US Air Force Says They’re Developing An Open Source Jet Engine; We Say Show Us The Design

The economies of scale generally dictate that anything produced in large enough numbers will eventually become cheap. But despite the fact that a few thousand of them are tearing across the sky above our heads at any given moment, turbine jet engines are still expensive to produce compared to other forms of propulsion. The United States Air Force Research Laboratory is hoping to change that by developing their own in-house, open source turbine engine that they believe could reduce costs by as much as 75%.

The Responsive Open Source Engine (ROSE) is designed to be cheap enough that it can be disposable, which has obvious military applications for the Air Force such as small jet-powered drones or even missiles. But even for the pacifists in the audience, it’s hard not to get excited about the idea of a low-cost open source turbine. Obviously an engine this small would have limited use to commercial aviation, but hackers and makers have always been obsessed with small jet engines, and getting one fired up and self-sustaining has traditionally been something of a badge of honor.

Since ROSE has been developed in-house by the Air Force, they have complete ownership of the engine’s intellectual property. This allows them to license the design to manufacturers for actual production rather than buying an existing engine from a single manufacturer and paying whatever their asking price is. The Air Force will be able to shop ROSE around to potential venders and get the best price for fabrication. Depending on how complex the engine is to manufacture, even smaller firms could get in on the action. The hope is that this competition will serve to not only improve the design, but also to keep costs down.

We know what you’re thinking. Where is the design, and what license is it released under? Unfortunately, that aspect of ROSE seems unclear. The engine is still in development so the Air Force isn’t ready to show off the design. But even when it’s complete, we’re fairly skeptical about who will actually have access to it. Open Source is in the name of the project and to live up to that the design needs to be available to the general public. From a purely tactical standpoint keeping the design of a cheap and reliable jet engine away from potential enemy states would seem to be a logical precaution, but is at cross purposes to what Open Source means. Don’t expect to be seeing it on GitHub anytime soon. Nuclear reactors are still fair game, though.

[Thanks to Polymath99 for the tip.]

46 thoughts on “US Air Force Says They’re Developing An Open Source Jet Engine; We Say Show Us The Design

  1. No, you are reading it wrong. “Open source” to them means being able to supply a vendor the specs and manufacturing documents so they can make the engine… so they can have multiple competing vendors.

    1. This reminds me of something they did back in the 50s: they contracted Tektronix to design an oscilloscope with decent specs, then they took that design and shopped it around to the lowest bidders, who were Hickock and Lavoie, whose versions of the Tek 545 were definitely inferior – I’ve used all three.

    2. +1 maybe a misunderstanding or typo? Open SourcED may be closer as in M1 garand rifles made by Winchester, Springfield armory etc. or tanks (WW2) made by Dodge, GM etc. Same design, multiple sources.

    3. You are correct, in this case “open source” means that you don’t have to “clearance” or sign an NDA that if violatited results in the government kicking you in the balls and burning your house down.

      The goal is most likely to open the supply chain so everything isn’t from Boeing or Lockheed-Martin and test the viability of an engine with parts sourced from multiple job shops. There are plenty of small shops with the machinery and staff required, but the bar is too high for most military contracts to be profitable. This is probably a small scale test case…it may go as far a supplying some of the exotic materials in a typical jet engine to smaller shops as well because you can’t just order them from Mcmaster-Carr.

      1. Good point those huge conglomerates are single points of failure really. Probably lost the ability to do the spitfires in a piano factory kind of thing in the 60s and thought WWIII would be over in 24 hours. As the world changes, WWIII could be a drawn out conventional war, or at least with limited nuclear exchanges, and strategic supply has to come into consideration again.

        1. While grim, your take is probably correct…

          I work in manufacturing, as a machinist specifically, and contrary to the mainstream media we haven’t been this busy in years (not intended to be or interested in discussing politics here)…i remember my boss pink slipping well qualified people and telling them they’d be back once we got more work, now he’s asking who can work 2nd shift for double time.

          My point being that manufacturering is firing back up and the military is looking to reduce single point chain failures and surely costs…this jet engine is just their way of testing the waters. We’re past the point of $10K hammers “required” for the job and they know it.

