OSSG Article


Space: the final frontier for Open-source technology

Space for the few

Since the 1950s, the exploration of space has been dominated by a relatively small number of well-funded state space agencies, of which NASA is perhaps the most celebrated.

This has resulted in such spectacular achievements as the first moon walk, the numerous Shuttle missions, the exploration of Mars and the outer planets. However, the financial, human and technical risks of such projects has been exceedingly high.

During this early phase of Space exploration, national space agencies and their contractors have invested billions of dollars in developing proprietary technologies, with inevitable concerns about the safeguarding of intellectual property.

Space for the many

However, the Space sector is set to embrace a new model, based around the use of open-source technologies and data. This new spirit of collaboration has been spurred by a demand for more nations to gain access to the booming Space sector, the success of the collaborative International Space Station and the growth of relatively low cost technologies. And then of course, there has been the growing influence of the open-source movement within business, government and academia.

An evolving view is that open-source can provide a way to bring together developers, entrepreneurs, academic researchers and national agencies. Through this process, a global community has evolved, with the aim of reducing costs, sharing expertise and widening access to Space.

Open-source to the rescue

We can already see how this new more open approach to Space exploration has started to bear fruit.

For example, did you know that the NASA ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter which recently flew on the surface of Mars was built using the Linux operating system and off the shelf hardware components?

Diagram of NASA 'Ingenuity' helicoptor

Looking further towards the future, NASA have announced that their planned VIPER Lunar Rover will employ open-source software to navigate the lunar surface.

These two examples show that open-source solutions are taking on a critical role in the burgeoning new Space economy. This bold new age of ‘open space’ has created active roles for entrepreneurs, citizen scientists, universities, corporations and national agencies within this evolving business ecosystem.

Open-source in action

At this point, let’s take a quick tour of the numerous roles that the open-source software, hardware and data have come to play in the collaborative exploration of space. These contributions range in scope from small Javascript frameworks through to running vast supercomputers.

Software solutions

It should come as no surprise that NASA has emerged as major champion a champion of open-source software.  A wealth of projects are publicly accessible and NASA has even published a helpful guide to its code repository.

The European space Agency (ESA) is another active sponsor of open-source software for the Space industry. The purpose of the European Space Software Repository (ESSR) is described as follows:

ESA informational web portal was created to promote reuse of Software – including Open Source Software (OSS) – and to provide all parties involved in the European Space software development (in particular SMEs) with access to results of previous investments.

Note the stated importance of providing SMEs with access to existing open-source repositories, with the clear benefits of lower costs, working code and greater participation by smaller companies.

In addition to the ESSR repository, ESA also maintains a register of open source software, specifically for developing downstream space applications such as GNSS and Satellite Communications.

Frameworks and Libraries

A wide range of open-source programming language libraries and frameworks is available to developers . Here are just a few examples :

  • the Javascript library, spacekit.js, is an open-source JavaScript library for creating interactive 3D space visualizations
  • the Python Satellite Data Analysis Toolkit (pysat) is a package which provides a simple and flexible interface for downloading, loading, cleaning, managing, processing, and analyzing scientific measurements
  • SpacePy provides basic data analysis, modelling and visualization for the space sciences
  • Mars Simulation Project builds computer models that characterize important aspects of establishing human settlements on Mars.

Data

There is a vast amount of open-access data which relates to Astronomy and Space exploration:

  • NASA maintains an Open Data Catalogue of all data received from its spacecraft projects.
  • Asterank provides data about 600,000 Asteroids, accessible via their API
  • the “unofficial” REST API for Space X provides access to a wide range of data about Space-X missions
  • IBM’s Space Situational Awareness project seeks to use data and Machine Learning to minimise the risk of objects colliding in the increasing crowded Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) zone.

Hardware

Open source hardware designs have the potential to lower costs and widen access to cutting-edge technology. For example, the EU-funded De-RISC project aims to develop a RISC-V multicore platform and hypervisor for Space and Aeronautical applications.

