Blaze Sanders is CTO of Solar System Express (Sol-X), a startup that designs reconfigurable advanced robotic control systems and navigation software for commercial space companies. Blaze graduated with dual Bachelor’s degrees in electrical and computer engineering from John Hopkins University in 2010. He was the technical program manager of JURBAN, the Google Lunar X Prize team from 2011 – 2013.
Blaze Sanders wasn’t necessarily interested in space until he went to community college and signed up for an internship program called NASA Must that provided $10,000 in scholarship money along with an internship at NASA to underrepresented groups like Hispanics and African Americans. Using that experience, allowed Sanders to enter into the NASA co-op program which makes you a NASA civil servant and practically guarantees you a job at NASA after completion of the position. During the internships you get the opportunity to pick which center you want to work for while at NASA. If you were interested in human space flight, you might pick the Johnson Space Center. If you were interested in Robotics you would go to JPL. Sanders went on to participate in JURBAN, the Google Lunar X Prize team where he furthered his education and expanded his network.
Google Lunar X-Prize
Sanders made some predictions about the two teams he thinks have the best chance of launching in the near future. While it is hard to say if any of the teams will succeed on landing on the moon, Astrobotics and Moon Express look like the most promising contestants at the moment. Moon Express uses a hopper landing system that will allow the lunar lander to hop the final 500 meters to the destination. The JURBAN team uses a landing architecture that involves petals opening up upon landing and shoot earthworm like robots 300 meters before crawling the last 200 meters to the destination.
Meet Sol-X’s Gravity Development Board
Sanders founded Sol-X in 2010 while he was serving as a civil servant to NASA. He started Sol-X as a way to enable human settlement by increasing the capabilities of humans on Earth. Sol-X has created the world’s first space rated, open hardware prototyping board. In the same way that Arduino makes it easier for people to program, the GDB is designed to make prototyping so easy, that 10 year olds will be able to use it. The Gravity Development Board (GDB) is a six layer, double sided printed circuit board that is 50 by 33 millimeters, and 12 millimeters thick making it roughly the size of a credit card. That means the GDB is 70% smaller than its closest competitor, the Arduino Uno. The GDB uses an 8-parallel CPU chipset, consisting of 8 parallel processors, each one clocked five times faster than a single Arduino core. This makes the GDB 40 times faster than the Arduino board. Sanders notes that whether those 8 cores are used to their full potential of course depends on the skill of the programmer, with most people probably getting something closer to 15 to 20 times the power. The GDB has a life expectancy of two years, designed for longer use than the Arduino based platforms. The boards were space rated and designed to last longer than a typical CubeSat mission, so there is nothing stopping someone from implementing them in a larger satellite. The boards feature Stellar Energy’s TDR-1, a hydrogen nano compound that shields against radiation. Because it is open hardware, Sol-X provides all the specs and software required to run the GDB. Integrated high power drivers allow it to control high current motors, drive up to eight display screens and handle on the communication of a CPU. The GDB is a high level prototyping microcontroller that Sol-X intends to replace the Arduino Uno.
Easy to Program
The GDB is programmable in four languages. The first is a 12 block drag and drop graphical interface intended to be user friendly for younger kids who don’t know much about programming. The platform also supports C for the more experienced coder. For extra efficiency it is also possible to program it in assembly language. The fourth and final language is digital basics which is a spin language that functions between C and assembly. The software for the GDB is compatible with Microsoft, Linux and Mac, allowing anyone with a laptop or desktop with an internet connection that allows the user to install tiny IDEs.
The GDB was available for $105 on RocketHub crowdfunding campaign, and they are currently selling it for $160 on their website. The price is driven by the number of units Sol-X is able to manufacture, so the end goal is to price the platform closer to $60, twice the price of an Arduino. There are three models of the GDB available, the E-series, M-series an S-series. The E-series is the easiest to use and is geared for Earth based lower orbit applications. The M-series is for planetary based applications and comes equipped with some radiation protection, while the S-series is geared for deep space. The boards are designed to operate in higher temperatures, withstand vibrations and survive thermal expansion. The boards were used for the first time in public at the Hackathon at the Space Vision 2013 conference at Arizona State University on November 7th
. The GDB is an ITAR controlled product and will only be sold in the United States for now.
