Hackaday Prize Entry: 20,000 Weather Stations

Team Tahmo has a plan to put a network of 20,000 weather stations across sub-Saharan Africa. That’s an impressive goal, and already they have pilot stations in Senegal, Chad, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa. For their Hackaday Prize entry, they thought it would make sense to add more advanced sensors to their weather stations, and came up with GPS, lightning, and large scale soil moisture sensors.

The sensors already deployed have the usual complement of meteorological equipment – thermometers, anemometers, barometers, and rain gauges. These stations are connected to a school’s Internet connection where students can monitor the local weather patterns and upload the data. Team Tahmo is building a small add-on board for their Prize entry using an AS3935 Franklin Lightning sensor and a GPS module.

In the interests of rapid design cycles, the team is using off-the-shelf modules for the lightning detector and GPS module. They hit up the Hackaday Prize Collabratorium for some advice on PCB design and have everything pretty much nailed down thanks to a few helpful hackers.

It’s a great project for one of the most ambitious crowdsourced data gathering projects ever conceived, and something that would vastly improve weather predictions across the African continent. Even if their entry does just monitor lightning strikes, it’s still an admirable goal and one of the most useful projects for this year’s Hackaday Prize.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

No Windows Drivers? Boot Up A Linux VM!

[Voltagex] was fed up with BSODs on his Windows machine due to a buggy PL2303 USB/serial device driver. The Linux PL2303 driver worked just fine, though. A weakling would simply reboot into Linux. Instead, [Voltagex] went for the obvious workaround: create a tiny Linux distro in a virtual machine, route the USB device over to the VM where the drivers work, and then Netcat the result back to Windows.

OK, not really obvious, but a cool hack. Using Buildroot, a Linux system cross-compilation tool, he got the size of the VM down to a 32Mb memory footprint which runs comfortably on even a small laptop. And everything you need to replicate the VM is posted up on Github.

Is this a ridiculous workaround? Yes indeed. But when you’ve got a string of tools like that, or you just want an excuse to learn them, why not? And who can pass up a novel use for Netcat?

Custom Machined Triple Threat Slingshot

Time was when a lad in need of a ranged weapon would hack a slingshot together out of a forked tree branch and a strip of inner tube. Slingshot design has progressed considerably since [Dennis the Menace]’s day, but few commercially available slingshots can match up to the beauty and functionality of this magnificently machined multipurpose handheld weapon system.

Making it clear in his very detailed build log that this is but a prototype for a design he’s working on, [Gord] has spared little effort to come up with a unique form factor that’s not only functional as a slingshot, but also provides a few surprises: a magazine that holds nine rounds of ammo with magnets; knuckle protection on the hand grip that would deal a devastating left hook; and an interchangeable base that provides a hang loop or allows mounting a viciously sharp broadhead hunting arrow tip for somewhat mysterious purposes. There’s plenty to admire in the build process as well – lots and lots of 6061 billet aluminum chips from milling machine and lathe alike. All told, a nice piece of craftsmanship.

For a more traditional slingshot design with a twist, check out this USB-equipped slingshot that talks to Angry Birds. And when your taste in slingshots run more toward the ridiculously lethal, [Jörg Sprave]’s machete launcher never disappoints.

[Thanks Leslie!]

Amazon’s AI Escapes Its Hardware Prison

It’s the 21st century, and we’re still a long way from the voice-controlled computers we were all promised in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. The state of voice interaction has improved, though, and Amazon’s release of the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) is another sure step towards a future of computers that will pay attention to you. This allows any hardware to become Alexa, your personal voice assistant with the ability to do just about anything you command.

amazon_echoUp to this point, Alexa was locked away inside the Amazon Echo, the ‘smart’ cylinder that sits in your living room and does most of what you tell it to do. Since the Amazon Echo was released, we’ve seen the Echo and the Alexa SDK used for turning lights on and off, controlling a Nest thermostat, and other home automation tasks. It’s not Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Apple’s Siri that is behind all these builds; it’s Amazon’s Alexa that is bringing us into a world where Star Trek’s [Scotty] talking into an old Mac is seen as normal.