          1. Just have a look on Craigslist, there’s a large number of job listings for CNC machinists and machine operators. Depending on what the employer is looking for that can be anything from a person with lots of experience in CAD, manual machining, product design and engineering – to someone able to quickly learn how to load material into a machine, what buttons to push to load and run a gcode file, and what to do when the machine is finished with the current item.

          2. Very clearly they’re testing the waters. The engine in question is small and considered expendable, so they aren’t too concerned about long term reliability or even long term support. Heck, they’ll probably buy the bulk of them from China, only sourcing enough on-shore to ensure that there is a manufacturing base for them.

    1. Works well enough for its intended purpose, cheap enough to give away by the thousands to any ally, and simple enough to be hammered together by children in the mountains of Afghanistan? That actually sounds like the perfect outcome for this project!

  2. Lol sounds like the air force made their own proprietary engine but want to outsource manufacturing to drive costs down, full stop. That’s incredibly standard in all industries nowadays. Really gratuitous to label something like that “open source.” It’s already kind of strange how that term applies to everything instead of just software, but I get that it’s a useful phrase for open source hardware too. This one is a blatant dilution of the term though, as y’all point out. I mean everyone knows how much the MIC loves a good backronym. They just wanted to name it rose and stuck in whatever fit. Probably was the name of some engineer’s wife, who knows. Would love for them to release some documents and prove us wrong, though.

    Not like a little general-purpose disposable jet engine is a huge state secret. The way this thing works is probably fairly standard, and any nation can access this kind of technology now. We’ll see.

    1. They aren’t releasing it. Open source to us is not what open source means in manufacturing. The article is completely incompatible with the term. When government agencies open source a design, they have already designed what they want and they are asking capable manufacturers to provide a bid (best price) to build the design. Whoever can do it the cheapest usually gets the contract unless they can’t be verified as reputable. Bob from his garage cant quote them $10,000 an engine, being $90,000 below anyone else. This article is completely just, wrong. The author confused terminology and wrote an article for ad revenue. And it worked.

  3. You say “open source”, but then you talk about licenses. These are mutually incompatible. Pretty much everything that can be taken apart can be called “open source”, if you don’t care about intellectual property rights. Just ask IBM about its BIOS for the PC.

    1. The way copyright laws work, is that they apply unless you opt out. Anything that you publish or otherwise release by default results in claiming all copyrights to the author (i.e. no copying, distribution, or derivative works by anyone else). If you want to allow people to do any of those things legally (like download the plans from your website, for e.g.), you have to grant them a license to do so. You can give them a restrictive license (only copy for personal use, for e.g.), or a liberal license (copy, distribute, make derivatives for whatever purpose you want), but you have to have a license to do anything at all.

      1. >>The way copyright laws work, is that they apply unless you opt out.

        Unless they beat you to the patent office or have more/better paid lawyers. So many patents have been issued to ideas that duplicate Prior Art outright and no attempt to remedy the situation is attempted.

  4. If one of your steps is “and then 5-dimensionally wire EDM cooling passages through your single crystal Nimonic turbine blade” this isn’t amateur/hobby territory, regardless of the use of the term open source.

  5. Open source is all about licenses… whether it’s a “do anything you like but we wrote it” permissive license like MIT, ISC or BSD… or the “I wrote it for everyone to be able to use, study and modify at will” like the copyleft AGPL/GPL/LGPL… licenses are central to open source.

    1. Agree, open source is all about licences, but GPL is not open, it’s very restrictive in how you can use it and what you can use it with.
      If this engine gets a GPL style licence, you won’t be able to bolt it to an airframe unless the bolt manufacturer give you a GPL licence for the bolts. Oh, and the airframe. And the fuel probably shouldn’t have any special proprietary additives…

      1. You obviously don’t know as much about the GPL as you’d like think you do.

        To start with, the GPL is intended to be a free software license and indeed predates the “open source” movement. Also viral licenses, and the GPL specifically, aren’t intended for hardware.

