Stephen Murphey is a [DIY Space Technology Evangelist ]researching how the Open Source and Maker Movement will revolutionize the space industry. The Open Innovation Program has invited him to share his insights on open standards and their role in the aerospace industry leading up to him sharing more during the International Space Apps Challenge.
Open Standards available for everyone to use in the space industry are the best way to reduce costs, improve safety and keeping making ground breaking innovations. One of the best known successes in “Open Standards for Space” are cubesats, those tiny little spacecraft built on a common platform that have become a favorite among the DIY Space community.
Making spacecraft Cheaper and Easier to Build
I’ll be the first to admit that Cubesats aren’t perfect. They’re tiny, limited in the kinds of missions they can perform (functions are improving every day though) and getting a ride to orbit is still prohibitively expensive and difficult. But they are an order of magnitude cheaper and easier to design, build and launch because they are built on Open Standards. Because anyone can build upon the platform, thousands of people have found innovative uses for them and a few have built companies to sell the hardware to do so. If the Cubesat design and remained on some engineers shelf as closely held intellectual property, none of this would have happened.
Open Standards also enable cost reductions through mass production of hardware. Because we’re not “reinventing the wheel” with each new spacecraft and instead building them based on predefined and proven components…each spacecraft is cheaper to build. Fortunately, we’re starting to see this all across the space industry. Companies like Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences and Lockheed Martin are building spacecraft based on common designs. Unfortunately, those designs are usually based on proprietary knowledge and are not shared with the wider community. This does make business sense, after all why would a company willingly share knowledge they’ve spent years and millions of dollars creating?
Because it will make those designs better while growing the industry.
Open Standards Improve Products
Think of it this way. Which product is more likely to remain competitive and low cost? A design that is supported and tested by thousands of experts or a design that is supported by a few dozen (all of whom are on the payroll)?
One of the best known examples is the software industry. Many software startups were built on what is referred to as “LAMP stack” - Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. The software was free, proven and supported by a community of tens of thousands of programmers that were improving it every day. There was no possible way a proprietary piece of software could remain competitive and so value moved higher up the foodchain. Instead of making money building database software, a company had to make something valuable with database software. Because companies could focus on building amazing services with the software rather than building the infrastructure to get started, new companies were born. Companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and many others.
But Hardware is Different, Right?
At this point you’re probably thinking that hardware is different. The market is smaller and building stuff actually costs money, unlike software which can be replicated for free. Then let me introduce you to Makerbot, the company credited with ushering in the consumer 3D printer revolution.
But Makerbot didn’t invent the 3D printer. Their first design “cupcake” was based on RepRap, a Open Source Hardware design supported by the community. While anyone could download the RepRap design and build their own, it was limited to a small group of people with the skills to actually build a printer from scratch. Makerbot modified the design to make it easier to manufacture and use, sold it as an “easy to build” kit and provided customer support. This opened up 3D printing to a larger audience who were interested but couldn’t afford a commercial version or have the skills to build one themselves. All made possible because the initial “Open Standard” of 3D printing was made available.
What Comes Next?
Do I actually expect companies like Boeing to share their proprietary designs? Nope. Instead what I think will happen is exactly what happened with Cubesats. A small group of people will create a design and share it because a) they can’t profit by keeping it secret and b) they want to improve the design by getting feedback from others and don’t have the money to improve it alone.
This scenario is becoming more common every day thanks to cheap computers, design software, access to manufacturing tools (Techshop is a great example of this) and free knowledge sharing made possible by the Internet.
Best of all, Open Standards mean that everyone can get involved. Want to improve the Cubesat design or make a better 3D printed rocket engine? You don’t need to ask permission or pay someone to get started.
So what are you waiting for?
(Banner image is courtesy of Steve Jurvetson under Creative Commons)