When in the past, it would take years for students or independent researchers to launch their experiments into space, ArduLab, a relatively new space hardware, is making headlines as a “low cost, open source science facility…designed specifically for microgravity research aboard the International Space Station, Suborbital Launch Vehicles, and Parabolic Aircraft.” (taken from their website, www.ardulab.com). With ArduLab and NanoRacks, students can now launch their experiments into space in under a year.
The beginning of Ardulab
“So what we’re doing right now is shipping ArduLab to our customers. We are a small team of four people,” says Sharma. Their group met and started the company while they attended the graduate studies program at Singularity University. They would often discuss open source space because while doing their undergrad. However, it would often take four or five years to get it done and they felt there should be an easier way of doing things. That’s where they came up with the idea of ArduLab. They got their big break when they won a contest and were given a grant by NanoRacks, the company responsible for holding the experiments of the International Space Station and launching them into space.
“Now,” Sharma says, “We have an office, a full time employee, and we are shipping ArduLab to many customers.”
Giving everyone a chance to become involved in space research
When asked why they decided to not only base ArduLab off of open hardware such as Arduino, but make it as open as possible, Sharma responded that “There are multiple [reasons] why we’re doing exactly what we’re doing. One thing is that space is usually not inclusive of all the people around the world… I wanted to create products that enabled people across the globe… [to] make cool experiments and do anything they want.”
“Now that we are realizing that version, we are going to be launching pretty much every day for the next few years, it probably won’t be as hard for a person from Africa to come up with an idea, ‘I want to see how fireflies fly in space.’ And he could program this thing and do any of those experiments. That was the real reason why we went to open hardware because it allows us to go beyond borders and find people to work on it very easily,” Sharma continues.
Manu Sharma admits to some problems with making Ardulab as open to the public as possible though, “It’s kind of hard to have open source technology because people can copy it. We do things sometimes like publish designs online and anyone can copy… I’ll give an example. We have a great example of a DIY drone; an open source autopilot and basically, I’m doing great business and there are autopilots copied the next day by the Chinese and they will launch a new design. You can find them online and buy them.”
Ardulab is different from other research platforms
We want to create a community of space hardware hackers
However, Ardulab differentiates itself from other companies that provide clone designs in that “The philosophy of Ardulab is we are working with customers. We want to help them succeed, we provide all the tech support, we provide all the filters, we listen to them, and we create new products based on them, so I think our business strategy is not on the selling, it’s all a complete package.”
Sharma went on to say that, “We want to create a community of space hardware hackers. We’re launching our forums and our community page where people can just hang out, share their experiences, and share knowledge about experiments that they’re doing and things like that. We really want to create a new committee of people and we need those people to [renew] possibilities of what we can do with ArduLab and future products.”
Manu Sharma states that the driving force behind their business is their passion. They are hardware geeks and grew up fascinated with space. Likewise, their business goals aim to helps people who, like them, are excited about space but don’t have the means to pursue their passions because of the limited options out there.
The challenges of building a space company
When asked about the unique business challenges faced as a hardware startup in space that normal hardware businesses don’t have to worry about, Sharma shares, “I’m not sure if we had any special challenges just because we were working in space because our philosophy of design at ArduLab was really based on listening to customers’ dreams. One thing we had to do, we started basically talking to customers through NanoRacks, understanding what they really wanted and what type of system we should be creating. This is listening to people. I think that’s sometimes challenging, because you hear different opinions and you hear all the different options that we can put on ArduLab and things like that.”
However, Sharma does admit that at the moment, the main challenge of their hardware startup is the cash flow. “You need a lot of money to prototype things and unlike software, you can’t have programmers who are cranking out designs in a few months and you don’t have overhead costs. But for hardware prototyping, we had to take money from our own pockets. We never raised money and we haven’t raised money yet.”
ArduLab is still a fairly new company so it’s been involved merely in selling their hardware online and through NanoRacks, which is their sole distributor. Surprisingly enough, ArduLab hasn’t worked on marketing their product yet but have gained popularity simply due to their partnership with NanoRacks as well as through word of mouth.
