The Strange World Of Open-Source Pancreas Hacking

This is a Closed Loop Artificial Pancreas System consisting of a compute module and a 900 MHz radio. While it may not be pretty, it is actually keeping someone alive.

Opinions and views expressed in this blog do not reflect those of my employer and are wholly my own.

I have been lucky and gotten to travel the world and meet many interesting people building many interesting hardware projects with compute modules. Some of the more interesting projects come from the the OpenAPS movement, who are using compute modules to help Type I Diabetes sufferers manage their condition. I wanted to write a blog about what is going on in the OpenAPS movement and share some of the interesting hardware projects being built by hackers to manage their conditions.

A compute module is a tiny, cheap computer you can stick into things to make them smart (and often add Linux / Windows IoT and wireless connectivity).

Open source hardware hacking of life-sustaining equipment is highly dangerous and legally vague, why would anyone take this risk? Because current government regulations have delayed the creation of convenient systems for Type I Diabetes management until several years from now. As a result, the OpenAPS “We Are Not Waiting” movement has been born.

OpenAPS and Type I Diabetes For Dummies Like Me

This is a blood-glucose "thing." It is stuck directly into your arm and uses Bluetooth LE to communicate your blood sugar levels to nearby monitoring equipment.
This is a blood-glucose “thing.” It is stuck directly into your arm (assuming you have Type I Diabetes) and wirelessly communicates your blood sugar levels to nearby monitoring equipment.

OpenAPS TL;DR: It is the job of your pancreas to regulate your insulin, which controls your blood glucose. If you have Type-I Diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t function properly. A malfunctioning pancreas can kill you by allowing your insulin levels to rise or fall beyond a certain range resulting in something called ‘hyperglycemia’ (too much blood sugar) or ‘hypoglycemia’ (too little blood sugar).

Many people have died because their insulin levels rose or fell too far. It is therefore imperative to track blood glucose and periodically make use of an ‘insulin pump.’ An insulin pump contains helpful shots of insulin to keep you alive. There is a lot more to it than: read more here.

Here is an insulin pump next to a custom built OpenAPS rig:

An Example OpenAPS Closed Loop Artificial Pancreas System


Ok, so now that I have tried to explain Diabetes Type I in the most simple terms, lets examine an actual system. When the OpenAPS movement kicked off, the primary available low-cost computing platform was the Raspberry Pi. Needless to say, the Raspberry Pi requires a few extra components before it can be carried around with you and used to monitor your blood glucose for a full day.

Can you imagine having to carry this mess of electronics junk and wires with you all day long? Thankfully, things have improved since then as smaller compute modules have become available.

Some interesting OpenAPS Rigs (From Twitter) 

The form of some of the OpenAPS rigs reveal the ingenuity and creativity of Type I Diabetes sufferers in managing their own condition. On Twitter it seems like building an ever-more fancy “rig” has become a sort of “engineering status symbol.” Who can make the smallest, most compact and coolest-looking OpenAPS rig?

Key Takeways

So what to make of all this open source hardware and software hackery? So what if a bunch of people have decided to take their own health conditions into their own hands?

Well there is a much bigger underlying point here than these individual systems. The point is that widely available, cheap integrated compute modules and tiny single board computers are allowing people to rapidly iterate and test out new ideas for cheaper than ever before. Hardware is becoming agile, as software did before it.

What Open APS is showing us is that we have entered a new phase of iterative, social, collaborative hardware development. Now that hardware has been “jail broken,” we are getting a taste of an entirely new industry in the making, one where hardware can move at the speed of software.