Open Hardware Sparks Innovation in Robotics

There are many issues bothering robotics in India - lack of advanced components, insufficient know-how to patch these together into finished products, high cost of parts and platforms, and so on. a touch of open source could be the magical boost that the Indian robotics community needs. -- Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram

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Shekar’s thoughts are inspired by Steve Cousins, a robotics researcher at Stanford who is using his start-up Willow Garage to show the world how Open Source development can help make low-cost personal robots. Shekar enthusiastically shares more of Cousins’ dreams: “Cousins’ company plans to make ten robots running Open Source code and make them available to researchers around the country in an attempt to finally bring the world into the ‘Jetsons’ age where a robot can mop the floor, empty the dishwasher, and even fetch and open a bottle of beer. OSH, complete with diagrams and assemble-yourself kits, is growing faster than expected because of these reasons and the opportunities created.”

Let us look at some of the ways in which Open Source could help improve robotics.

Reduced cost and time-to-market. “While Open Source software has helped in developing numerous innovative products and gadgets, in most cases it has now reached a bottleneck due to the lack of similar platforms for hardware. Progress in robotics especially depends on the development of cost-effective, innovative solutions utilizing a new generation of OSH platforms and rapid fabrication tools,” says T. Jayakrishnan, director and country manager, Energid Robotics and Machine Vision.

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Open hardware with its characteristic features of flexibility, modularity and reusability would help do just that. The wheel never needs to be reinvented, and you can easily use Open Source intellectual property (IP) as building blocks for a new project. This kind of reuse not only reduces the cost but also speeds up conversion of an idea into a finished product— especially the initial phases of feasibility analysis and proof-of-concept demonstration. It also fosters research and learning with little investment, encouraging innovation.

Community support. One individual can never do as much as a community. So it is always better to open up a system for a whole community to develop and improve. “Making hardware Open Source helps generate a huge support community. If someone has already done something, the users just have to plug-and-play or contribute to the system and help it grow bigger,” says Azad.

Common standards. A natural consequence of community development is the evolution of common standards, making it easy for other systems to integrate seamlessly with an Open Source technology.

Low-cost manufacturing. Often, open hardware makes available not just component designs but also the knowledge required to convert raw components into good-quality finished products. This enables not just innovation and further improvement of product designs but also low-cost manufacturing. Anybody who has the resources and bandwidth to manufacture a product can seek the required permissions and manufacture the product based on Open Source designs and procedures. This kind of localized manufacturing would help bring down the cost of components in various geographies.

Easy hardware-software integration. The availability of complete specifications and modular nature make open hardware easier to integrate with software. Since no robotics project is complete, or even possible, without complex software systems today, this is a major benefit.

Multi-disciplinary approach. A low-cost, Web-based community development model encourages many to contribute. “When it is free, people are more willing to experiment with and try out something that they would not ordinarily have done. Open hardware allows absolutely anyone and everyone to contribute—the person may or may not be an engineer, but if he has free access to some hardware, even a biologist or an economist can chip in. So open hardware encourages the fusion of various streams of knowledge,” says de Sa.


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