The Open Source Space Company Doing Conventionally Multi-Million Dollar Research on Pennies 

Unlike most EP start-ups, I am not spun out of some prestigious academic program, or incubated through millions in VC funding. At this point, I have no major external funding. Everything is either out of pocket or through the generous contributions from enthusiasts around the world, who keep this effort alive.

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Blackship One is a content marketing agency focused on helping space, robotics and hi-tech companies grow. Interested? ⚡

You can take the design, but you can never take the mind behind the design

Today, Blackship One was fortunate enough to be able to talk with Michael Bretti, the founder of Applied Ion Systems, about his involvement in the electric propulsion space. We have an exiting interview planned for you today where Michael will walk us through what it’s like to work on advancing propulsion technology on a shoestring budget (see Michael’s Patreon page here).

Keep in mind, this is the fifth part of a five part interview series. If you’d like to start from the beginning of the series, you can click here.

 Tell us a little bit more about your decision to open source your project. What are the major pros and cons of the decision? What have been your most successful strategies for getting others involved in the development or use of your open source hardware? 

The decision to open source my electric propulsion work has been a key and integral part of my approach and philosophy at AIS. While deep down I knew it was something I needed to do, there were aspects of it and a lot of uncertainties that I have struggled with for a long time, and truthfully still struggle with today.

There are a lot of challenges with the open source approach, especially with open source hardware, which is a much newer concept and less well defined than open source software.

Especially for hardware, where you are putting in not only time, but a lot of money and effort building physical things, there are lots of questions how to protect yourself. I think a lot of people shy away from open source or even sharing details about builds because there is always the fear that someone, whether another individual, or larger company (which has happened all too often throughout history) can just scoop up the idea and profit from it themselves, without ever giving any credit or compensation to the original developer. Also, investors are generally not too keen on the idea of releasing designs openly for products your produce!

To make matters worse, there is a lot of grey area and disagreement within the open source communities of what exactly constitutes open source hardware, what protections are afforded to open source hardware, and what business models can be successfully implemented around an open source hardware approach.

There are also not many licenses available specifically catered to open source hardware, however there have been some great advances on this front recently. Right now, all of my gen 1 thrusters have been released under the new CERN Open Hardware License V2, and I plan on continuing to releasing my next generation of thrusters, and subsequent work down the road through AIS through this license.

The license comes in three flavors – strongly reciprocal, weakly reciprocal, and permissive. I decided upon the strongly reciprocal version of the license, which releases everything as open source, but requires proper attribution to the originator for the original designs should anyone use or make modifications themselves.

In the spirit of the continuation with open source development in EP, I also added the additional request in the documentation that any designs derived from AIS remain open source. Proper citation and credit is a small asking price considering the implications of open sourcing such a normally cutting edge, expensive, and often secretive set of technologies.

I am working hard to be a leader in this area of micro-EP, and even if AIS never expands or becomes super successful, would like the groundwork I laid out to be at least recognized.

Even now I still don’t have all the answers. My approach going forward has been to make AIS its own recognized and respected entity in the field, synonymous with low-cost and transparent EP at the nanosat and picosat levels. By openly designing, sharing everything, and pushing my systems everywhere across all sorts of platforms, and engaging the community heavily, AIS systems can stand out against established players, and start to be recognized across the field at all levels.

One of my advantages is being able to push harder and faster than conventionally, and iterate at an extremely rapid rate. It’s really the only way I can contend in a market so heavily funded and usually backed by prestigious institute programs.

I do still worry about researchers or companies taking my work without giving me an acknowledgement or credit, profiting from it themselves, and securing funding off these efforts although I still struggle monetarily myself. However, it drives me to push harder and faster. Even if sharing the final designs for systems, that doesn’t mean that others can leverage them effectively, and if such designs are not already out there, that means they haven’t really been done yet.

And as someone pointed out to me in a discussion on the subject of open source, you can always take a design, but you can never take the mind behind the design!

On the subject of why open source, there are numerous reasons why I decided to open source. For one thing, AIS evolved from a hobby on the side that I did for fun, into something much more. I started playing around with EP designs and testing, sharing my progress over Twitter and the AIS website initially. Eventually, members of the nanosat and picosat communities caught wind, and introduced me to the satellite field, where I discovered there was a lot that I could contribute, especially at the PocketQube level, with a rather unique maker approach.