Funding and Business Model
In addition to crowdfunding, Sanders has used his own money to fund Sol-X while continuing to pursue grants. Things like the Must Foundation and $2,500 prize money for winning with Team Phoenicia at the DIY Rocket Competition for 3D printed rockets. The key business model is to sell to senior design teams that have universities willing to pay for the hardware, and startups that need to o proof of concepts for investors. Potential customers include Vulcan Aerospace, where one of Sanders’ friends is creating a new type of rebreather, Open Luna which wants to use the GDB for its lunar lander and space suits, Lift Port for its lunar space elevator, and the nuclear rocket company Space Energetics. As far as pursuing investors, Sanders says they are waiting until they have market leverage from users before going public and reaching out to angel investors. They do plan to eventually speak to a space angel network in the long term future once they become public. Sol-x based its projected sales numbers off of Arduino’s first few years of production. Sol-X predicts to sell 600 units in the first year, 6,000 in the second year and 60,000 in the third if they are at least 40% as successful as Arduino. If the GDB reaches the same demographics as Arduino, their primary clientele will be high school students, college students and people in their early twenties who are interested in DIY projects. ITAR restrictions are the main limiting factor for the GDB’s sales, as they are restricted to the United States while Arduino is an earth based platform that can be sold anywhere.
How Does Sol-X Distinguish Itself from the Competition?
NanoSatisfi, Ardu Labs, SkyCube and NanoRacks all use closed source hardware that limits your design space. They allow you to write your own experiments on the software within in the restraints built into the board, but they have control over the spacecraft and communications side of the board, limiting the user’s ability to make custom modifications to the functionality of the CubeSat itself. The GDB offers complete open source functionality to the user. On the open source scene, Blaze says that the GDB aims to beat competitors like Raspberry Pi and Arduino by being easier to use. Furthermore the higher current capacity means the GDB runs at 72 watts, 12 times more power than the Arduino or some of the Raspberry Pi modules, allowing it to drive more powerful motors and handle multiple displays.
Earth Applications for the GDB
Aside from space applications, the GDB can be used for flashing LED signs, laser projection systems and robotics. Sol-X has a 3D printed robot frame called the Escape Velocity Robot that users can program with the GDB. The possibilities for innovation are endless. People have already used the GDB to create plasma speakers, an arc of electricity that flies through the air and plays music. The team successfully played Rhianna’s Disturbia, a popular R&B song through plasma. GDB provides deeper level basic hardware, “we give you all the building blocks to design whatever you want, and you can add different modules onto it and make it operational in whatever environment you would like,
” says Sanders.
Sol-X Developing Space Skydiving Suit
While the GDB is the main project at Sol-X, Sanders is also expanding on a design for a space diving suit that he started on as a graduate student. The design involves three parts that are suit agnostic, so they can take any of the commercial spacesuits and add these three components. One is an augmented reality goggle similar to Google Glass that he developed at Juxtopia that will provide information on the speed of falling, body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and other biometric data. The second component is an “Iron Man like
” boot structure that contains gyroscopes to automatically compensate for spinning and is controlled through fingertip presses within the gloves. An automatic function will stop flat spins and will initiate after six seconds in the event of a diver blackout. The business model for the suit is that these three components, the augmented reality goggles, gyroscope boots, and glove control system can be added to any commercial space suit to make it safer for divers to space jump.
Great Space for Girls: STEM Education
In addition to Sol-X, Blaze Sanders is completely committed to STEM education. Great Space for Girls is Sol-X’s STEM outreach program that aims to create a safe environment for middle school girls to learn science, technology, engineering and math skills related to space exploration. They put on a space suit design competition that the girls were able to take ownership of and transform into a fashion show. The girls learned what a business model for a high class fashion show in space might look like. The program also brings in female university professors and CEOs in the space industry to help motivate the girls to pursue STEM education.