Does The Idea Of Open Source Planes Really Fly?

from the nice-in-theory dept

The term "open source" was coined back in February 1998, and initially it applied only to software. But as the power of open, collaborative development became apparent, other spheres have adopted the "open" tag along with the underlying approach. Here's the latest example -- open source planes:

MakerPlane plans to do for the aviation industry what Firefox and Linux did for computers. By adopting open source design and digital manufacturing, MakerPlane's founder John Nicol hopes to overcome the frustration and disappointment that most kit plane builders encounter. Over 60 percent of all kitplanes started end up collecting dust and those that are finished must overcome the challenges of complicated plans, the need for special tools and thousands of hours of labor with little or no manufacturer support.
The idea is a good one: to use Computer Numerically-Controlled (CNC) machining tools and 3D printers to fabricate many of the parts more quickly and cheaply than with conventional methods. To aid that, all the electronic files needed will be supplied. But this does raise some questions.

For example, quality control becomes an issue when parts can be made by anyone with the right equipment. What guarantee is there that they meet the needs of a full-sized plane? Even more problematic is the open nature of the project: if people can modify the design files before producing them, what implications does this have for the airworthiness of the final result? In particular, who is responsible if something goes wrong, and someone is injured?

It's great to see open source methods being applied to ever-broader fields, but we also need to make sure that there are no high-profile disasters -- like open-source planes falling out of the sky -- that could set back the wider application of the idea for years.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    Nick Coghlan (profile), Sep 7th, 2012 @ 1:42am

    Production methods and certification are two different things

    You're confusing a couple of different things there. Open source is a *production* method, safety checks are a *certification* requirement.

    A certification may cover your production methods (and certainly many safety certifications will include such requirements). If a particular design has been certified, but your production tools have not, then your plane won't be certified. Similarly, if you change your design, then the cert will no longer apply.

    So you're unlikely to see the FAA certifying an open source passenger plane design as safe, as FAA certification for passenger planes involves a lot more than that. However, you may see open source entries into the "kit plane" market, as the quality and certification standards are much lower in that market (since fewer people are put at risk in personal aviation than in commercial aviation - it's more about personal trust than it is about certification).

    Similar issues exist with open source software - many certs only apply to particular builds of software from particular vendors. If you rebuild it yourself, the cert technically no longer applies, so if you have a strict "must be certified" requirement, you either have to seek recertification for your rebuilt copy or else just use one of the certified versions.

    (Disclosure: I currently work for Red Hat, and the validity of various certifications is one of the selling points of our subscriptions, even though the source code of our products is freely available and redistributable through open source licensing)

     

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      Richard (profile), Sep 7th, 2012 @ 2:04am

      Re: Production methods and certification are two different things

      To add to the above: One needs to be aware of the difference between type certification and certification of an individual aircraft.

      In private aviation there are many designs kicking around for homebuilders to use already. "Open sourcing" of a design does not in itself add to the problems that already exist when person A builds a design produced by company B. These problems are addressed by certification of the individual aircraft by qualified inspectors. Such requirement already exist even for large model aircraft (over 20kg in the UK).

       

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    blakey, Sep 7th, 2012 @ 3:51am

    prefer airships

    i've always liked the idea of solar clothed electric motored airships. open source it and give it to third world countries to make. only fly during the day - but who wants to work at nights anyway?

     

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    RaymarkSen (profile), Sep 7th, 2012 @ 3:57am

    Nice i liked the whole article.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 7th, 2012 @ 5:08am

    When Firefox crashes ...

    You download the patch and start over. When your kit plane crashes it causes collateral damage to the other parts, not to mention the operator.

    I haven't built a kit plane, but one of my friends has. From a commercial company, but it was still full of little mistakes, like all the bolt holes being just a little bit too small. Probably drilled correctly, but the anodizing filled in the edges. That kind of thing open source would be great at fixing. Download and fab one part, find out that it's not quite right, fix the rest before fabbing them.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 7th, 2012 @ 5:12am

    NO!

    You will always have the Linux Gonome problem.