This pushed me beyond just building and firing simple thrusters for fun, to really working towards fully integrated, low cost, and deployable solutions people could actually use. My roots are in the DIY maker movement, and part of that is sharing projects and builds with the community.

I think my extreme openness and transparency in this endeavor has been the key, defining factor that has grown and expanded this effort. My first major break was being invited to speak and share my work at the Open Source Cubesat Workshop 2019 in Athens, Greece.

The Libre Space Foundation, an organization dedicated to the advance of open source space technologies, reached out to me and offered to sponsor my trip to the conference, which I would not have been able to afford to do myself otherwise at the time. Since then, I have given many talks and presentations on this work, and have been able to further share this effort with a wider, international audience.

The community has also quite literally sustained research at AIS. After a while, people started asking how they could contribute and donate to this effort, leading me to launch the AIS Patreon page.

Last November, my roughing pump, which is a pump used to back the main high vacuum pump I use, broke, and left me out of commission for testing for months. While I was still pumping out designs, electronics testing, research, and resources, it was looking unlikely that I could run tests again for a long time. Members of the community, completely on their own, organized a GoFundMe campaign, raising $5k in a matter of days to support this work to allow me to buy a new scientific grade pump (upgrading from my crappy cheap eBay refrigeration pump prior), as well as providing extra funds to jumpstart some new thruster developments.

This is incredible. I never directly asked for help, yet the community offered to pitch in on their own to keep this effort alive. Even now, most of my funding comes from monthly donations from enthusiasts all around the world through the AIS Patreon page, which allows me to continue this open source research.

In my experiences, the community support has been overwhelmingly positive. I think people really appreciate honesty, transparency, and openness. Even when things go horribly wrong and I have failure after failure, people still appreciate sharing those endeavors, and allows everyone to learn from them.

What I lack in financial resources, advanced manufacturing, and testing support though, I make up for in extreme resourcefulness and speed. Typically, EP spinoffs coming from a university setting take on average 10-15 years to go from initial concept to actual first orbital demonstrations for their system. I am reducing this by a factor of 10, and this can be attributed primarily to my active, open, and transparent engagement with the community.

For example, my very first successful thruster firing was in May 2019. The thruster, the AIS-gPPT1, only fired once. By October, several months later, I had two fully integrated PocketQube-compatible systems already tested and shipped off to Spain for integration on the GENESIS N and L PocketQubes. They were originally going to launch December 2019, however with various launch delays, and now the Covid-19 outbreak, this has been pushed to this September 2020.

For my other current development, the AIS-ILIS1 ionic liquid electrospray thruster, I started thinking about ways to maybe do this advanced micro-ion thruster myself at home in October 2019. I had absolutely no prior experience with electrospray, and until that point, wasn’t much interested in the technology. ILIS in particular is one of the most hyped and heavily funded micro-EP systems in the field, with many big names around the world dumping tens of millions of dollars into this thruster. It has been an extraordinarily demanding journey, with many setbacks and failures, but just recently I finally had my first major successful tests with my own ILIS thruster.

With any luck, I hope to get an initial prototype flown aboard another PocketQube in LEO by February 2021. For both thrusters, in less than a year from literally nothing but sketches and a budget of maybe a few hundred dollars a month, I have pushed multiple EP technologies to the scaling extremes, making them compatible down to PocketQube class systems in terms of power requirements and size, and getting orbital demonstration opportunities far faster than any other EP company out there.

I firmly attribute this to opening up to the community, sharing with other satellite makers passionate in the field, and engaging them at a personal level. I tailor my systems specifically for their constraints and requirements, not only in size and power, but cost and accessibility too. And I share everything – all successes, failures, setbacks, triumphs, design iterations, and every step of the build and testing process. By working with the community at this level, propulsion becomes more accessible, I can get my systems flown far faster, and the community can progress further as a whole.

I believe that my close engagement and growth with the community, and just getting to know many awesome people at the personal level in the nanosat community, and being part of something larger than just another EP company pumping out propulsion, really helps in other ways too.

Recently, the FCC announced a proposal essentially requiring nanosats to have onboard propulsion. This ended up not passing, but will be revisited again in the future. For propulsion companies, this is a massive victory. Requiring satellites to have propulsion is essentially the dream! And yet, talking with the nanosat community first hand, this decision would have been catastrophic with dire consequences for the community. While many teams would like to fly propulsion, and other than the fact that propulsion right now is too expensive for most teams to afford, most teams are simply not ready yet to include propulsion in their mission architecture. In fact, many missions don’t even need propulsion at all.

