning 3DR from selling open-source autopilots to the rest of the world is exactly why China is running the drone industry now..
DJI and Autel being banned now is just confirmation of the incompetence of the US Drone policy, talking to fat cats and bureaucrats rather than those actually making the tech real.
NFZs (No Fly Zones) are being paraded as “safety” when they are actually simply tools being used to stop freedom of the press and citizen rights, now we throw in surveillance of the DroneID system, and China wins again as we reduce the ability for Americans to innovate. BAD BAD BAD
The use of drones in warfare.. not unexpected.. but the reason the enemy can get them so cheap is that the DOC started the Chinese industry.. good for consumers, and bad for the USA and its allies.
The big surprise is that the cube is so prevalent.. we did not intend on starting a multinational drone company, but here we are, hundreds of thousands of cubes later, absolutely dominating the market. surprised!
Watch out for exclusive CubePilot prizes in sUAS News this anniversary year. Should you happen to see this image or similar (no not this one) pop up in the adverts click it and follow the instructions.
There will be something every month for the next 12 months.
Look out for Philip Wonka.