IoT Enabled Thomas The Tank Engine

This month the popular “Thomas the Tank Engine” toy celebrated its 70 anniversary. As a fun project, [tinkermax] wanted to bring this traditional toy into the age of IoT, while preserving its physical appearance and simple charm.

He used a model called the “Diesel” which seemed big enough to house the electronics, but proved otherwise once he inspected the innards. He needed to fit in an ESP8266 module, an accelerometer breakout, some discrete parts, a nifty analog multiplexer, and a 14500 3.7V LiPo. Once done, he was able to control its speed remotely over WiFi, with an auto “throttle-boost” that kicks in when the accelerometer senses that the train is going uphill, and has remote monitoring of battery state, engine load, inclination and track vibration – all in real-time using MQTT over WiFi. It’s quite a demonstration of the power of these super-cheap WiFi modules that are powering the current wave of IoT innovation.

The train motor works off a single 1.5V battery, so [tinkermax] tried a couple of boost converters to get the ESP-12 to work. But the modules were a tad bigger, and couldn’t provide the high peak current needed by the ESP-12. So he used a 14500 3.7V LiPo battery instead. A series diode drops the LiPo voltage to a circuit friendly 2.9V ~ 3.6V range. The ADXL345 accelerometer is used to measure “pitch” to detect going up and down a hill, “roll” to check for tilt or tip over and vibration to identify track defects. It communicates with the ESP-12 using a special Lite-SPI library that he wrote.

Two analog measurements are performed. One uses a resistor in series with the PWM driven motor to measure its current, with a low pass filter to smooth out PWM noise. The other is a resistor divider network used to monitor battery voltage. But the ESP-12 has just one ADC channel. Instead of adding another ADC module, [tinkermax] used a neat device – the FSA3157 – which allows two analog inputs to be channeled to a single output much like a SPDT switch. One PWM output is used to control motor speed and a second one to pulse a LED.

The sensor data is streamed 5 times a second over the MQTT protocol to a Raspberry Pi based MQTT broker. Finally, a JavaScript webpage receives the MQTT messages and plots the data graphically. One upgrade he would like to implement is speed measurement, to allow constant speed drive. If you have any ideas on how to extract that information from an accelerometer, chip in with your comments below. Check out his build log in the short video below. And if you’d like to see how all of this can be used in the real world, check this other video where [tinkermax]’s colleague gives a run down about a commercial enterprise IoT cloud platform hooked up to Thomas the Tank Engine.

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NES Controller Made Out Of Fused Craft Beads

Close your eyes and think back, far back when you were a wee kid. Remember those colored beads that a child would populate on a small plastic peg board, arranged in some sort of artsy pattern, then ironed to fuse the beads together into a crafty trinket? They were fun for kids but what good are they to us adults nowadays? Well, [Lalya] has shown that they can be used to make a unique and interesting NES Controller.

First, the controller’s front panel was laid out on the pegboard, remembering to lay it out in reverse so the melted side of the beads was facing into the controller. Holes were left in the top panel for the D-pad and B/A buttons. The sides, back and bottom panels of the controller were made the same way. Hot glue holds the case panels together.

Craft Bead NES Controller

Inside the case is an Arduino and breadboard with three through-hole momentary buttons. These are wired up to the Arduino inputs and a sketch emulates keystrokes when connected to a computer. Unfortunately, the D-pad’s functionality is just a button right now. [Lalya] uses the project to control iTunes.  Maybe the next revision will be more video game friendly.

Having your own NES controller recreation might not be high on your list. But you have to admit that this s a pretty simple and inexpensive way to make custom enclosures.

Large NES Controller Made From LEGOs

If LEGO are cool, and abnormally large NES controllers are cool, then what [Baron von Brunk] has created is pretty dang cool. It’s a super large functional NES game controller…. made out of LEGO! Yes, your favorite building blocks from the past (or present) can now be use to make an unnecessarily large game controller.

lego-nes-internalsThe four main sides of the controller case are standard stacked grey LEGO bricks. The inside of the case is mostly hollow, only with some supporting structures for the walls and buttons. The top is made from 4 individual LEGO panels that can be quickly and easily removed to access the interior components. The large LEGO buttons slide up and down inside a frame and are supported in the ‘up’ position care of some shock absorbers from a Technic Lego set. The shocks create a spring-loaded button that, when pressed down, makes contact with a momentary switch from Radio Shack. Each momentary switch is wired to a stock NES controller buried inside the large replica. The stock controller cord is then connected to an NES-to-USB adapter so the final product works with an NES Emulator on a PC.

