New Part Day: Very Cheap LIDAR

Self-driving cars are, apparently, the next big thing. This thought is predicated on advancements in machine vision and cheaper, better sensors. For the machine vision part of the equation, Nvidia, Intel, and Google are putting out some interesting bits of hardware. The sensors, though? We’re going to need LIDAR, better distance sensors, more capable CAN bus dongles, and the equipment to tie it all together.

This is the cheapest LIDAR we’ve ever seen. The RPLIDAR is a new product from Seeed Studios, and it’s an affordable LIDAR for everyone. $400 USD gets you one module, and bizarrely $358 USD gets you two modules. Don’t ask questions — this price point was unheard of a mere five years ago.

Basically, this LIDAR unit is a spinning module connected to a motor via a belt. A laser range finder is hidden in the spinny bits and connected to a UART and USB interface through a slip ring. Mount this LIDAR unit on a robot, apply power, and the spinny bit does its thing at about 400-500 RPM. The tata that comes out includes distance (in millimeters), bearing (in units of degrees), quality of the measurement, and a start flag once every time the head makes a revolution. If you’ve never converted polar to cartesian coordinates, this is a great place to start.

Although self-driving cars and selfie drones are the future, this part is probably unsuitable for any project with sufficient mass or velocity. The scanning range of this LIDAR is only about 6 meters and insufficient for retrofitting a Toyota Camry with artificial intelligence. That said, this is a cheap LIDAR that opens the door to a lot of experimentation ranging from small robots to recreating that one Radiohead video.

Algorithm Turns PCBs Into Art

Many of us have held a circuit board up to a strong light to get a sense for how many layers of circuitry it might contain. [alongruss] did this as well, but, unlike us, he saw art.

We’ve covered some art PCBs before. These, for the most part, were about embellishing the traces in some way. They also resulted in working circuits. [alongruss]’s work focuses more on the way light passes through the FR4: the way the silkscreen adds an interesting dimension to the painting, and how the tin coating reflects light.

To prove out and play with his algorithm he started with GIMP. He ran the Mona Lisa through a set of filters until he had layers of black and white images that could be applied to the layers of the circuit board. He ordered a set of boards from Seeed Studio and waited.

They came back a success! So he codified his method into Processing code. If you want to play with it, take a look at his GitHub.

Fight That Tesla Envy With A Tablet Dash For Your Car

[Aykut Çelik] uses some strong words to describe how he feels about his VW Polo’s current radio set-up. Words like, “useless,” are bandied about. What is a modern man supposed to do with a car that doesn’t have built-in navigation or Bluetooth connectivity with phones? Listen to the radio? There are actual (mostly) self driving cars on the road now. No, [Aykut] moves forward, not backwards.

To fix this horrendous shortcoming in his car’s feature package, he set out to install a tablet in the dash. His blog write-up undersells the amount of work that went into the project, but the video after the break rectifies this misunderstanding. He begins by covering the back of a face-down Samsung tablet with a large sheet of plastic film. Next he lays a sheet of fiberglass over the tablet and paints it with epoxy until it has satisfactorily clung to the back of the casing. Afterwards comes quite a bit of work fitting an off-the-shelf panel display mount to the non-standard hardware. He eventually takes it to a local shop which does the final fitting on the contraption.

The electronics are a hodgepodge of needed parts: An amplifier, to replace the one that was attached to the useless husk of the prior radio set; a CAN shield for an Arduino, so that he could still use the steering wheel buttons; and a Bluetooth shield, so that the Arduino could talk to the tablet. Quite a bit of hacking happened, and the resulting software is on GitHub.

The final assembly went together well. While it’s no Tesla console. It does get over the air updates whenever he feels like writing them. [Aykut] moves forward with the times.

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BeagleBone Green Hands-On: Lower Price, Same Horsepower

Although the BeagleBone Green was announced at the Bay Area Maker Faire last May, there hasn’t been much said about it on the usual forums and IRC channels. Now, it’s finally out and I got my hands on one of them. Through a cooperation between the BeagleBoard foundation and Seeed Studios, the best small Linux board for doing real work with small Linux boards is now cheaper, a little more modern, and green.

The BeagleBone Green is an update to the venerable BeagleBone Black, the dev board based on a TI ARM Cortex-A8. It’s an extremely capable machine with a few interesting features that make it the perfect device for embedded applications. With the BeagleBone Green, the BB Black gets a small hardware refresh and a drastic reduction in price. If you want to do real work on a Linux board, this is the one to get. Check out the review below for everything that’s been updated, everything that’s the same, and why this is one of the most interesting developments in small Linux boards in recent memory.

