The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Cloning Open-Source Hardware

We’re great proponents (and beneficiaries) of open-source hardware here at Hackaday. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the free sharing of ideas has had on the hacker hardware scene. Plus, if you folks didn’t write up the cool projects that you’re making, we wouldn’t have nearly as much to write about.

We also love doing it ourselves. Whether this means actually etching the PCB or just designing it ourselves and sending it off to the fab, we’re not the types to pick up our electronics at the Buy More (except when we’re planning to tear them apart). And when we don’t DIY, we like our electrons artisanal because we like to support the little guy or girl out there doing cool design work.

So it’s with a moderately heavy heart that we’ll admit that when it comes to pre-built microcontroller and sensor boards, I buy a lot of cheap clones. Some of this is price sensitivity, to be sure. If I’m making many different one-off goofy projects, it just doesn’t make sense to pay the original-manufacturer premium over and over again for each one. A $2 microcontroller board just begs to be permanently incorporated into give-away projects in a way that a $20 board doesn’t. But I’m also positively impressed by some of the innovation coming out of some of the clone firms, to the point that I’m not sure that the “clone” moniker is fair any more.

This article is an attempt to come to grips with innovation, open source hardware, and the clones. I’m going to look at these issues from three different perspectives: the firm producing the hardware, the hacker hobbyist purchasing the hardware, and the innovative hobbyist who just wants to get a cool project out to as many people as possible. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but can cloning go too far? To some extent, it depends on where you’re sitting.

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Kestrel Computer Project

Many successful large-scale projects don’t start out large: they start with a small working core and grow out from there. Building a completely open-source personal computer is not a weekend project. This is as much a retelling of events as it is background information leading up to a request for help. You’ll discover that quite a lot of hard work has already been put forth towards the creation of a completely open personal computer.

When I noticed the Kestrel Computer Project had been submitted via the Hackaday tips line I quickly tracked down and contacted [Samuel] and asked a swarm of questions with the excitement of a giddy schoolgirl. Throughout our email conversation I discovered that [Samuel] had largely kept the project under the radar because he enjoyed working on it in his down time as a hobby. Now that the project is approaching the need for hardware design, I posed a question to [Samuel]: “Do you want me to write a short article summarizing years of your work on Kestrel Project?” But before he could reply to that question I followed it up with another: “Better yet [Samuel], how about we tell a more thorough history of the Kestrel Project and ask the Hackaday community for some help bringing the project home!?”
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Cute, Hackable, 3D Printable Robot Family

We first saw the robot Zowi (top row in the banner photo) at Make Munich a few weeks ago, and we were very impressed by how much interesting motion they were getting out of the ‘bot for only using four servo motors. The combination of big feet, strong ankle joints, and clever programming let the cute little bot stand on one leg, do a moonwalk, and even hop. (See the video, below the break.) We knew it was for sale. What we didn’t know is that it was entirely open source.

[Javier Isabel], the inventor, is very good at giving credit where it’s due, and that’s a great thing because his ‘bot is basically an improved BOB robot. That said, you really need to see this thing moving to know what a difference Zowi’s significantly stronger servos and clever programming can make.

But that’s not all! Since everything about Zowi is open, and up on GitHub you can not only 3D print one of your own, but you can easily modify the attractively-boxy case. And a handful of people have taken [Javier] up on the offer, and submitted their modifications back as pull requests. So if you’d rather something mildly more humanoid, and are willing to add a couple more servos, there’s a good basis for your explorations ready to go.

We really like the idea of collaborative toy-robot design, and from what we’ve seen the basic Zowi platform is a winner. Check it out and see if you’re not inspired to add your own personal touch to the design. If you do, be sure to contribute back for others to see!

Thanks [Nils Hitze] for the tip!

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Civilization Starter Kit

Over the last few years, [Marcin] has been working on the building blocks of civilization. He’s busy creating the Global Village Construction Set, the fifty most useful machines ever created. Everything from bread ovens to combine harvesters is part of this Global Village Construction Set, and everything is open source, free for all to use and improve upon.