On expanding the business to a larger scale, Sharma had this to say, “So far, we haven’t really thought about how we’re going to be distributing ArduLabs because we’re still in the early stage of figuring out some programs and partnering with people to do competitions or contests or spreading the word. I think you’ll probably see it from us in about a month or two months who will we be partnering with or how we’ll be distributing ArduLabs to scale.”
Specialized versions of Ardulab
The current version of ArduLab available is a 4 by 4 inch scratch-resistant polycarbonate box, strong enough to withstand a launch into space, but weighs only 280 grams. The team is currently working on specialized versions for wider varieties of research such as bioscience and fluids research. Sharma says, “We are launching version two in about a month. We’re reiterating really fast and then we’re adding all things… There’s a team at Arizona State University who is developing a material lab with ArduLab, so that’s a customized lab basically for metallurgical experiments. We are also working on biological platforms. All the products we are planning, the different verticals we are planning will be based on the same platform, the same architecture. So there’s a uniformity and that’s a valuable feature.”
Zero gravity research accessible to everyone
When before, it was incredibly difficult to find a suitable vessel where students could fit their experiments into because nothing ever fit, ArduLab offers a simple plug-and-play system that anyone can easily make use of. One of the main goals of ArduLab was to standardize everything to make it more affordable to the public. At $2,000 for the whole set, students can now actualize their dreams of launching their experiments into space without having to break the bank. Sharma further says that, “I think we will be decreasing the price soon, hopefully much less, so we can reach out to more people. But as the margin grows, I think we’ll be able to do that.”
Using open standards for Ardulab
During the interview, Sharma talked about the issues certain parties have on how “Space is so expensive and difficult, it should really be customized to your unique issues. Open standards won’t work.” Sharma responded that a lot of companies do closed standards but it can make space very expensive. “NanoRacks has done open standards and things like that. Imagine the day when you create a small experiment, you test it on Space Ship 1 (Virgin Galactic) but it’s also comparable to all tests everywhere else. It’s compatible with everything else; it’s compatible on the ISS. When we do Dragon Lab launches, it’s compatible there as well.” This flexibility makes open standards a valuable asset to the space industry.
The future of space engineering
I think people can make satellites for $1,000 or $2,000 easy and launch quickly and cheaply
“I always dream of the day, it’s not that far, when people will be able to make their own personal satellites and launch them into space. That’s not that far. If we go into open standards and open hardware, I think people can make satellites for $1,000 or $2,000 easy and launch quickly and cheaply,” Sharma muses. Their goal for ArduLab is not only to make it more affordable, but also to make it more accessible to schools and universities everywhere with space programs in them.
“That’s one of the things we are trying to push for the future; putting ArduLabs in schools around the world or universities around the world, so they can have their own space programs, they can do launches and then do microgravity research.”
Manu recounts his experience as a freshman undergrad in Florida when he and a two other friends launched a small camera on a balloon to photograph the curve of the earth and space. He feels that experiences like that should be open to more students.
ArduLab may seem like a pretty complicated piece of hardware to use. However, the team has been partnering with the Silicon Valley Space Center and a citizen science advice group in order to provide opportunities in their labs for people to create experiments. Citizen science has over 100 payload slots on test flights and equipment for experiments. They are planning to launch in early fall, this year. Furthermore, Sharma shares, “We’re doing a workshop in Silicon Valley next month, teaching people how to use ArduLab. It’s pretty easy but it’s the first event that we are hosting [that teaches] people how to use our ArduLab; how to create an experiment.”
When asked about the skillset required to get started with ArduLab, Sharma proudly boasts, “No skill at all. The only thing you require is passion and persistence and a little bit of programming. That’s all you need. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make an experiment for space and that’s one thing we wanted to make sure of. You don’t have to have an engineering background at all. All you need is a little bit of programming because you will have to program your experiment, and a little bit of knowledge of how sensors work, and that’s very fundamental electronics that I’m sure people learn while in high school or at high school level. You can make experiments as long as you know the basic parts. If you don’t know, you probably can just learn it on Wikipedia. It’s that simple.”
For those still unconvinced about how easy ArduLab is to use, they can check out the YouTube channel of an 11-year old girl named Sylvia who teaches people how to program Arduino and how to create awesome experiments with it.