Where Are the Autonomous Lawnmowers?

It’s impossible to know when society began to manicure its front lawns. Truth be told — cutting the grass was, and still is a necessity. But keeping the weeds at bay, trimming, edging and so forth is not. Having a nice lawn has become a status symbol of modern suburbia all across the globe. When the aliens arrive, one of the first things they will surely notice is how nice our front lawns are. This feature of our civilization could have only been made possible with the advent of specialized grass-cutting machines.

reel mower
Reel Mower [Public Domain]
It could be argued that the very first lawnmowers were live stock. The problem was they were quite high maintenance devices and tended to provide a very uneven cut, which did not bode well for families striving for the nicest front lawn on the dirt road. Coupled with the foul odor of their byproducts, the animals became quite unpopular and were gradually moved out of site into the back yards. Other solutions were sought to maintain the prestigious front yard.

The first mechanical lawnmower was invented in 1830 by a man named Edwin Budding, no doubt in an effort to one-up his neighbor, who still employed a Scythe. Budding’s mower looked much like today’s classic reel mowers, where a rotating cylinder houses the blades and rotates as the mower is pushed forward. Budding was granted a patent for his device by England, much to the dismay of his fellow neighbors — most of whom were forced to buy Budding’s mower due to the fact that everyone else in the neighborhood bought one, even though they weren’t actually needed.

By the early 1930’s, the cold war started by Budding and his neighbor had spread to almost every front yard on earth, with no end in sight. Fast forward to the modern era and the lawn and garden market did 10 billion in sales in 2014 alone. Technological advances have given rise to highly advanced grass-munching machines. For smaller yards, most use push mowers powered by a single cylinder IC engine. Many come with cloth bags to collect the clippings, even though everyone secretly hates using them because they gradually fill and make the mower heavier and therefore more difficult to push. But our neighbors use them, so we have to too.  Larger yards require expensive riding mowers, many of which boast hydrostatic transmissions, which owners eagerly brag about at neighborhood get-togethers, even though they haven’t the slightest clue of what it actually is.

Us hackers are no different. We have front lawns just like everyone else. But unlike everyone else (including our neighbors) we have soldering irons. And we know how to use them. I propose we take a shot-across-the-bow and disrupt the neighborhood lawn war the same way Budding did 85 years ago. So break out your favorite microcontroller and let’s get to work!

Continue reading “Where Are the Autonomous Lawnmowers?”

A Beacon Suitable for Tracking Santa’s sleigh?

High-altitude ballooning is becoming a popular activity for many universities, schools and hacker spaces. The balloons, which can climb up to 40 km in the stratosphere, usually have recovery parachutes to help get the payload, with its precious data, back to solid ground safely. But when you live in areas where the balloon is likely to be flying over the sea most of the time, recovery of the payload becomes tricky business. [Paul Clark] and his team from Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation are working on building a small, autonomous glider – essentially a flying hard drive – to navigate from 30 km up in the stratosphere to a drop zone somewhere near a major road. An important element of such a system is the locator beacon to help find it. They have now shared their design for an “Iridium 9603 Beacon” — a small Arduino-compatible unit which can transmit its location and other data from anywhere via the Iridium satellite network.

The beacon uses the Short Burst Data service which sends email to a designated mail box with its date, time, location, altitude, speed, heading, temperature, pressure and battery voltage. To do all of this, it incorporates a SAMD21G18 M0 processor; FGPMMOPA6H GPS module; MPL3115A2 altitude sensor; Iridium 9603 Short Burst Data module + antenna and an LTC3225 supercapacitor charger. Including the batteries and antenna, the whole thing weighs in at 72.6 g, making it perfectly suited for high altitude ballooning. The whole package is powered by three ‘AAA’ Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries which ought to be able to withstand the -56° C encountered during the flight. The supercapacitors are required to provide the high current needed when the beacon transmits data.

The team have tested individual components up to 35 km on a balloon flight from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility and the first production unit will be flown on a much smaller balloon, launched from the UK around Christmas. The GitHub repository contains detailed information about the project along with the EagleCAD hardware files and the Arduino code. Now, if only Santa carried this on his Sleigh, it would be easy for NORAD to track his progress in real time.

