Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: A Mobile Node

The future is the Internet of Things, or so we’re told, and with that comes the requirement for sensors attached to the Internet that also relay GPS and location data. [Camilo]’s MobileNodes do just that. He’s designed a single device that will listen to any sensor, upload that data to the Internet over GSM or GPRS, and push all that data to the cloud.

The MobileNode is a small circular (7cm) PCB with a standard ATMega32u4 microcontroller. Attached to this PCB are GSM/GPRS and GPS/GLONASS modules to receive GPS signals and relay all that data to the cloud. To this, just about any sensor can be added, including light sensors, PIR sensors, gas and temperature sensors, and just about anything else that can be measured electronically.

Of course the biggest problem with a bunch of sensors on an Internet of Things device is pulling the data from the Internet. For that, [Camilo] designed a web interface that shows sensor data directly on a Google Map. You can check out the project video below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Basically, It’s an ESP8266

Before the Arduino, there was the Parallax Basic Stamp. It was an easy-to-use PIC chip on a PCB that you programmed in BASIC — a story of those humble beginnings was published earlier this week. Before that, even, legions of small computers from TRS-80s to Commodore 64s and even Altairs were commanded primarily by the BASIC language. BASIC was easy to run on a small machine and very simple to learn. Old fashioned BASICs are difficult to use to write huge systems, but a lot of small computers aren’t going to run very large programs anyway.

The ESP8266 is more than a just a WiFi peripheral for a microcontroller. It is its own little computer in its own right. While it is common to run the “AT” firmware, Lua, or program the device yourself, you can now load the beast with a version of BASIC.

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If Our Eyes Could See Wireless Signals, They Wouldn’t Look Like This.

A neat visualization of wireless signals was released last week showing off what our world might look like if we could see radio signals. While it’s an awesome visual effect, it’s really not what we would see. At least not with our puny human eyes.

The app uses data like WiFi hotspots, cell towers, and other wireless devices to create an augmented reality effect showing where the signals are propagating from. Site specific versions of the app also include the wired communication infrastructure as well to give a complete window into the science-fiction-sounding title of “infosphere”.

But like a user on Gizmodo commented, if we could actually see radio signals, they would just be flashes of light. Radio waves are just electromagnetic wavelengths longer than infrared light after all. Though if we could see those wavelengths, what’s the chance we have light speed vision too?

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Reverse Engineering a Different Kind of Bus

Radio enthusiasts have a long history of eavesdropping on non-broadcast stations–police, fire, and public transportation frequencies, for example. These days, though, a lot of interesting communications are digital. When [bastibl] wanted to read data displayed on bus stop signs, he turned to software defined radio. He used gr-fosphor to monitor the radio spectrum as buses drove by and discovered a strong signal near 151 MHz (see photo below).

That, however, was just the start. Using a variety of tools, he figured out the modulation scheme, how the data framing worked, and even the error correction scheme. Armed with all the information, he built a GNU Radio receiver to pick up the data. A little number crunching and programming and [bastibl] was able to recover data about  individual buses including their position and schedule.

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ESP8266 In Commercial Products

The hobbyist electronics market is still tiny, and even though random companies are coming out with some very interesting hardware, these parts and components aren’t exactly meant for us. The ESP8266 WiFi module is a slight deviation from this trend, with hundreds of different ESP dev boards floating around, and weirdos buying them by the bag.

[4ndreas] finally found the ESP8266 in a product; it’s not a very noteworthy observation until you realize how much work has gone into the development of open source toolchains for the ESP.

[4ndreas] found an RGB LED strip on Ali Express that could be controlled by WiFi. Inside, he found everyone’s favorite WiFi module, and by shorting two pins, he started up the controller in bootloader mode.

Because of the massive amount of open source development surrounding the ESP8266, there are a host of tools that can be used to program this cheap LED controller. [4ndreas] took a swing at writing his own firmware for the controller and came up with this project.

It’s not a killer project, but it does demonstrate the power of open source toolchains for cheap WiFi modules. This is only the first product found with an ESP8266 inside, but there are undoubtedly others out there just waiting to be taken apart and controlled in more advanced ways.

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Build a Sensor Network Around a Weather Station

[Yveaux] had a problem. The transmitter on his outdoor weather station had broken, rendering the inside display useless. He didn’t want to buy a new one, so, like the freelance embedded software designer that he is, he decided to reverse engineer the protocol that the transmitter uses and build his own. He didn’t just replace the transmitter module, though, he decided to create an entire system that integrated the weather system into a sensor network controlled by a Raspberry Pi. That’s a far more substantial project, but it gave him the ability to customize the display and add more features, such as synching the timer in the display with a network clock and storing the data in an online database.

Fortunately for [Yveaux], the transmitter itself was fairly easy to replace. The weather station he had, like most, transmitted on the 868MHz frequency, which is a license-free ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Monitoring) spot on the spectrum. After some poking around, he was able to figure out the protocol and teach the Pi to speak it. He then added a Moteino and an nRF2401+ transmitter to the weather station, so it can send data to the Pi, which then sends it to the display. It is a more complicated setup, but it is also much more flexible. He’s had it running for a couple of years now and has collected more than a million sensor readings.

Hello RAMPS, meet ESP8266

The proliferation of  DIY 3D printers has been helped in large measure by the awesome open-source RepRap project. A major part of this project is the RAMPS board – a single control board / shield to which all of the other parts of the printer can be easily hooked up. A USB connection to a computer is the usual link of choice, unless the RAMPS board has the SD-Card option to allow the 3D printer to operate untethered. [Chetan Patil] from CreatorBot built a breakout board to help attach either the ESP8266 WiFi or the HC-05 Bluetooth module to the Aux-1 header on the RAMPS board. This lets him stream G-code to the printer and allow remote control and monitoring.

While the cheap ESP8266 modules are the current flavor of the season with Hackers, getting them to work can be quite a hair tearing exercise. So [Chetan] did some hacking to figure out the tool chain for developing on the ESP module and found that LUA API from NodeMcu would be a good start. The breakout board is nothing more than a few headers for the ESP8266, the HC-05 and the Aux-1 connections, with a few resistors, a switch to set boot loader mode and a 3.3V regulator. If you’re new to the ESP8266, use this quick, handy, guide by [Peter Jennings] to get started with the NodeMCU and Lualoader. [Chetan]’s code for flashing on the ESP8266, along with the Eagle board design files are available via his Github repo. Just flash the code to the ESP8266 and you’re ready to go.

One gotcha to be aware of is to plug in the ESP module after the printer has booted up. Otherwise the initial communication from the ESP module causes the printer to lock up. We are sure this is something that can be taken care of with an improved breakout board design. Maybe use a digital signal from the Arduino Mega on the RAMPS board to keep the ESP module disabled for a while during start up, perhaps? The video after the break gives a short overview of the hack.

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