Skip to main content

Robots in Finland: How a Small Open Hardware Project Sparked International Collaboration Across 10 Timezones and 5,000 Miles

Thomas Smith (Project Gado)

Project Gado launched in 2010 with the goal of creating an open source archival scanning robot that small archives could use to digitize their photographic collections. In 2012, the project released the Gado 2, a $500 Arduino and Python-based robot which could scan historical photos at archival resolution, fully autonomously.

Beginning in 2011, Project Gado used the technology to digitize 120,000+ photos in the archives of the Afro American Newspapers in Baltimore, Maryland, leading the Wall Street Journal to hail the Gado 2 as a “robot [which] rescues black history”, and the Baltimore Sun to call it “revolutionary.”

Like many small open hardware projects, Project Gado published its code and designs online, under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license. At first, the code and designs received little attention. In early 2013, however, a research team at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland read about Project Gado’s work at the Afro American Newspapers, downloaded designs and software for the Gado 2, and reached out to the Project Gado team to begin a collaboration.

The results have been remarkable. Over the last year, the Aalto team has completely rewritten the entire Gado 2 codebase, launched a contest with 1750 Euro in prizes for Finnish design students to create a full enclosure for the Gado 2, and rebuilt the robot from the ground up to fold into a portable carrying case. The Aalto team is now taking the robot into the field to digitize materials at Finnish museums. All of the Aalto team’s work will be released back to the Open Source community.

Project Gado’s collaboration with Aalto University is a perfect illustration of OS’s power to unite communities and spark innovation across continents and cultures. The proposed talk by Project Gado founder Thomas Smith will share the two teams’ works and the full story of the collaboration. In particular, the talk will focus on how the collaboration came to be, how the teams used tools like 3D printing and live video to work together across more than 5,000 miles, and how other open source projects can create similar international partnerships.

This is an ideal talk for OSCON, as it highlights a specific Open Source success story and shares lessons on how other OS projects can create similar successful collaborations. The hope is that this talk will serve as an inspiration to other developers and designers who are considering releasing their materials to the OS community, but are unsure if their OS work will really have an impact.

Photo of Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith

Project Gado

Thomas Smith is an inventor and entrepreneur, and the creator of the open source Gado 2 archival scanning robot. Hailed by the Wall Street Journal as “a robot which rescues black history”, the Gado 2 has been used to digitize 120,000+ images in the archives of the Afro American Newspapers, and is now in use at archives from California to Finland. Mr. Smith currently leads Project Gado, as well as several other ventures.