OpenAg Is A Personal Food Computer

When a device that calls itself a personal food computer lands in your timeline, what image springs to mind? A cloud-connected diet aid perhaps, advertised on TV infomercials by improbably fit-looking Californian ladies crediting all their health to a palm-sized unit that can be yours for only 199 dollars. Fortunately that proved not to be the case, and on further reading our timeline story was revealed to be about a computerized farming device.

The OpenAg Food Computer  from the MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative bills itself as:

“a controlled-environment agriculture technology platform that uses robotic systems to control and monitor climate, energy, and plant growth inside of a specialized growing chamber”

It takes the form of a tabletop enclosure in which so-called climate recipes to replicate different conditions for plant growth can be tested. It’s probably fair to say that in this most basic form it is more of an educational device than one for full-scale food production, though they are applying the same technologies at a much greater scale. Their so-called “Food servers” are banks of OpenAg environments in freight containers, which definitely could be used to provide viable quantities of produce.

The good news is that the project is open source, and their latest story is that they have released version 2.0(alpha) of the device. If you are interested, you can read the documentation, and find all the resources you need to build one on their GitHub repository. They page linked above has a video that’s very much of the slick PR variety rather than the nuts-and-bolts, so we’ve sought out their build video for you below the break instead. Continue reading “OpenAg Is A Personal Food Computer”

Colorful, Touch-Sensitive Light Table Is Ready For Gaming

It’s an ambitious build for sure — you don’t start with $500 worth of wood if you don’t intend for the finished product to dazzle. And this 240-pixel touch-sensitive light box coffee table does indeed dazzle.

Sometimes when we see such builds as these, fit and finish take a back seat to function. [dasdingo89] bucks that trend with a nicely detailed build, starting with the choice of zebrawood for the table frame. The bold grain and the frosted glass top make for a handsome table, but what lurks beneath the glass is pretty special too. The 240 WS2812 modules live on custom PCBs, each thoughtfully provided with connectors for easy service. There’s also an IR transmitter-receiver pair on each board to detect when something is placed over the pixel. The pixel boards are connected to custom-built shift register boards for the touch sensors, and an Arduino with Bluetooth runs the whole thing. Right now the table just flashes and responds to hand gestures, but you can easily see this forming the basis of a beautiful Tetris or Pong table.

This build reminds us a little of this pressure-sensitive light floor we featured recently, which also has some gaming possibilities. Maybe [dasdingo89] and  [creed_bratton_] should compare notes and see who can come up with the best games for their platform.

[via r/DIY and a tip from emptycanister]

Getting IEC Standards For Free

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is an international body that issues standards on a wide range of electronics-related topics. How wide? Their mandate seems to span rules for household product safety to the specification of safety logic assemblies in nuclear power plants. Want to know how to electrically measure sound loudness? Test methods for digital door lock systems? Or maybe you’re interested in safety interlock systems for laser processing machines. There’s an IEC standard for that too.

Unfortunately, this information is kept behind a paywall. OK, it’s a lot more like a pay fortress. They really, really don’t want you accessing their documents without first coughing up. This is a shame.

The IEC doesn’t just make the standards in a vacuum, however. Before the scribes touch their chisels to the stone tablets, there are draft versions of the standards that are open for public comment by those knowledgeable in the field. And by “those knowledgeable”, we mean you, dear hacker. Head on over to the public commenting page, sign up, and you’ve got free access to every document that’s currently up for discussion.

Now, it does look like the IEC doesn’t want you sharing these PDFs around — they watermark them with your username and threaten all sorts of things if you use them for anything other than commenting purposes — so don’t go abusing the system. But on the other hand, if you are a private individual who knows a thing or two about a thing or two, we think you’re entirely right to look over their shoulders. Let us know in the comments if you find any gems.

They’ve even got a weekly update feature (in the registration pages) that’ll keep you up to date. And who knows, maybe your two cents, submitted to your country’s chapter of the IEC, will influence future international standards.

Thanks to [Johann] for the great tip!

IoT-ifying An Old LED Signboard

Scrolling LED signs were pretty keen back in the day, and now they’re pretty easy to come by on the cheap. Getting a signboard configured for IoT duty can be tricky, but as [kripthor] shows us, it’s not that bad as long as security isn’t your top concern and you can tweak a serial interface.

dec-16-2016-10-57-pm-edited[kripthor] chanced upon an Amplus AM03127 signboard that hails from the days when tri-color LEDs were the big thing. The unit came with a defunct remote thanks to leaking batteries, but a built-in serial interface offered a way to connect. Unfortunately, the RS-232 standard on the signboard wants both positive and negative voltages with respect to ground to represent the 1s and 0s, and that wouldn’t work with the ESP8266 [kripthor] was targeting. The ubiquitous MAX-232 transceiver was enlisted to convert logic levels to RS-232 signals and a small buck converter was added to power the ESP. A little scripting and the signboard is online and ready for use and abuse by the interwebz — [kripthor] says he’ll regret this, but we’re pleased with the way the first remote access turned out. Feel free to check out the live video feed and see what the current message is.