Custom Data Writer Board For 1996 Plane’s GPS

[Dmitry Grinberg] recently bought a Cessna 150 that contained an old IFR-certified GPS from 1996, the KLN89B. The GPS unit contains a database which by law has to be kept up-to-date for IFR flight. The problem was that, while Honeywell still supplied the data in electronic form, [Dmitry] had no way to update the GPS. The original ways for doing it are either no longer supported, too expensive and a pain to do, or not available to him due to the way his GPS was installed.

Two of those ways involved removing a data card which can legally be slid out of the GPS’s front panel. The data card is what stores all the data but it’s a proprietary card and there’s no reader for it. [Dmitry]’s solution was therefore to make his own reader/writer board.

Continue reading “Custom Data Writer Board For 1996 Plane’s GPS”

Barely-There GSM GPS Tracker

What’s the most un-intrusive GPS you’ve ever seen? How about for a bike? Redditor [Fyodel] has built a Teensy-based GPS/GSM tracker that slides into your bike’s handlebars and really is out of sight.

The tracker operates on T-Mobile’s 2G service band — which will enable the device to work until about 2020 — since AT/T is phasing out their service come January. Since each positioning message averages 60 bytes, an IoT data plan is sufficient for moderate usage, with plans to switch over to a narrow-band LTE service when it becomes more affordable. [Fyodel] admits that battery life isn’t ideal at the moment, but plans to make it more efficient by using a motion sensor to ensure it’s only on when it needs to be.

Continue reading “Barely-There GSM GPS Tracker”

Another Kind of Cloud: The Internet of Farts

It’s taken as canon that girls mature faster than boys. In reality, what happens is that boys stop maturing at about age 12 while girls keep going. And nothing tickles the fancy of the ageless pre-teen boy trapped within all men more than a good fart joke. To wit, we present a geolocating fart tracker for your daily commute.

[Michel] is the hero this world needs, and although he seems to have somewhat of a preoccupation with hacks involving combustible gasses, his other non-methane related projects have graced our pages before, like this electrical meter snooper or an IoT lawn mower. The current effort, though, is a bit on the cheekier side.

The goal is to keep track of his emissions while driving, so with a PIC, an ESP8266, a GPS module, and a small LCD display and keyboard, he now has a way to log his rolling flatulence. When the urge overcomes him he simply presses a button, which logs his location and speed and allows him to make certain qualitative notes regarding the event. The data gets uploaded to the cloud every Friday, which apparently allows [Michel] to while away his weekends mapping his results.

It turns out that he mainly farts while heading south, and he’s worried about the implications both in terms of polar ice cap loss and how Santa is going to treat him next month. We’re thinking he’s got a lock on coal — or at least activated charcoal.

Our beef with this project is obvious – it relies on the honor system for input. We really need to see this reworked with an in-seat methane detector to keep [Michel] honest. Until then, stay young, [Michel].

MP3 Player and Handheld GPS is an Odd Combo Work Of Art

We think [Brek Martin] set out to build a handheld GPS and ended up adding an mp3 Player to it. Regardless, it’s beautifully constructed. Hand built circuit boards and even a custom antenna adorn this impressive build.

The core of the build is a 16 bit microcontroller a dsPIC33FJ128GP802 from Microchip. It’s a humble chip to be doing so much. It uses a UBlox NEO-6M positioning module for the location and a custom built QFH antenna built after calculations done with an online calculator for the GPS half. The audio half is based around a VLSI VS1003b decoder chip.

The whole build is done with protoboard. Where the built in traces didn’t suffice enamel and wire wrap wire were carefully routed and soldered in place. There’s a 48pin LQFP package chip soldered dead bug style that’s impressive to behold.  You can see some good pictures in this small gallery below.

Continue reading “MP3 Player and Handheld GPS is an Odd Combo Work Of Art”

Personal Compass Points to Your Spawn Point

A conventional compass points north (well, to magnetic north, anyway). [Videoschmideo]  wanted to make a compass that pointed somewhere specific. In particular, the compass — a wedding gift — was to point to a park where the newlywed couple got engaged. Like waking up in a fresh new Minecraft world, this is their spawn point and now they can always find their way back from the wilderness.

The device uses an Arduino, a GPS module, a compass, and a servo motor. Being a wedding gift, it also needs to meet certain aesthetic sensibilities. The device is in an attractive wooden box and uses stylish brass gears. The gears allow the servo motor to turn more than 360 degrees (and the software limits the rotation to 360 degrees). You can see a video of the device in operation, below.

Continue reading “Personal Compass Points to Your Spawn Point”