Computing in Space

These days, Linux runs on most of the world’s supercomputers. But a recent NASA project led to the deployment of significant computing power in space. The Spaceborne project saw the deployment in 2017 of a HP Spaceborne computer to the International Space Station. It was build using COTS hardware and ran the Linux operating system.

The Rise of the Citizen Cosmonaut

So you have decided that you would like to get more involved in the Space sector but you don’t have billions of dollars to spend on your next project?

No worries. Cubesats are small satellites that are launched into low-earth (LEO) orbit. Their relatively affordability has made them made them a firm favourite with both students and entrepreneurs alike. Indeed, a number of early projects such as CubeSat started life as crowd-funding initiatives on Kickstarter

Cubesat technology is now big business, with conferences, workshops, formal standards, and a thriving marketplace for Cubesat technology.

If your annual Space budget is limited to $100 or less, there are still opportunities to get involved at a more modest level.

Check out initiatives such as OpenLuna or the hugely ambitious Humanity for Space.

If you are fascinated by rocketry but have not yet received an invitation to dine with Elon Musk, then Copenhagen Suborbitals might be more in your league. It claims to be the world’s only manned amateur space programme, building and testing their own rockets.

Whatever level of involvement you are seeking, all open source projects are actively looking for volunteers to provide expertise or donate cash, or else you might choose to back a Kickstarter project.

Conclusion

We are just at the start of a revolution in Space exploration. Open-source hardware, software and data will help to lower the barriers to entry and make Space more accessible to a broad range of players. Expect new projects to embrace emerging technologies such as AI, Robotics and Blockchain applications.

Who knows, perhaps the Starship Enterprise of 100 years hence may be a collaborative venture between all nations of planet Earth and built using exclusively open-source technologies.

To learn more about Open Source in Space, join our free evening meeting on Thursday 20 May. Details here.

All images Copyright (C) NASA


Grant-funded Competition for Development of the ‘Digital Security by Design’ Software Ecosystem

Robin Kennedy, Knowledge Transfer Manager – Cyber Security, KTN

Innovate UK currently have a grant-funding competition open for one more week which may be of particular interest to the open-source community. It’s part of the Digital Security by Design (DSbD) challenge which is investing in projects that help the UK digital computing infrastructure to become more secure.

Development of the ‘Digital Security by Design’ Software Ecosystem

An opportunity for SME stakeholders from across the software development spectrum to explore and investigate requirements, dependencies, and a range of potential complexities associated with the adoption of the Digital Security by Design technologies.

Full competition details are here – the Dates tab includes a link to the recording of the briefing event from late November.

The competition headlines are

  • Only open to applications from UK registered SMEs
  • Fast-Start Short-Term Projects – six months of maximum project length
  • Total Eligible Costs per project : £40,000 – £80,000
  • Closing Date NEXT WEEK – Wednesday 13th January 11:00am
  • Total funding available £1.5 million – will be paid de minimus (i.e. 100% funded)

More background on the Digital Security by Design (DSbD) challenge is here www.dsbd.tech and on Twitter @DSbDTech


OpenUK Review of the Year

Our sibling organization, OpenUK, represents the interests of the UK open source industry.  As 2020 draws to a close we invited its CEO, Amanda Brock, to reflect and celebrate its work, developing UK leadership in Open Technology, during her first full year at the helm.

What a year OpenUK has had.  The second half of the year has been a busy 6 months with the Awards, our Kids Competition, a number of Legal and Policy activities and the launch of our Supporter model.

The First Edition of the OpenUK Awards sponsored by the law firm Bristows, was celebrated on 20 October, with almost 150 attendees, receiving a Good box. Described as the best event of 2020 by many of the attendees and with a ‘Wow…just wow” from keynote, Jono Baon, its interactive and hybrid format, is something OpenUK will be doing more of.

Guests were able to table hop and rub shoulders with old friends as they celebrated our winners:

  • Open Source Software – Hospital Run
  • Open Hardware – LowRisc Foundaton
  • Open Data – National Library of Wales
  • Finance and Fintech sponsored by FINOS – Parity.io
  • Young Person – Josh Lowe
  • Individual – Liz Rice

A heartfelt congratulations to all of our Awards winners who each received a trophy created by Garner Osborne.

