Navigating the Oceans is Deadly Without a Clock

I came across an interesting question this weekend: how do you establish your East/West location on the globe without modern technology? The answer depends on what you mean by “modern”, it turns out you only have to go back about three centuries to find there was no reliable way. The technology that changed that was a clock; a very special one that kept accurate time despite changing atmospheric conditions and motion. The invention of the Harrison H1 revolutionized maritime travel.

We can thank Andy Weir for getting me onto this topic. I just finished his amazing novel The Martian and I can confirm that George Graves’ opinion of the high quality of that novel is spot on. For the most part, Andy lines up challenges that Mark Watney faces and then engineers a solution around them. But when it came to plotting location on the surface of Mars he made just a passing reference to the need to have accurate clocks to determine longitude. I had always assumed that a sextant was all you needed. But unless you have a known landmark to sight from this will only establish your latitude (North/South position).

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A Simple And Inexpensive GPS Navigation Device

There are plenty of GPS navigation units on the market today, but it’s always fun to build something yourself. That’s what [middelbeek] did with his $25 GPS device. He managed to find a few good deals on electronics components online, including and Arduino Uno, a GPS module, and a TFT display.

In order to get the map images on the device, [middelbeek] has to go through a manual process. First he has to download a GEOTIFF of the area he wants mapped. A GEOTIFF is a metadata standard that allows georeferencing information to be embedded into a TIFF image file.  [middelbeek] then has to convert the GEOTIFF into an 8-bit BMP image file. The BMP images get stored on an SD card along with a .dat file that describes the boundaries of each BMP. The .dat file was also manually created.

The Arduino loads this data and displays the correct map onto the 320×240 TFT display. [middelbeek] explains on his github page that he is currently unable to display data from two map files at once, which can lead to problems when the position moves to the edge of the map. We suspect that with some more work and tuning this system could be improved and made easier to use, of course for under $25 you can’t expect too much.

Low-Power Orientation Tracker and an Optimized Math Library for the MSP430

MSP430 Orientation Tracker

Orientation trackers can be used for a ton of different applications: tracking mishandled packages, theft notification of valuables, and navigation are just a few examples! A recent blog post from Texas Instruments discusses how to build a low-cost and low-power orientation tracker with the MSP430.

Based on the MSP430 LaunchPad and CircuitCo’s Educational BoosterPack, the orientation tracker is very simple to put together. It can also be made wireless using any of the wireless BoosterPacks with a Fuel Tank BoosterPack, or by using the BLE Booster Pack with a built in Lithium Battery circuitry. TI provides all the necessary code and design files in their reference application for getting your orientation tracker up and running. Be sure to see the device in action after the break! This project not only involves building a low-power orientation tracker, but also showcases IQmathLib, a library of optimized fixed point math functions on the MSP430. One of the more challenging aspects of using small MCUs such as the MSP430 or Arduino is how inefficient built in math libraries are. Check out the IQmathLib, it greatly improves upon the built in math functions for the MSP430.

It would be interesting to see this project modified to be a DIY pedometer or be used on a self-balancing robot. It would also be interesting to see the IQmathLib ported to other micros, such as the Arduino. Take a look and see how you can use this reference design in your own projects!

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An introduction to inertial navigation systems


Long before ships relied on GPS to determine their location – and even before radio navigation systems such as LORAN, vessels relied on a still impressively sophisticated means of determining their position: inertial navigation. The theory is simple: if you keep a few very accurate gyroscopes and accelerometers on board, you’ll be able to calculate where you are relative to your previous position. Since electronic gyros and accelerometers are all over the place, [Sebastian] thought he would have a go at creating his own inertial navigation system.

The difficulty in using this method is that every gyroscope invariably has some error. Since the measurements from the gyros and accelerometers are integrated together, the error is also integrated, resulting in an increasing positioning error as time goes on. With a few clever algorithms and very good sensors, it’s possible to minimize this error.

[Sebastian] doesn’t have really great hardware – he’s only working with a accelerometer/gyro breakout board that’s good enough for experimental purposes. After reading the accelerometer data with an Arduino, he’s able to capture all the sensor data and read it into a Python script.

The next steps are to figure out a decent algorithm to integrate all the sensor data, and possibly add a barometer and magnetic compass for better compensation for errors. The project is still in the early phases, but seeing as how an inertial navigation system is one of the engineering triumphs of the early 20th century, we’re eagerly awaiting any progress updates.

Raspberry Pi replaces a Volvo nav system


[Reinis] has a Volvo S80. One of the dashboard features it includes is a 6.5″ LCD screen which periscopes up to use as a navigation system. The problem is that Volvo stopped making maps for it around five years ago and there are no maps at all for Latvia where he lives. So it’s worthless… to you’re average driver. But [Reinis] is fixing it on his own by replacing the system with a Raspberry Pi.

That link leads to his project overview page. But he’s already posted follow-ups on hardware design and initial testing. He’s basing the design around a Raspberry Pi board, but that doesn’t have all the hardware it needs to communicate with the car’s systems. For this he designed his own shield that uses an ATmega328 along with a CAN controller and CAN transceiver. The latter two chips patch into the CAN bus on the car’s On Board Diagnostic system. We didn’t see much about the wiring, but the overview post mentions that the screen takes RGB or Composite inputs so he must be running a composite video cable from the trunk to the dashboard.


Make Your Own GPS Receiver!

GPS receivers may be available for well under $100 these days, but what’s the fun in buying one when you can build it yourself? According to [Andrew], the creator of this device, he was inspired by Matjaž Vidmar who developed a GPS receiver from scratch over 20 years ago. His article can be found here and includes some nicely hand-drawn diagrams as well as a lot of theory.

However, [Andrew’s] article is a bit more up-to-date and features plenty of theory itself. He explains how he built his four-channel GPS receiver, able to track four satellites at the same time. This is the minimum number of satellites needed to track your position using such a device.

GPS technology is quite incredible, and the amount of soldering as well as the understanding of the theory behind it required to build such a device is astonishing. Interestingly (sadly?), it seems we are beyond the time of LORAN hacks, but if you have an old one to share, be sure to send it in! For something a bit easier, maybe one could try making a GPS “cateye” to track what your pet does all day!