Shared Challenges and Opportunities in Open Source Spaceflight

Desert

Image by Jungle_Boy via Flickr

Yesterday’s discussion of open source spaceflight hardware groups reveals a number of repeated challenges facing this movement. These challenges include licensing open source hardware, the development of web-based project management tools for engineering, overcoming the costs associated with engineering software, and resolving the conflict between open source methods and export restrictions on spaceflight hardware. The good news for the open source spaceflight organizations is that they are not alone in addressing some of these challenges, which provides for important opportunities.

The first challenge is licensing open source hardware. Licensing software is a matter of applying terms of use to copywritten works. This is a process which is well understood in the software industry and does not involve any additional cost to the developers. However, intellectual property rights for hardware are more complex. Hardware is often protected by patents, trade secrets, and non-disclosure agreements. Each of these processes involves different laws and processes, and generally additional costs. These factors make developing open source hardware licenses difficult. This challenge is shared by the open source hardware movement as a whole, and is being addressed by other organizations. For example, the Tuscon Amateur Packet Radio Corp. (TAPR-OHL) and CERN (CERNOHL) have developed  open source hardware licenses similar to the GNU Public License 2.0.  Mach 30′s own licensing approach (Mach 30 Open Design Pledge) is modeled after the Arduino’s use of multiple licenses and is similar to the Apache Software License.

The second challenge is developing web-based project management tools for engineering projects. There are a number of web sites which fill a similar role for open source software projects, including Source Forge.  However, these tools are optimized for managing and sharing software projects, not hardware projects. So, at present, most of the organizations listed above are making due with a collection of disconnected tools. Which explains why a number of them are working to address this challenge.  And these organizations are not alone. DARPA, which is researching open source hardware, is soliciting proposals for the development of their own open source hardware project portal called Vehicle Forge.  And CERN has recently announced its Open Hardware Repository.  DARPA and CERN’s investments validate the efforts to develop such a portal, and may help pave the way for wide-spread availability in the near future.

The third challenge is overcoming the cost of engineering software. The ideal solution for these groups is to identify and adopt open source engineering tools. Using open source engineering tools first ensures the tools will continue to be available and at no cost to volunteers participating in the design process. Second, using open source engineering tools fits in with the over all philosophy of open source hardware. The second best solution is to find software which can be used freely for personal or not-for-profit use. Sites like the Mach 30′s Openeering Wiki and Develop Space’s Open Source Engineering Tools are both intended to catalog the available options as a means of addressing this challenge.

The fourth challenge is resolving the conflict between open source methods and export restrictions on spaceflight hardware. In the United States, there are a number of export restrictions which affect almost every type of spaceflight hardware, regardless of use or intent. Put simply, these export controls forbid United States citizens from sharing any material concerning spaceflight hardware. Failing to comply with these regulations can carry severe penalties, making it essential that anyone working in spaceflight hardware follow them. However, following these kind of restrictions is in direct opposition to the open source philosophy.

While it is true these challenges are significant, most of them are shared by the larger open source hardware community, which means we are not alone in facing them.  The key to overcoming these challenges, and making open source spaceflight successful, is to work together to address these challenges, both within the fledgling open source spaceflight and with the larger open source hardware community.

Want to join Mach 30′s team in the Open Source Spaceflight Revolution?  Learn more here.

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About J. Simmons

J. Simmons is the founder and president of Mach 30. As a Dayton Area Graduate Studies Institute Fellow, J. spends his days studying Space Systems Engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), and his nights leading a revolution in space systems development. J.’s vision for Mach 30 combines his years working and volunteering for non-profits and his experiences using open source software tools in small business.

Posted on July 12, 2011, in Open Source Spaceflight Revolution and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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