We were also able to share their prizes with our Kids Competition sponsored by Red Hat. The winners were Altrincham Grammmar School for Girls, in the North of England, Durlston College in the South of England, Rathmore Grammar School in Northern Ireland and Scottish and National Winner Morrison’s Academy.

The Awards were co-hosted by Double Grammy Award winning singer Imogen Heap who added a touch of glamour to the evening as she recognised the contribution of the open source communities to her MiMU glove project and spent some time with the kids from each of the winning schools.

This hasn’t just been a time for OpenUK to give out Awards, but also to receive one, as the OpenUK Kids Competition and Digital Kids Camp is a Phase two winner of the GNOME Community Challenge. An incredible achievement to be one of the final 5 participants in this global challenge, from an initial pool of 149 entries. Not only have we received this accolade, but Red Hat have committed sponsorship for year two of both the Competition and Kids Course and we will share more information on these in January.

The Awards were also a great opportunity to launch our Supporter Model, allowing individuals to support funding OpenUK and to benefit from a number of opportunities including Supporter events and discounts, but most importantly the ability to stand for and vote in the OpenUK Board elections. The first election will take place in Autumn 2021. Half the Board seats will be available for election and anyone who has been a Supporter, paying their monthly subscription for 6 months will be able to vote. More information at our website.

We are waiting for the Supreme Court of the US Decision in Google v Oracle, where OpenUK joined with the Python Foundation, Tidelift and others in an amicus brief explaining the risk of copyright in API’s to open source and have only just completed a response to the National Data Strategy Consultation in the UK. As our final Brexit looms fast, these and other global activities are of great significance to the UK’s Open Technology Communities and CEO, Amanda Brock has given a number of keynotes and written extensively on this and GaiaX. In joining Gaia X as a Day One Member, OpenUK was described as the UK’s lifeline and will be leading the way for UK corporate and public sector involvement. You can read a couple of different views on this in  this article and this article in Computer Weekly

And listen to Amanda discussing Brexit, Global Shift and open technologies in a number of places including: YouTube.

A busy year, but even more to come in 2021. If you are interested in any of our activities or in getting more involved, please contact hello@openuk.uk, follow us on twitter @openuk_uk or LinkedIn

We wish you all an enjoyable festive break and health, wealth and happiness in 2021


Adding an Instruction to the GNU Assembler

Binutils is a huge piece of code and new users can often feel lost and out of their depth when navigating it alone. To help ease the shock, in this post we’ll look at the very simplest step of adding a new basic instruction to an already defined extension and how to add a corresponding GNU Assembler (GAS) test.

While the examples and files given are all RISC-V specific, the information is transferable to other architecture ports, however tables and structures may differ. More information can be found through the binutils project page.

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Facial Recognition: a role for Open Source software and Transparent data

The accuracy of facial recognition has improved dramatically over the past five years. Advances in both hardware and software have led this technology to the cusp of becoming an everyday part of daily life.

It has the potential to bring many practical benefits. However, it is surrounded by accusations of inaccuracy, bias against ethnic groups and has the potential for flagrant abuse by both corporations and governments.

This post provides a basic introduction to the technology, the controversies which surround the use of facial recognition. It then explores what role open source software and transparent data sets can play in helping people understand the technology.

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FPGA vendor Lattice acknowledges value of open source community

Many open-source projects target existing, commercial hardware without official support from the hardware vendor. Some of the most famous examples include Linux and the GCC compiler; which all started as third party projects.

These days both of these projects see significant support from large hardware companies and are used as the official tooling for many widely sold products. Both now see significant first-party contributions from hardware vendors.

Over the last three years, I have been part of the community developing open source tooling for field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). These are programmable logic chips with great potential for “post Moore’s law” reconfigurable computing with many promising applications from consumer devices to datacentres.

In general, FPGA companies have not published the low-level details of the devices – unlike CPUs, where the instruction set is almost always public. The expectation is that everyone uses the closed-source vendor-specific toolchain provided.