        But I suppose we shouldn’t let things like facts and understanding stop us from half hearted attempts at “nerd humor”.

        1. Agreed, the GPL predates the open source movement, and it’s definitely not suitable for a number of things, including hardware. This was the point of my post, which wasn’t intended for those like you who know this already. Apologies if you felt I’m teaching you to suck eggs.

          However, the fact you and I know it’s not suitable doesn’t stop people putting GPL and similar licences on things which they’re not suitable for. There needs to be more education on what types of things licences are appropriate for.

          There also needs to be more education that GPL is not ‘open source’ in the normal sense of the word.

          There’s definitely times when GPL is appropriate (audacity, git,…), so it’s great that lots of code is released under a licence compatible with GPL, but there’s other times when GPL isn’t appropriate. JQuery for example would never have been useful to so many projects if it was GPL instead of MIT.

          It’s not uncommon to see some code (eg a useful little code library), which someone has said “do what you want with it” (or words to this effect) in the prose, but put a viral licence on. Sometimes they probably meant to do so, and didn’t really mean “do what you want”, but I think often they mistakenly thought that GPL was ‘freeing’ to code for others to use (like a WTFPL licence, or MIT).

          Fonts are another area where licences don’t work how people might think. That’s why there’s a standard open source licence for fonts, SIL.

          1. Which is why people “pirate” things and dont give a rats ass about licensning because it’s too complicated and they just CBA to read it.
            I dont blame them for it.

            If you want to retain ownership make it simple. Or dont “sell” it. But dont whine about it when people break your terms and expect them to read several hundred of them before it’s use.
            There doesn’t need to be more education on licensing.

            Licenses need to be simple and written on a single business card in point 12 font if you want people to actualy care about it.

    2. Except when it applies to government contract bidding and the term doesn’t mean anything to us small folk. It’s not an open source license to “do as you like, to a degree…”, it means “hey I designed this, give me your best price to build it.” Totally different meaning. Article is completely irrelevant to what we think of as open source.

    1. Yeah, but really doesn’t mattter as the necessary 3d printer; raw metal and/or fuel sources needed to get it up and functional are likely tightly regulated/monitored. (to say nothing about cost)

  6. Low cost…… to the USAF.

    There are plenty of jet engines similar to this already on the market already, just not with the exacting specs they’d require from all manufacturers if these ended up getting used in something.

    Also, these low pressure ratio turbojets lacking regenerators/recouperators are pretty much only useful where fuel consumption needs to be slightly better than a rocket but is ok with being significantly worse than everything else.

    1. I’m not sure what your point is…its not like they expected people to execute a “Naruto Run”. The briefings were probably more about the possibility of a potentially large number of people attempting to storm the gates of a highly secured facility and that they may have to actually open fire on them.

      They don’t just shoot people trespassing at Area 51, the “camo dudes” try to scare you away by blatantly observing you…then if your dumb enough to continue, they will either escort you off the property or if you’ve been a dick they detain you for a few hours with the goal of (again) scaring you, until they decide they have made thier point.

      Invade Area 51 was the first time they have had what appeared to be an actual organized attempt at a large number of people storming the base and that live fire maybe required to stop the “assault”.

    1. No. Not something of airforce design. As explained before, open source means something different to governments. Read my above comments. This article is completely misrepresenting what is going on.

  7. Well, they’re right. Jet engines can be built in-house, like Igor Negoda does at his channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35_9kw7wU1Y

    Main “devil” here, I think, is a geometry because it affects efficiency. It’s not an issue to build an engine (jet, or piston, or whatever). The issue is how much does it eat and how string is it (Remember that Tom&Jerry scene: “dog food, cat food, dog food, cat food – they eat too much!”).

  8. If you really want to play with “jet engines” (I use that loosely so the “fanjet, turbine engine, turbojet” nerds don’t attack…)
    You should get on your favorite online action site and buy one for a few grand… An old APU or ground start unit can be had for not a lot of money if you are inclined. Beyond being cool to watch or listen to, most “jet engines” aren’t super useful vs. cost.

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