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EETE APRIL 2013

Open source hardware makes a comeback By Nick Flaherty Open source hardware has been making a bit of a comeback in recent months. Originally envisaged as the open exchange of hardware designs, often for 3D printing, the idea has also been taken up for other areas. XMOS Semiconductor for example started out with the aim of developing a community of developers sharing designs for its multicore processor in the same way as open source operating systems such as Linux. New websites such as Shapeways allow you to upload your 3D design and get it printed and shipped without having to have your own printer, with designs such as a case for Raspberry Pi low cost computer board or a lens to add onto an iPhone camera available. This opens up a marketplace for hardware designs, although these are in plastic rather than printed circuit boards. Freescale has been doing a similar thing with its low cost Kinetis microcontroller boards, giving the design away. This avoids taxes and import duties on boards, vital when the whole board costs just $12. It also allows different manufacturers, usually the distributors of the chips, to compete to bring the price down further. The company aims to triple its customer base over the next three years by opening up its €10 ARM M0+ development board for adoption by the Arduino hobbyist community as open source hardware. “It has been designed to work with an Arduino shield (add on board) and we would love the Arduino community to be interested in the M0+,” said Geoff Lees, general manager of the microcontroller division at Freescale. “It’s something we hope will happen.” More support will come from global distributors and retailers such as Digikey, Mouser and element14 which have all started shipping the board. The next key element in the open source hardware strategy is mbed cloud-based development environment. Freescale is working with ARM on the next generation of this Web-based open source software development environment that already has a significant following by allowing anyone to compile code for an ARM processor for free. “There’s 60 to 70,000 users worldwide, 20,000 of them active with 5,000 projects listed,” said Lees. “We believe mbed has a very strong future with Arduino shields and boards so that it can Lime Microsystems’ open source project Myriad-RF. bridge all the way from the hobbyist to the professional developer. It’s not just a cloud compiler but a cloud based development community and that’s what I think is the future of software development. For the first time you don’t have to buy specific hardware, there are no tools to install and there is an effective C++ API interface. We think this is a key part of our strategy to address a new community of developers.” The cost of the board and the need for a community of users are two struggles UK startup Lime Microsystems is facing, as its board currently costs $300. Lime has developed a flexible, multimode RF chip that can be used for a wide range of applications. That means it can be used for a whole range of applications from a single board designs, making it ideal for an open source approach. This can then support applications such as an open source base station, which is already in development, says Lime CEO Ebrahim Busherhi. “The first and foremost reason for doing this is we found there are a lot of people out there doing interesting stuff in R&D and education and if you want to provide them a platform you need a community around it,” said Busherhi. So he has developed a non-profit group and website to stimulate the open source hardware aspect. The company has provided all the schematics and documentation for the board for an open source project called Myriad-RF, and is looking for partners to make more boards to bring the cost down in the same way as engineers in Cambridge developed a low cost computer called Raspberry Pi. Even though it is not an open source design, but licensed to various sub-contractors, the low cost has generated huge amounts of interest and a wide community of users. “Raspberry Pi for RF is precisely our intention,” he said. “Such an approach has not been done in the RF domain to our knowledge and we want to follow the same model.” The Myriad-RF non-profit initiative aims to give both hobbyists and experienced design engineers a range of low-cost RF boards and free design files available for general use. The boards use field programmable RF (FP-RF) transceivers to operate on all mobile broadband standards - LTE, HSPA +, CDMA, 2G - including all regional variants; and any wireless communi- Freescale’s freedom open-source board. cations frequency between 0.3 and 3.8GHz. 8 Electronic Engineering Times Europe April 2013 www.electronics-eetimes.com


EETE APRIL 2013
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