As a result, to develop a complete open-source flow from design to device programming for most FPGAs, the low-level “bitstream” details must be documented by creating a large number of designs using the vendor-provided tools and examining the output. Claire Wolf did this for the Lattice iCE40 FPGAs five years ago in Project Icestorm. Subsequently, I created open-source documentation for their larger ECP5 FPGAs.

In both cases, combined with the low cost and simplicity of these Lattice parts, these projects have led to popular open-source flows for both devices. From this has sprung a number of open source development boards such as the myStorm BlackIce, icebreaker and ULX3S.

Vendors are now acknowledging the importance of open source

Whilst downloading a newly released Lattice SDK, I found there was a new clause in the license agreement prohibiting this bitstream documentation. Fortunately, this SDK doesn’t directly affect any of the currently supported devices, but it would have become problematic if all their tools sport this license in the future:

e. Licensee shall not distribute, copy, transfer, lend, incorporate, modify, use or sublicense the Software or any Modules for any purpose except as expressly provided herein or as otherwise permitted under relevant law, or in advance by Lattice in writing. In particular, no right is granted hereunder … or (3) for reverse engineering a bit stream format or other signaling protocol of any Lattice Semiconductor Corporation programmable logic device.

Thanks to lobbying from the community, it is great to see that Lattice has shown commitment to open source by promptly removing the clause after being contacted about it, going as far as to publish a message of appreciation for the open-source community on Twitter:

Thanks for pointing out a new bitstream usage restriction in the Lattice Propel license. It is not our intent to hinder open source tools. See https://bit.ly/3eUM3OD re an updated license. We are excited with the open source community’s FPGA achievements and their potential.

https://twitter.com/latticesemi/status/1269115302140231682

This is a risk that Lattice has taken, but it is one that resonates well with the open-source toolchain developers and will hopefully yield good results for them in the future. It also shows the power of a strong open source community to achieve good results from companies and the growing awareness for the open source.

I hope that as time progresses we see more support for open source tools from FPGA vendors, perhaps even reaching a similar point to established open -source software tooling.

David Shah is a self-employed developer working on nextpnr, the open source FPGA place-and-route tool. His previous work also includes Project Trellis, open source bitstream documentation for the Lattice ECP5 FPGAs.


An updated OpenUK Kids Competition for 2020

OpenUK, the advocate organisation for Open Technology (open source software, open hardware and open data) in the UK, has revamped its Kids’ Competition due to the impact of school closures and the Coronavirus pandemic.

OpenUK Kids' Competition

A total of 400 MiniMU Glove kits each including a BBC micro:bit will be sent directly to participating kids in May, to help kids experiment and experience what can be achieved with the newly open sourced MiniMu gloves. Kits are being sent directly to kids to construct and they can then take part in fun activities designed to help them experiment and make music with the gloves.

A 10-episode animated series has also been designed by School Science Ambassador and 2020 EdTech Hall of Fame member David Whale, with curriculum related input from educationalist and Morrison’s Academy computer science teacher Pamela Boal. Each fun 10-minute episode has an activity for participating kids and will a friendly and fun introduction into open source, making music and developing other uses for the MiniMU glove. The aminated series has animation by Drawnalism and narration from voiceover artist Stephanie Bower.

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COVID19 contact tracing apps: a call for open source

A comment by Julian Kunkel, Simon Worthington, Jeremy Bennett, Andy Bennett

Governments worldwide are developing smartphone apps that track the location and movement profile of citizens in order to quickly identify contact persons of COVID-19 infections. According to The Financial Times, if even 40% of smartphone users install such an application, the infection levels would be significantly reduced in the UK. Therefore, the widespread usage of such an application is an important instrument in the current crisis.

How could such a smartphone app work? In a nutshell, a device can scan other nearby devices and exchange device IDs, for example, using Bluetooth. This information then needs to be stored with a timestamp. If the owner of a device contracts the virus, s/he could indicate this fact in the app allowing to associate the own device ID with the information that s/he may have infected others. This data then needs to be recorded on a server to allow the app of other users to query the register and then compare any contact information with the register of COVID-19 victims.

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