Monthly Archives: April 2012

Wikispeed – My Next Car Gets 100 Miles per Gallon

Even among the small group of people who are familiar with open source, the phrase “open source hardware” applies only to electronics. That might have been accurate in the past, but projects like Wikispeed are blazing a trail for practical HARDware projects. Like an entire car.

Team Wikispeed formed around Joe Justice when he was competing in the Automotive X-prize. Due to Joe’s day-job as a lean/agile coach, Wikispeed (which means fast-fast) adopted management practices that are normally only associated with software projects. By working in modules the team was able to rapidly iterate the design of the car. Basically, a change to one part of the car had no effect on the rest of the car. This was particularly important as the X-prize kept changing the rules of the competition. By the third change some teams had to simply drop out of the competition because they couldn’t afford the time or money to redesign their car. Team Wikispeed merely changed their suspension modules. The car they built, SGT01, ended up beating out most of the other entries and was invited to the competition. Due to technical and cultural errors the car never actually drove on the track, but that hardly dampened the spirits of the team. There is an excellent writeup in Seattle Met.

Thanks to the culture of innovation and high morale Joe has maintained, Wikispeed is still going strong. Additionally, Joe and the team have joined forces with Open Source Ecology to officially open source the design of the SGT01. Documentation is being built on the OSE wiki.

The Wikispeed SGT01 is modular. Most areas of the car can be altered or removed without affecting any of the other areas.

Wikispeed’s approach to automotive design is an entirely new paradigm (yay hyperbole!). The design of the SGT01 goes beyond merely using interchangeable parts, like stock fasteners. The car is made out of modules that each conform to contracts (size, material, location, etc). This approach means that different parts of the car can be completely changed without requiring coordination with other parts of the car. The suspension module that normally mounts a tire could be swapped out for tank treads and it wouldn’t change anything about the rest of the car.

This is a powerful concept that has the potential to dramatically change how people interact with their vehicles in the future. Basically, when support for this sort of standard becomes wide-spread, people will be able to swap out pieces of their car as easily as they swap out apps on their smartphone. Imagine having engine trouble; so you drive to the mechanic, he pulls out the engine unit, swaps a loner engine into your car, and you drive away 10-minutes later. When the mechanic finds and fixes the problem you return for another 10-minute swap and you’re back on the road. Perhaps you commute to work but also like camping in the mountains, so you have a sleek, aerodynamic car body during the week which you lift off and replace with a pickup-bed model for the weekend.

Most powerful of all is that once you own a modular car you are future-proof. Wikispeed’s current model has a >$8,000 engine and gets 100mpg. That’s with current technology. There is no reason the engine unit couldn’t have a stack of batteries and an electric motor, or a tank of hydrogen and a fuel cell, or dilithium crystals and a warp engine. If you buy a hybrid, and then a week later someone invents super-ultra-capacitors, you are stuck with the technology built into your new car. If you buy a Wikispeed car, and the next day someone invents an engine that runs on perpetual motion, all you have to do is buy that new engine and swap it into your car. You get to take advantage of all the best new stuff without buying a new car.

Team Wikispeed is pressing forward on not only improving the SGT01, but also creating a second generation called the C3 (comfy commuter car). They expect it to cost between $15,000 and $25,000, to seat 4, to have a 5-star crash safety rating, and to get 100mpg. That isn’t a dream. The only real barrier between the SGT01 and the C3 is the lack of a roof.

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Automated Customization with 3D Printers

A 3D printer is, at heart, a prototyping machine. They will never be able to compete on volume alone.

What they can compete on is high-volume customization. Josef Prusa, the designer of the Prusa Mendel, wrote a Python script to automatically add a custom pair of initials to the many whistles he prints out as gifts.

If you look closely, you can tell that each whistle has a different pair of letters embossed on the top.

The great thing about open source is that people do cool stuff like this and then give it away! You an download the WhistleGen program Josef Prusa wrote from his GitHub repository. Perhaps someone could modify it to take advantage of two-color or multi-color extruders.

