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February 15 2013

Masking the complexity of the machine

The Internet has thrived on abstraction and modularity. Web services hide their complexity behind APIs and standardized protocols, and these clean interfaces make it easy to turn them into modules of larger systems that can take advantage of the most intelligent solution to each of many problems.

The Internet revolutionized the software-software interface; the industrial Internet will revolutionize the software-machine interface and, in doing so, will make machines more accessible. I’m using “access” very broadly here — interfaces will make machines accessible to innovators who aren’t necessarily experts in physical machinery, in the same way that the Google Maps API makes interactive mapping an accessible feature to developers who aren’t expert cartographers and front-end developers. And better access for people who write software means wider applications for those machines.

I’ve recently encountered a couple of widely different examples that illustrate this idea. These come from very different places — an aerospace manufacturer that has built strong linkages between airplanes and software, and an advanced enthusiast who has built new controllers for a pair of industrial robots — but they both involve the development of interfaces that make machines accessible.

The Centaur, built by Aurora Flight Sciences, is an optionally-piloted aircraft: it can be flown remotely, as a drone, or by a certified pilot sitting in the plane, which satisfies U.S. restrictions against domestic drone use. Customers include defense agencies and scientists, who might need a technician onboard to monitor equipment in some cases but in others send the plane on long trips well beyond a human’s comfort and safety limitations.

John Langford, Aurora’s founder, described his company’s work to me and in the process offered a terrific characterization of what the industrial Internet does: “We’re masking the complexity of the machine.”

The intelligence that Aurora layers onto its planes reduces the entire flight process to an API. The Centaur can even be flown from the pilot’s seat in the plane through the remote-operator control. In other words, Aurora has so comprehensively captured the mechanism of flight in its software that a pilot might as well fly the airplane he’s sitting in through the digital pipeline rather than directly through the flight deck’s physical links.

A highly-evolved interface between airplane and its software means that the software can draw insight from the plane, reading control settings as well as sensors to improve its piloting performance. “An experienced human pilot might have [flown] 10,000 to 20,000 hours,” says Langford. “We already have operating systems that have hundreds of thousands of flying hours on them. Every anomaly gets built into the memory of the system. As the systems learn, you only have to see something once in order to know how to respond. The [unmanned aircraft] has flight experience that no human pilot will ever build up in his lifetime.”

The simplified interface between humans and the Centaur’s combined machinery and software might eventually make flight vastly more accessible. “What we think the robotic revolution really does is remove operating an air vehicle from the priesthood that it’s part of today, and makes it accessible to people with lower levels of training,” he says.

Trammell Hudson's PUMA robotic arm setup at NYC Resistor, with laptop running kinematics library, homemade controller stack, and robot.Trammell Hudson's PUMA robotic arm setup at NYC Resistor, with laptop running kinematics library, homemade controller stack, and robot.

Trammell Hudson's PUMA robotic arm setup at NYC Resistor, with laptop running kinematics library, homemade controller stack, and robot.

I saw a different kind of revolutionary accessibility at work when I visited Trammell Hudson at NYC Resistor, a hardware collective in Brooklyn. I came across Hudson through a blog post he wrote detailing his rehabilitation of a pair of industrial robots — reverse-engineering their controls and building his own new controller stack in place of the PLCs that had operated them before they were salvaged from a factory with wire cutters.

“The arm itself has no smarts — just motors and quadrature encoders,” he says. (Even the arm’s current position is stored in the controller’s memory, not the robot’s.) Hudson had to write his own smarts for the robot, from scratch — intelligence that, when the robot was new, resided in purpose-built controllers the size of mini-fridges but that today can be built from open-source software libraries and run on an inexpensive microprocessor.

The robot’s kinematics — the spatial intelligence that decides how to get the robot’s hand from one place to another by repositioning six different joints — run on Hudson’s laptop. He’s interested in building those mathematical models directly into a controller that could be built from widely-available parts by anyone else with a similar robot, which could give second lives to thousands of high-quality industrial automation components by taking discarded machines and assigning new intelligence to them.

