Conservify's FieldKit, an open software and hardware ecosystem designed to assist with the collection of field-based research data in everything from biology and ecology to environmental science studies, has walked away with the 2019 Hackaday Prize — despite, or perhaps due to, raising some eyebrows through its in-house approach to manufacture.
"A few of us had an idea to do something better than was currently being done so we hacked something together," Conservify founder Shah Selbe says of FieldKit's origins. "The first hardware was built on my dining room table, using a combination of Arduinos/Raspberry Pis, development boards, and easily obtainable sensors. The code was quickly taken over by Jacob, on a volunteer basis, to support some of those early tests in Botswana. Jer, and his team in NYC, worked on ways to visualise the data and make sense of it through storytelling. We were all helping a colleague, an ambitious scientist who was interested in trying a new way to do his work."
The team's project soon grew, and has resulted in a manufacturing philosophy Bradley Gawthrop describes as "a little unorthodox" — a combination of outsourcing, insourcing, and open-sourcing. "When I came to Conservify, my prior two EE related positions had involved not just design but profitably assembling all their own products in-house. This was a real education," he explains. "When Conservify bought a pick and place, there was some slack-jawed bafflement and dismay on Twitter. Weren't we going to use contract manufacture? Well, of course we are, but not for everything, and not all the time.
"FieldKit isn't a single board or product, it's an ecosystem. It is built from many different pieces that are meant to be put together in such a way as to fill a specific need. At the time of this writing, we have ten different boards working in the ecosystem, we have a list of desirable future modules and other additions which is that long again or longer. Conservify isn't a startup. We are a not-for-profit conservation laboratory. If we were to adopt a model where the only things we could make are things which would quickly pay back a production run of thousands, that would prevent us from solving important problems simply because the demand would not be great enough.
"Forecasting the future is difficult, but I suspect some of the most important and impactful projects we undertake will involve production quantities of hundreds or even dozens. Not every important problem carries iPhone level demand. In the open source hardware world, the high unit low margin products are also the ones most likely to be cloned by the unscrupulous," Gawthrop continues. "So I decided that we should be able to assemble everything we make in-house, without losing money. Even if not every product would generate eye-watering profits that way. This guarantees our freedom to explore new projects without enormous financial risks, or huge infusions of cash. It also means if we predict demand wrong, or a contract manufacturer screws up on delivery or quality, we can still fill our orders without losing our shirts."
The result is a family of environmental sensors, supported by a web portal and smartphone software, which aims to make the deployment of even large sensor networks as affordable as possible — giving it use not only among professional researchers but in education and citizen science projects as well. The underlying software stores gathered data and makes it possible to share it with others, with the security of said data at the forefront. The hardware, meanwhile, follows a series of rules designed to make in-house manufacture as easy as possible: no through-hole components, no tiny passive components, surface-mount parts on only one side of the board, and modest panel sizes.