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Open Source Hardware on Google Trends

It occurred to me that perhaps (just perhaps) other people weren’t as interested in open hardware as myself. Well, what do the numbers show?

According to Google Trends, “open source hardware” has more or less increased (slightly) every year since the beginning of 2007. Large spikes in popularity, which are the main reason for the average increase, began in 2010. The largest spike in interest seems to be this article on CNET, Open Source Hardware Standards Formally Issued.

Google Trends: "open source hardware"

Something I totally didn’t expect is that, by far, the country responsible for the most interest in “open source hardware” is Malaysia (the USA does make it into the top 5, but only barely). Marang, Malaysia is apparently the city that is driving the world’s interest in open hardware.

Google Trends: "open source hardware"

However, that must be due to some weirdness in Google’s numbers. Or maybe Malaysia simply got really interested in OSH a while back? I dunno. But if you restrict the range to the last few years the USA becomes the only country searching for “open source hardware.”

Google Trends: "open source"

The more generic term “open source” is much more popular and is more popular in a wider variety of places. Not too surprisingly the top search term is “open source software.”

Comparing “open source hardware” to “open source” is revealing. I know that open source in general isn’t well known, and that OSH isn’t well known even among people who know about open source, but the difference in search volume is striking.

Google Trends: "open source hardware" vs "open source"

I wonder if this is proof that OSH is just a niche interest. At any rate, it’s proof that this topic isn’t going to make anyone famous. At least…the generic subject isn’t popular. A more specific topic, one that people are more likely to be personally interested in, something that is tangible and exciting, can help draw interest to open source hardware.

Google Trends: "open source hardware" vs "3d printer" vs "Arduino"

I am referring, of course, to 3D printers and Arduinos. These are probably the two most popular subject areas to emerge from the larger philosophy of OSH. As you can see, the interest in those subjects dwarfs interest in the subject that inspired them. Or…maybe they inspired the subject of OSH?

Bottom line: if you’re going to try to explain open source hardware to someone, start with Arduino and maybe 3D printers.

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NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge

NASA is, like, totally still relevant. Word.

They sponsored the International (Intergalactic?) Space Apps Challenge as a way to encourage people to take all the stuff NASA offers for free and turn it into something the average person could actually use.

The “hardware” section includes the following challenges:

  • Suborbital Payload for Citizen Science (exposed or pressurized)
  • Low Cost Space Guidance System
  • SERVIR Open Hardware Camera Project
  • Handheld Hardware for Citizen Science
  • BakerFaire
  • WeLoveData Challenge
  • Nairobi Robotics

Yes, one of those is a project to figure out how to bake and eat bread in microgravity. Hey, you try celebrating without cake and see how you like it. Anywho…

Most of the solutions are software-based. Of the solutions chosen for global judging we’ve got one where you make a ring (for your finger) out of the 3D model of some satellite orbits. There’s also a project to make an open source underwater robot for exploring, you know, under water. They link it to space by (again) developing the software tool(s) that will allow for processing the data sent back by a remote rover.

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Alex Kiselev, Breakout Labs, and Open Source Science Hardware

Science is awesome, amiright? What’s awesome-er is when the (way too) expensive tools scientists need to do their science are open sourced.

Meet Alex Kiselev. He is open sourcing an electrospray ionization mass spectrometer. Normally it costs $80-250K but he expects his version to cost $10-20K.

The single quadrupole mass spectrometer and ion source used for John Fenn's Nobel Prize winning discovery of electrospray ionization. This instrument is on display at the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia, PA

He has a reasonably good chance of realizing his dream of founding Open Industrial and providing low-cost high-performance scientific instruments to all the people in the world who have good ideas but don’t have enough money. This is because the Thiel Foundation, through Breakout Labs, is in his corner. He still has to win, but either way he’s gotten some good mentoring and publicity.