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New Chip Alert: The ESP8266 WiFi Module (It’s $5)

Every so often we run across something in the Hackaday tip line that sends us scurrying to Google, trying to source a component, part, or assembly. The ESP8266 WiFi module is the latest, made interesting because it pretty much doesn’t exist outside China.

Why is it cool? It’s a WiFi module with an SOC, making it somewhat similar to TI’s CC300 in conception (A.K.A. the thing that makes the Spark Core so appealing), in that a microcontroller on the module takes care of all the WiFi, TCP/IP stack, and the overhead found in an 802.11 network. It’s addressable over SPI and UART, making this an exceptionally easy choice for anyone wanting to build an Internet of Things thing; you can simply connect any microcontroller to this module and start pushing data up to the Internet. Oh, it’s also being sold for $5 in quantity one. Yes, for five dollars you can blink a LED from the Internet. That’s about half the price as the CC3000 itself, and a quarter of the price if you were to build a CC3000 breakout board.

There’s a catch, right, there’s always a catch. Yep. About two hours after this post is published it will be the number one English language Google result for “ESP8266.” As far as the English-speaking world is concerned, there is absolutely nothing to be found anywhere on the Internet on this module.

Seeed Studio recently sold a few of these modules for $7 and has some documentation, including a full datasheet and an AT command set. All the documentation is in Chinese. There’s also an “ESP8266 IoT SDK”, but from a quick glance at the code, this appears to be an SDK for the SOC on the module, not a simple way to connect the module to a microcontroller.

Anyone wanting to grab one of these modules can do so on Ali Express. Anyone wanting to do something with one of these modules will have a much more difficult time, most likely poking and prodding bits randomly with the help of Google translate. Should someone, or even a group of people, want to take up the task of creating a translation of the datasheet and possibly a library, we have a pretty collaborative project hosting site where you can do that. You may organize in the comments below; we’ll also be taking bets as to when a product using the ESP8266 will be found on Kickstarter. My guess is under a month.

EDIT: Here’s a translation of the datasheet and AT command set.

Edit two: [bafeigum] is writing a library go help him out.

Thanks [Liam] for the tip.

Finding the cheapest board house

The prices for custom made circuit boards has never been cheaper, but surprisingly we’ve never seen a comparison of prices between the major board houses. [Brad] took the time to dig in to the price of 10 boards manufactured by Seeed Studios, OHS Park, and BatchPCB. He made some pretty graphs and also answered the question of where you can get your circuits made cheaply.

[Brad] got the prices for boards up to 20 cm x 20 cm from Seeed Studio’s Fusion PCB service, OSH Park, and BatchPCB. These results were graphed with Octave and showed some rather surprising results.

For boards over 20 cm2, the cheapest option is Seeed Studios. In fact, the price difference between Seeed and the other board houses for the maximum sized board is impressive; a 400 cm2 board from Seeed costs $150, while the same board from OSH Park is close to $1000.

Of course most boards are much smaller, so the bottom line is  for boards less than 20 cm2, your best bet is to go with OHS Park. If you don’t care when your boards arrive, or you need more than 10 or so, Seeed is the way to go. As far as the quality of the boards go, OSH Park is up there at the top as well.

Seeed Studio shows off their wares

Everyone’s favorite Open Hardware store – Seeed Studio – was at Maker Faire this last weekend. They showed off a bunch of cool toys, oscilloscopes, Arduino shields and other hardware goodness, but one of the more interesting products was from their B Squares line.

As [Colin] from Seeed showed us, each B Square is a small plastic enclosure about the size of a drink coaster. The corners of these squares are clad in metal, and each one has magnets inside. The idea behind the B Squares system is to provide power to other B Square boards via magnetic connections.

So far, Seeed has released an Arduino square, battery, solar, and LED squares, as well as iPod docks and prototyping boards. These boards can also be orthogonally, meaning it’s entirely possible to turn six B Squares into a B Cube.

These magnetic connections only provide power connections; there is currently no way to transfer data between different B Squares. We suspect, though, that anyone wanting to replicate the Apple MagSafe power adapter and invent a magnetic I2C bus would find these boards perfectly suited to the task.

Video after the break.

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