‘Free' and ‘Open Source' are today common parlance in the world of technology, software in particular. What was once perceived to be a concept alienated from business, and economically impractical, has now proven to be a business model that not only works but also delivers.

But when it comes to hardware, the idea of ‘freedom' or ‘open-ness' is yet to arrive. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before the idea of Open Source Hardware makes an impact.

Though sceptics have been too quick to dismiss its viability, projects such as the Arduino embedded system development board, and the $25 ARM GNU/Linux computing utility, and the Raspberry Pi are being talked about as viable and promising options from the Open Source Hardware platform. These projects have demonstrated the scope of collaborative community research and development.

This apart, sustainable business models based on Open Source Hardware are also gaining ground.

Tangible artefacts

Open Source Hardware, by definition, is a term for tangible artefacts — such as mechanical contraptions and electronic circuits — for which design information and other software utilities necessary to implement the design are publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. This means that the hardware can be easily understood, as all the relevant information such as the hardware drawings, circuit schematics and design code have to be made available to qualify as Open Source Hardware.

The focus today is primarily on Open Source electronic hardware for its close relation to the gamut of Free and Open Source tools that could together ensure freedom in the means of our electronic communication; that is, in the fields of Internet, telephony and networking.

The Arduino project plays an important role in this regard, by providing a conducive platform for artists, designers, hobbyists and hackers to tinker with the hardware and create some exciting possibilities out of this piece of Open Source Hardware.

Arduino

Arduino is an Open Source prototyping platform useful in designing flexible embedded electronics systems capable of performing applications ranging from simple sensor-based devices to running a Web server.

Arduino boards have now grown to have a reputation of having wide versatility, coupled with the ease of application development.

Arduino hardware uses the AVR's ATmega microcontrollers, which belong to the family of 8-bit controllers, compared to the current 64-bit microprocessors housed in the personal computers or laptops.

ATmega controllers are the best in class 8-bit controllers in terms of peripheral interfacing support, a dedicated programming language AVR-C and low price.

The other advantage with Arduino modules is that the design of the boards — the layouts and schematics of the circuitry — are licensed under the Creative Commons Licence, and can be freely used to convert the design into hardware or improve it based on the users applications.

Arduino programming involves coding in C/C++, and the development software stack comprises of an integrated development environment based on processing, and the programming language based on wiring, both of these are Free Software utilities compliant to permissive licences such as the GNU Public Licence and Copyleft.

Arduino for students

Students with a basic knowledge of C programming and design ideas can conveniently work with Arduino boards. Anirban Basak, product designer at Li2 Innovations says: “The overhead involved in mastering a microcontroller and then implementing the design is reduced to simple C coding on Arduino development environment, and interfacing to the hardware. This suits the entire spectrum of enthusiasts who wouldn't want to get entangled in the learning curves associated with embedded systems design, but directly get on to application deployment.”

Working with Arduino is much more exciting today for engineering students because there is a rich community developing around Arduino, both among students in various colleges and on the Internet. Students can contact one of these online forums, or other student teams to organise workshops, conduct and participate embedded system design challenges.

Inexpensive

Apart from being Open Source, Arduino is inexpensive. Hand-assembled Arduino modules would be the cheapest, while the pre-assembled modules cost slightly more. The latest hardware Arduino-Uno costs about Rs. 1,200 in Bangalore.

The development platform runs on GNU/Linux, Mac OS and Windows, yielding excellent cross-platform support. The circuit designs are all licensed under Creative Commons and newbies can jump into action without many hurdles.