Dangerous Prototypes: An Open Source Hardware Project A Month

Dangerous Prototypes is a two-year old organization with the stated mission of producing "one new open source project every month." In its nearly two years in existence, DP has created about 30 projects, such as the Flash Destroyer. All are being sold by another interesting company, Seeed Studio. Seeed is a contract manufacturing/sales channel for hire. It helps hardware designers get their ideas manufactured in China and sold worldwide. Intrigued, we contacted DP's head honcho, Ian Lesnet (who tells us his official title is Internet Troll), and picked his brain a little about his company, which is based in Muscatine, Iowa, but is really "run by loose network of paid and unpaid contributors all around the world," he says.

Dangerous Prototypes' Flash Destroyer tests the limits of solid state storage by writing and verifying a common EEPROM chip, rated for 1 million writes, until it burns out.

Q: What were you doing before you launched DP? Was it finding Seeed Studio that prompted you to go into business for yourself?

I've been making things and writing about them for years. I published projects at SourceForge and Instructables, then later as a paid contributor at DIY Life and Hack a Day. Seeed Studio came along and said they could make one of my projects that was quite popular in quantities as low as 20. I didn't think it would sell 20, but we set up a pre-sale as a fundraiser for the Hack a Day blog to give it a shot. It was a lot of fun, so I started Dangerous Prototypes for future projects.

It wouldn't be possible to get my projects without Seeed. I'd still make them, but only diehard hackers would build them. Seeed makes it possible for anyone to get a copy.

Q: How old is DP? How many people work for it?

We're just about to finish year two. A huge amount of work is contributed by the community. The bug reports, design reviews, and code contributions of all sizes that are possible with open source. There's about eight paid contributors at any given time doing technical things, on server and office stuff.

Q: DP has a mission of launching "a new open source hardware" project every month. Do you mean that you are creating new projects and releasing the design as "open source? Or do you mean that you are using others' open source designs to create actual hardware products ... or both?

We design and document original projects and release them under open source licenses. Mostly. The Logic Sniffer was a partnership with the Gadget Factory. A few future projects will be our interpretation of another circuit, but always a scratch re-make, and only if the original designer is totally cool with that.

When you think about open hardware keep in mind that only the files that contain the design are copyright. You can't copyright the actual circuit. Any design can simply be remade, no matter the license of the original. If someone wants to make something, there's little that can stop them.

Q: Tell me more about the Open Bench Logic Sniffer. What's its claim to fame?

Chips talk to each other through wires. A logic analyzer records the activity and displays it on a pretty graph something like this.

Once you see what's going on, it's a lot easier to find problems in a circuit. The Logic Sniffer was developed with the Gadget Factory. It is not only open source, it is the cheapest analyzer out there with reasonably high recording speeds.

Q: So far, have you actually launched a new product every month?

About. (Projects/Months)>=1, but sometimes it flows and sometimes it trickles. Sourcing problems and production delays make releases unpredictable. Sometimes a lot of stuff drops at once. Some months there's nothing. It averages out though.

Q: What resources/communities do you use to find/share/get help with your open source hardware projects?

I always turn to the forum when I have a problem. If something is really dragging on we post it on the blog and maybe offer a prize for a solution. Some projects get posted at Instructables if they're general interest enough. We do weekly PCB giveaways on Facebook and Twitter. Our only real advertising is when our projects get posted on blogs like Make, Hacked Gadgets, and Slashdot. [And, if we must say so ourselves, Hothardware.com.]

Q: Who is buying your projects so far? Hobbyists? Are they used in any commercial projects?

Hobbyists, students, engineers, hackers, software developers, and more. We make a lot of geeky tools, but we also have general appeal stuff like a USB remote control receiver for computers. We hear from engineers in lots of household-name software, Internet, and hardware companies that use our tools. I don't know if those companies are actually providing that hardware. I wouldn't call it an endorsement.

Copies of our projects are available at Seeed, and clones and knock-offs are made by several companies. A couple things might be used as part of a packaged product soon, too.

Q: If the hardware is open source, and the manufacturing and the sales is done through Seeed, what does DP do to keep customers buying its wares and not just making it themselves?

Stop them? We encourage it! We even help. All our extra PCBs, even for upcoming projects, are available for free from our 'free PCB drawer' store. I want smart, talented people to build our projects. They share their experience and insight, show off their work at hacker spaces, and generally make Dangerous Prototype possible. The DIY builders are valued community members. 

We're not just open source, we're also open development. All our in-progress work is publicly available to anyone. It helps get valuable design review, and sometimes the community will build and verify a project before we get to it. We strive to be the opensourcyist.

Q: How many products has DP produced and is shipping so far? Is this the full list?   

That's most of the stuff that has actually been shipped, probably close to 30 things so far. There's a few projects that had short runs on another page, and some of the listings have multiple sub-projects and multiple versions. There's also a bunch of projects we released but didn't sell: Abandoned Projects. And new projects that are in development, or just for fun, but not (yet) for sale: In Development.

Q: So tell me about some of the other interesting projects DP has created. What would someone use an USB Infrared Toy for?

Plug it into a computer USB port and command the computer with an infrared remote control. It also has lots of fun geeky functions - it can show a remote control signal on a logic analyzer graph, and replay it to control TVs, DVRs, etc.

Q: The Web Platform is described as a "tiny server" ... is it actually a server? What kind of CPU? Does it have any storage/memory?

It is a starting point for designing things that need Internet access. It has a 16bit CPU with 8K of RAM and runs at 80MHz, a microSD card is used for storage. The software can be changed over USB. The community uses it for lots of stuff, everything from home automation to remote weather stations.

One firmware does make it a tiny web page server that loads pages from an SD card. The web pages might show live sensor readings or have buttons that control stuff. It's not meant to serve web pages to lots of users though.

We use the web platform for our interactive internet projects. Last year you could choose the color of our Christmas tree lights from Twitter, it was a spectacular light show. Right now we're using it to print all our Twitter @mentions on a cash register receipt printer.

Q: Are you creating all of these boards on your own, or are you also assisting other engineers get their ideas to market?

We generally do 100% original in-house designs. An exception is the the Logic Sniffer which was co-developed with the Gadget Factory.

Q: If someone had an idea for board they wanted to build and sell, would they go to you ... or to Seeed?

If you have a completed project, Seeed has a service called Propagate for manufacturing small quantities (100+) of open source hardware. If you need help working out some bugs in your prototype, Dangerous Prototypes had a fantastic community that will try to help in the forums. We're always open to project ideas and suggestions too, but we don't do custom engineering.