Transformers, Birthday Cakes in Disguise

[Russel Munro] decided to go all-out for his son’s birthday cake: he made a Transformers robot cake that, well, transforms from a truck into a robot, Optimus Prime style. His impressive build has the actions of the original: first, the front rears up to lift the head, then the back lifts to form the body and the head and arms pop out of the top. Underneath the thin fondant exterior is a 3D printed body, driven by a mechanism in the base. He used fishing line to lift the parts, which is pulled by a motor salvaged from a CD player, being driven by an EasyDriver board from Sparkfun.

The main issue he had to overcome was weight: apparently he underestimated the weight of the fondant that covers the cake, and had to do some last-minute work to strengthen the drive mechanism, and skip plans for the more ornately decorated version that his wife had planned. But the look of glee on his son’s face when he operates it at the party is the best bit. In these days of CGI and computer games, it is good to remind the kids that there is still a lot of fun to be found in ingenuity and liberal quantities of hot glue.

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Arduino Video Over 2 Wires for Under $50: Mesa-Video

If you want video support on your project, you might start from a device like a Raspberry Pi that comes with it built in. [Kevinhub88] doesn’t accept such compromises, so he and his Black Mesa Labs have come up with a whole new way to add video support to devices like the Arduino and other cheap controllers. This project is called Mesa-Video, and it can add digital video at a resolution of up to 800 by 600 pixels to any device that has a single serial output.

The video is created by an FT813, a low cost GPU from FTDI that offers a surprising amount of video oomph from a cheap, low power chip (he has demoed it running from a lemon battery), meaning that he is hoping to be able to sell the Mesa-Video for under $50.

UPDATE: [KevinHub88] let us know that he didn’t actually power the device from a lemon battery, as you would need a lot of lemons to make 50mA at 5V. Apologies for any confusion!

However, Mesa-Video is just the beginning. [Kevinhub88] wanted to get around the problem of stacking shields on Arduinos: add more  than one and you get problems. He wanted to create an interface that would be simpler, faster and more open, so he created the Mesa-Bus. This effectively wraps SPI and I2C traffic together over a simple, fast serial connection that doesn’t require much decoding. This means that you can send power and bi-directional data over a handful of wires, and still connect multiple devices at once, swapping them out as required. You could, for instance, do your development work on a PC talking to the prototype devices over Mesa-Bus, them swap the PC out for an Arduino when you have got the first version working in your dev environment. Is the Arduino not cutting it? Because Mesa-Bus is cross-platform and open source, it is easy to swap the Arduino for a Raspberry Pi without having to change your other devices. And, because all the data is going over a simple serial connection in plain text, it is easy to debug.

It’s an ambitious project, and [Kevinhub88] has a way to go: he is currently working on getting his first prototype Mesa-Bus devices up and running, and finalizing the design of the Mesa-Video. But it is an impressive start and we’ll be keeping a close eye on this work. Hopefully he can avoid that head crab problem as well because those things are as itchy as hell.

Before Arduino There was Basic Stamp: A Classic Teardown

Microcontrollers existed before the Arduino, and a device that anyone could program and blink an LED existed before the first Maker Faire. This might come as a surprise to some, but for others PICs and 68HC11s will remain as the first popular microcontrollers, found in everything from toys to microwave ovens.

Arduino can’t even claim its prominence as the first user-friendly microcontroller development board. This title goes to the humble Basic Stamp, a four-component board that was introduced in the early 1990s. I recently managed to get my hands on an original Basic Stamp kit. This is the teardown and introduction to the first user friendly microcontroller development boards. Consider it a walk down memory lane, showing us how far the hobbyist electronics market has come in the past twenty year, and also an insight in how far we have left to go.

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We Have a Problem: Earthquake Prediction

Nepal | 25 April 2015 | 11:56 NST

It was a typical day for the 27 million residents of Nepal – a small south Asian country nestled between China and India. Men and women went about their usual routine as they would any other day. Children ran about happily on school playgrounds while their parents earned a living in one of the country’s many industries. None of them could foresee the incredible destruction that would soon strike with no warning. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook the country at its core. 9,000 people died that day. How many didn’t have to?

History is riddled with earthquakes and their staggering death tolls. Because many are killed by collapsing infrastructure, even a 60 second warning could save many thousands of lives. Why can’t we do this? Or a better question – why aren’t we doing this? Meet [Micheal Doody], a Reproductive Endocrinologist with a doctorate in steel rodphysical biochemistry. While he doesn’t exactly have the background needed to pioneer a novel approach to predict earthquakes, he’s off to a good start.

He uses piezoelectric pressure sensors at the heart of the device, but they’re far from the most interesting parts. Three steel balls, each weighing four pounds, are suspended from a central vertical post. Magnets are used to balance the balls 120 degrees apart from each other. They exert a lateral force on the piezo sensors, allowing for any movement of the vertical post to be detected. An Arduino and some amplifiers are used to look at the piezo sensors.

The system is not meant to measure actual vibration data. Instead it looks at the noise floor and uses statistical analysis to see any changes in the background noise. Network several of these sensors along a fault line, and you have yourself a low cost system that could see an earthquake coming, potentially saving thousands of lives.

[Michael] has a TON of data on his project page. Though he’s obviously very skilled, he is not an EE or software guy. He could use some help with the signal analysis and other parts. If you would like to lend a hand and help make this world a better place, please get in touch with him.

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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.

Make Your Own Remote Control LED Light

Want to control the colors in your home? Sure, you could just buy a Philips Hue bulb, but where’s the hacking fun in that? [Dario] agrees: he has written a tutorial on building an Arduino-controlled RGB light system that plugs into a standard light socket.

[Dario] is using a bulb from Automethion in Italy, an Arduino, and an ESP8266 shield that sends signals to the bulb. The Arduino and shield are running the Souliss framework that provides smart home features and runs on a number of platforms, so it is a good open platform for creating your own smart home apps, and would be easy to expand. We have also seen a few other projects that use the ESP8266 to control an RGB strip, but this is the first one that uses a bulb that plugs into a standard light socket.

At the moment, Automethion is the only company selling this light, but I hope that others will sell similar products soon.

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High Tech, Low Cost Digital Torque Meter

Ever obsessed with stripping the hype from the reality of power tool marketing, and doing so on the cheap, [arduinoversusevil] has come up with a home-brew digital torque meter that does the job of commercial units costing hundreds of times as much.

For those of us used to [AvE]’s YouTube persona, his Instructables post can be a little confusing. No blue smoke is released, nothing is skookum or chowdered, and the weaknesses of specific brands of tools are not hilariously enumerated. For that treatment of this project, you’ll want to see the video after the break. Either way you choose, he shows us how a $6 load cell and a $10 amplifier can be used to accurately measure the torque of your favorite power driver with an Arduino. We’ve seen a few projects based on load cells, like this posture-correcting system, but most of them use the load cell to measure linear forces. [AvE]’s insight that a load cell doesn’t care whether it’s stretched or twisted is the key to making a torque meter that mere mortals can afford.

Looks like low-end load cells might not be up to measuring the output on your high-power pneumatic tools, at least not repeatedly, but they ought to hold up to most electric drivers just fine. And spoiler alert: the Milwaukee driver that [AvE] tested actually lived up to the marketing. Continue reading “High Tech, Low Cost Digital Torque Meter”