    As the components are free, as in open source and beer, there is nor financial reward to the developers of other incentive for the developers to create what the users require. Developers are not assigned a project that fits into the needs of the users but are free to choose to work on whatever it is that suits their fancy. As a consequence if there is some critically need function required but one in which developers find distasteful then that component will not be produced. Likewise if there is some glory component that every onts to work on an over abundance of that component will be produced.

    In a free society money is the means by which scarce resources are allocated to the highest needs.

    Remove money from the equation and you remove the only allocation mechanism that works.

     

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      Kaega (profile), Sep 7th, 2012 @ 9:12am

      Re: Yes!

      "As the components are free, as in open source and beer, there is nor financial reward to the developers of other incentive for the developers to create what the users require."

      This is the same argument people make with copyright works, this very same website has shown this is not true.

      And what you state is almost the opposite of what I've come to expect from open source software.

      "As a consequence if there is some critically need function required but one in which developers find distasteful then that component will not be produced."

      This is the most laughable part of all. This is what I would expect from closed source software sure. Microsoft left Internet Explorer 6 on the market, horribly bugged, for years because there were no browsers to really compete with it. It wasn't until Firefox (an open source browser) came in to compete against it that Microsoft smartened up.

      Open source does the opposite because it's being made by the people who use the damn product. In this case we're not talking about a small group of developers who might decide they equally don't like something and exclude it. We're talking about thousands of developers with different concerns. I've never seen something "critical" missing from open source software. I have seen open source missing a feature that was critical to specific businesses, but that is a different story, and has little to do with the overall quality.

      "In a free society money is the means by which scarce resources are allocated to the highest needs."

      Your quote here, let me fix it.

      "In a fiat currency capitalist society money is the chains that binds the most scarce resources to those more likely to abuse it"

      Trust me, we're better off with open source.

       

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    Andrew D. Todd, Sep 7th, 2012 @ 5:39am

    Kit-Plane As Limiting Device

    From the Federal Aviation Administration's standpoint, the fact that sixty percent of kit-planes are never finished is not a bug, but a feature. We tend to keep automobiles within their bounds by the use of concrete barriers. However, you can't do that with airplanes. The normal licensing system has the effect that a new small airplane, such as a Cessna 172, costs about a quarter of a million dollars. Someone of comparatively limited means who wants to fly has to go to a flying club, or a Fixed Base Operator (FBO), and rent an airplane for about a hundred dollars per (flying) hour, and fly it under supervision. Kit-planes are allowed as a special exception for a limited class of people-- those who are willing to do substantial amounts of hand-work in building their own airplanes. The FAA believes this system is workable, that someone who actually builds his kit-plane isn't going to do dumb things like trying to "bounce" a Boeing 747 on final approach at LAX.

    It's like the Segway. Segways are all very well for the small number of people who have certain kinds of handicaps. However, most of the people who want to buy Segways do not have handicaps. They are merely people who want to treat the sidewalk as a freeway, running over pedestrians. They are the same kind of people who want to ride motorcycles on hiking trails.

     

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    BentFranklin (profile), Sep 7th, 2012 @ 6:23am

    Anyone who has used Emacs knows it comes with NO WARRANTY.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 7th, 2012 @ 7:47am

    Seems like a viable concept. The venerable Piper Cub derivative is kind of an example. A number of Cub type aircraft are being produced with great modifications and improvements like vortex generators, wing slats, carbon fiber components,etc.

     

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    Xavier (profile), Sep 7th, 2012 @ 9:19am

    I am currently working on two aircraft kits, a Van's Aircraft RV-7 and RV-8. one of the kits I purchased, the RV-7, I am the third owner and the first one to even open the boxes. I am the second owner of the RV-8 project.

    I don't think that an open source home-built airplane will put a dent in the number of unfinished kits. The bottom line is that it takes a lot of time and dedication to build a kit aircraft. I have several friends who have taken for or more years to complete. Many of the available kit aircraft already use the techniques Makerplane proposes using such as CNC machining of parts, match hole drilling, and many pre-fabricated parts, as well as 'quick-build' versions that fall under the 51% rule. Specialized tools will still be needed.

    Kit manufacturers also leverage their buying power for raw materials.