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The fireCrow Squib Firing System – An Interview With The Creators

Sometimes what you need just doesn’t exist. And when you’ve got stuff to blow up, well…

Whenever someone or something in a movie needs to blow up or get shot, a remote controlled firing system is used. Since the firing system can’t be seen on camera, it needs to be small so it can be easily hidden. Apparently the commercial systems you can buy may or may not be small enough. They might be, like, two or three times bigger than they need to be. That was the position Daniel Arvidsson and David Jensen found themselves in. Thanks to the Arduino, and a lot of experimentation, they produced a small open source squib firing system (but they also made it modular so it can do more than just fire squibs).

Size comparison between the firecrow v1 and the Holatron, a professional squib firing system.

What are your names and backgrounds?

  • Daniel: My name is Daniel Arvidsson and I’m a former glass worker. 2004-2005 I attended a year of film study at a folk high school, after the school I got into pyrotechnics  and SFX. That’s the main reason why the idea of an wireless firing system came up! Now a days I have an ordinary job and do some SFX in my spare time and of course I’m developing fireCrow v2.0 😉
  • David: And mine is David Jensen, I’m a software developer and sort of a nerd. Bearded nerd. Not the big guru beard though. I’ve got two small kids, a wife and a house, no dog.

Did you have any engineering experience before you started?

  • Daniel: Hardly no electronic experience at all to start with.
  • David: About a year before we started I heard about something called the “Arduino”, bought one and started playing with it a bit. Prior to that, no experience at all. I did know  how to program though. But not C/C++.

What made you decide to open source the project?

  • Daniel: It’s a congenial way to make stuff and I like the idea of a contributing to a lifestyle where you build up a community; where everyone can help or be help without  paying for support and updates.
  • David: I’m a big fan of free software and a long time Linux user. I wouldn’t have found my way into electronics if it wasn’t for open hardware, especially the Arduino, making it easily accessible and fun, so I felt it was natural that whatever we did should be open hardware and open source.

Did you choose one particular license over others? Why?

  • Daniel: TAPR – because it’s created by people who mainly makes wireless applications. I thought our system fitted that description well.
  • David: GPL3 for the software since it has copyleft clauses that protects against being engulfed into a proprietary project. Also, copyleft licenses spread more freedom into the world.

Were there any tools/resources that were vital to your success?

  • Daniel: I use Cadsoft Eagle to make the schematics and PCB design, and we’ve used the Arduino as a development platform for the remote control.
  • David: We use a port of the Arduino library in the firmware to ease development, without it it would take a lot more time. GCC, avrdude and gedit for development.

Could you suggest one really important skill people should learn first?

  • Daniel: Only to be patient and accept that it will take time if you don’t know what you’re doing to start with. Of course it helps a lot to have basic knowledge of electronics (and coding)!

Did you ever make a major shift in the direction of the project? Why?

  • Daniel: First the pyrofyro was only a 2 channel firing system, then it became a MCU board (the fireCrow). Our idea was to get it out to a broader range of users and to make it easily accessible for Arduino people. Mainly because there’s already a great community with a lot of coding examples and help to get. Pyrofyro became the name of plugin cards (2, 4, or 6 channels) dedicated to firing pyrotechnics. We also have plans to fork the MCU board into a “firing system” fork with intergrated transceiver and an “Arduino-ish” fork (same as now)
  • David: The change to a modular system also interested me since I don’t have a license to blow things up 🙂

How much of the project was individual effort and how much was social?

  • David: If by individual we count the both of us you could say that most of the effort right now is individual. But it builds upon community efforts like the Arduino library. We wouldn’t be able to build it otherwise.
  • Daniel:  Also, in the beginning I got some help from electronic forums and googling the net about things that I didn’t understand, but otherwise no.

Do you plan on selling anything when you’re finished?

  • Daniel:   Yes, hopefully we’ll be able to sell kits or even a finished product. The most difficult part is to get a reasonable price, because there’s no economy to buy enough components to reduce the cost per piece. Maybe if we get founding somehow 😉

What do you think about open source as a philosophy? As a strategy?