While propulsion opens up lots of new and powerful capabilities, this does not mean everyone needs to leverage them yet. By essentially forcing this requirement on the community, if it were to pass, many teams would end up not being able to fly.

This would kill so much potential and innovation on all the other work being done by these teams and early start-ups around the world. In response to this announcement, numerous teams and companies in the Cubesat and PocketQube communities, including myself through AIS, banded together to write and submit a formal response against this requirement. I guarantee you that AIS is the only propulsion company out there that would vote against making propulsion mandatory.

While I would love for everyone to jump up and buy my systems, and really have the business take off, it does no good to force a requirement on the community who is not ready to adopt it, especially since their options for propulsion are very limited – either pay a lot of money for current solutions, in which case power, attitude control, and other major aspects of the mission would have to be massively modified to the detriment of the project, or not fly. I think this is one thing that makes AIS unique in the propulsion space. The community is the reason that AIS exists in the first place, and I want to see and help the community grow and flourish, and help contribute to their growth.

Finally, I don’t feel that being secretive and stealth, hoarding away my knowledge and experiences, actually accomplishes anything in the end. Keeping technologies and knowledge secret doesn’t do anything to advance the field or allow it to progress well. It doesn’t help promote the field, or make it more approachable. It keeps the barrier of entry high, and makes it difficult for others to get involved with, further stifling potential innovations and contributions others can make.

As a result, progress is incredibly slow, and it keeps the field traditionally to only entities with exorbitant levels of funding and resources. One of the main points of AIS systems is accessibility, and that extends beyond just low-cost systems. That means sharing resources, educating others in the field, and inspiring enthusiasts, students, and aspiring innovators interested in this area, that anyone can make meaningful contributions to the field even with little resources.

This effort was born from me sharing my work with the community. In fact, if I decided to remain stealth or secretive about what I am doing, then no one would ever know I even existed, and there wouldn’t be any open source EP in the field.

Unlike most EP start-ups, I am not spun out of some prestigious academic program, or incubated through millions in VC funding. At this point, I have no major external funding. Everything is either out of pocket or through the generous contributions from enthusiasts around the world, who keep this effort alive.

I want to be able to give back to the community, expanding the boundaries of just how far advanced science and engineering can go at home, and also show that you don’t need a PhD, millions of dollars, a prestigious backing, or state-of-the-art facilities to research and advance EP, or even science in general.

Is it tough? Hell yeah, this is the hardest thing I have ever done. It has brought me to my knees, past my breaking point. Doing conventionally multi-million dollar level research on essentially pennies with little access to resources is incredibly demanding, and requires all of my spare effort and resources.

But it is these aspects that have driven my designs, and in a very large sense, having little resources is a very powerful asset. It forces you to be resourceful to the extreme, it forces you to think far outside the box of conventional approaches, it forces you to get desperate (in a good way) to advance and innovate, and it forces you to rise to the occasion.

I want to do the impossible in this field, and to challenge and defy convention.

 Lastly, what are the more interesting ideas or experiments in the electric propulsion space that are taking place right now?

Honestly, in my opinion, I find all types of EP fascinating. Most people typically focus on and specialize in one particular type of EP system, but there are so many fascinating aspects across all EP that it’s just all awesome to study. In addition, not only is there a lot of cross-over between various EP systems, but there is massive cross-over between EP and countless other fields as well.

It combines my passion for high vacuum systems, particle beam systems, plasma systems, high voltage, pulsed power, propulsion, and everything in between, and there is just too much going on and advancing for any one thing to stand out in particular. But it’s really the little details that I find buried in papers and literature, both new and old, that makes me stop and think damn, I can actually do this myself, that are truly captivating!

 Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with us today Michael about your involvment in the propulsion space. It’s been a truly inspiring conversation. For anyone interested in learning more about Michael and Applied Ion Systems, you can head over to his website here or follow him on Twitter. If you’ve enjoyed this interview series and would like to help contribute to Michael’s work, then you can contribute here).

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Blackship One is a content marketing agency focused on helping space, robotics and hi-tech companies grow. Interested? ⚡ Learn more here.

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