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PORTSIDE  September 2011, Week 3

PORTSIDE September 2011, Week 3

Subject:

Hackers Use Open Hardware to Solve Environmental Problems

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Date:

Mon, 19 Sep 2011 00:34:10 -0400

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Hackers Use Open Hardware to Solve Environmental Problems
By David Biello
Scientific American
September 16, 2011
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2011/09/16/hackers-use-open-hardware-to-solve-environmental-problems/

Autonomous mini-sailboat drones ply the ocean and mop up
oil spills, gather information on marine life in crisis
and clean up floating plastic trash. That's the vision
of Protei, a collective of technology students from
around the globe who have been designing a fleet of
these craft as "open" hardware-or electronic gadgets
assembled from scratch using shared, collective
information.

"It's an international collaboration so I guess we can
call it a multinational company," says New York
University's Gabriella Levine, a participant in the
second annual Open Hardware Summit on September 15 at
the New York Hall of Science in Queens. The event serves
as a gateway to the much larger Maker Faire set for
September 17 and 18, also at the hands-on science and
technology center, which will boast everything from
circuits sculpted from play dough to oobleck
demonstrations.

The Protei boats were originally designed to respond to
BP's 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
Trailing oil-absorbing booms, the drones could sail even
in a storm to help with cleanup, unlike human-crewed
ships. The open hardware boats were just one device
discussed at the confab for builders of hacked Roomba
robots and pillows with messages spelled out in sewn-in
light-emitting diodes.

Much like open software, the idea of open hardware is to
freely share all the necessary knowledge for building
usable electronics. This is not just for the balding,
pony-tailed basement tinkerer; the European Organization
for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN and as the
operator of the Large Hadron Collider) is developing an
open hardware license for some of its fancy bits.

The core component of many open hardware devices is the
Arduino microcontroller, born of student frustration in
Ivrea, Italy, and now beloved around the world. The core
aspiration of attendees is the  3D printer that makes
printing out physical objects possible.

Open hardware is not just about making fetishes; it's
also about saving the world. Much like the student
Protei, hackers in Japan quickly sourced and shared the
components and software to build stationary and mobile
radiation monitors after the meltdown of the Fukushima
Daiichi nuclear power plant began in Japan on March 11.
By April 9, affordable Geiger counters paired with
Arduino microcontrollers for wireless communication were
helping build a crowd-sourced map of radiation in Japan,
according to programmer and developer Shigeru Kobayashi.
Similarly, the open hardware community built clip-on
devices to turn an iPhone into a pocket radiation
monitor. Given the inability (or unwillingness) of the
Japanese government and TEPCO to share such information,
in this case open hardware provided the first
comprehensive open access radiation maps.

Still, the primary feeling among open hardware types
seems to be gadget lust. The makings for Arduino
microcontrollers, 3D printer inputs and the like have to
be sourced somewhere-and rely on cheap components,
largely from Shenzhen in China-while Moore's Law
concerning ever faster microchips creates an inexorable
pressure to upgrade the computers that make such
hardware hacking possible. As electrical engineer Andrew
"Bunnie" Huang of chumby put it: the ethic of today is
"buy, throw away" and that means e-waste mishandled in
the toxic dumps of China, Ghana and other countries with
lax environmental regulations.

In the future, the open hardware movement might aspire
to the creation of so-called "heirloom gadgets," which
can be handed usefully from one (human) generation to
the next, rather than setting us all to muttering about
planned obsolescence. "An heirloom laptop sounds
retarded today," Huang admits.

In the meantime, when it comes to open hardware,
resistance is futile (if less than one ohm), as one T-
shirt slogan goes.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
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