    Currently, Van's Aircraft sells the RV-12, an LSA kit aircraft for $64,000. The price includes the airframe kit, engine, prop, and instruments. Everything you need to get flying. You also get excellent support from the leading kit aircraft company there is with over 7,800 completed aircraft.

    How will Makerplane compare against other established inexpensive (in aviation terms) kits? Will you legally be able to license it as a ELSA if you outsource most of the aircraft (under the current rules - no)?

    Makerplane is an interesting venture I will be keeping my eye on. I hope it works out.

     

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    Aerilus, Sep 7th, 2012 @ 10:45pm

    "What guarantee is there that they meet the needs of a full-sized plane? Even more problematic is the open nature of the project: if people can modify the design files before producing them, what implications does this have for the airworthiness of the final result? In particular, who is responsible if something goes wrong, and someone is injured?"

    It is not the governments business whether or not you want to blow yourself up of kill yourself doing something stupid, this whole thing reminds me of the film Astronaut Farmer. if you are going to preach about permission based society with regards to patents and copyrights you can't back-peddle here
    as long as there is a reasonable presumption of safety for others regarding the kits then it is not any of the governments business. i.e. as long as the person building them is only taking their own lives into their hands and not others. now if you are going to build and sell the completed kits of if you are taking other people up in the kits then the government might have a say.

     

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    John Nicol, Nov 9th, 2012 @ 12:22pm

    MakerPlane

    Hi Guys,
    All good comments here. Hopefully the Makerplane website is clear on our aims and goals. First up, no aircraft (at least in North America) can fly unless it has been inspected by the proper government authorities or delegates (FAA in the US, Transport Canada in Canada). Regardless of what plans or kit has been used to build it, each individual aircraft is inspected to make sure it is safe. The MakerPlane LSA design project is more than the aircraft itself, it is about the manufacturing process and the assembly and instructional material. Also note that just like open source software, there is a gatekeeper. We have an aeronautical engineer designing the aircraft and any changes that are made must be cleared through him first. NO-ONE makes a change without his approval. There is a common misunderstanding that open source means open slather to do anything. Not true in open source software projects and not true with this project.

    I have also worked on two aircraft projects personally and have been really confused trying to understand badly written instructions and bad diagrams. It is getting better of course and the VANS and Sonex plans are really good. Once we create a good template, our process could be applied to any aircraft and by making it Open Source, it will hopefully aid the other designers and manufacturers to help us all out. Yes, you can get CNC made kits, but there aren't that many manufacturers that do it and none of them provide the CAD files to allow you to make the parts yourself on a CNC machine. The other aspect is the actual construction process using slots and tabs and other easy-to-use techniques for assembly. This is one of the areas that even really good kits don't really utilize. You can see this in my last blog post of 6 Nov in action. The fuselage is self-squaring and makes like soooo much easier. Many kits and plan manufacturing techniques use hand and machine tools that have not changes in 60 years. Given the proliferation of personal manufacturing devices, why not take advantage of them. I have personally spent over two years making wooden ribs for an aircraft and with my CNC machine can now knock out an aircraft's worth of ribs in about 2 hours. This won't appeal to everyone, but would hopefully get people into the air quicker and cheaper than current methods. If you don't like our design, then just use the techniques and processes on your aircraft of choice! I personally don't think that the current kits are that cheap when you can make a rib for a few dollars on a CNC machine and yet some single ribs from one supplier are over $100 each (for non-certified aircraft). Manufacturers need to make money or they would not continue to provide their excellent product. Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to put anyone out of business, I am trying to find ways in which to put some innovation into the industry and get people excited. We also need to kick aviation in the nuts and drag people up to the 21st Century. Will we make a dent? Maybe, maybe not. It is more about innovation and using this LSA design as a test bed for that innovation. I think it is also a neat looking aircraft, but like cars, it is a personal choice. If other designers and manufacturers can look at the site and take even just one idea and use it in their own designs or processes, then we have achieved a win!

    Also, MakerPlane isn't just about this single initial LSA design. We have over 2 dozen open source avionics plans online as well and hopefully we will be adding more from contributors all over the world. Thanks!

    John Nicol

     

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