  • David: As stated above I love free software, I think that as a philosophy open hardware and free software gives us creativity and power as a community to change the world. As a business strategy for software I believe it’s the future, everyone should do it. Open hardware as a business strategy is a bit different though, but there are business doing well. It will be interesting to see what the future holds.
  • Daniel:  I agree with previous speaker! 😉

In your wildest dreams, what would be open sourced next?

  • David: Totally open hardware and drivers for the next Nexus Android phone, with easily accessible connectors.

Related Links

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Who doesn’t want their own robot? Okay, who doesn’t want their own open source robot? Enough with the rhetorical questions.

Francisco and Carlos Paz founded the company TheCorpora so they could bring the dream of an open source robot to reality. The result was (apparently pronounced “kew-be-oh”).

We firmly believe that innovation and the future of Robotics will only be achieved through the development, promotion and the creation of open source communities that enable the adoption of robotic technologies and a positive social impact. This is the reason why during the whole process of creating we have worked with open platforms such as the Ubuntu distribution of the Linux operating system, the robotics development platform ROS from Willow Garage, and Arduino as a tool for the design and implementation of electronics.” – The People Who Made is now available for pre-order. You’re welcome.

Additional Links

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Lonnie Ray Atkinson Flows Open Source Ecology

Most people don’t immediately connect open source engineering with entertainment. Lonnie Ray Atkinson is not in that “most people” category.

He discovered Open Source Ecology through Juliet Schor’s book Plenitude and was so moved he turned some complicated ideas into surprisingly concise and catchy lyrics. He also released his song under the Creative Commons non-commercial license, which is very much in keeping with the spirit of OSE.

verse one:
Factor e farm, you gotta see this to believe this
new technology and the genius
to start from scratch and ask – what makes our survival clock tick
pretty soon they had a tractor and a machine that made bricks
now they all in, placing their bet
on what they call a global village construction set
50 machines for a civilization
and every machine designed for simple replication
so is there a catch? / well, of course
but it ain’t what you think, the catch is that it’s open source
open to all, no patents, no monopoly
a new movement – open source ecology
free collaboration with likeminded folks
a global network of skills to fill the spokes
a project to provide the plans to change history
consumer scale manufacturing, renewable energy
turning this new tech into solutions
in every sense of the word, a revolution

o-open the economy, o-open the economy
o-open source ecology, o-open source ecology
go check it out if you doubt this
you wanna better world, put your time where your mouth is

second verse:
so let me paint a picture in your head about the bread
we could save if this model were to spread
consumer scale means neighborhood production
low overhead, energy and resource reduction
more efficient and democratic distribution
less transportation, less factories less pollution
fair prices based on cost, no middle man
introduce the middle finger to the invisible hand
and understand – that’s only the industrial economy
imagine the potential for fighting world poverty
put a global village construction set in a poor town
let ‘em learn the system, replicate and pass it down
all they’d need is the knowledge, plans and raw materials
no import nightmares or dealing with imperial
ambitions, conditions on IMF loans
let the developing world develop on their own
you can teach a man to fish and still keep him in debt
or create a system that lets him produce his own nets

o-open the economy, o-open the economy
o-open source ecology, o-open source ecology
go check it out if you doubt this
you wanna better world, put your time where your mouth is

third verse:
wikiconomy, open source ecology
whatever you call it, it’s the future of economy
so if you’re serious about your intentions
of economic justice and meaningful change, pay attention
with open source, we ain’t gotta fight or ask permission
we do it on sly, bypass the whole system
the fastest nonviolent way to end monopoly
over the means of production, intellectual property
where, before, they’d just buy you off or break your jaw
they can’t compete with the internet and Moore’s Law
you can buy a dream team, but working in secret’ll never
beat the free exchange of hungry minds working together
and once a product’s open source it’s open source forever
and as the technology explodes, it gets better and better
interactive software for easy customization
gameification of open source tech education
preparation – we can’t sleep on the challenges coming
you want to organize around something
how ‘bout the day when the majority of workers in every nation
will be replaced by robotics and automation
in one scenario, the rich own all the patents, throw us in the trash
in the other, there’s enough open source that we still got a chance
to create new democratic structures for supply and demand
I know the irony is too delicious to stand
the world wide flow of info would be the Trojan horse
welcome to a better world, and guess what it’s yours
welcome to a better world, and guess what it’s yours
welcome to a better world, it’s open source

o-open the economy, o-open the economy
o-open source ecology, o-open source ecology
go check it out if you doubt this
you wanna better world, put your time where your mouth is

