Rebel Geeks

Rebel Geeks: Meet Your Maker

How Massimo Banzi’s Arduino microcontroller enabled thousands of people to build everything from toys to drones.

The maker movement is promising to reshape our relationship with the design and manufacture of computers and electronic devices by bringing a DIY approach into this field that has – so far – remained the exclusive domain of big industry.

At the heart of this revolution is the Arduino – a tiny, sky blue circuit board.

The only way to be subversive is to be able to control the technology.

by Massimo Banzi, co-founder of the Arduino project

As much as he is seen as a minor deity by the tech community, he is equally humbled by them, and by their creativity and passion. 

He believes Arduino is an accessible tool that can help anyone design and invent, help people do something differently, and bring about social change.

Across the Pacific, widespread anxiety amongst the Japanese about the nuclear fallout in Fukushima has inspired former journalist Kiki and other volunteers to take action.

They built their own Geiger counters using Arduino, established a citizen-based monitoring network and realised that official stations were systematically underestimating the radiation risks.

These volunteers are now Safecast, an NGO dedicated to citizen monitoring, and Kiki takes us to their workshop in Fukushima, where they make all their own devices.

Koriyama and Aizu are making a bicycle bristling with sensors which will collect a whole host of environmental data wherever it goes, while others are engineering radiation sensors attached to solar panels to devices that collect and monitor seaweed from the Japanese coast.

Music credit: “Ocramancer” by Pierlo (Upitup Records)

[Mohsin Ali/Al Jazeera]
[Mohsin Ali/Al Jazeera]


By Matan Rochlitz

Today, almost three billion people are connected to the Internet. This has transformed many industries, from journalism to music, to photography and publishing, where the barrier of access has been progressively lowered to the point where millions have been able to explore and experiment with creative projects.

But one area remained mostly untouched by the great “democratising force” of the web, and that is design and manufacture – until recently.

This film explores the birth, impact and future of open-source “physical computing”; the advent of cheap, easy-to-make computers that can interact with the real world.

When you hold a tiny Arduino circuit board for the first time, it’s hard to see what the fuss is all about. But this simple little device lies is at the heart of one of the most exciting developments in computing and DIY culture.

An Arduino board is a very basic computer: no screen, no keyboard, just the “brain” and a little LED light. The board exists alongside simplified programming software, a little manual and lots of online forums and tutorials. Altogether, it may be the easiest way to learn how to build with electronics.

From 3-D printers to drones to musical instruments, if it’s electronic and it interacts with the real world, then you can probably build it with Arduino.

We met Arduino creator and co-founder Massimo Banzi at the Maker Faire this year in Shenzhen, China [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]
We met Arduino creator and co-founder Massimo Banzi at the Maker Faire this year in Shenzhen, China [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]
Massimo Banzi, the creator and co-founder of Arduino, was teaching at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, in northern Italy, when he decided to see if he could make designing with electronics something people without a background in computer engineering could learn. Over the past 15 years, millions of people have gone on to do just that.

But isn’t it just for geeks? Banzi begs to differ. He believes that understanding the fundamental principles of coding and electronics is essentially the 21st century’s version of basic literacy.

We met Banzi in Shenzhen, China, where he was one of the keynote speakers at the Maker Faire. It’s one of many worldwide gatherings for the maker movement, which is an umbrella term for the millions of people who have been tinkering with the new breed of open-source electronic circuits of which Arduino is the most popular.

Shenzhen is the crown jewel of China’s “economic miracle” and went from fishing village to metropolis in the span of almost 35 years. From his hotel room, Banzi looked out over the city’s imposing skyline: “Look out there. Almost everything you see is somehow connected to computers and electronics. Our lives are completely surrounded by this stuff. And you can’t have the majority of people know absolutely nothing about how it works.” 

Partygoers at a Maker Faire event wear homemade Arduino accesories [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]
Partygoers at a Maker Faire event wear homemade Arduino accesories [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]

The Maker Faire is a dizzying experience. Filmmaker Dan Boaden and I made our way through the many thousands who were in attendance, dodging the odd drone, and narrowly missing people in cosplay outfits on motorised scooters. The main stage was hosting a contest for miniature humanoid robot battles, and the crowds were as rowdy as at any football match.

