Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Sharing Pollution Analytics

A while ago, [Joshua Young] had a conversation with an environmental scientist. There aren’t many government-funded pollution monitoring stations around Texas, but there are a lot of well-off home owners associations in Houston that have the sensors to collect the data. Air quality monitoring is important, and more data is usually better, and without these HOA’s providing the data for free, these environmental scientists wouldn’t have the data to do their job.

[Joshua]’s project is taking the idea a few members of those HOA’s had and expanding it to the entire world. For his entry to the Hackaday Prize, he’s creating a system to share local pollution data with the entire Internet.

The system [Joshua] is building uses a suite of air quality sensors to measure sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone and particulate matter. These sensors connect to the Internet through either an ESP8266 WiFi module or a LoRa radio module, push the data onto the cloud, and let the entire world know what the air quality is.

Using tens of thousands of individual base stations to gather data has been done before; Weather Underground uses ten times as many weather stations than the National Weather Service to get better weather tracking resolution. Pollution sensors aren’t normally a part of a weather station, and with [Joshua]’s project, the environmental scientists tracking this data will hopefully get the data they need.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Making Lichtenberg Figures In Wood

Ever heard of a Lichtenberg Figure? It’s the branching electrical discharge you can sometimes see on an insulating material… That’s right — when the voltage is high enough — it’ll find a way. Using one of our favorite low-cost high voltage transformers from a microwave, [TheBackYardScientist] shows us how to make our own Lichtenberg Figures!

It’s actually pretty easy. All you need is an old microwave, some plywood, and water with baking soda mixed in. First, you’ll need to take the transformer out of the microwave — a simple hack we’ve covered many times before — you’ll need to wire it in a way that allows you to get a few thousand volts out of it.

Then by mixing baking soda in water, you can increase the conductivity — let the wood soak it up overnight, and now you’re ready to go! By attaching the leads to either side of the wood, it’s now conductive enough to allow the electricity to branch across the wood, burning awesome patterns as it goes — just take a look at the following video!

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Robot Team Wins $100,000 In June; Visits US Senate In September

Could you build a robot to search for and collect samples on Mars? Team Cataglyphis from West Virginia University did. They won $100,000 last June from a prize pool of $1.5 million and are being honored in the US Senate on September 21st. The team, along with many others, have competed each June since 2012 during the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The SRR, as it’s called by the teams, is a two phase competition. In Phase 1 the robot must leave the starting platform, collect a pre-cached sample, and return the sample to the starting platform. Phase 2 is more difficult because the robot must not only collect the pre-cached sample but search a park for 9 additional samples. The park is a typical urban park about 1.5 football fields large with grass, trees, and park benches as obstacles.

The Mountaineers team robot is seen after picking up the pre-cached sample during its attempt at the level two challenge during the 2015 Sample Return Robot Challenge, Thursday, June 11, 2015 at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass. Sixteen teams are competing for a $1.5 million NASA prize purse. Teams will be required to demonstrate autonomous robots that can locate and collect samples from a wide and varied terrain, operating without human control. The objective of this NASA-WPI Centennial Challenge is to encourage innovations in autonomous navigation and robotics technologies. Innovations stemming from the challenge may improve NASA's capability to explore a variety of destinations in space, as well as enhance the nation's robotic technology for use in industries and applications on Earth. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
The Mountaineers team robot is seen after picking up the pre-cached sample [Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky[
Since the robots are supposed to be on celestial bodies lacking magnetic fields like Mars or the Moon, they cannot use a magnetometer (compass) or GPS satellites to determine their pose, i.e. orientation and location. Add to that handicap grueling time limits of 30 minutes for Phase 1 and 120 minutes for Phase 2 and you’ve got a huge challenge on your hands.

The Mountaineers, as they were known in the robot pits, are the only team to collect two samples during the competition. Another team from Los Angeles, Team Survey, was the first to complete Phase 1 in 2013, but only managed, in 2015, to collect the pre-cached sample during Phase 2.