[Baron von Brunk] is no stranger to Hackaday or other LEGO projects, check out this lamp shade and traffic light.

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“Bricking” Microcontrollers in LEGO Motivates Young Programmers

Back when he was about seven years old, [Ytai] learned to program on an Atari 800XL. Now he has a seven-year-old of his own and wants to spark his interest in programming, so he created these programmable LEGO bricks with tiny embedded microcontrollers. This is probably one of the few times that “bricking” a microcontroller is a good thing!

IMG_20150519_144818The core of the project is the Espruino Pico microcontroller which has the interesting feature of running a Java stack in a very tiny package. The Blocky IDE is very simple as well, and doesn’t bog users down in syntax (which can be discouraging to new programmers, especially when they’re not even a decade old). The bricks that [Ytai] made include a servo motor with bricks on the body and the arm, some LEDs integrated into Technic bricks, and a few pushbutton bricks.

We always like seeing projects that are geared at getting kids interested in creating, programming, and hacking, and this certainly does that! [Ytai] has plans for a few more LEGO-based projects to help keep his kid interested in programming as well, and we look forward to seeing those! If you’re looking for other ways to spark the curiosity of the youths, be sure to check out the Microbot, or if you know some teens that need some direction, perhaps these battlebots are more your style.

Life Sized Lego Spaceship Parts

Ah, 1980s space Lego sets. You may think the pirate ship and castle sets are cooler, but you’re wrong, because spaceship. spaceship. spaceship.

These space Lego sets had some very interesting parts, with tiny two-by sloped pieces printed with Lego analogs of computers, monitors, phones, intercoms, speakers, control panels, and everything else that makes a voxellated spaceship fly to the moon. Now, these pieces are functional, and they’re nearly life-size.

[Love Hultén] took these fantastic parts, modeled them, and scaled them up to six times normal Lego dimensions. These blocks were then fitted with buttons, displays, the guts of an old telephone, and all the other accoutrements to make these bricks functional. Two computer blocks can be connected together, and it will play video games with a Lego-shaped controller. The intercom works, and the buttons on control panels can be used to turn on lights.

It should be noted the Lego family is more than just the small bricks that really hurt when you step on them. Duplo, the blocks made for children who would stuff Lego down their own throats, is twice the size of Lego. Quatro are blocks made for toddlers, and are twice the size of Duplo and four times the size of Lego. Since [Love] made blocks that are six times the size of normal Lego blocks, we’ll leave it up to the comments to determine what this class of blocks should be named.

Video below.

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Pinball Simulator Makes The Neighbors Happy

There are a lot of simulators out there if you want to try something out that would be otherwise impossible. Great examples are flight simulators for simulating the piloting of a fighter jet, or goat simulators for simulating the life of a goat who destroys a town. [Erland] wanted a pinball machine, but like planes and goats, found it was impractical to get a real one because it would probably upset his neighbors in his apartment. Instead, he set out to build a pinball simulator.

The cabinet is miniature-sized compared to a regular pinball machine so it can more easily fit in the apartment. It utilizes three monitors, a 24″ one in portrait mode for the main playing area, a 20″ one for the back screen, and a smaller one for the “dot matrix” style scoreboard. Once the woodwork was completed, a PC was put together to control everything and an Arduino was installed to handle the buttons and output USB commands to the PC.

Of course, we’ve featured many other pinball simulators before, but this one is no slouch when it comes to features either. It is very well crafted and the project is very well documented, and the miniature size sets it apart as well. However, if you want to go a step further with your pinball simulator, you might want to check out this augmented reality pinball system.

Lego Flip-dot Display

We don’t need to mention that flip-dot displays are awesome. They use no power except in transitions, are visible on even the brightest of days, and have a bit of that old-school charm. So then it stands to reason that the flip-dot display that [AncientJames] made out of LEGO is awesome-plus. Heck, it even spells out “awesome”.

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