A garage renaissance is spilling over into such phenomena as the booming Maker Faires and local “hackerspaces.” Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, user-generated content — all these digital trends have begun to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution hits the real world. In short, atoms are the new bits.
Let me tell you my own story. Three years ago, out on a run, I started thinking about how cheap gyroscope sensors were getting. What could you do with them? For starters, I realized, you could turn a radio-controlled model airplane into an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. It turned out that there were plenty of commercial autopilot units you could buy, all based on this principle, but the more I looked into them, the worse they appeared. They were expensive ($800 to $5,000), hard to use, and proprietary. It was clear that this was a market desperate for competition and democratization — Moore’s law was at work, making all the components dirt cheap. The hardware for a good autopilot shouldn’t cost more than $300, even including a healthy profit. Everything else was intellectual property, and it seemed the time had come to open that up, trading high margins for open innovation.
To pursue this project, I started DIY Drones, a community site, and found and began working with some kindred spirits, led by Jordi Muñoz, then a 21-year-old high school graduate from Mexico living in Riverside, California. Muñoz was self-taught — with world-class skills in embedded electronics and aeronautics. Jordi turned me on to Arduino, and together we designed an autonomous blimp controller and then an aircraft autopilot board.
We designed the boards the way all electronics tinkerers do, with parts bought from online shops, wired together on prototyping breadboards. Once it worked on the breadboard, we laid out the schematic diagrams with CadSoft Eagle and started designing it as a custom printed circuit board (PCB). Each time we had a design that looked good onscreen, we’d upload it to a commercial PCB fab, and a couple of weeks later, samples would arrive at our door. We’d solder on the components, try them out, and then fix our errors and otherwise make improvements for the next version.
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Stop breadboarding and soldering – start making immediately! Adafruit’s Circuit Playground is jam-packed with LEDs, sensors, buttons, alligator clip pads and more. Build projects with Circuit Playground in a few minutes with the drag-and-drop MakeCode programming site, learn computer science using the CS Discoveries class on code.org, jump into CircuitPython to learn Python and hardware together, TinyGO, or even use the Arduino IDE. Circuit Playground Express is the newest and best Circuit Playground board, with support for CircuitPython, MakeCode, and Arduino. It has a powerful processor, 10 NeoPixels, mini speaker, InfraRed receive and transmit, two buttons, a switch, 14 alligator clip pads, and lots of sensors: capacitive touch, IR proximity, temperature, light, motion and sound. A whole wide world of electronics and coding is waiting for you, and it fits in the palm of your hand.
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The cost/accessibility of prototyping has never been lower and due to open source hardware it’s now feasible to do small scale custom tailored production runs. But the best thing is the willingness of individuals to collaborate and share their knowledge and ideas.