All the teams who have competed are waiting to see if there will be a competition in 2016 and I am among them. After the break you’ll find a couple of videos of the 2015 competition. One is about the Mountaineers but the other us from NASA 360. If you look quickly during the opening sequence of the NASA 360 video you’ll see two small black robots. One is on its side spinning its wheels; the other jammed under a rock. Those are my rovers from the 2013 SRR. I’m chasing the dream of a winning extra-planetary rover and you should too!

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Live From Open Hardware Summit 2015

Right now Hackaday and Tindie are in Philadelphia at the Open Hardware Summit 2015. These are the conferences I love; there aren’t many attendees – only a few hundred – but absolute everyone here is awesome. In the crowd is [Mitch Altman], [Johnny] of RAMPS fame, the guys from Parallax (busy programming badges), [Harris Kenny] from Lulzbot, [Joshua Pearce] from Michigan Tech, and pretty much everyone else that’s responsible for all open source hardware.

The talks? They’re great. You’re going to see a lot of reaffirming that tinkering and hacking on electronics and mechanics is a valuable and worthy pursuit, but there’s something for everyone, ranging from open source lab equipment to building true open hardware chips. Here’s a link to the livestream of the conference.

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Porsche-themed Mancave Clock: There Is No Substitute

With an extra Porsche brake rotor lying about and a persistent friend to be silenced, [GordsGarage] decided to fabricate a one-of-a-kind man cave wall clock.

This was not to be a boring old hang-it-flat-on-the-wall design, though. The Porsche rotor is a composite design, with a steel hub and a ceramic disc weighing only a third of what an all-steel rotor weighs. That inspired [GordsGarage] to fabricate a wall bracket to hold the rotor and allow it to spin, showing off both sides. The business side has a brushed aluminum clock face with decals cut with a s vinyl-plotter and designed to look like a Porsche tachometer, while the reverse side has a nice custom badge for his friend’s shop. The build log shares some of the nice touches that went into the clock, like powder coated parts to mimic stock Porsche red brake calipers, and the secret [GordsGarage] logo.

It may not have been a clock for social good, but it’s a great design and a nice build that’s sure to brighten up his friend’s shop. And mancave warming presents are apparently a thing now, so we’ll be sure to keep our finger on the pulse of this social trend.

Hacking A Pi Camera With A Nikon Lens

Cell phones have killed many industries. It is getting harder and harder to justify buying an ordinary watch, a calculator, or a day planner because your phone does all those things at least as well as the originals. Cell phones have cameras too, so the days of missing a shot because you don’t have a camera with you are over (although we always wonder where the flood of Bigfoot and UFO pictures are). However, you probably still have a dedicated camera tucked away somewhere because, let’s face it, most cell phone cameras are just not that good.

The Raspberry Pi camera is about on par with a cheap cell phone camera. [Martijn Braam] has a Nikon camera, and he noticed that he could get a Raspberry Pi camera with a C-mount for lenses. He picked up a C to F adapter and proceeded to experiment with Nikon DSLR lenses on the Raspberry Pi camera. (Update: We’ve changed the link to [Martijn’s] original blog post instead of a copy of it.)

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Nixie Tube Clock Isn’t Just A Clock

With everything that’s been happening in the news lately, [Jarek] decided it was finally time to finish up his latest project. The Internet of Things has been exploding with projects lately, and this clock that also alerts him of the weather is the latest addition. Plus it has the added bonus of using everybody’s favorite display: nixie tubes!

Of course, using high voltage for the nixies can be terror-inducing, but [Jarek] found a power supply on eBay that was able to power the tubes for not too much money. The controller is an HV5622 which can control up to 32 nixies while only using up three pins on a microcontroller which is pretty handy if you have a limited number of output pins.

The clock also has another device hidden behind all of the wires for the tubes: an ESP8266 to give it network connectivity. The clock connects to the Internet and searches for the nine-hour weather forecast. There are a few nixie lights behind the display which illuminate cutouts in the case to indicate a few different weather statuses. It’s a very polished project, and since it’s enclosed in a nice case it’s not likely to be mistaken for any movie props. Of course, other nixie projects don’t have the same comforting look.

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