Amazon Creates Distributed Satellite Ground Stations

Here’s an interesting thought: it’s possible to build a cubesat for perhaps ten thousand dollars, and hitch a ride on a launch for free thanks to a NASA outreach program. Tracking that satellite along its entire orbit would require dozens or hundreds of ground stations, all equipped with antennas and a connection to the Internet. Getting your data down from a cubesat actually costs more than building a satellite.

This is the observation someone at Amazon must have made. They’ve developed the AWS Ground Station, a system designed to downlink data from cubesats and other satellites across an entire orbit. Right now, Amazon only has two ground stations attached, but they plan to have a dozen in place by the middle of next year. Each of these ground stations are associated with a particular AWS region (there are a total of sixteen AWS regions, which might limit the orbital coverage of the AWS Ground Station system), and consists of an antenna, an alt-az mount, and a gigantic bank of servers and hard drives to capture data from satellites orbiting overhead.

The Amazon blog post goes over how easy it is to capture data from a satellite, and it’s as easy as getting a NORAD ID, logging into your AWS account, and clicking a few buttons.

It should go without mention that this is the exact same idea behind SatNOGS, an Open Source global network of satellite ground stations and winner of the 2014 Hackaday Prize. One of their ground stations is what’s pictured at the top if this article. Right now, SatNOGS has over seventy ground stations in the network, including a few stations that are in very useful locations like the Canary Islands. The SatNOGS network already has a lot more coverage than the maximum of sixteen locations where Amazon has their data centers — made possible by its open nature. Congrats to the SatNOGS team once again for creating something so useful, and doing it four years before Amazon.

Soft Silicone Pneumatics Are 3D-printed In A Tub Of Gel

We’ve seen our fair share of soft silicone robots around here. Typically they are produced through a casting process, where molds are printed and then filled with liquid silicone to form the robot parts. These parts are subsequently removed from the molds and made to wiggle, grip, and swim through the use of pneumatic or hydraulic pumps and valves. MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab has found a way to print the parts directly instead, by extruding silicone, layer by layer, into a gel-filled tank.

The Self-Assembly Lab’s site is unfortunately light on details, but there is a related academic paper (behind a paywall, alas) that documents the process. From the abstract, it seems the printing process is intended for more general purpose printing needs, and is able to print any “photo or chemically cured” material, including two-part mixtures. Additionally, because of the gel-filled tank, the material need not be deposited in flat layers like a traditional 3D-printer. More interesting shapes and material properties could be created by using the full 3d-volume to do 3D extrusion paths.

To see some of the creative shapes and mechanisms developed by MIT using this process, check out the two aesthetically pleasing videos of pulsating soft white silicone shapes after the break.

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Tiny Drone Racing Gates Use Up Those Filament Scraps

Drone racing comes in different shapes and sizes, and some multirotor racers can be very small indeed. Racing means having gates to fly though, and here’s a clever DIY design by [Qgel] that uses a small 3D printed part and a segment of printer filament as the components for small-scale drone racing gates.

The base is 3D printed as a single piece and is not fussy about tolerances, meanwhile the gate itself is formed from a segment of printer filament. Size is easily adjusted, they disassemble readily, are cheap to produce, and take up very little space. In short, perfect for its intended purpose.

Races benefit from being able to measure lap time, and that led to DIY drone racing transponders, complete with a desktop client for managing the data. Not all flying is about racing, but pilots with racing skills were key to getting results in this Star Wars fan film that used drones. Finally, those who still feel that using the word “drone” to include even palm-sized racers is too broad of a use may be interested in [Brian Benchoff]’s research into the surprisingly long history of the word “drone” and its historically broad definition.

Blimpduino Hits Version 2

We always think that crossing the Atlantic in a blimp would be very serene — at least once they put heaters on board. The Hindenburg, the R-101, and the Shenandoah put an end to the age of the airship, at least for commercial passenger travel. But you can still fly your own with a helium balloon and some electronics. One notable project — the Blimpduino — has evolved into the Blimpduino 2. The open-source software is on GitHub. We couldn’t find the PCB layout, so we aren’t sure if it is or will be open. The 3D printed parts are available, though.

The PCB is the heart of the matter, a four-layer board with an ARM M0 processor, an ESP8266 WiFi module, four motor outputs, two servo motor outputs, a 9-axis inertial navigation system, an altimeter, and a forward object detection system. There’s also a battery charger onboard.

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A Guide For Driving LED Matrices

Building an LED matrix is a fun project, but it can be a bit of a pain. Usually it starts with hand-soldering individual LEDs and resistors together, then hooking them up to rows and columns so they can be driven by a microcontroller of some sort. That’s a lot of tedious work, but you can order an LED matrix pre-built to save some time and headache. You’ll still need a driver though, and while building one yourself can be rewarding there are many pitfalls and trade-offs to consider when undertaking that project as well. Or, you can consider one of a number of drivers that [deshipu] has outlined in detail.

The hangups surrounding the driver board generally revolve around the issue of getting constant brightness from LEDs regardless of how many in the row or column are illuminated at one time. Since they are typically driven one row or column at a time, the more that are on the lower the brightness each LED will have. Driver boards take different approaches to solving this problem, which usually involve a combination of high-speed scanning of the matrix or using a constant-current source in order to eliminate the need for resistors. [deshipu] outlines four popular chips that achieve these purposes, and he highlights their pros and cons to help anyone looking to build something like this.

Most of these boards will get you to an 8×8 LED matrix with no problem, with a few going a few pixels higher in either direction. That might be enough for most of our needs, but for something larger you’ll need other solutions like the one found in this 64×32 LED matrix clock. There are also even more complicated drivers if you go into extra dimensions.

Photo credit: Komatta [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Treasure Trove of Projects Provides Endless Examples

Sometimes, traveling the internet feels a little like exploring an endless cave system looking for treasure. Lots of dark passageways without light or life, some occasional glimmers as you find a stray gold doubloon or emerald scattered in a corner. If we take the metaphor too far, then finding [Paul]’s “Little Arduino Projects” repository is like turning an unremarkable corner only to discover a dragon’s hoard.

LEAP (as [Paul] also refers to the collection) is a numbered collection of what looks like more or less every electronics project he has completed over the last few years. At the time of writing there are 434 projects in the GitHub repository and tagged and indexed in a handy blog-style interface. Some are familiar, like a modification to a Boldport project. Others are one-off tests of a specific concept like driving a seven segment display (there are actually 16 similar projects if you search the index for “7-Segment”). On the other end are project builds with more detailed logs and documentation, like the LED signboard for monitoring the status of 24 in-progress projects, mounted in a guitar fret board.

LEAP reminds us of the good old days on the internet, before it felt like 50% trolling and 50% tracking cookies. Spend a few minutes checking out [Paul]’s project archive and see if you find anything interesting! We’ve just scratched the surface. And of course, send a tip if you discover something that needs a write-up!

Bill Gross On Why Your Startup Will Succeed

Bill Gross is one of the great heros when it comes to technology incubators. Twenty years ago, he founded Idealab, a business whose business plan is to create more businesses. This started out with just a handful of companies in 1996, and has since gone on to found 150 companies, that have collectively raised three and a half billion dollars. Out of these companies, more than half have either gone through successful IPOs and acquisitions, or are currently operating. That investment has generated a 13.5x return, and created more than 10,000 jobs.

Obviously, when you want to talk about what goes into a successful startup, Bill Gross is the person you want to talk to. We were happy to have him Keynote the Hackaday Superconference this year, and the lessons he shared might surprise you, especially if you’re interested in starting your own business.

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