“The hardware itself is very durable,” Hudson told me. “The software is where the interesting things are happening, and the controllers age very rapidly.

Hudson’s remarkable feat of Saturday-afternoon electrical engineering was made possible by open-source microcontrollers, software libraries, and hardware interfaces (and, naturally, his own ingenuity). But he told me the most important factor in the success of his project was the rise of an online community that has an extraordinarily specialized and sophisticated understanding of electronics. “The ease of finding information now is incredible,” he said. “Some guy posted the correct voltage for releasing the arm’s brake, and I was able to find it in a few minutes and avoid damaging anything.”

“We went through a white-collar dark ages in the 1980s,” Hudson said. “People stopped building things. No one took shop class.” Now hardware components, abstracted and modularized, have become accessible to anyone with a technical mindset, who can improve the physical world by writing more intelligence onto it.

In an earlier reverse-engineering project, Hudson wrote his own firmware, which became Magic Lantern, for Canon’s 5D Mark II digital SLR camera. “I have a 4 by 5 [inch] camera from the 1890s — with my Canon 5D Mark II attached to the back,” he says. “The hardware on the old camera is still working fine, but the software on the 5D is way better than chemical film.”


This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

February 07 2013

DIY robotic hands and wells that text (industrial Internet links)

Two makers come together to make a robotic hand for a boy in South Africa (TechCrunch) — The maker movement is adjacent to the industrial Internet, and it’s growing fast as a rich source of innovative thinking wherever machines and software meet. In this case, Ivan Owen and Richard Van As built a robotic hand for a South African five-year-old who was born missing fingers on his right hand. Owen is an automation technician and Van As is a tradesman. They did their work on a pair of donated MakerBots — evidence that design for machines and the physical world at large is more accessible than ever to bright enthusiasts from lots of different backgrounds. The designers even open-sourced their work; the hand’s CAD files are available at Thingiverse. Owen and Van As are running a Fundly campaign; more information is available at their Web site.

WellDone — Utilities in the developed world use remote monitoring widely to keep far-flung equipment running smoothly, but their model is tough to apply in places where communications infrastructure is thin, though. This initiative has adapted the philosophy of the industrial Internet to the infrastructure that’s available: SMS text messaging. WellDone is installing water-flow sensors at local wells that send flow data by SMS to a cloud database. The system will alert local technicians when it detects anomalies in water flows, and the information it gathers will inform future data-driven development projects.

Manufacturing’s Next Chapter (AtlanticLIVE) — I’m visiting this conference in Washington, D.C. today; it’s also being live-streamed at The Atlantic‘s Web site. At 2:35pm Eastern Time and at 3:25pm, panelists will talk about the effect of technology on industry and the rise of advanced manufacturing.

Electricity Data Browser (U.S. Energy Information Administration) — The EIA has made its vast database of detailed electricity statistics available through an integrated interactive portal. The EIA has also built an API that opens more than 400,000 data series available to developers and analysts.


This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

January 25 2013

Why we spun out Maker Media

Today, O’Reilly Media announced that we have spun out Maker Media into a separate company. I want to give a bit of background on why we did this, and what we think the opportunity is for the new Maker Media company.

The arc from enthusiast to entrepreneur

Many of the most interesting technologies of the next decade will involve innovations in hardware, not just software. The Maker movement, like all enthusiast movements, is a harbinger of deeper change.

What Dale Dougherty first recognized in 2005 when he published Make: Magazine and began Maker Faire was that there was a new upwelling of interest in making things, embracing everything from new technologies like 3D printing and other forms of advanced manufacturing, robotics, sensor platforms, to crafting and older hands-on technologies. The early projects in the magazine — aerial photography with kites, a programmable cat feeder made out of an old VCR, hacked robot dogs sniffing out environmental toxins — may have seemed trivial at the time, but they were a sign of things to come.

In 2005, Jeff Han’s work with multitouch interfaces was a maker project at NYU. In February 2006, when he demoed his work at TED, it was a WOW moment. A year and a half later, with the release of the iPhone, the multitouch screen was the foundation of a transformative consumer product.