As we visited different stalls people gushed about Arduino: “It’s changed my life!” “I can build anything with it!” It was infectious and exciting. Many of the projects, however, seemed to be on the frivolous side: dolls that danced to music, LED displays showing Facebook profile pictures, lots of remote-controlled vehicles and plenty of drones. Impressive enough, but we’d come to witness first-hand the maker revolution, which was going to reshape the landscape of manufacturing and production as we know it.

So, is Arduino just an elaborate tech plaything?

“Firstly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with play,” Banzi says. “If we can get people to play with electronics whilst learning about them, I am happy. But the thing is…you meet people and one year they come to see what the fuss is about, the next year they start learning, the following year they have a little booth at a Maker Faire and finally you meet them one day and they have their own start-up company.”

Arduino has an open-source licence. That means all of the schematics, programming and assembly instructions are freely available online, so ideas routinely get copied, tweaked, reworked and re-uploaded.

“A product that may look silly to you is actually step five…of 25,” Banzi explains. “And at the end of the line, you may find something very interesting.”

Numerous materials, like these individual LED lights seen in a Shenzhen electronics market, can be used when building something with an Arduino microcontroller [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]
Numerous materials, like these individual LED lights seen in a Shenzhen electronics market, can be used when building something with an Arduino microcontroller [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]

We left Shenzhen and headed to Japan where we met Joe Moross in Shibuya, Tokyo. Moross and Kiki Tanaka showed us one of the most remarkable Arduino projects we’ve come across.

The days following the Fukushima nuclear fallout of March 2011 are something everyone in Japan remembers vividly. It was clear that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was badly hit by the tsunami, but the government was tight-lipped about what exactly was going on.

When the news spread that there were reactor meltdowns at the nuclear plant, people were desperate to find out whether they or their loved ones were at risk of contamination. With no official data and almost every Geiger counter in the country having been snapped up, many were left in the dark.

Enter Tokyo Hacker Space.

A group of tinkerers, hackers and computer engineers realised they could help and they reached for the Arduino.

They built a contraption with a GPS, a Geiger counter and a smartphone and stuck this box on to the side of a car, then drove into the contamination zone.

A Safecast fixed sensor [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]
A Safecast fixed sensor [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]

With this device they could accurately map the radiation distribution and share the information. “We put out data on radiation in Fukushima about three years before any government data was released,” Moross says.

Today, Safecastis the biggest aggregator of radiation data in the world.

A particular aspect of Arduino in the Safecast project is what Massimo likes to call the “scratch-your-own-itch” principle, and I think it’s one of the most exciting.

During the Fukushima disaster there was simply no device that could do exactly what the Safecast engineers needed. Maker culture has the potential to empower people stuck with products dictated by market forces.

This was made especially apparent when we visited the home of Miyuki, a mother living in Fukushima. She was living there when the tsunami hit and, on the advice of her father, had fled. But due to her husband’s job she now lives only a few miles from the government exclusion zone.

A Safecast fixed sensor installation in a temple [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]
A Safecast fixed sensor installation in a temple [Matan Rochlitz/Al Jazeera]

Her one-year-old was crawling around our feet as Tanaka and Moross measured radiation levels using one of their Arduino-based Geiger counters. When they told her the levels were lower than the world average, Miyuki began to cry with relief.

Of course, if the government’s response had been more thorough or more open, Miyuki may not have had to wait for Safecast to tell her whether she was in danger or not. Yet it was undeniable that this tool had just had a huge impact on one person’s life. A growing network of people able to design and build basic electronic devices suddenly felt like a crucial new development.

Massimo’s words came to mind. “There will be a time, in the near future, when knowing a basic amount of electronics and programming won’t define you as a ‘maker’ or a ‘hacker’,” he says. “It’ll just be part of what makes you a member of the society we live in.”