Open Source Basics
The concept of open source coding has been around since the beginning of the computer age. It’s pretty simple. A program developer comes up with an idea and gets it to work on a computer. He/she then makes the application available to the world at no charge, including the computer code. Another developer picks up the code and changes (improves?) it, then once again releases it to the computer community. It’s known as “open source” because the underlying code is available to whomever wants to use it.
Open source programs once fell under the mantle of “shareware.” At one time, using shareware was somewhat of a shaky proposition. Best practices in coding were just being developed. You had no idea how good the developer was or what his/her agenda might be, and sometimes the outcome of using the application was disastrous. No, you may not ask me how I know that!
Thankfully, due to the efforts of literally thousands of reputable programmers, the situation has largely changed for the better. While you still need to be vigilant , open source programming can be quite good, and in the case of OpenTX, it’s outstanding! You can use either OpenTX or OpenTX Companion with confidence.
Origins of OpenTX
It’s important to note that there are different flavors of open source RC transmitter programming (also known as ‘ Firmware ‘). Because the code is readily available, developers are free to modify the code to their hearts content. This has resulted in an inter-relationship of sorts where one edition of a particular firmware will give rise to another and that one to another, and so forth. Each branch is known as a “fork”, and while it’s origins may be based on the work of others, it is significantly different in one or more ways from its predecessors. In fact, this cooperative development process forms the core for the success of open source. The beautiful part of that situation is that as pilots, we have the option of selecting the firmware and hardware package that best suits our circumstances. OpenTX isn’t the first open source firmware (TH9X, ER9X, Gruvin9X and others–especially the work by Mike Blandford–all come to mind), and the developers acknowledge that they stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. All of us who use open source firmware owe a great debt of gratitude to the unpaid volunteers who work tirelessly on these firmware projects.
Having said that, this site will concentrate exclusively on the OpenTX firmware package as being run on the FrSky Taranis radio.
Open Source Advantages
So, why use open source, and in particular, OpenTX? Well, try these on for size:
- One of the dirty little secrets of radio control is that it’s not so much the transmitter hardware (the switches, chips, pots, gimbals, etc.) that determine the capabilities of your transmitter, but the programming (aka: You guessed it–the firmware). In other words, you’re paying for the firmware as well as the hardware. OpenTX is free!
- The OpenTX developers are volunteers. They donate their work to this project. As such, they are not bound by corporate concerns such as marketing, profit margins, or all of the other hoopla that goes with running a business for profit. However, they do accept donations to help defray out of pocket costs for providing server bandwidth, etc. If you use OpenTX, I strongly encourage you to donate to the cause at: OpenTX Donations. Drop them a few bucks to let them know how much you appreciate their efforts.
- OpenTX (and open source generally) is user driven. As users, we determine what direction we wish the firmware to take. Because the developers are not hindered by corporate structure, the firmware can move in directions not originally envisioned. Changes and improvements can be implemented in a much shorter time than when dealing with major manufacturers, usually days, sometimes even hours.
- With a big name manufacturer, when it comes to updates and fixing bugs in the firmware (or as Microsoft likes to call them, “undocumented features”) you’re pretty much at their mercy. Their release schedule is determined by how serious they see the problem, what it will cost them to fix it, and whether or not they can bundle it with their next generation radio as the latest and greatest thing to ever hit the RC community. Furthermore, in the past, if you could update your firmware on your own, you had to jump through some pretty complicated hoops to do so. That has changed a bit in recent years, but you’re still tied to the manufacturers apron strings. You don’t have that problem with OpenTX.
- Finally, there’s the role that FrSky has played in the OpenTX saga. Pilots have been doing firmware transplants for years. However, most of them were not excited about attempting it on their $1500+ major manufacturer radio. As a result, they turned to the much less expensive radios out of China: Walkera, FlySky (NOT to be confused with FrSky), Turnigy, and others. There were quality issues with both the factory supplied firmware and the hardware, but they were inexpensive and the rewards great enough that it was worth the slight risk involved. FrSky was well known for marketing rock solid receiver hardware. The OpenTX developers and FrSky linked up, and a transmitter that was designed and equipped to use open source firmware out of the box was the result. The Taranis (aka: X9D) was born! It has all of the hardware bells and whistles you need to jump right in. The combination of a fantastic firmware, a great computer interface manager, and decent hardware has ignited the OpenTX community. Now, open source is within the reach of all.
There are probably a couple of dozen other really good reasons to use OpenTX (Telemetry, anyone?), but these are a few of the more obvious ones.