Tag Archives: freeio

The State of Free Hardware for Robotics

SERB Robot, CC photo by flickr user oomlout

FreeIO.org is currently running a poll to determine what sort of free hardware project the community would most like to see developed. At present the poll is leaning heavily towards robots. So I thought it would be worthwhile to do a quick survey of existing free/open hardware robot projects to see what there is to work with and improve on. There are a lot of FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) robotics projects out there too but this article will focus on hardware projects that are under free hardware licenses. See the FreeIO.org “about page” to learn more about the concepts of free / open hardware.

I’ve attempted to list the projects roughly in chronological order by the project’s creation date. To qualify for this list, a project needs several attributes: 1) it must be a complete mobile robot, not just part of a robot such as a manipulator arm 2) the hardware design documents (e.g. CAD files, schematics, etc) must be available under a free license (i.e. a license that protects the user’s basic freedoms – licenses with commercial-use restrictions are NOT free/open licenses, 3) at least one working robot must have been developed and demonstrated. Projects that are in the planning stages didn’t make the list as we’d like to see well-proven designs that have been well-tested in the real world.

Read on for the full list of free/open hardware robot designs!

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Electronics and Embedded Design Books

Here’s a quick status update on the site. I’ve started revising the old resource pages, beginning with the Books and References page. Most of the books listed were out of print or old editions, so I’ve started replacing them with comparable books that are currently available. The list is pretty short at present, I’d love to get some input on recommended books you’d consider essential for an open hardware designer. Post a comment below and let me know what to add. Some CC or GFDL licensed ebooks would be really nice if anyone knows of any.

Also, I’ve put up a poll to get some input on what sort of Open Hardware project readers are most interested in seeing. This first poll is to find a general direction for a project and once we get enough input, I’ll put up another to narrow down some features. You can find the poll in the right column of page. If you haven’t picked an option yet, please do.

How Open Hardware will Take Over the World

Nathan Seidle of SparkFun gave an interesting talk at TEDxBoulder about the open hardware business model SparkFun has and offers it as a better model than the innovation-stifling models that rely on patents to suppress competition. It’s a great example of a successful business based on copyleft principles, showing that it’s possible to make money while still protecting the user’s freedoms.

Welcome Back to FreeIO.org!

Today marks the official relaunch of FreeIO.org’s website! When Marty founded the site back in March of 2000, he envisioned it as the center of a community interested in hardware freedom. He contributed to that community by developing some of the early free hardware designs and releasing them on this site under the GNU GPL. Marty’s designs were perhaps best know for his unique penchant of naming each board after a different breakfast treat.

Marty passed away on October 25, 2007. But before he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, Marty passed on all his hardware prototypes, development gear, and this website to me. I’m Steve, better known as Steevithak online. I’ve kept Marty’s original FreeIO.org website intact and online since then, while I pondered what to do with it.

The time has come to get things rolling again and I’m starting with a relaunch of the website. Marty’s free hardware designs are still here and hopefully we’ll find volunteers to work on new hardware projects to add. I’ll also start updating the resource pages to make them more useful again. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to make the site more immediately useful by aggregating all the free hardware and open hardware news, so members of the open hardware community can have one central place to find out what’s going on.

We’re tracking news from the Open Source Hardware User Group, the Open Source Hardware Association, the Open Source Hardware and Design Alliance, and Open Collector. I’m also following blogs for major open source hardware projects like Arduino and Raspberry Pi. To round it out, we’ll have postings of general interest to hardware hackers such as application notes and new product releases from component vendors. If you can think of any cool free/open hardware blogs or news sources we should add, post a comment below. In fact, comments of any sort on how we can make the website more useful to the community are welcome.

FreeIO Updates

Despite the lack of news updates lately, things are still slowly moving forward. I went through the site recently doing minor updates. I created a memorial page about Marty. I’m still looking for ideas about what the site should become and how we can best help the free hardware movement. I’m still looking for volunteers who’d like to work on free hardware projects. While I’m not much of an electronics engineer, I think I can improve the website itself and find new ways to use it to promote free hardware. As always, suggestions are welcome.

Diehl Martin RIP

For those who weren’t aware, Marty passed away today. He made his last entry in his cancer blog on 25 Oct. Monica updated the blog on the 27th, saying “Diehl Martin passed away this morning at about 5:00, very quickly, in his beloved Monica’s arms.” I’ll continue to keep the FreeIO.org website online.

