Open source surge: Companies may ditch patents in favour of open tech research

Company interest in open sourcing is on the up, thanks in part to Tesla Motors. We speak to Wevolver to learn more about the mission to make hardware easy to download and make

More companies than ever before are likely to open themselves, their technologies and their patents up to the public in the next 10 years.

The trend, which was popularised by Tesla Motors, is set to be embraced by companies due to the potential benefits for research and development.

“I definitely think companies are going to open up parts, and even big companies who have thousands of patents on the shelf which they don’t use, they will slowly sometimes open them up so people can start doing stuff with them and they just stay involved with it,” said Richard Hulskes, an entrepreneur from Amsterdam, who is trying to open up technology to as many people as possible.

Hulskes runs Wevolver, a project that’s trying to open source technology so that it is more accessible to everyone.

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In just a few clicks you can download the files to create a Segway, a drone, Ultimaker’s 3D printer and 3D printing files for more than one robot.

The site is currently in its beta stage, but has had more than 200 open source projects submitted to it so far. Not all are available for download yet, however, as Hulskes and his growing team are keen to ensure that the proper documentation is available for every project.

While the projects that are being submitted to Wevolver are mostly created by individuals, Hulskes said the open source movement will encourage established companies to make their products available.

“You’re going to have this clash, probably,” he said.

“There are companies who will be closed for a long time to come; probably the best example will probably be Apple, but there will be companies and you’re already see it that will start opening up parts of their product.”

It’s not a fruitless prediction either, as last year Elon Musk opened up all of Tesla’s patents “in the spirit of the open source movement”.

In a blog post in June the PayPal creator said that patenting technology has become dated: “maybe they were god long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors.”

This is the attitude that led Hulskes to create the platform for those to share open source technology.

Wevolver is focusing on the open sourcing of hardware rather than software, but the latter is growing at equally fast rates with giants such a Microsoft, and even Apple, working with open source software.

There are companies who will be closed for a long time to come; the best example will probably be Apple

For hardware, he said that the feedback of others is a big part of the development process and Wevolver allows the creators to re-upload the projects they have worked on and made changes to.

So, if you download and 3D print a robotic hand but find a problem with it, you can fix it and re-upload it. Or, if you want to change the hand to be able to perform a different task you can also do this.

There’s also no reason why this can’t work with companies who want to develop their own creations and use the hivemind of those who are experts but not employed to work for the company.

As Hulskes puts it, “you will get this whole research and development department for free around your product”.

Musk also reflected this sentiment when he said “applying the open source philosophy to our patents” would increase the quality of engineers Tesla could attract.

While it is important to make as much technology available to as many people as possible, the open source movement becomes truly exciting when it makes visible the impact it can have on people’s lives.

Wevolver’s most prolific project to date shows how those in the open source movement combine technologies and ideas to advance learning and also help individuals.

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Images courtesy of Wevolver.

The Inmoov robot, which can be 3D printed but has no legs (yet), has been combined with the open source Segway to create a movable robot.

Under the banner of ‘Robots for Good’ a fully assembled robot, combined with an Oculus Rift, is going to be used to allow children in London’s Great Ormond Street hospital to explore the city’s zoo without having to leave their hospital room.

What makes it more innovative is that other school children from London will be creating the robot after downloading the files and instructions from Wevolver.

Since the project was announced Hulskes said there has been interest to replicate the robot from Brazil, the US and more.

“It will be really cool if we get these robots across he globe as the kids in London can log in in New York, or they can login in Brazil and see the zoo there.”

The robot also has potential for bigger steps and achievements. “The next step would be connecting the whole project to disabled people so they can they can even go and walk on the streets. So that is the long-term vision.”

As leaders of big corporations sitting on thousands of patents see what individuals and makers can do with their technology, the willingness to open up will increase.

For this realisation to happen, however, there need to be more projects like Robots for Good, and more options to download and create technology.

Soviet report detailing lunar rover Lunokhod-2 released for first time

Russian space agency Roskosmos has released an unprecedented scientific report into the lunar rover Lunokhod-2 for the first time, revealing previously unknown details about the rover and how it was controlled back on Earth.

The report, written entirely in Russian, was originally penned in 1973 following the Lunokhod-2 mission, which was embarked upon in January of the same year. It had remained accessible to only a handful of experts at the space agency prior to its release today, to mark the 45th anniversary of the mission.

Bearing the names of some 55 engineers and scientists, the report details the systems that were used to both remotely control the lunar rover from a base on Earth, and capture images and data about the Moon’s surface and Lunokhod-2’s place on it. This information, and in particularly the carefully documented issues and solutions that the report carries, went on to be used in many later unmanned missions to other parts of the solar system.

As a result, it provides a unique insight into this era of space exploration and the technical challenges that scientists faced, such as the low-frame television system that functioned as the ‘eyes’ of the Earth-based rover operators.

A NASA depiction of the Lunokhod mission. Above: an image of the rover, courtesy of NASA, overlaid onto a panorama of the Moon taken by Lunokhod-2, courtesy of Ruslan Kasmin.

One detail that main be of particular interest to space enthusiasts and experts is the operation of a unique system called Seismas, which was tested for the first time in the world during the mission.

Designed to determine the precise location of the rover at any given time, the system involved transmitting information over lasers from ground-based telescopes, which was received by a photodetector onboard the lunar rover. When the laser was detected, this triggered the emission of a radio signal back to the Earth, which provided the rover’s coordinates.

Other details, while technical, also give some insight into the culture of the mission, such as the careful work to eliminate issues in the long-range radio communication system. One issue, for example, was worked on with such thoroughness that it resulted in one of the devices using more resources than it was allocated, a problem that was outlined in the report.

The document also provides insight into on-Earth technological capabilities of the time. While it is mostly typed, certain mathematical symbols have had to be written in by hand, and the report also features a number of diagrams and graphs that have been painstakingly hand-drawn.

A hand-drawn graph from the report, showing temperature changes during one of the monitoring sessions during the mission

Lunokhod-2 was the second of two unmanned lunar rovers to be landed on the Moon by the Soviet Union within the Lunokhod programme, having been delivered via a soft landing by the unmanned Luna 21 spacecraft in January 1973.

In operation between January and June of that year, the robot covered a distance of 39km, meaning it still holds the lunar distance record to this day.

One of only four rovers to be deployed on the lunar surface, Lunokhod-2 was the last rover to visit the Moon until December 2013, when Chinese lunar rover Yutu made its maiden visit.

Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.