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Open-source Hardware Certification

By Cameron Norris. Posted

As the open-source hardware (OSH) community continues to gather momentum, this article explores what it means to be 'OSHWA certified', as well as how a little-known group of amateur radio enthusiasts helped to launch this exciting movement.

Since the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) launched their highly anticipated certification program in 2016, it has attracted more than 250 successful applicants from 30 different countries.

“If you think about food being certified organic or fair trade, it provides an easy to distinguish and understand label for something meeting certain quality criteria,” explains Sebastian Pichelhofer of the OSHWA-certified AXIOM project in Austria.

Pichelhofer has spent the past eleven years developing a cinema-quality OSH camera, and he firmly believes that a clear quality label to guarantee ‘genuine’ OSH is necessary to prevent abuse of the term as the popularity and awareness of open-source continues to grow.

“That’s why we were one of the first projects to apply for the OSHWA open hardware certificate and still carry it with pride,” he says.

OSHWA Certification is Free

OSHWA themselves agree with Pichelhofer's sentiment. “In many cases, creators would label their hardware as being open-source, and use the open gear logo without complying with the community definition,” explains OSHWA Board President, Michael Weinberg. “The Certification programme makes it easy to identify hardware that fully complies with the community definition of OSH.”

In a nutshell, hardware creators who join the programme are required to enter a legally binding contract that requires certified projects to comply with the community definition of OSH. Only then can the project be assigned a unique identifier and be included in OSHWA’s searchable list of OSH.

“I think the OSHWA and its certification is a great initiative,” says Tønnes Nygaard, a PhD candidate developing ‘evolutionary robotics’ at the University of Oslo. “I always have a lot of people asking about it when presenting at scientific conferences or maker faires, and displaying the logo with our robot clearly shows that anyone can make, use, or modify our project for their own needs, as well as signifying that we fully support the open-source movement.”

Nygaard’s project is a four-legged research robot designed to change the length of its legs while still in operation. “Building a robot like we have comes with a lot of challenges, and hopefully, some of our solutions can be used by others to make their work a bit easier.”

The DyRET robot is a certified open source hardware project, which means all software and hardware design can be found available on Tønnes’ Github page: https://github.com/dyret-robot/dyret_documentation

As a PhD candidate, Nygaard is used to sharing his experiments and findings through scientific publications, but these publications do not traditionally include much of the background engineering involved in the research.

Going open-source enables Nygaard to close this gap by sharing physical designs, electronics, software, and documentation in a meaningful way.

“Science is all about discovering and spreading knowledge, so I see this as a natural extension of that,” he says. “Open-source is already a huge part of the maker world, and we are trying our best to expand its use in the scientific community as well.”

The open hardware logo designed by Macklin Chaffee in 2011. Credit: Open Source Hardware Association

Open Exchange Of Designs

At the last Open Hardware Summit in 2018, OSHWA announced version 2.0 of their OSH Certification programme, “with a new website, a new directory, and lots of new resources for learning about OSH.”

The new website even includes case studies from the community to help illustrate the best practices for compliance with the community definition of OSH, making it, “easy to be sure that you have provided all of the information needed for someone else to make use of your hardware and removed any legal barriers to use it,” says Weinberg.

For those interested in joining the certification program, Nygaard had a few words of advice. “When it comes to open-sourcing a project, a very important part that people often miss is the documentation. It doesn’t help if all the design and code is available if it is too hard to start using or modifying it. Writing documentation can take a while, but it’s a great investment for the community,” he says.

Pichelhofer's advice was a lot briefer but no less relevant. “Do it!” he told me with a smile emoji.

To find out more about the OSHWA Certi cation programme visit: certification.oshwa.org

Header photo: The Dyret robot during a “real world” test outside the University of Oslo, credit: Tønnes Nygaard, University of Oslo

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