The Ardulab, a highly capable experimentation platform ready for space right out of the box, is built around Atmel’s versatile ATMega 2560 microcontroller (MCU). The low-cost, open-source, NASA-approved container Ardulab can be programmed just like an Arduino. Although the most recent mission is headed to the International Space Station (ISS) on Cygnus, the Ardulab is more than capable of operating on a number of suborbital launch vehicles and parabolic aircraft.
Below is Atmel’s interview with Manu Sharma, creator of Ardulab and co-founder of Infinity Aerospace.
Tom Vu: What’s your vision for Ardulab’s roadmap?
Manu Sharma: Ardulab is a powerful platform that is transforming the way commercial customers including NASA and others conduct research and experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and suborbital vehicles. Ardulabs is used by high schools and universities to Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA. Within 9 months, we have been successful in selling the product to a broad range of customers as well as launching an Ardulab to the International Space Station aboard the Cygnus spacecraft with the help of our partners, NanoRacks.
What Ardulab has triggered is phenomenal. I consider Ardulab a centerpiece product of our company. The Ardulab alone places tremendous power in the hands of users who are conducting research aboard the International Space Station. The customer unleashes the full potential of what Infinity Aerospace can offer to them by using the supporting services around Ardulab. For instance, we have started offering suborbital launch slots in the same package as an Ardulab(s). On top of that, we provide complete payload integration and handling services. In a nutshell, all of these services combine with Ardulab to form an innovative offering we call “Space Programs.” These are comprehensive packages that include everything from nuts and bolts to the Ardulabs and launch slots.
So, you see, already, Ardulab is changing its form from just a product to a package that serves customer needs from the beginning to end. We want to make Ardulab the de-facto product for microgravity research. We are seeing growth in the micro satellites market too and we may do something similar there as well.
Tom Vu: For founders, the signature are often the same at the root of startup. There are multiple forms of currency: Ideation, innovation, success, design, capital, humanity, design feats, passion, etc. What is your currency to make this ArduLab project evolve?
Manu Sharma: All those currencies have been important for us at the root. However, if I had to choose one, it would be passion and design. At Infinity Aerospace we strive to design the absolute best product we can and to hear our customers tell us Ardulab is a well-designed product is so rewarding. We really think that designing better products makes all the difference and in some cases it can be instrumental in pioneering a revolution in the industry. From the choice of material, selecting the machining process to designing mounting holes so that customers can just plug and play equipment; we have spent a lot of time focusing on each feature. Then we let a bit of evolution / iteration take place. Early adopters buy the product and we listen to their feedback and start adding or removing features appropriately.
Of course all of this requires patience. That’s where passion comes in. We are space nuts. Literally. We love building products in space, after all.
Tom Vu: Explain the methodology and the approach? What is your general rule of thumb for designs in space? Form factor? Efficiency? Cost? Open source?
Manu Sharma: We are still learning the best way to create breakthrough products for space. What has worked for us so far is first going out and finding a REAL problem that’s worth something to potential customers. If you look at the space industry, the problems are either huge or small and very limited in potential. But all of this is changing. We generally question every single thing of current designs or processes.
Once we have good grasp of the fundamental problem, we don our artist and engineering hats and start designing a product. We take everything into account from cost, efficiency, to form factor. We chose open sourcing ArduLab’s operating system and software for a purpose. We want people to leverage the already existing vast knowledge resources on the internet about Arduino to build things in space. A general rule of thumb for us designing things for space is to keep everything very simple.
Tom Vu: Any “best practice” advice for those innovators, makers, or engineers out there looking to build for space?
Manu Sharma: Try to build upon standards or leverage existing standards. Use commercially off the shelf (COTS) hardware as much as possible to keep the costs low. Look for products in different markets that may inspire/help you to build a space product. Chances are you will find a lot of them.
Tom Vu: We are seeing lots of democratization of space? What does that really mean for consumers? What does it mean for designers and engineers?
Manu Sharma: Yes, within the last two years we have seen successful crowd funding campaigns for quite a few space products. We just saw a successful Kickstarter campaign by Planetary Resources (raising well over a million dollars) with people contributing as low as $25 to have their photos taken in space. As these new tools and technologies continue to emerge and scale with Moore’s law, we will see more and more democratization of space. It’s a fabulous thing on both ends.
For designers and engineers, the bells are ringing to get to work. As space democratizes, more and more products and business models become viable.
