A DIY Geomagnetic Observatory

Magnetometer observatory

[Dr. Fortin] teaches physics at a French High School, and to get his students interested in the natural world around them, he built a geomagnetic observatory, able to tell his students if they have a chance at seeing an aurora, or if a large truck just drove by.

We’ve seen this sort of device before, and the basic construction is extremely similar – a laser shines on a mirror attached to magnets. When a change occurs in the local magnetic field, the mirror rotates slightly and the laser beam is deflected. Older versions have used photoresistors, but [the doctor] is shining his laser on a piece of paper and logging everything with a webcam and a bit of OpenCV.

The design is a huge improvement over earlier DIY attempts at measuring the local magnetic field, if only because the baseline between the webcam and mirror are so long. When set up in his house, the magnetometer can detect cars parked in front of his building, but the data he’s collecting (French, but it’s just a bunch of graphs) is comparable to the official Russian magnetic field data.

Pew Pew! An Arduino Based Laser Rangefinder

Arduino Laser Rangefinder
Lasers are some of the coolest devices around. We can use them to cut things, create laser light shows, and also as a rangefinder.[Ignas] wrote in to tell us about [Berryjam's] AMAZING write-up on creating an Arduino based laser rangefinder. This post is definitely worth reading.

Inspired by a Arduino based LIDAR system, [Berryjam] decided that he wanted to successfully use an affordable Open Source Laser RangeFinder (OSLRF-01) from LightWare. The article starts off by going over the basics of how to measure distance with a laser based system. You measure the time between an outgoing laser pulse and the reflected return pulse; this time directly relates to the distance of the object. Sounds simple? In practice, it is not as simple as it may seem. [Berryjam] has done a great job doing some real world testing of this device, with nice plots to top it all off. After fiddling with the threshold and some other aspects of the code, the resulting accuracy is quite good.

Recently, we have seen more projects utilizing lasers for range-finding, including LIDAR projects. It is very exciting to see such high-end sensors making their way into the maker/hacker realm. If you have a related laser project, be sure to let us know!

Fold-out Laser Cutter Prototype Promises Portability (But Maybe Not Safety)


fold out laser cutter

Often times it’s tricky to make space for a full size laser cutter… so a group of friends over at Pittsburgh TechShop have been working on designing a fold-out version for easy storage. It’s still a prototype/proof of concept, so we’ll overlook the obvious safety concerns for now.

It’s built predominately out of aluminum extrusion and a few custom machined parts. A 40W CO2 laser tube sits in the back with optics reflecting it out to the laser head. The X-axis pivots on a heavy duty hinge mechanism and then locks in place for use. Unfortunately there are no videos of it in action, but the whole arm-linkage is apparently quite rigid and robust.

Like we said, this is one of their first prototypes or proofs of concept — as they continue to enhance the design they are considering taking it to Kickstarter down the road. They plan on enclosing the beam path in order to make it safe, and we’ll certainly be interested to see how that works out!

For more info on the project, there’s a thread on Reddit going strong.

[Thanks Ollie!]

How To Laser Cut Mylar Solder Stencils

Solder Stencil

When you think about the difficulties of working with surface mount components, the first thing that often comes to mind is trying to solder those tiny little parts. Instead of soldering those parts by hand, you can actually apply solder paste to the pads and place all of the components on at once. You can then heat up the entire board so all of the parts are soldered simultaneously. It sounds so much easier! The only problem is you then need a solder stencil. You somehow have to get a thin sheet of material that has a perfectly sized hole where all of your solder pads are. It’s not exactly trivial to cut them out by hand.

[Juan] recently learned a new trick to make cutting solder stencils a less painful process. He uses a laser cutter to cut Mylar sheets into stencils. [Juan] appears to be using EagleCAD and Express PCB. Both tools are available for free to hobbyists. The first step in the process is to export the top and bottom cream layers from your CAD software.

The next step is to shrink the size of the solder pads just a little bit. This is to compensate for the inevitable melting that will be caused by the heat from the laser. Without this step, the pads will likely end up a little bit too big. If your CAD software exports the files as gerbers, [Juan] explains how to re-size the pads using ViewMate. If they are exported as DXF files, he explains how to scale them using AutoCAD. The re-sized file is then exported as a PDF.

[Juan's] trick is to actually cut two pieces of 7mil Mylar at the same time. The laser must be calibrated to cut all the way through the top sheet, but only part way into the bottom piece. The laser ends up slightly melting the edges of the little cut out squares. These then get stuck to the bottom Mylar sheet. When you are all done cutting, you can simply pull the sheets apart and end up with one perfect solder stencil and one scrap piece. [Juan] used a Full Spectrum 120W laser cutter at Dallas Makerspace. If you happen to have this same machine, he actually included all of the laser settings on his site.

Making Flexible Wood Using a Laser Cutter

laser cut curved wood

If you’re one of the lucky ones who has access to a laser cutter, you’re definitely going to want to check out [Aaron Porterfield's] latest work. He’s been experimenting with making flexible wood.

We’ve all probably seen wood cut with slots added to allow flexibility in a single direction, but did you know with the use of lattice hinges you can do so much more? [Aaron's] been playing around with parametric patterns and has made some really cool examples — the best part is, he’s sharing them all for free (both .DXF and vector files)!

His main goal was to create a pattern that is in flexible in multiple directions, which he almost achieved — but the really cool thing he figured out was creating a pre-formed curved surface by mapping the bend in Photoshop first…

[Read more...]

One-Off Kapton Solder Masks


With the proliferation of desktop routers, and a number of easy methods to create PCBs at home, there’s no reason anyone should ever have to buy a pre-made breakout board ever again. The traditional techniques only give you a copper layer, however, and if you want a somewhat more durable PCB, you’ll have figure out some way to create a solder mask on your homebrew PCBs. [Chris] figured Kapton tape would make a reasonable soldermask, and documented the process of creating one with a laser cutter over on the Projects site.

The solder mask itself is cut from a piece of Kapton tape, something that should be found in any reasonably well-stocked tinkerer’s toolbox. The software for [Chris]‘ laser cutter, a Universal Laser Systems model, already has a setting for mylar film that came in handy for the Kapton tape,

Of course, getting the correct shapes and dimensions for the laser to cut required a bit of fooling around in Eagle and Corel Draw. The area the laser should cut was taken from the tCream and tStop layers in Eagle with a 1 mil pullback from the edges of the pads. This was exported to an .EPS file, opened in Corel Draw, and turned into a line art drawing for the laser cutter.

The result is a fast and easy solder mask that should be very durable. While it’s probably not as durable as the UV curing paints used in real PCBs, Kapton will be more than sufficient for a few prototypes before spinning a real board.

The Laser Cutter Attachment For A 3D Printer

cheapo If you already have a 3D printer, you already have a machine that will trace out gears, cogs, and enclosures over an XY plane. How about strapping a laser to your extruder and turning your printer into a laser cutter? That’s what [Spiritplumber] did, and he’s actually cutting 3/16″ wood and 1/4″ acrylic with his 3D printer.

[Spiritplumber] is using a 445nm laser diode attached directly to his extruder mount to turn his 3D printer into a laser cutter. The great thing about putting a laser diode on an extruder is that no additional power supplies are needed; after installing a few connectors near the hot end, [Spiritplumber] is able to switch from extruding to lasing by just swapping a few wires. The software isn’t a problem either: it’s all just Gcode and DXFs, anyway.

There’s an Indiegogo for this, with the laser available for $200. Compare that to the Chinese laser cutters on eBay, and you can see why this is called the L-CHEAPO laser cutter.