Particle Electron – The Solution To Cellular Things

Just over a year ago, Particle (formerly Spark), makers of the very popular Spark Core and Particle Photon WiFi development kits, released the first juicy tidbits for a very interesting piece of hardware. It was the Spark Electron, a cheap, all-in-one cellular development kit with an even more interesting data plan. Particle would offer their own cellular service, allowing their tiny board to send or receive 1 Megabyte for $3.00 a month, without any contracts.

Thousands of people found this an interesting proposition and the Electron crowdfunding campaign took off like a rocket. Now, after a year of development and manufacturing, these tiny cellular boards are finally shipping out to backers and today the Electron officially launches.

Particle was kind enough to provide Hackaday with an Electron kit for a review. The short version of this review is the Electron is a great development platform, but Particle pulled off a small revolution in cellular communications and the Internet of Things

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The Triumph of Open Design and the Birth of a FormLabs Aftermarket

Whilst designing hardware, it’s easy to shut the doors, close the blinds, and bury ourselves deeply into an after-hours design session. Although it’s tempting to fly solo, it’s likely that we’ll encounter bugs that others have handled, or perhaps we’ll realize that we forgot to add a handy feature that someone else could’ve noticed before we sent the darned PCB files out for fab. All that said, if we probe the community around us and ask for feedback, we can produce a project that’s far more functional and feature-complete in less time than if we were to design solo. Who knows? With enough eyes giving feedback on your project, maybe others will get excited enough to want one for themselves! [Andrew Werby] and [Zak Timan] on the FormLabs forums did just that: through months of iterative design and discussion on the FormLabs forums, they’ve created the first 3rd party glass resin tank that’s altogether sturdier, longer-lasting, more scratch-resistant, and less distorting than the original resin tank. And guess what? After months of trials through a few brave customers, you too can be the proud owner such a tank as they’re now up for sale on [Zak’s] website.

To Build a Resin Tank

Tired of replacing resin tanks, [Andrew Werby] pondered: why not build one to last? FormLabs tanks, as is, are consumables, intended only for about 1-to-2 bottles of resin before their silicone layer depletes and they join their fellow disposed brethren in the dumpster. They’re made from acrylic, which makes them brittle and easy to shatter if not removed carefully from the printer. The acrylic composition also prevents them from being cleaned with IPA, which would cause it to crack. Finally, since we can’t clean the tank and fill it with a different color, the resin-printing enthusiasts need one tank for each type of resin that they own.

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[Zak] and [Andrew’s] First Pass. Image Credit: FormLabs Forums
Coming from a laundry list of drawbacks with the current tank, [Andrew] decided to design his own. With some shrewd forethought, [Andrew] thought that by switching from acrylic to glass, he might get some better print performance. In [Andrew’s] mind, glass might distort the laser far less than acrylic, and, as a material it would be far more durable. The first prototype, fabbed by glass-fabrication guru [Zak], was an all-glass replica.

After a few prints, [Andrew] noticed that the “semi-cured resin globs” that formed in acrylic tanks altogether disappeared in this glass variant. After dropping a few jaws on the forum, [Zak] made a few more tanks, sent them to a few more brave enthusiasts, and received a healthy dose of feedback both from forum followers and fresh tank users. Some insightful followers suggested alternative materials. Others wanted to store the tank outside without curing the resin. As feedback fed through the forum, the bottom shifted to all-borosilicate glass, to conventional soda lime glass. The tank walls evolved from glass to a more robust PVC and finally a sturdy UV-filtering polycarbonate. Each of these design changes stemmed from the feedback and tips of eager readers.

In the last few months, the tank has evolved into a feature-complete hybrid of UV-filtering polycarbonate that’s chemically welded to soda-lime glass coated in silicone. The bottom is embossed, enabling it to be set on a flat surface without risk of scratching. The tank can be cleaned with IPA and re-coated with silicone. The optical properties of the glass are slightly less distorting than the original’s acrylic. Finally, [Zak] and [Andrew] even received the “ok” from FormLabs to start selling the Z-Vat Glass Tank, although FormLabs is, of course, completely unaffiliated.

The Man Behind the Respirator

[Zak] is no stranger to glass. Back in high school, he fell in love with the process while watching a friend blow glass, and the two setup a shop in [Zak’s] garage. 15 years later, he’s now in the Bay Area, cracking away at floating sculptures in his current shop. The glass tank may have been dreamed up by many minds on the FormLabs forums, but making it real took someone who could play with both those ideas on the forums and the tools of the glass shop. The glass tank may look simple, but it’s an exercise in chemical welding and an ordeal in keeping a dirty glass shop dust-free for silicone coating the optical surface. With the development of glass tanks, [Zak] has forged the dreams of a few tinkerers who were looking for a tank with a bit more “oomph.”

Extra Eyes in the Build Process

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[Zak] and [Andrew] didn’t finish their build alone in the dark. When [Andrew] began sharing his experience, the forum community leaped on the project and chimed in with helpful tips and relevant woes from what they saw. White papers where shared, “if-only” features were gushed, and in the end the tank evolved from a pricey all-borosilicate-build to a hybrid of materials that not only fits snugly into the printer slot, but also outlasts the lifetime of the original.

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New tanks at [Zak’s] Home Base for Glasswork
The world is filled with volumes of information and experiences, but it takes a human to figure out how to make sense of it. You and I might be hardware designers, grizzled double-Es, college students, or perhaps just casual readers, but we’re still all equipped with brains. The story of the Z-Vat is a testament that any of us, no matter how skilled, can still make a meaningful contribution to an ongoing, shared project, just by voicing our thoughts. In doing so, we call out the flaws and features that others haven’t yet seen. By making our design stages open, the designers can better assemble a gadget that best becomes the aggregate of all of this distilled information–a thing that many people want!