Tom Vu: Describe more of the intrinsic design characteristics and methodology, why Arduino?
Manu Sharma: When we looked at how people did research and other commercial activities aboard the International Space Station, we found that everyone was developing their own custom microcontroller boards, casing and electronics. Everything was custom. It takes a lot of resources and time. And why spend time reinventing the wheel if someone else has already figured it out?
We chose the Ardunio because everyone is using it to create experiments, including us. You can find example code and libraries for pretty much any kind of sensor or actuator you’re using. Tapping the Arduino community means reusability, efficiency and an open environment where we all can help each other. It is really hard to change a user behavior. Instead of giving customers a new architecture and software development environment, we chose to use the vastly adopted Arduino IDE.
Not to mention the fact that we were flabbergasted with the prices of similar solutions in the market. We wanted an affordable, simple, and powerful solution. Open sourcing space is the right thing to do. We want everyone to do interesting things in space.
Tom Vu: Can you give us a fly through of your design from origination, development, hardware, and application? Why AVR microcontrollers?
Manu Sharma: From the beginning we wanted to maintain the basic architecture of a well adopted microcontroller platform. We looked at various options such as the Beaglebone, Raspberry Pi and others. We realized that the large majority of Ardulab use cases do not require extensive processing power on board or a complex architecture. We wanted something simple, and highly robust that’s been industry proven. So we decided to go with the Atmel Atmega 2560. It is perfect for the Ardulab.
Next, we developed the microcontroller board that extends the capabilities of the Arduino Mega with additional features that solve the toughest challenges every one faces when designing their experiments for operation on the International Space Station. We solved them, standardized the protocols, and streamlined the process of remotely retrieving the data from Ardulabs aboard the ISS while on earth.
Tom Vu: How important are designs having “beyond the core” solutions ? What will Ardulab’s ecosystem eventually grow into at maturity?
Manu Sharma: One has to always keep the trajectory of product development and evolution in mind. We certainly do with ArduLab. We think that with Ardulab we can offer a great educational package to high schools and universities. Schools and Universities can literally start a private space program by using ArduLabs, our launch slots, and payload services. Customers can simply Fedex their experiments to us and we take care of integrating them with launch vehicles. If it is ISS bound, we work with NanoRacks directly. When the experiments are installed inside ISS, you would be able to access the data almost near real time on your iPad.
Eventually, we want ArduLab in every high school and university’s science programs. Ardulab is itself a space lab. Students will be able to collaborate and develop science experiments. Recently, we have considered something similar in the micro satellite market. We aren’t talking about it to much at the moment. You should be hearing from us about this soon.
Tom Vu: Semiconductors have their challenges and expertise with form-factor, scale, and large FAB production cost and cycles? What are your challenges and expertise at Infinity Aerospace?
Manu Sharma: I don’t know if it is right to say that we have challenges with scale. We are growing organically at the moment. Yes, currently we are producing small quantities of Ardulabs and cost of fabrication is higher due to that. However, we are moving towards a hybrid model where we can sell the hardware for less allowing more customers to use our powerful software and services.
Tom Vu: What word comes to mind when we think of Ardulab or even for that matter Infinity Aerospace? What would you like the readers to understand the significance of this project?
Tom Vu: How does Ardulab play a role in the inspiring minds of today especially in Education or Engineering Academia?
Manu Sharma: We created ArduLab keeping students and researchers in mind. Working with CASIS we’re piloting an educational curriculum around ArduLab in three schools in Houston, Texas. Each school will develop a space experiment inside an Ardulab. Kids from 6th grade to 12th will be working in the teams to develop science experiments. They will be launching their Ardulab experiments to the International Space Station sometime mid next year. This is so exciting for us, it really keeps us in high spirits to share the wonders of space and inspire students. If we are successful here, we will be able to scale Ardulab and space programs to schools and universities nationwide.
Tom Vu: Explain the processing requirements or minimalist approach for Ardulab and the designs of future products? What are the raw challenges dealt with in the harshness of launch, zero gravity, or space? Any design constraints or design methodologies?
Manu Sharma: There are many design constraints. Since we designed Ardulab to comply with the International Space Station, we have to mind the NASA requirements when choosing electronic components. On top of that, we have to make sure we are consistent with NanoRacks systems onboard the ISS. There isn’t any design constraint regarding radiation. Radiation levels inside the ISS is low enough for commercial off the shelf electronics to work properly. Through much iteration, the Ardulab structure has been designed to survive the extreme vibrations encountered during the launch.
