Autonomous mini-sailboat drones ply the ocean and mop up oil spills, gather information on marine life in crisis and clean up floating plastic trash. That's the vision of Protei, a collective of technology students from around the globe who have been designing a fleet of these craft as "open" hardware—or electronic gadgets assembled from scratch using shared, collective information.

"It's an international collaboration so I guess we can call it a multinational company," says New York University's Gabriella Levine, a participant in the second annual Open Hardware Summit on September 15 at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. The event serves as a gateway to the much larger Maker Faire set for September 17 and 18, also at the hands-on science and technology center, which will boast everything from circuits sculpted from play dough to oobleck demonstrations.

The Protei boats were originally designed to respond to BP's 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Trailing oil-absorbing booms, the drones could sail even in a storm to help with cleanup, unlike human-crewed ships. The open hardware boats were just one device discussed at the confab for builders of hacked Roomba robots and pillows with messages spelled out in sewn-in light-emitting diodes.

Much like open software, the idea of open hardware is to freely share all the necessary knowledge for building usable electronics. This is not just for the balding, pony-tailed basement tinkerer; the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN and as the operator of the Large Hadron Collider) is developing an open hardware license for some of its fancy bits.

The core component of many open hardware devices is the Arduino microcontroller, born of student frustration in Ivrea, Italy, and now beloved around the world. The core aspiration of attendees is the 3D printer that makes printing out physical objects possible.

Open hardware is not just about making fetishes; it's also about saving the world. Much like the student Protei, hackers in Japan quickly sourced and shared the components and software to build stationary and mobile radiation monitors after the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began in Japan on March 11. By April 9, affordable Geiger counters paired with Arduino microcontrollers for wireless communication were helping build a crowd-sourced map of radiation in Japan, according to programmer and developer Shigeru Kobayashi. Similarly, the open hardware community built clip-on devices to turn an iPhone into a pocket radiation monitor. Given the inability (or unwillingness) of the Japanese government and TEPCO to share such information, in this case open hardware provided the first comprehensive open access radiation maps.

Still, the primary feeling among open hardware types seems to be gadget lust. The makings for Arduino microcontrollers, 3D printer inputs and the like have to be sourced somewhere—and rely on cheap components, largely from Shenzhen in China—while Moore's Law concerning ever faster microchips creates an inexorable pressure to upgrade the computers that make such hardware hacking possible. As electrical engineer Andrew "Bunnie" Huang of chumby put it: the ethic of today is "buy, throw away" and that means e-waste mishandled in the toxic dumps of China, Ghana and other countries with lax environmental regulations.

In the future, the open hardware movement might aspire to the creation of so-called "heirloom gadgets," which can be handed usefully from one (human) generation to the next, rather than setting us all to muttering about planned obsolescence. "An heirloom laptop sounds retarded today," Huang admits.

In the meantime, when it comes to open hardware, resistance is futile (if less than one ohm), as one T-shirt slogan goes.

Image: Courtesy of Arduino