Wireless Technologies

Crowdsourcing Innovation: Oleg Artamonov, Black Swift

Crowdfunding sites are offering a new path for inventors with original ideas. We talk to inventors looking to gain the public’s favour...

Oleg Artamonov

 Job title: Marketing & electronics development

 Organisation: Smart Electronics LLC

 Location: Moscow, Russia


Product: Black Swift embedded computer


What it does & how it works:

Black Swift is a coin-sized (well, a bit bigger, actually, but comparable to SD memory card) embedded computer. “Embedded” means it doesn’t have keyboard, display, or mouse — it’s for using inside other devices (smart home appliances, for example).

If you want your air conditioner to be controlled from your smartphone, to gather some statistics on electricity usage and air temperature, to be smart and internet-connected, you need to put some computing core inside it. That’s where Black Swift fits.

What makes it special?

If you take a look at existing microcomputers, you can divide them into two categories: 1) Made for professionals — small, powerful, highly integrated, and 2) Made for DIY enthusiasts — easy to connect, easy to use. Professional devices are a bit unfriendly for enthusiasts (e.g. most boards in this category are surface mounted or equipped with some fancy specialized connectors, need external components to work, etc.). On the other hand, DIY devices are too big to be used as embedded solutions by professionals; you can’t fit Beagle Bone or Raspberry, even the newest one, inside your air conditioner.

What we tried to do is to combine the best of both worlds. First, make it small. Second, make it fully integrated (no external components needed to start). Third, make it easy to use.

What’s your background, and what inspired you to come up with the idea?

My personal background is marketing, marketing communications, and electronics engineering — but the last one is a hobby, not a profession. Our team is a small company specializing in electronics engineering, so we have programmers, engineers and even an expert in contract manufacturing.

Actually, there was no idea per se. We needed embedded computing and communications core for our own devices — there are some options, but we were not happy with them. Some lack integrated antenna or voltage regulators, others are surface mounted, also, sometimes we need to make some hardware changes, and Chinese manufacturers are not willing to help us or provide complete documentation. So we started to develop it, and what we see a bit later — we have nice computing core in which other people may be interested as well.

Why choose Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is the biggest and most well-known crowdfunding platform. Crowdfunding is not just about, well, funding, but about telling the world that you exist. It’s a marketing communications channel. During our campaign, we received attention not only from our backers, but from some big names as well; Black Swift will be featured at Embedded World Conference later this month.

Is Crowdfunding good for innovation? How so?

Yes. Absolutely. And once again, It’s not just about money — it’s about marketing, making your project attractive for other people, learning how to speak with them, with media, acquiring new connections, etc.

Reactions from users on KS so far?

Positive. We’ve got very positive reaction on some specialized forums, and on Kickstarter itself — people asking us specific questions about the board, its capabilities, how to use it — it means they are already planning to use it somehow, not just “oh, some fancy project, let’s give them $5”.

What lessons have you learned from your campaign?

Our main problem is a lack of attention from big consumer-oriented media. I think they need some eye-catching content, and we are a bit boring — some microcomputer it seems we saw a lot of already. Probably we needed to make some totally useless but attractive extension board — e.g. “Smallest router in the world” or “100% Arduino compatible Linux computer”, use some buzzwords here — and show it to them, this way we might receive much better attention.


What does Black Swift offer that you can’t get from a Raspberry Pi, Intel Galileo/Edison etc.?

Black Swift is useful for both professionals and DIY enthusiasts — small, powerful enough, fully integrated, and at the same time easy to use. To start using Edison, you need a development board, and to start using Black Swift, you need nothing but a 5V cell phone charger. Second, it’s affordable — $25. Third, it’s open source — not only OS, but the hardware itself. If you are an electronics engineer and you want to modify Black Swift or integrate its schematics into your own project — you are free to do it.

How do you foresee people using the Black Swift and how do you personally use it?

For DIY enthusiasts it’s a bridge to Internet of Things — you can start with some easy project like wireless mp3 audio player or network camera and gradually raise your experience up to professional electronics design, using the same computing core on each step. For professionals — its powerful and capable embedded computing and communications core for their own design, which allows them to speed up development and bring down the total cost.

I am more of an enthusiast than professional, so I’m already using it in my DIY projects; the most complex one is an energy meter with web interface and Wi-Fi connection to check my apartments’ power consumption in real time.

What’s the technology scene is Moscow like?

Unfortunately, a bit segmented. There are highly professional engineers working on some industrial projects, there are DIY people who use Arduino, Raspberry, etc. — but there’s no bridge between them, no local startups or established companies developing things like Arduino, no proper communities around such kind of projects. But I believe it will be the next step — after playing a lot with existing solutions people want to think of something better and make it.

Possible business use/advantage?

Black Swift is a great solution for professional engineers in the IoT era — it can be used to provide smart capabilities and network connections for all kinds of devices, it offers low cost, quick prototyping, and a lot of different interfaces. Unlike competing solutions (Carambola 2, ELink M150, VoCore, and others) it offers a variety of mounting options, smaller size, better performance, and better integration.

What's next for the company and the product?

As a company, we have some ideas of how to use Black Swift in the end-user devices, for example, we are now discussing Smart Home concepts; trying to find the balance between unreliable, but cheap Chinese 433MHz devices, and durable but costly solutions.

Speaking of Black Swift itself, we want to build a kind of knowledge center and community around it, focusing on embedded development and Internet of Things — unlike regular OpenWRT community which focuses mainly on networking capabilities. And later, I believe, develop newer Black Swift modifications, using more powerful CPUs, but in the same form-factor and with the same easiness of use.





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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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