Right now, the Getting Started guide for the Alexa Skills Kit is focused more on web services than turning lights on and air conditioning off. Sample code for ASK is provided in JavaScript and Java, although we would expect 3rd party libraries for Python to start popping up any day now. If you want to run ASK on a Raspberry Pi or other small Linux computer, you’ll need a way to do voice capture; the Jasper project is currently the front-runner in this space.

We hope this changes the home automation game in a couple of different ways. First, the ASK processes everything in the cloud so very low power devices are now ready for some seriously cool voice interaction. Second, Amazon’s move to open up what you can do with the software backend means a community developing for the hardware could eventually exert pressure on Amazon to do things like making the system more open and transparent.

Already working on some hacks with the Echo or ASK? Send in a tip to your write-up and tells us about it in the comments below.

‘The Martian’: A Landmark Change In How Sci-Fi Is Written

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars for the last few hundred “Sols”, you most likely have heard about the book “The Martian” by [Andy Weir]. It’s not often that we here at HAD will give a book recommendation, but there are so many cool little things going on here, that we just had to share it with you fine folks. We’re not going to give anyway any spoilers here. But be warned that the videos at the bottom do, and we would like to encourage the comments to be spoiler-free.

So why did this book catch our attention? Well, first off, it was self-published online, one chapter at a time by a really great writer. And as the people following his work grew, the author started to get more and more feedback about the story and technical details. He would then go back and make revisions to the work based on his audience suggestions/corrections. Does that remind you of something? Maybe a bit like the Open Source movement? Of course writers have worked with their audiences to help maintain continuity from one novel through each of its sequels. But this is fundamentally different, the audience becomes a creative force that can time-travel to rewrite the unfinished story’s… story.

The Second thing that grabbed our attention is that this is a book written by a fellow geek. See, [Andy] is a programmer by trade and in writing this book, rather than just making up dates and flight paths of spaceships, and he actually wrote software to do real orbital mechanics, so that the book is as accurate as possible. If you love reading technical details, while being very entertained by a great story (what Hackaday reader doesn’t?), this is the book for you.

If your hands are too busy with a soldering iron, we can also wholeheartedly suggest the audio book, as the performer does an amazing job. Or if you want, you can just wait until the movie comes out in October. We can’t guarantee Hollywood won’t screw this up, so you’d better hedge and read the book beforehand.

Thar’ be spoilers below. We’re including the movie trailer after the break, as well as a talk [Andy Weir] gave at Google where he shows the software he used while writing the book and several other spoilers and details.

Continue reading “‘The Martian’: A Landmark Change In How Sci-Fi Is Written”

Cooking With Shop Tools: Most Dangerous Breakfast

In a rather comical video, [Dom] and [Chris] of [ExplosiveDischarge] show us how to make a full English breakfast — without the use of a kitchen.

We’re talking eggs, bacon, ham, hash browns, and baked beans. Without the use of a single cooking element. Some of the methods were expected, like using a clothes iron as a portable grill — which is a great life hack by the way, especially when you’re at a hotel and just happen to have a package of bacon and nowhere to cook it… Or using a blow torch to flame-broil a perfect sausage — with the clever use of a drill-powered rotisserie using a variable power supply to adjust the speed!

Continue reading “Cooking With Shop Tools: Most Dangerous Breakfast”

Embed With Elliot: The Static Keyword You Don’t Fully Understand

One of our favorite nuances of the C programming language (and its descendants) is the static keyword. It’s a little bit tricky to get your head around at first, because it can have two (or three) subtly different applications in different situations, but it’s so useful that it’s worth taking the time to get to know.

And before you Arduino users out there click away, static variables solve a couple of common problems that occur in Arduino programming. Take this test to see if it matters to you: will the following Arduino snippet ever print out “Hello World”?

void loop()
	int count=0;
	count = count + 1;
	if (count > 10) {
		Serial.println("Hello World");

Continue reading “Embed With Elliot: The Static Keyword You Don’t Fully Understand”