Big Gains for Open Aerospace: Interview with Open Research Institute

The Open Research Institute (ORI) is an OSI Affiliate project that works to facilitate worldwide collaboration in the development of technology. The past year has been a particularly exciting one — achieving some groundbreaking wins for open source in aerospace. ORI’s co-founder and CEO, Michelle Thompson took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about their recent regulatory initiatives.  


DN: Can you tell us a little bit about the Open Research Institute’s history and mission?


MT: Open Research Institute’s mission is to provide a friendly, safe, and accessible place to do open source research and development for amateur radio and beyond. We have been fully operational since March 2019 and have contributed technical and regulatory work central to the mission of the international amateur radio service. This work is useful outside of the amateur community because it allows a wide variety of organizations to use open source communications technology where they would otherwise have to reinvent a wheel, or restrict the work to US persons only. 


DN: It was a big year for ORI, with the determination that “Open Source Satellite Work” is free of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR.) What prompted ORI to draft a commodity jurisdiction request?


MT: We were able to do this work due to the generous support of YASME Foundation, ARRL Foundation, and ARDC Foundation. Without their generous financial support and guidance, the technical and regulatory victories over the past 18 months would simply not have happened. 


The problem of how to deal with ITAR has been a decades-long challenge for the Amateur Radio Satellite Service. Complying with the proprietary/commercial rules within the ITAR framework is incredibly expensive. Getting the regulations wrong exposes generous volunteers to an unacceptable level of risk. However, using the proprietary/commercial rules has been the default approach for the Amateur Radio Satellite Service in the US since the 1980s. Proprietary and commercial approaches are not a good fit and have delayed, chilled, and prevented innovation and engineering development. International collaboration with amateurs in other countries has been almost entirely prevented. 


There is a much better approach that has been available to us all along within the regulatory framework. ITAR, and EAR, the companion rules from the US Department of Commerce, both have an alternate set of rules for open source and public domain work. Why not take full advantage of those? After many years of attempting to get amateur radio technical organizations in the United States to use the public domain carve-outs, it became clear that a definitive ruling was necessary. This ruling, or Final Determination, was achieved in late summer 2020. Open source satellite work has been determined to be free of ITAR. The second part of the regulatory process, which sought a similar ruling for EAR, succeeded on January 28th. An Advisory Opinion Letter process, to tie both of these findings together, is underway now. 


The goal of all of this work is to reduce risk to open source volunteers that want to work on satellites for educational, experimental, and public service purposes. The hardest part was the CJ Request to the US State Department, to address ITAR. That completed step was substantial forward progress for open source volunteers and activists. The determination has positive and enduring implications outside of the amateur radio projects that it primarily benefits.


DN: That seems like fun news for anyone who’s kind of a satellite geek, but what does it mean for the aerospace industry?


MT: It means that there is a particular and significant regulatory ruling that allows the use of open source technology in aerospace. Companies are more free to use and contribute to open source satellite work. This means that companies can use open source technology in places where they really don’t want to “reinvent the wheel”. They can spend more time on things that truly differentiate their business. This saves money and increases the value of their engineering dollars. We see a huge positive benefit in computer networking by the use of open source technology. That same benefit can be had in aerospace by adopting open source work that benefits everyone, provides superior interoperability, and is publicly validated and verified.  


DN: That sounds like good news for open standards too. How collaborative would you say the aerospace industry is?


MT: There are parts of the aerospace world where collaboration is absolutely necessary. Human spaceflight, where the safety of the people on missions is paramount, requires all organizations involved to comply with rigorous testing and exacting standards. Other parts of the aerospace world are not collaborative in any way. Designs are secret and information is not shared. For business reasons, a company should use open source technology where it helps increase safety, interoperability, and does not threaten their core business. Why spend time re-doing a design that exists as an open source implementation? Especially when those designs have significant investment, are validated, and in many cases have substantial flight heritage. 


DN: What comes next and how can folks help ORI in that work?


MT: Donations of time, talent, and treasure are gratefully appreciated. We welcome anyone that wants to contribute to open source amateur radio research and development. You do not have to be an expert – you just have to be willing to become more of one along the way! If you have a project that needs a non-profit home, we want to talk with you. If you are an individual and you are interested in working on things like Low Density Parity Check forward error correction, or an open source implementation of DVB-S2/X, then we have openings right now in those areas. If you are looking to expand and enhance the wonderful open source polyphase filter bank work by Theseus Cores, then we are looking for contributors. Want to work on an open source amateur radio project a bit closer to home on Earth? We sponsor and support the M17 Project and they will enthusiastically welcome your time and energy. 


We support and publish music and are actively recruiting for radio user experience and user interface designs. This is often considered nontechnical work, but it is the heart of any communications project. Our goals are accessibility and ease of use. This has to be designed in from the beginning and cannot be an afterthought. 


High-tech digital communications can be intimidating. The mathematics and techniques are often complex. However, they are not impossible for ordinary people to understand and appreciate. Open source is playing a critical role here, especially in the area of demystifying and opening up communications technologies that have traditionally been unavailable to the general public, or presented as impossibly difficult to understand.


We spend a lot of time taking complex topics and breaking them down in new ways that make them relatable to those curious about the technology. This is fully in the traditional spirit of Amateur Radio in the US. The social and economic benefits of having a better trained population, more confident about their ability to understand and use digital wireless communications, are clear. This opportunity, to experiment and advance communications technology independent of commercial concerns, is one reason why the amateur radio service has been of such immense value.