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Technology> Hardware 28 Sep 2018

What is open-source hardware?

The maker movement has helped reignite interest in open-source hardware with projects where device components and information are shared openly to allow everyone to contribute to their development and improvement.

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Although not as well-known as the software movement, the open-source hardware movement has existed, in one form or another, for quite some time. In fact, the first “open-source” hardware projects date back to the 1970s, when the hippie movement embraced the DIY ethic.

But exactly is open-source hardware? To begin with, the very definition of the concept may be a bit the uninitiated: “Open source hardware is hardware whose specifications and schematics are made publicly available, either subject to some sort of payment or freely.” Traditionally, due to their nature, only highly-skilled people have been able to get involved in this type of projects. However, in recent years, technical progress and social phenomena such as digital manufacturing and the maker movement are helping tear down access barriers that kept many people out.

But, to get a better idea of what it is all about, the best thing is to take a look at how the whole movement started. Just as many other tech projects, according to some experts on the matter, the open-source hardware movement started in a garage in the U.S. More specifically, in the Homebrew Computer club, an informal group of computer electronics enthusiasts who gathered to trade and exchange pieces, circuit boards and information related to the microprocessors that existed at that time.

The club met for the first time in March 1975, at Gordon French’s – one of its founders – garage and the meetings continued through December 1986.  Over the course of those eleven years, the Homebrew Computer club evidenced the advantages of sharing hardware designs to allow others to change them at will and find new applications for them, in benefit of the community at large.

Some examples of open-source hardware

The movement stalled a bit in the latter years of the 20th century until the internet boom helped reignite the interest for open-source projects, providing easier access to schematics, drawings and logical designs of devices. All this information can be shared for free or traded in exchange for a fee or payment, but always in compliance with principles such as collaboration and cooperation, so that every advance is made openly available for anyone to benefit from the latest developments and build on them to create new devices that, if released, will also be made openly available for others to use.

These are some of the most interesting initiatives around this concept, that promote everything from the creation of personal computers and modular smartphones to auto making or fostering the study of robotics in the classroom.

Launched in 2004 by Adrian Bowyer and his collaborators at University of Bath, UK, the project aims to create a 3D printer capable of self-replicating by printing most of its parts and components.

The device is licensed under a GNU GPL, which means that anyone can copy, distribute, and improve the project’s designs and source code. Thanks to this license, today there are several RepRap models that are enhanced by the open-source community on a daily basis. Anyone can create their own 3D printer following these instructions. Companies such as Spain’s BQ sell their own printer kits, containing all the components that users need to assemble one of these printers.

Arduino is a motherboard that mounts a basic microcontroller. Its development environment allows building applications for the board. Arduino has been used in thousands of projects of varying degrees complexity, including robots and automatic irrigation systems.

It is released under a Creative Commons license, which gives licensors creative freedom, bur requires derivative works to comply with a set of specific rules, especially regarding the Arduino brand, in what is some sort of trademark control.

This credit card-sized PC consists of a single board equipped with a microprocessor, GPU and RAM.

It was launched in 2009 by the Raspberry Pi Foundation to promote the study of basic computer science in schools. A sizeable developer community has flourished around the proposal, ready to share all the details of the new applications they come up with for the board.

e-puck is an open-source mobile robot originally designed for micro-engineering education purposes. There are many libraries, manufacturing files, examples and tutorials available for download on the e-puck website

Tabby Evo is a hardware open source platform for electric vehicles that’s been under development since 1999. Tabby EVO was launched by Open Motors, formerly known as OSVehicle and, before that, OS Car (Open Source Car).

This platform is regarded as the first initiative to design an electric vehicle using exclusively open-source tools. For this purpose, Open Motors offers manufacturers, engineers, industrial designers and other specialists the possibility to buy different components of its vehicle through its website, as well as to download a broad range of information.

Is a gaming console with similar specs as 16-bit generation consoles, that aims to offer users a genuine retro-gaming experience. A community of developers and enthusiasts has emerged around the project’s official website. Its members test, research and contribute to both the project’s open-source software and hardware.

Users can purchase a kit to assemble their own consoles, although there are companies that sell a pre-assembled version.

This network of farmers, engineers and open-source advocates aims to develop a new generation of universally accessible industrial machinery, to foster environmentally sustainable economic development.

Elphel develops high performance open source and open hardware cameras, used by NASA and Google, including the camera modules integrated into Google panoramic camera for Streetview.

  • Project Ara

This failed project stemmed from the Phoneblocks initiative, which launched on October 2013 to raise awareness about the need to create modular smartphones to reduce electronic waste.

Taking on this challenge, Google released the Module Developer’s Kit (MDK), an open platform that would allow developers to build and share compatible modules and parts. Project Ara was discontinued in late 2016.