Tag Archives: Open Source Hardware

Open-source hardware is eating the world

Our good friend and Hackster.io founder Adam Benzion explores the latest advancements in open hardware and what it means for our future.

Open-source hardware has been making headlines in industry publications and tech communities for years, but only now is it finally enjoying the same mainstream adoption that the Creative Commons and open-source software have enjoyed for over two decades. With growing numbers of hardware designs publicly available to study, modify, distribute, and replicate, resistance is futile!


Move Over Patent Trolls

Much like its immediate software relative, open-source hardware uses existing hardware design licenses rather than creating new ones, to co-innovate and share it forward. In a stark shift from the usually guarded patent world of hardware, we find a new environment for the sharing of ideas. Literally hundreds or thousands of hardware designs—circuit design, component integration, machines, tools, processors and practically anything that can be physically invented—are getting published and made available for anyone to use. There are many upsides to this, although it also seems to be encouraging more red-faced patent trolls to sue unsuspecting users of open-source hardware on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, because someone, some time ago, was already awarded a patent. (It’s just my opinion, but if you filed without the intention to ever build or share your invention, you deserve to get out-innovated.)

You’re Either In Or On The Way Out

Right now it seems like everyone is joining, but you might be less enthusiastic if you’re a Fortune 100 that established itself on the grounds of proprietary technology. Remarkably, however, many of the companies I would have bet on being slow in adapting into this new world are actually fully endorsing it. From Intel, to Atmel, Freescale, and TI, these silicon tankers have proved agile and responsive, powering most of the kits we all know and love (and maybe by doing so, they will start opening up some of their core chip designs?) Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising: They’ve been publishing reference designs for their boards for decades as a way to make it easy for customers to get started. And now they’re also learning from open-source electronics royalty like Arduino, while juggernaut creative hits like SparkFunSeeed Studio and Adafruit, show how to further adapt, share more, and be part of a community.

I’d rather build on the shoulders of giants, share everything we’ve learned, and learn a thing or two from others. At the end of the day, SparkFun is successful because of the products, value and service we deliver, not our IP portfolio.

Nathan Seidle Founder & CEO, SparkFun Electronics

And it doesn’t stop with electronics. Just take a look at Toyota’s CES 2015 announcement. The company is following the example of Tesla Motors, making all of its 5,680 patents related to fuel cell technology available, royalty-free, to anyone in hopes of driving more innovation. Sure, you can argue that all of this is done in the name of self-servitude: They save on R&D resources while broadening the market, and eventually sell more products as a result. Autodesk is also working on a similar initiative with Spark: an open platform that allows any hardware manufacturer, software developer or material scientist to automate, simplify and improve 3D printing. Regardless of the motivation, this is happening, and the beauty of it is that it taps the collective crowd for exponential brainpower and innovation.


A Freeway Without Speed Limits

By distributing hard earned engineering IP via the Creative Commons Attribution and the GNU General Public License and a widespread “Copylefting” attitude, innovators are transforming the world of hardware creation at speeds we’ve never seen before. The implications reverberate across the playing field, affecting everyone from hardware hackers to major players, and beyond.

  1. Startups. With little to no hardware engineering experience, startups can now hack their way into building hardware prototypes, fully capable of connecting to the “internet of things”, skipping months and thousands of dollars traditionally associated with such creations.
  2. Community. Open-source hardware is creating new communities that share recipes of creation. For me this became a personal obsession. Myself and Ben Larralde, co-founders of Hackster, are helping people everywhere co-create and learn open-source hardware. We see a massive wave of hardware innovation resulting from this movement, with firmware, schematics and inventive combination of electronics being developed, shared, redesigned and shared again from every corner of the planet in speeds we never seen before.
  3. Kids. If you are a parent like me, you are starting to see how this movement is accelerating your child’s abilities to design complex creations. My daughter who is only 4 years old can assemble strangely beautiful hardware creations using littleBits and thinking through “what if” scenarios. What happens when she’s 10 and can actually build complex blocks using LittleBits version 8.0? Does she even buy hardware at Best Buy or just build it herself because it’s more fun and possible better? When everything is open, big changes are inevitable.

Hardware innovation is driven by demand chain not supply chain, and open hardware provides the creative engine.

Eric Pan, Founder and CEO of Seeed Studio

Why Is This Happening Now?

We’ve lived through many decades since the computer revolution, the invention of the microprocessor, and the mainstream Internet. Maybe it’s not a surprise that all of the technology required to create software and hardware has finally come together, simplified and affordable to almost anyone on earth. Today, all you need is free cloud computing account from Microsoft’s Azure, an Intel Edison or Spark’s new Photon, basic programming skills and an access to a 3D printer. Voila, you are well on your way to creating a basic, functioning, piece of hardware. Unfathomable even 5 years ago. When I built my first hardware company in 2010, much of the above was generally unavailable.