For this year’s Hackaday Prize, [Marcin] is working on an Open Source Bulldozer. The ability to create earthworks and move dirt around is actually one of humanity’s greatest achievements, and enables the creation of everything from foundations for homes to trans-oceanic canals.

This Open Source bulldozer is astonishingly modular, scaleable from a one-ton microtractor to a 13,000lb dozer, with attachment points for blades, drawbars, and everything else you can attach to a Bobcat earthmover. It’s 168 horses of opensource earthmoving capability, and a perfect addition to this year’s Hackaday Prize.

[Marcin] and his group Open Source Ecology posted a video of this micro bulldozer rolling around on their shop floor recently; you can check that out below. You can also see our coverage of the GLVCS from several years ago.


The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Parallax Propeller 1 Goes Open Source


Parallax has embraced open source hardware by releasing the source code to its Propeller 1 processor (P8X32A). Designed by [Chip Gracey] and released in 2006, the 32-bit octal core Propeller has built up a loyal fan base. Many of those fans have created development tools for the Propeller, from libraries to language ports. [Ken, Chip], and the entire Parallax team have decided to pay it forward by releasing the entire source to the Propeller.

The source code is in Verilog and released under GNU General Public License v3.0. Parallax has done much more than drop 8-year-old files out in the wild.  All the configuration files necessary to implement the design on an Altera Cyclone IV using either of two different target boards have also been included. The DE0-Nano is the low-cost option. The Altera DE2-115 dev board is more expensive, but it also can run the upcoming Propeller 2 design.

The release also includes sources for the mask ROM used for booting, running cogs, and the SPIN interpreter. [Chip] originally released this code in  2008. The files contain references to PNut, the Propeller’s original code name.

We’re excited to see Parallax taking this step, and can’t wait to see what sort of modifications the community comes up with. Not an Altera fan? No problem – just grab the source code, your favorite FPGA tools, and go for it! Starved for memory? Just add some more. 8 cogs not enough? Bump it up to 16.  The only limits are the your imagination and the resources of your target device.

Interested in hacking on a real Propeller? If you’re in Las Vegas, you’re in luck. A Propeller is included on each of the nearly 14,000 badges going to DEFCON 22 attendees. While you’re there, keep an eye out for Mike and The Hackaday Hat!

Oculus Releases Open Source Hardware


Oculus VR, makers of the very cool Oculus Rift VR display, are making their first steps towards open hardware. Their first project is a latency tester, meant to precisely measure the latency of a VR setup or application. This is true open hardware with everything – the firmware, schematics, and mechanical parts all available on GitHub

Inside this neat bit of hardware is a STM32F102 microcontroller and a TCS3414 color sensor. The firmware is designed to measure changes in color and send that data back to a computer with a timestamp.

Not only are the schematics and board files available, there are also a few links to buy the PCBs at OSH Park: for about $24, you can get three copies of the main PCB and sensor board delivered to your door. If you have a 3D printer, Oculus has provided the .STL files to print out the enclosure for this device.

While this is a fairly niche product, we’re amazed at how well the Oculus folk have put together this open source hardware project. Everything you need to replicate this product, from board files, mechanical design, firmware, and instructions on how to build everything is just right there, sitting it a GitHub. Wonderful work.

A fast and easy-to-use vision sensor

At Hackaday we don’t often feature kickstarter campaigns, but this one is worth noticing in our opinion. It is called Pixy, a small camera board about half the size of a business card that can detect objects that you “train” it to detect.

Training is accomplished by holding the object in front of Pixy’s lens and pressing a button. Pixy then finds objects with similar color signatures using a dedicated dual-core processor that can process images at 50 frames per second. Pixy can report its findings, which include the sizes and locations of all detected objects, through one of several interfaces: UART serial, SPI, I2C, digital or analog I/O.

The platform is open hardware, its firmware is open source and GPL licensed, making the project very interesting. It is based on a 204MHz dual core ARM cortex M4 & M0, uses a 1280×800 image sensor and can stream the processed camera output to your computer. You can get one Pixy in the kickstarter campaign for $59, which is not that expensive for what it is.