Personally, we don’t have much use for a signboard, but getting RS-232 devices working in the Arduino ecosystem is definitely a trick we’ll keep in mind. If asynchronous serial protocols aren’t your strong suit, you might want to check out this guide to what can go wrong by our own [Elliot Williams].

Ask Hackaday: Computing Square Roots On FPGA?

Hackaday reader [nats.fr] wrote in with some code from a project that resizes a video stream on the fly using an FPGA. Doing this right means undoing whatever gamma correction has been applied to the original stream, resizing, and then re-applying the gamma. Making life simpler, [nats.fr] settled on a gamma of two, which means taking a bunch of square roots, which isn’t fast on an FPGA.

[nats]’s algorithm is pretty neat: it uses a first-stage lookup to figure out in which broad range the value lies, and then one step of Hero’s algorithm to refine from there. (We think this is equivalent to saying he does a piecewise linear interpolation, but we’re not 100% sure.) Anyway, it works decently.

Of course, when you start looking into the abyss that is special function calculation, you risk falling in. Wikipedia lists more methods of calculating square roots than we have fingers. One of them, CORDIC, avoids even using multiplication by resorting to clever bitshifts and a lookup table. Our go-to in these type of situations, Chebyshev polynomial approximation, didn’t even make the cut. (Although we suspect it would be a contender in the gamma=1.8 or gamma=2.2 cases, especially if combined with range-reduction in a first stage like [nats.fr] does.)

So what’s the best/fastest approximation for sqrt(x) for 16-bit integers on an FPGA? [nats.fr] is using a Spartan 6, so you can use a multiplier, but division is probably best avoided. What about arbitrary, possibly fractional, roots?

Automated Vacuum Lettuce Seed Placement

[Jethro Tull] is a name you may well associate with a 1970s prog/folk rock band featuring a flautist, but the original [Tull] was an inventor whose work you benefit from every day. He was a British lawyer and landowner who lived over the turn of the 18th century, and who invented among other things the mechanical seed drill.

Were [Tull] alive today he would no doubt be impressed by the work of [Akash Heimlich], who has created an exquisite vacuum seed placer for his rooftop hydroponic lettuce farm. Unlike the continuous rows of seed on the Berkshire earth of [Tull]’s farm, the lettuce seed must be placed in an even grid on a foam substrate for the hydroponic equivalent. This was an extremely tedious task when done by hand, so [Akash] set about automating the process with a vacuum seeder that is a thing of beauty.

It uses a simple yet effective mechanism involving a row of pipettes connected to a vacuum line, that are rotated over a vibrating hopper of seeds from which each one collects a single seed, before being rotated back over the foam where the seeds are dropped in a neat row through 3D-printed funnels. The foam is advanced, and the process is repeated until there is a neat grid of seeds. In only four minutes it can deliver 150 seeds, reducing several hours work into under half an hour.

The whole machine is controlled by an Arduino, with a couple of stepper motors to move foam and pipettes alongside the vibrator motor. You can see its operation in the video below the break.

Continue reading “Automated Vacuum Lettuce Seed Placement”

Hackspace U

No Timmy, we're not preparing you for a life of mindless drudgery! PD, via Wikimedia Commons.
No Timmy, we’re not preparing you for a life of mindless drudgery! PD, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s funny, how obsessed we are with qualifications these days. Kids go to school and are immediately thrust into a relentless machine of tests, league tables, and exams. They are ruthlessly judged on grades, yet both the knowledge and qualifications those grades represent so often boil down to relatively useless pieces of paper. It doesn’t even end for the poor youngsters when they leave school, for we are now in an age in which when on moving on from school a greater number of them than ever before are expected to go to university. They emerge three years later carrying a student debt and a freshly-printed degree certificate, only to find that all this education hasn’t really taught them the stuff they really need to do whatever job they land.

A gold standard of education is revealed as an expensive piece of paper with a networking opportunity if you are lucky. You need it to get the job, but in most cases the job overestimates the requirement for it. When a prospective employer ignores twenty years of industry experience to ask you what class of degree you got twenty years ago you begin to see the farcical nature of the situation.

In our hackspaces, we see plenty of people engaged in this educational treadmill. From high schoolers desperately seeking to learn something other than simply how to regurgitate the textbook, through university students seeking an environment closer to an industrial lab or workshop, to perhaps most interestingly those young people who have eschewed university and gone straight from school into their own startups.

Continue reading “Hackspace U”