“Open Source Ecology (with Anitek)” by Lonnie Ray Atkinson is licensed under a Creative Commons License
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Michael Wineberg and Public Knowledge Ahead of the Curve

We’ve all read It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up. Right? If you haven’t read it, go ahead and do that now.

Michael Wineberg is the staff attorney at Public Knowledge, an organization that represents the public’s interests in open access to technology and information. He/they recently put on an event intended to bring political representatives, the public, and open source hardware together for an introduction (and maybe group hug if the mood is right). It was called OH/DC and hopefully we’ll see some media come out of it.

Cat Johnson at Shareable has a nice interview with Mr. Wineberg in which he explains Public Knowledge’s strategy of meeting with representatives BEFORE any legislation affecting open hardware is considered.

What Wineberg and Public Knowledge are doing is fantastic. It seems inevitable that open sourcing manufacturing tools (like 3D printing) will start to cause corporations heart burn sooner or later (they are people after all). I for one really hope the community has gotten out ahead of them and demonstrated the benefits of open source before something along the lines of the RIAA emerges and tries to go after people sharing open hardware designs.

Additional Links

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TinkerForge – An Interview With The Creators

When you don’t want to fight with low-level syntax you use a high-level programming language. What if that concept was applied to hardware?

TinkerForge is, to oversimplify, a group of modular circuit boards that “just work” with your computer. As long as the program you’re working on is connected to a master brick (via USB), all of the sensors and actuators connected to that same brick will “just work” together. You connect the bricks together and write your program, then the bricks take care of executing that program in the real world. No messing around with firmware, no soldering, and if you want to change something you just rearrange the bricks.

This hyper-modular approach to integrating electronics and software earned TinkerForge “product of the year 2012” at the CHIP magazine award. Previous years were Lufthansa and Panasonic.

Please Introduce yourselves and the origin of TinkerForge.

Our names are Bastian Nordmeyer and Olaf Lüke, we both have a Master degree in Computer Science from the University of Paderborn. At the University we worked at a research project that had the goal to teach robots playing soccer. But instead of programming the behaviour of the robots we actually had to fiddle around with the hardware most of the time. That is where the idea of easy-to-use and modular hardware was born!

What made you decide to open source the project?

We both love Open Source Hardware ourselves. We have everything from OpenMoko over Arduino to Beagleboards in use here! Also, in our opinion, it makes sense for hardware that is made to tinker around with to be open source.

What advantages did you realize from an open source strategy?

With our hardware it is possible to get the easiest possible access to control hardware, a few lines of Python are enough for most small projects. But since it is open source it is also possible to go deeper and perhaps write some C code to change the firmware of a Brick or Bricklet and if that isn’t enough you could also go ahead and make your own hardware that works together with ours. None of this would be possible without it being open source!

What license(s) is TinkerForge released under?

We consider the programming language bindings public domain, there
shouldn’t be any restrictions to use them. Everything else is either
LGPL if it is a library and perhaps usable in other projects or GPL or
GPL-like licensed if it belongs to our core stuff. The hardware is
licensed by the OHL (CERN Open Hardware License). 

Were there any tools/resources that were vital to your success?

We use the standard open source compilers and editors and so on for developing, nothing special. We did receive an EXIST-Gründerstipendium [entrepreneurial grant] that helped us a lot financially in the development phase.

Could you suggest one really important skill people should learn first?

In general I think the thing that we needed most is endurance. If you want to learn something just do it and keep doing it! You won’t be able to learn programming or designing hardware in 2 weeks, it will take a lot of work and a lot of time.

Did you ever make a major shift in the direction of the project? Why?