Toast is Toast

It’s been a while since the last update, so I thought I’d better let people know that we haven’t forgotten about freeio.org. Ed Paradis and I played with the Toast prototype boards for some time but finally concluded it was best to leave the Toast project in its deprecated state. We ran into some minor memory issues that Marty suggested could be due to a hardware bug. We also decided that the limited availability of the parts used in the design just make it impractical to continue working with. We’re contemplating what the next step should be. The idea of designing an inexpensive free microcontroller is still appealing. Suggestions are welcome.

Whither the Toast?

Marty sent me a couple of boxes filled with FreeIO prototypes, documentation, and other goodies. As part of the process of evaluating which projects to focus on in the future, I’ve been looking at which project pages seem to get the most hits. Right now the Donut and Toast boards seem to be the most popular. Because of the interest in the Toast board, I’ve decided to take a look resurrecting the project from its deprecated status. I’ve passed one of the prototype boards along with a BDM cable and some other tools to Ed Paradis of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group. If we can verify that the prototype board boots linux, we’ll try to provide a kernel image and cross tool chain (and move the project back to active status). So far, Ed has been able to power up the board and communicate with it using the BDM cable. We’re currently trying to verify that we can read and write to the Flash memory. If anyone out there has any prior experience with a Toast board, either Marty’s prototype boards or one that you fabricated yourself, I’d love to hear from you. Meanwhile, you can keep up with Marty’s status by following the almost daily updates in his cancer blog.

Hi folks!

Marty and I are in the process of transitioning FreeIO.org over to my care. I’m more of a software person than a hardware guru like Marty but I maintain a few other websites like robots.net, free3d.org, and the Dallas Personal Robotics Group so handling the website portion of things is right up my alley. Marty continues to have full access to the site and will continue to take part as much as he’s able. I don’t have any major changes in mind for the immediate future. My main goal is to make sure that Marty’s hardware designs continue to be freely available online. Beyond that, I have hopes that we can find volunteers to continue the work on some of the existing projects and maybe get a few new hardware projects started as well. I’m open to any suggestions and comments on the future direction of the website. steve@ncc.com


The FreeIO.org site is now being managed by Steve Rainwater, and served from Network Cybernetics Corporation. Marty may come around now and then, as he is able.


Due to pancreatic cancer, Marty will no longer be able to continue developing and releasing new hardware designs on FreeIO.org. The site will be left up, and it should run until the domain registration expires, or the server dies.

Marty (Diehl Martin) has run this site alone since Winter of 2000. He financed all of the projects, and hosted the site at his own expense since then. He has been fighting pancreatic cancer since September of 2004, and the cancer seems to be winning. As such, he is putting his energies elsewhere. For an insight in to what is going on in Marty’s life, visit his personal web page at diehlmartin.com/cancer.html.

GNU/Linux Topics Area Added

I have added an area where various GNU/Linux Topics will be placed. The first of these have to do with installing and running GNU/Linux on a Sun workstation. These industrial-strength systems are available so very inexpensively on the auction sites that it seemed good to show off their easy conversion to running GNU/Linux. Other topics will be added as I get around to writing them up.

Donut USB Interface Development Board

The first of the promised USB development boards has been released. The Donut Board is designed to be an easily expandable board on which to breadboard USB interfaces, in order to ease the development of USB-based devices. The Donut board is based on the Freescale (formerly Motorola) MC68HC908JB8 microcontroller, which has an integrated USB interface, and into which custom built firmware can be downloaded in order to customize the USB interface to user needs. GNU/Linux-based software to control the USB interface from the PC end of the USB link is also under development, based on the great articles by Greg Kroah-Hartman, published during 2004 in Linux Journal.

Site Changes and Other News

Marty has finally completed the course of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and once again feels well enough to do development, both of new hardware and also of the FreeIO.org website itself. Site updates are necessary, as links have changed and web standards have evolved. New web development is being done using the nvu tools, which make good clean html which passes the current correctness tests. You may be assured that there will continue to be no flash, java, javascript, or cookies here. Some old pages will remain unchanged for a while, as there is no pressing reason to revisit them for now. The hardware/firmware/software development is far too interesting to spend too much time in html development!

One more minor thing is worth mentioning. We have had such abysmal problems with web hosts, that we are how hosting this site internally. It is being served off of an old Sun Ultra-5 running GNU/Linux and Apache, using a business DSL line. Any slowdown you may see is due to DSL bandwidth limiting, as the old 270 MHz Sun running apache/linux can completely fill a 100x faster pipe serving static pages like this.