Analysis: Willow Garage Makes TurtleBot Hardware Open Source
Can hobbyists and weekend DIYers spark a robotics revolution?
By Mark Ingebretsen, Editor, Robotics Trends - Filed May 26, 2011

Most of us are familiar with open source software. That is, free code, which, depending on the specific type of license, legally enables developers to create alterations.

Willow Garage has already gone the open source route with its Robotic Operating System (Read RT’s analysis of the move). Now the company has taken a significant extra step by making its $500 TurtleBot mobile robotic platform’s hardware open source.

According to a recent blog on Willow Garage’s site, what this means is that the folks at the company decided they “can best support this emerging community by publishing all the information needed to build your own TurtleBot.  Following the recently established Open Source Hardware (OSHW) definition, will make available part numbers, CAD drawings for laser-cut hardware, board layouts and schematics, and all the necessary documentation.”  

The move should encourage hobbyists and researchers to not only build copies of the platform, but to add hardware components to it, sensors, arms, a tray to deliver snacks during the Super Bowl, or whatever. This is exactly the kind of innovative spark the robotics industry needs, both within the hobbyist and educational niche and someday maybe in verticals using more technologically complex hardware.

For its part, Willow Garage hopes a vibrant community will emerge in which developers can exchange design ideas. There’s an excellent chance this will happen. That’s because the company’s move also neatly ties into the growing popularity of so-called tech shops, shared machine shops springing up around the country, where members typically pay a monthly fee to use the equipment to make stuff. Beats working alone in the basement.

Indeed, according to the blog, Next Big Future, Mike Rowe, the amiable guy from the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs series, “announced that he is trying to get a TV show developed around the theme of making things. A goal would to popularize creative personal manufacturing.” 

Dare we say it, small groups of people tinkering with stuff is an American tradition Thomas Jefferson himself applauded. And it’s a tradition that remains strong as ever today. Consider how the huge number of developers working on smart phone and tablet pc apps have built a multi-billion-dollar industry from scratch and propelled both device platforms forward at lightning speed.

Open source robotic software could do the same. But unlike tablets and phones, robots are by their very nature mechanical. Meaning: Open sourcing hardware platforms could be the ingredient needed to spark their fast-forward development. 

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