To anyone who picks up a tank like this one, you have the collective pioneers on the FormLabs forum to thank for a feature-complete tank that “just works.” And, of course, don’t forget, with a little input, you too can mold a future project into a thing that “just works” too.

Error Detection and Correction: Reed-Solomon, Convolution and Trellis Diagrams

Transferring data without error when there is a lot of background noise is a challenge. Dr. Claude E. Shannon in 1948 provided guidance with his theory addressing the capacity of a communications channel in the presence of noise. His work quickly spread beyond communications into other fields. Even other aspects of computer use were impacted. An example is the transfer of data from a storage medium, like a hard drive or CD-ROM. These media and their sensors are not 100% reliable so errors occur. Just as Shannon’s work defines communication channel capacity it defines the transfer rate from a media surface to the read head.

Shannon told us how much could be passed through a channel but didn’t say how. Since 1948 a lot of research effort went into accurately detecting errors and correcting them. Error correction codes (ECC) add extra bits to messages, but their cost pays off in their ability to work around errors. For instance, without ECC the two Voyager spacecraft, now leaving our solar system, would be unable to phone home with the information they’ve gathered because noise would overwhelm their signals. Typically in hardware, like memory, error correction is referred to as ECC. In communications, the term forward error correction (FEC) is used.

Robust communication, or data transfer, is a combination of fancy software and tricky signal processing. I’m going to focus on the software side in this article. You may find some of these techniques useful in communicating data among your devices. While I’ll be using the term communications keep in mind this is applicable to transferring data in general.

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Join Hackaday at MakeIt NYC this Thursday

New York is coming on strong as a hardware epicenter — exciting hardware culture can be found at every turn. Tomorrow, we’re bringing food and fun to one such event, the monthly MakeIt NYC meetup.

MakeIt is hosted by PCB.ng, a Brooklyn based PCB manufacturer and board stuffer whose mission it is to make electronics manufacturing available to everyone. [Sophi Kravitz] will be on hand and speaking about Hackaday.io and the Hackaday Prize. There are many other talks lined up, including The LED Artist (amazing work if you haven’t seen), Microchip who will show off their new Chip-KIT Wi-Fire,  Thimble (an electronics subscription service delivering monthly hardware kits), and Botfactory’s Squink, a desktop electronics manufacturing machine.

In addition to the planned talks we’re always interested in seeing the projects you’re working on. Bring along anything that fits in a pocket or a backpack. We’ll see you there!

FAA Rescinds Drone Ban Around DC

Late last year, the FAA expanded a Special Flight Rule Area (SFRA) that applied to Unmanned Aerial Systems, drones, and RC airplanes around Washington DC. This SFRA was created around the year 2000 – for obvious reasons – and applies to more than just quadcopters and airplanes made out of foam. Last December, the FAA expanded the SFRA from 15 nautical around a point located at Reagan National to 30 nautical miles. No remote-controlled aircraft could fly in this SFRA, effectively banning quadcopters and drones for six million people.

Today, the FAA has rescinded that ban bringing the area covered under the Washington DC SFRA to 15 nautical miles around a point inside Reagan National. This area includes The District of Columbia, Bethesda, College Park, Alexandria, and basically everything inside the beltway, plus a mile or two beyond. Things are now back to the way they were are few weeks ago.

The 30-mile SFRA included a number of model flying clubs that were shuttered because of the ban. DCRC is now back up. The Capital Area Soaring Association worked with the FAA and AMA to allow club members to fly.

Of course, limitations on remote-controlled aircraft still exist. For the most part, these are rather standard restrictions: aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, fly below 400 feet line of sight, and must avoid other aircraft.

Remote-Controlled Eyebrows for Your Birthday

We’re not sure that [Alec]’s dad actually requested remote-controlled eyebrows for his birthday, but it looks like it’s what he got! As [Alec] points out, his father does have very expressive eyebrows, and who knows, he could be tired of raising and lowering them by himself. So maybe this is a good thing? But to us, it still looks a tiny bit Clockwork Orange. But we’re not here to pass judgement or discuss matters of free will. On to the project. (And the video, below the break.)

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An ATmega328 (otherwise known as cheap Cloneduino) is trained to run motors in response to IR signals. An L293D and a couple of gear motors take care of the rest. Sewing bobbins and thread connect the motors to the eyebrows. And while it’s not entirely visible in the photo, and veers back into not-sure-we’d-do-this-at-home, a toothpick serves as an anchor for the thread and tape, secured just underneath the ‘brows for maximum traction.

We have to say, we initially thought it was going to be a high-voltage muscle-control hack, and we were relieved that it wasn’t.

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Experiments With A Bowden Extruder Filament Force Sensor

We were excited to learn that someone had started working with force sensors on filament extruders, especially after we posted about a recent development in filament thickness sensors.

[airtripper] primarily uses a Bowden extruder, and wanted to be a little more scientific in his 3D printing efforts. So he purchased a force sensor off eBay and modified his extruder design to fit it. Once installed he could see exactly how different temperatures, retraction rates, speed, etc. resulted in different forces on the extruder. He used this information to tune his printer just a bit better.

More interesting, [airtripper] used his new sensor to validate the powers of various extruder gears. These are the gears that actually transfer the driving force of the stepper to the filament itself. He tested some of the common drive gears, and proved that the Mk8 gear slipped the least and provided the most constant force. We love to see this kind of science in the 3D printing community — let’s see if someone can replicate his findings.