Oh, quite a lot! The first hardware version had a size of 2x2cm (now the Bricks have 4x4cm). They were absolutely tiny! Unfortunately we weren’t able to fit everything on them that we wanted. The first software version used DBUS instead of the generated language bindings. We already had the software ready and working for that, but it was to much of a hassle to get working on different operating systems (i.e. impossible).

How much of the project was individual effort and how much was social?

Getting the grant was quite a social effort i guess. Also we did of course have discussions about every aspect of the concept and what sensors to use for hours on end :-). Other then that it was a lot of developing effort for two people. It took us more than two years to design the hardware, write the firmwares, the tools (brickd, brickv), the language bindings and the documentation.

Where is TinkerForge going next?

More Bricklets, more Bricks, more language bindings, cases, on device programming support, better documentation, direct Raspberry PI support, etc, etc. There is lots to do!

It seems like Arduino is the most obvious comparison to TinkerForge. Do you consider Arduino a competing platform?

We don’t see us as competition to Arduino. Arduino is programmed on the device in a C derivative and our stuff is controlled from a PC with a high level language. Sometimes you want to solder and make your own hardware designs and sometimes you just want to automate something as fast and easy as possible. Those concepts can both coexist quite happily :-).

Any plans to combine bricks that are often used together into one board?

We will do this (and are in the process of doing it) for companies that want to use large amounts of the same Bricks and Bricklets. I don’t think this makes sense for the general purpose hardware. This would just make everything more expensive (we would have to make smaller amounts of more circuit boards etc.)

How did you settle on this particular level of modularity?

We just used the UNIX principle: “Make each Brick/Bricklet do one thing well”.

Is TinkerForge just for learning/prototyping or is it cheap enough to
embed in finished products?

If you make millions of this product: Probably not. If you make one of this product per month: Hell yes! The industrial alternatives you can get are often orders of magnitude more expensive.

Obviously a great deal of attention was paid to making the bricks work together transparently. Was that an important goal from the beginning? Why?

That was goal from the beginning, yes. The transparency is [necessary so that the user does not] need to think about the hardware components at all.

Are there any aspects of the hardware/software that limit hackability?

Regarding the hackability: We use 0402 and almost only SMD parts. This makes it of course virtually impossible if you want to directly solder something on a Brick or Bricklet. At that point there has to be a trade off between size+price and hackability and we decided to go with size+price. Other then that, every part should be hackable. There should be (and will be in the future) more documentation for the low level stuff.

Was TinkerForge intended to be a commercial project or did it evolve into that?

I think it was clear from the beginning that the project was too big to be just a side project or a hobby.

How did you balance the need for commercial success against engineering goals?

Good question. This is probably the hardest of all the problems to solve. We originally wanted to start the online shop in the end of 2010. In reality we were only able to go online in mid December 2011! Most of the additional time invested probably had to do with the trade off between high end parts and costs.

We have dozens of prototypes laying around here with different board-to-board connectors, different wire-to-board connectors and different processors. We first used 8 bit AT91USB processors, but decided to go for the 32bit SAM3S later on (quite a bit more expensive, but a lot more capabilities).

Good board-to-board connectors can be hugely expensive (like the Molex PMC series). For a Master Brick they would cost more then the whole Master Brick now :-). Lots of cheap Chinese ones only worked for 50 or so mating cycles until something broke.

Is it possible to run a TinkerForge stack independent of a computer?

Yes it is, if you write your own firmware (our firmware on the bricks/bricklets is opensource, so you can use it as a starting point).

If you want to control it from the outside you need a full computer currently. We have planned something called “Low Level Programming Interface” which should enable it to control our products via SPI, I2C or serial interface from other microcontrollers. Although it is possible (we have designed the hardware accordingly) I’m not sure if this will maybe be dropped since we don’t have enough manpower to implement it. Since currently nobody has asked for it, it has a low priority for us.

Any final thoughts?

There is no recipe you can go by, I think. You just have to test lots and lots of stuff until you find something that works well and isn’t too expensive.

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