Disrupted Again

Built on the heels of open-source software and the new sharing economy, open hardware is a disruptive evolution. It will create massive changes to how hardware innovation is co-created and monetized in rapid new cycles. It will shift the tight hold of old power that was jealously guarded by the few, to the new power which is open, participatory, and peer-driven, forceful as it surges.

But the real change in open-source hardware will come when you see a consumer product released as fully open-source — not something for programmers, hackers and hobbyists. The day that Samsung release a phone or a GE a washing machine that ships open will be the signal that the value in hardware openness is here to stay.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn by Adam Benzion along with the help of Nathan Seidle, Tom Igoe, Sean Geoghegan and Eric Pan. You can also learn all about Hackster.io and explore a wide-range of the latest Maker projects here.

Striker is a real-time wearable cadence tracker

The Manifold crew has designed an open source hardware platform capable of tracking real-time running cadence.

Dubbed “Striker,” the prototype boasts both an Atmel powered wristwatch as well as an Atmel based footpod.

More specifically, key wristwatch specs include:

  • Sparkfun Pro Micro (ATmega32U4 MCU)
  • 850mAh lithium ion battery
  • Power cell (Lipo Charger/Booster)
  • SPDT mini power switch
  • Monochrome 128×32 SPI OLED graphic display
XBee 2mW PCB Antenna (Series 2)

Key footpod specs?

  • Fio v3 (ATmega32U4 MCU)
  • 110mAh lithium ion battery
Force sensitive resistor
  • Terminal block (2-pin 3.5mm)
  • XBee 2mW PCB antenna (series 2)

“Striker will remain in the lab for now, but hopefully something like this will become more readily available for runners everywhere,” a Manifold rep by the name of Chad explained.

“As far as a custom solution goes, rather than inventing a watch to receive and display the cadence data it would actually make more sense to build an app for an existing watch platform. Then all you need is a footpod capable of detecting foot strikes and sending the data along using a communication protocol that the watch platform can speak like Bluetooth.”

Interested in learning more about Striker? You can scoot on out the project’s official page, along with the relevant code (Arduino + 3D models) and Fritzing breadboard sketches here.


Yes, open source hardware is taking flight!

Writing for OpenSource.com, Jason Baker of Red Hat notes that one of the best open source drone communities he’s come across is DIY drones – a site that offers forums, videos and succinct how-tos, along with an online store selling kits and components.

“DIY drones, among other things, is the host of the [Atmel-based] Ardupilot project, an Arduino-based system to help you get off the ground with a hardware, software, and firmware solution for flying nearly anything,” Baker explains.

Mustang P-47D. Image Credit: Aaron Manee, DIYDrones.com

“Versions exist for everything from fixed-wing aircraft to copters with nearly any number of propellors, and even a version for rovers for land-lovers not quite ready to take flight.”

As Baker notes, quadcopters and related vehicles are great if you want to control a flight that can be measured in meters.

“But what if you want to touch the edge of space? Not surprisingly, there’s open hardware for that too. Two of your best options for flying a little bit higher on a consumer budget are balloons and hobbyist rockets,” he says.

Image Credit: Wilfred Swinkels, DIYDrones.com

“There are plenty of instructions out there for you to try re-creating this feat on your own. Some require advanced hardware skills, but what sensors and what tracking system you include are as much a matter of your own skills and interests as anything else.”

According to Baker, open source model rocketry might be another platform of choice for DIY Makers and hobbyists, as it offers fairly easy entry and re-entry options.

“It’s an exciting time for open source flight. Even the US miliitary has recently made a decision to open source some of the work they are doing, in coordination with the Open Source Software Institute,” Baker adds. “Whether you’re an open hardware pro, or someone like me who is just getting started, there are plenty of options for diving in.”

Interested in learning more? The full text of “Open Source Hardware takes Flight” can be read here on OpenSource.com, while the DIY Drones homepage can be accessed here. Readers may also want to check out our recent article on the PAVA 9, a sleek ATmega328P-based tracker.

Mathilde Berchon talks open source hardware for devs

Writing for the EETimes, MakingSociety.com founder Mathilde Berchon offers some valuable advice to startups using open source hardware.

“The open-hardware movement started with prototyping tools. Building together tools that everyone can use is at the core of the movement,” Berchon explains.

“For a hardware entrepreneur, there are now plenty of them to use for creating your prototype- microcontrollers, sensors, machines and associated software are all available for you to use at very affordable cost. Massive communities of inventors/entrepreneurs just like you develop their products while contributing to each other’s success.”

According to Berchin, open hardware is essentially a trade-off between having access to great resources and giving back to the community.

“Access to open-source prototyping tools will quickly make you realize that you can also leverage a full community of skilled enthusiasts who are able to tell you what you do wrong and how to directly improve your product,” she continues.