Multitouch was just the beginning. Smart phones are sensor platforms: GPS, compass, accelerometer, camera, microphone, and dozens more specialized sensors create new possibilities for application design that are only now being exploited more fully. Applications like Square Wallet and Uber are only possible because of these platforms.

The problem is that, as has often been said about AI as well, as soon as something crosses over into the consumer realm, it’s no longer seen as “makerish.” When Nike is selling quantified self devices, when your bathroom scale tweets your weight, it’s hard to see this as part of the Maker movement. Yet thinking about how much further we have to go in applying sensors to transform applications and business processes will help you see important opportunities that you might otherwise miss.

A sensor and control platform like Arduino still seems to belong to the Maker universe, but an application that uses the consumer sensor platform of a smart phone does not. But this is the very heart of the distinction that will help you to see the future more clearly.

To understand the trend line of the Maker movement, ask yourself “What are makers playing with today that has already become mainstream? What other kinds of devices and business processes can be transformed by the additions of sensors? What are the opportunities here for startups?”

When you ask yourself these questions, and then look around, you will realize that the Maker movement is the next big thing.

As a result, we decided it was time to create Maker Media as a standalone vehicle to ride this new wave of innovation. Dale Dougherty, my partner from the early days of O’Reilly, and the creator of both Make magazine and Maker Faire, was the one who recognized this wave coming, and has nurtured it for the last seven years. Now, he has a platform to continue his work and take it to the next level.

Below, a few thoughts from Dale about the origins of Make, and where he wants to take Maker Media.


Making becomes popular

Thoughts from Dale Dougherty

I first mentioned the idea for MAKE Magazine to Tim in a cab in Portland. We were heading to the Open Source Conference and I had a few minutes to pitch him on a magazine that I said would be “Martha Stewart for Geeks.”  We had a good conversation, talking about how hackers were hacking the physical world, applying a mindset learned from developing software to customize, personalize and create physical environments. Tim’s encouragement was the initial step in developing what would become MAKE Magazine. I certainly had no idea that many years later we’d be talking about a global Maker movement. Indeed, what has happened is simultaneously that making and the geeks behind it have broken into the mainstream. Making is now popular.

From the beginning, I was fascinated by makers. I enjoyed meeting makers, getting to know their stories, and seeing firsthand the amazing projects they were doing. I realized that makers would enjoy meeting each other and talking about their projects, sharing the kinds of details that they were able to share with me. That was the inspiration for Maker Faire, and I wondered at the time if other people would find makers as fascinating as I did. Maker Faire was really an experiment to find out. A team headed by Sherry Huss organized the first Maker Faire in the Bay Area, and we chose to hold it at a fairgrounds/expo center. We wanted Maker Faire to be fun and we wanted families to come. We re-invented the fair. In 2012, there were over 60 Maker Faires around the world, most of them organized by community-minded individuals who wanted to support and promote making in their city or region.

While MAKE started out with geek hobbyists, the audience now includes families who look for fun, educational projects to do together. It also includes makers who are developing new products and services for other makers and other audiences. It includes professional engineers and industrial designers. Makers have become entrepreneurs, sometimes accidentally, by discovering there’s a market for what they do. They build components and kits, and we sell them in Maker Shed, and many other places. They create tools such as 3D printers and CNC machines and microcontrollers. Makers have created a new market ecosystem.

MIT economist Michael Schrage, who wrote an article for MAKE’s Kits issue on kits as an engine of innovation, has a new book called Who Do You Want Your Customers To Become?*  He writes that the best innovation transforms your customers. It engages them in “reimagining, redefining, and redesigning” their future. The mission of Maker Media is to help more people become makers, and participate broadly in making a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.

I’m excited by the opportunity for Maker Media and its team. I’m grateful to Tim, Laura Baldwin, my colleagues at O’Reilly and the extended O’Reilly community for supporting the growth of MAKE. I look forward to developing this new edition of MAKE, and expanding the reach of MAKE as a global brand that brings makers together.

* (Schrage, Michael (2012-07-17). Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? (Kindle Location 57). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.)

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