Manu Sharma: It is very important; we don’t have a choice. When we deliver Ardulabs to our customers, we are also eagerly seeing how they use our product and what changes we can make to improve the user experience. We have gone through more than 7 design iterations since last October. As I talk to you now, a new version of Ardulab microcontrollers are being assembled which include new features and technologies.
Tom Vu: Metaphorically, it is fun. What sound barrier or escape velocity (technology, solution, and consumer product changes) are we about to embark in if Ardulab becomes overtly successful?
Manu Sharma: Ardulab is intended to make it as easy as possible for people all over the world to gain access to space. If Ardulab is wildly successful, then a lot of people will be active in the space industry. We plan to serve this market by continuing to provide more infrastructure technologies. Communication, data transfer, and management of systems is a big opportunity there.
Tom Vu: What are some of the challenges you can imagine resulting from Infinity Aerospace’s Ardulab?
Manu Sharma: I think our challenge is similar to any aerospace company. The cost of getting into low earth orbit or to the International Space Station is still of the order of about $50k for a 1 kilogram Ardulab. We are optimistic that in near future, these prices drop an order of magnitude. Currently, we are offering space programs starting at $4995 that includes a launch slot in a suborbital vehicle (XCOR Aerospace Lynx). Customers will get about 4 minutes of high quality microgravity in a suborbital vehicle. It is great for experimentation and learning about the microgravity environment. We are first to market with this product at this price point and we will surely soon see real competition. We need to continue to innovate and lead this market to stay competitive.
Tom Vu: How can Ardulab evolve technologically? As a visionary, do you see a demand for Ardulab to be integrated more into education, design, solution, and products. Perhaps, accelerate efficiencies or connectivity?
Manu Sharma: There are many ways we plan to grow Ardulab technologically. Firstly, we are planning to experiment with higher end microprocessors that not only will serve some users in education market but will provide robust and high performance capabilities to commercial customers developing low earth orbit solutions. If you look at Ardulab as a platform to develop automated tools in space, then you will see multiple possibilities for Ardulab to morph into different products.
Tom Vu: What are you seeing come into your pipeline of request to get into Space. What does Ardulab have in roadmap for customers in the next 5-10 years?
Manu Sharma: We have some great surprises for everyone. We have customers developing their experiments in domains such as bio tech, fluids, chemistry, physics, and robotics and material sciences. Ardulab is creating offshoot products. We have recently been working with NanoRacks to develop an automated fluid mixing lab. We are reusing the Ardulab board to power this totally new product. We are working on software that will enable teams to collaborate for designing experiments in Ardulab and also provide near real time access to them when they are installed on the ISS. We will be growing our services to provide more options for launch slots on suborbital vehicle as well as low earth orbit with different providers in the coming years. Eventually customers would want to go beyond International Space Station and we are fully aware of that and strategically planning our development process keeping that in mind.
Tom Vu: Why space? Is this important in the next step for computing and embedded design engineering?
Manu Sharma: During a late night discussion over drinks with Astronaut Don Pettit, he said one thing that has stuck in my mind since then. He said space is a frontier and frontier is enriched with new discoveries and phenomenon. Space is a totally new arena for developing products. There is a growing market and economical reasons to go to space either for developing better communication and imagery systems or mining resources and settling human bases on different moons and planets.
A phone today has all the basic functionalities to become a system bus for a micro satellite. We say that from the PhoneSat project at NASA Ames. The group later went on to create a company building disposable micro satellites. Imagine that in near future we can get real time imagery of the whole planet! What will people use this data for? What kind of apps could be created? We could possibly track deforestation, wild fires or other natural calamities on our iPads. I think advances in computing and integrated circuit will make this kind of future in space happen.
Tom Vu: What is the vision for Infinity Aerospace as it pertains to people benefiting from their milestones?
Manu Sharma: Our vision is to provide a very powerful platform and software tools for people to develop space based hardware, tools, experiments or applications. I think with our upcoming products and as Ardulab and other services evolve, people and organizations will be able to create automated systems in space with great simplicity never seen before in the entire history of low earth orbit market.
Tom Vu: What is SMART design to your standards?
Manu Sharma: A SMART design for us is a design that solves real problems of people with minimal use of resources. We strongly believe in making sure that not only we solve the problems but also provide a great experience while interacting with our product.