“In exchange for their help, you give them the right to use, modify and sell your product under the same license (if you decide so). Because you are the one behind the project, you are also the one who sees the big picture, who knows how everything works. With open hardware comes great responsibility – you have to be in charge.”

Berchin also notes that utilizing open hardware can help with marketing efforts, specifically for building a successful brand. In addition, she recommends that startups respect customers and backers, learn from their users and make products affordable.

Arduino, Adafruit, SparkFun [and] Makey Makey are all very strong brands,” she adds.

“They are associated with strong values and ethics. They are watching over their behavior as well as the community is.”

As a final thought, Berchin shares a quote originating from a 2012 3D printing blog post penned by Brook Drumm, founder and CEO of Printrbot.

“For the record, Printrbot will always be an open-source company. Only time will tell if that’s a good idea or not. It may help distinguish us from the competition, or we may die trying,” writes Drumm.

“We have already played a small part in pushing the 3D printing forward and there is much more to do. I’d rather die with a legacy behind us that stretched as far and wide as the open-sourced information can spread than to be driven by fear and hold tightly to every last dollar we can squeeze from the market with closed hardware.”

The full text of Mathilde Berchon’s article titled “Hardware Startups: Don’t be Scared, Share!” can be read on EETimes here.

Newark debuts new Atmel SAMA5D3 Xplained board

Newark element14 has debuted a new Atmel SAMA5D3 Xplained evaluation kit – a low-cost, fast prototyping and evaluation platform for microprocessor-based design.

The board, which is built around Atmel’s SAMA5D3 ARM Cortex-A5 processor-based MPU, is packed with a rich set of ready-to-use connectivity and storage peripherals, along with Arduino shield-compatible expansion headers for easy customization. In addition, the platform is a perfect target for headless Android projects, while a Linux distribution and software package facilitates rapid software development.

“Our partnership with Newark element14 on the development and manufacturing of this kit and its first set of expansion boards enables engineers from all communities to build applications requiring rapid prototyping and evaluation for their MPU designs,” said Jacko Wilbrink, Sr. Marketing Director of Microprocessors, Atmel Corporation.

“The new board offers features such as mid-range graphical user interfaces, capacitive touch capability, wired and wireless communication, free of charge Linux distribution and QT developer’s kit.”

Meanwhile, David Shen, Chief Technology Officer at Premier Farnell, noted that Atmel’s versatile ARM Cortex-A5 processor-based MPUs neatly balance performance with ultra low power consumption.

“This new Atmel Xplained kit, in addition to our soon-to-be-available expansion boards which will add more capabilities to the SAMA5D3 platform, will be very helpful to professional engineers as well as Makers, hobbyists, educators and students, both within and outside their main employment.”

As we’ve previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, the SAMA5D3 series is ideal for wearable computing and mobile applications where low power and a small footprint are critical. Key SAMA5D3 Xplained features include:

  • Fully documented and readily available Cortex-A5 based MPU solution
  • Rich set of peripherals, specifically on connectivity
  • USB power (no need for power adaptor)
  • Flexibility – Arduino-compatible connectors, enabling the user to leverage the extensive Arduino shields ecosystem
Open Source hardware – All design files available; easy to reuse in customer projects
Software package with drivers and examples for bare metal developers
  • Qt developers kit and Linux distribution free of charge

The SAMA5D3 Xplained – priced at $79 – is slated to ship in mid-March 2014 from Farnell element14 in Europe, Newark element14 in North America and element14 in APAC. You can pre-register for the new Atmel SAMA5D3 Xplained board here.

CNBC analyzes open source hardware

Writing for CNBC, Tom DiChristopher confirms that the rapidly evolving open-source hardware (OSHW) movement is currently in the process of migrating from the garage to the marketplace.

As DiChristopher notes, companies that follow an open-source philosophy make their physical designs and software code available to the public. By doing so, they engage a wave of Makers, hobbyists and designers who don’t just want to buy products, but rather, offer a helping hand in developing them.

“Patents still work as an incentive for some people, but for a growing number of companies, sharing is more lucrative and fulfilling,” Alicia Gibb, executive director of the Open Source Hardware Association, told CNBC.

Gibb specifically highlighted Atmel-powered Arduino boards as an example of popular open hardware, pointing out that one of the biggest assets open-source hardware manufacturers have is the communities they’ve built among users who share their values and their roots as Makers.

“[For example], one of the things that the Arduino has that cannot be duplicated no matter how cheap you make it is the community that surrounds it,” said Gibb. “Even if somebody else comes along and tried to sell something cheaper I don’t think it would matter.”

According to Catarina Mota, research chair at the Open Source Hardware Association, the rise of open-source hardware companies can be attributed to a number of cultural and technological trends. Indeed, hardware makers have built on the open-source software movement that gained steam in the ’90s, while the ubiquity of the Internet allows hobbyists to collaborate on physical products. The barriers to making hardware and other equipment have also fallen, says Mota, thanks to cheaper prototyping tools such as the Atmel-powered MakerBot and RepRap 3D printers.

The rapid growth of the movement is also reflected in the success of marketplaces for DIY developers and open-source enthusiasts like New York-based Adafruit Industries, a company which uses Atmel microprocessors (MCUs) in a number of its platforms, including FLORA and Trinket. To be sure, Adafruit’s revenue has tripled year over year, with the company expecting full-year revenue for 2013 to reach $20 million. Of course, customers are not just limited to hobbyists and isolated Makers.

“Our customers are moving more and more towards commercial endeavors and a very large portion of our orders are from professionals at very large companies,” Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit, told CNBC.

As we’ve previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, perhaps the greatest success to date in OSHW (open-source hardware) has been the Atmel-powered Arduino, primarily because it established a vibrant ecosystem. Writing in Electronic Design, David Tarrant and Andrew Back note that all the hardware design files were made available – so both Makers and engineers could study the design and extend it for their own purposes in a commercial or non-commercial context.

“These files were combined with an accessible and equally flexible software platform. [Clearly], Arduino has benefited from derivative and complementary third-party hardware and is today a growing brand with a strong reputation for quality,” the two explained.

“Following its example, hardware companies are increasingly seeing OSHW as an opportunity to seed the market and educational establishments with their technology. Development kit design files are increasingly available under open-source licenses. And as was the case with software, more reusable components are becoming available.”

According to Tarrant and Back, another key product example of the OSHW revolution is the Atmel-powered MakerBot 3D printer, the initial generations of which were entirely based on open-source design.

“Although open-source hardware has to date largely been seen as existing at the simpler end of the electronics design spectrum, it embraces two major assets within the engineering community—goodwill and collective intelligence—and is being recognized as an important movement with increasing opportunities across both industry and education,” the two added.

Putting people over Megahertz

Open source hardware can probably best be defined as hardware that has been made publicly available. The primary advantage of open source hardware? The concept allows DIY Makers and engineers to modify, improve, distribute, make and sell the design (or hardware based on that design).

According to the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Simply put, open source hardware offers people the freedom to control their technology – while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.

Atmel-powered Arduino boards – which epitomize the above-mentioned philosophy – illustrate the numerous advantages associated with an open source approach. Indeed, Arduino has already managed to link the rapidly growing Maker Movement with both the corporate world and educational communities.

As Brock Craft, author of “Arduino Projects for Dummies” confirms, the boards are wildly popular in schools, with science and computing teachers in secondary institutions using the platform to teach kids the principles of programming and computational thinking.

“[Of course], Arduino is also used in colleges and universities, [where] they are often found in design programs, particularly in product design, because Arduinos can quickly be used to prototype products that do physical things – like toasters or dispensers or remote controls, for example,” Craft told ItPortalPro.

“It is also widely used in digital arts programs for making interactive artwork, music, and performances. [Yes], there have been similar products on the market for many years and education curricula have used other alternatives. But what makes Arduino different – and is driving teachers to use them – is that Arduinos are easy to use. And if they need help, it’s easy for teachers and students to get it in the extensive online communities.”

In addition, Craft noted that Arduino boards are being deployed throughout the corporate world, as the hardware is used by designers, architects and engineers for prototyping purposes.

“It’s very easy to try out design by building a prototype so that they can see what solutions work and toss out those that don’t. This is much easier to do early in the design process before more money has been spent on bringing an idea to fruition; Arduino can play a key role here,” he added.

And why not? As Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi wrote in a recent Makezine article, Arduino boards are essentially a mashup of open technologies wrapped up in a unified user experience.

“From the out-of-the-box experience we want to know how long it takes to you to go from zero to something that works,” Massimo explained. “This is very important because it creates a positive reinforcement that you are on the right path. The longer that time is, the more people you lose in the process.”

According to Massimo, “we are all on the edge” of a new step in the Maker Movement.

“Some of you are surely working on the next big thing. Please keep at it, but keep in mind the overall experience,” he continued. “[Yes], you can put a processor that is 100 Mhz more than another one, but the way you interact with it makes a huge difference to people because it’s more important to take care of the experience people have when they learn than to give them power they don’t know what to do with.”

Massimo reiterated the notion of “people over Megahertz” earlier this week during the New York Hardware Innovation Workshop (HIW), which kicks off right before the 2013 World Maker Faire in NYC.

“Every time you design a system to do everything, you end up with a system designed to do nothing. The challenge is to build a platform that solves a simple problem for a specific group of people: beginners for example,” Massimo emphasized during a panel discussion about the evolution of microcontrollers (MCUs). “Our boards are not the most powerful, but they enable people to get ideas into products very fast. It’s people over Megahertz.”