LoRa-Powered Birdhouses Enable Wireless Networking When The Internet’s Down

One of the design requirements for the networks that evolved into the Internet was the ability to keep functioning, even if some nodes or links were disabled or destroyed in war. The packet-switched architecture that still powers today’s Internet is a direct result of that: if one link stops functioning, information is automatically re-routed towards its intended destination. However, with tech giants occupying increasingly large parts of the global internet, an outage at one of them might still cause major disruption. In addition, a large-scale power interruption can disable large parts of the network if multiple nodes are connected to the same grid.

Six pieces of wood, with a hammer next to them
Just six pieces of wood make up the birdhouse.

Enter the LoRa Birdhouse project by the Wellesley Amateur Radio Society that solves those two problems, although admittedly at a very small scale. Developed by amateur radio operators in eastern Massachusetts, it’s basically a general-purpose LoRa-based packet-switching network. As it’s based on open-source hardware and commonly available components, its design allows anyone to set up a similar network in their own area.

The network is built from nodes that can receive messages from their neighbors and pass them on towards their final destination. Each node contains a Semtech SX1276 transceiver operating in the 902-928 MHz band, which gets its data from an ESP32 microcontroller. The nodes are placed in strategic locations outside and are powered by solar panels to reduce their ecological footprint, as well as to ensure resilience in case of a power outage. To make the whole project even more eco-friendly, each node is built into a birdhouse that provides shelter to small birds.

Users can access the network through modified network nodes that can be hooked up to a PC using a USB cable. Currently, a serial terminal program is the only way to interact with the network, although a more user-friendly interface is being planned. FCC rules also require all users (except any avian residents) to be licensed amateur radio operators, and all traffic to remain unencrypted. Tests have shown that one kilometer between nodes can work in the right conditions, enabling the deployment of networks across reasonably large areas.

While the Birdhouse Network might not be a plug-and-play internet replacement in case of a nuclear apocalypse, it does provide an excellent system to experiment with packet-switching wireless network technology. We’ve seen similar LoRa-based network initiatives like Qmesh, Cellsol and Meshtastic, all of which provide some way to communicate wirelessly without requiring any centralized hardware.

SDR Listens In To Your Tires

[Ross] has a 2008 Toyota Tacoma. Like many late model cars, each tire contains a direct tire pressure monitoring sensor or TPMS that wirelessly sends data about the tire status to the car. However, unlike some cars, the system has exactly one notification to the driver: one of your tires is low. It doesn’t tell you which one. Sure, you can check each tire, but [Ross] had a different problem. One sensor was bad and he had no way to know which one it was. He didn’t have any equipment to test the sensor, but he did have an RTL-SDR dongle and some know-how to figure out how to listen in on the sensors.

The key was to use some software called RTL-433 that is made to pick up these kinds of signals. It is available for Linux, Windows, or Mac, and supports hundreds of wireless sensors ranging from X10 RF to KlikAanKlikUit wireless switches.

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CAT Is Not Your Average Meow-cropad

Are you completely over the idea of the keyboard in any flattish form and looking for something completely different for inputting your data? Or do you want a mega macropad for 3D design, GIMP or Inkscape work, or to use while relaxing with a nice first-person shooter? Then this ergonomic, double-fistable keyboard/controller mashup named CAT may be what you’re looking for.

Inside each of these slinky felines is pretty much what you’d expect to find — 25 or so switches and an Arduino Pro Micro. Interestingly enough, the switches are all lever-action and not push buttons. There are two breeds of CAT available to build or buy: one has 25 buttons, and the other has a joystick or trackball on the thumb between two upper and two lower buttons. You could have one type for each hand!

More information is available on the Lynx Workshop site, which is where you’ll also find tutorials and instructions for everything from the 3D printing to the electronics to the assembly and coding. There is even a bonus 3D modeling tutorial. Don’t want to invest the time to make your own CAT? These kitties are also available for pre-order. Claw past the break to check them out in action.

Looking for something with regular keyswitches? Oh, we have plenty of those.

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Amazing “Connect Fore!” Robot Challenges Your Putting Practice

We’ve just come across [Bithead]’s amazing, robotically-automated mashup of miniature golf and Connect Four, which also includes an AI opponent who pulls no punches in its drive to win. Connect Fore! celebrates Scotland — the birthplace of golf, after all — and looks absolutely fantastic.

Scotty the AI opponent uses this robotic turret to make their moves in a game of Connect Fore!

The way it works is this: players take turns putting colored balls into one of seven different holes at the far end of the table. Each hole feeds to a clear tube — visible in the middle of the table — which represent each of the columns in a game of Connect Four.

Each player attempts to stack balls in such a way that they create an unbroken line of four in their color, either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. In a one-player game, a human player faces off against “Scotty”, the computer program that chooses its moves with intelligence and fires balls from a robotic turret.

[Bithead] started this project as a learning experience, and being such a complex project, the write-up is extensive. We really recommend reading through the whole thing if you are at all interested in what goes into making such a project work.

What’s particularly interesting is all of the ways in which things nearly worked, or needed nudging or fine adjustment. One might think that reliably getting a ball to enter a hole and roll down a PVC tube wouldn’t be a particularly finicky task, but it turns out that all kinds of things can go wrong.

Even finding the right play surface was a challenge. [Bithead]’s first purchase from Amazon was a total waste: it looked bad, smelled bad, and balls didn’t roll well on it. There are high-quality artificial turfs out there, but the good stuff gets shockingly expensive, and such a small project pretty much pigeonholes one as a nuisance customer when it comes to vendors. The challenges [Bithead] overcame serve as a┬áreminder to keep the 80/20 rule (or Pareto principle) in mind when estimating what will get a project to the finish line.

Right under the page break below is a brief video tour of the completed table, and after that, you can watch a game in action as [Bithead] faces off against Scotty the AI. Curious about the inner workings? The last video has some build details that fill in a few blanks from the write-up.

We’ve seen an automated Chess table before, but this is an entirely other, utterly fantastic level of work.
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Best Ways To Make PCB Breakaway Tabs, Revealed

Most of us are familiar with the concept of producing PCBs in a panel, and snapping them apart afterwards. V-grooves that go most of the way through a PCB are one way to go about this, but a line of perforations along which to snap a tab is another. But what’s the best size and spacing of holes to use? Sparkfun’s [Nick Poole] spent some $400 on PCBs to get some solid answers by snapping each of them apart, and judging the results.

The nice thing about creating a perforation line (or “mouse bites”) is that drill hits are a very normal thing in PCB production, which makes creating this kind of breakaway tab a very straightforward and flexible method. However, it can be tricky to get results that are just right. Too sturdy, and breaking apart is a hassle. Too weak, and the board may break or twist before its time. On top of that, edges must also break cleanly. We’ve covered panelizing PCBs in this way before, but this is the first time we’ve seen someone seriously look into how to create optimal breakaway tabs.

Placing holes tangent to the board edge (as shown above) isn’t the prettiest, but keeps PCB edges free from protrusions. This is best for boards that are rail-mounted, or have tight enclosures.

Data on designing mouse bites was sparse and a bit inconsistent, so [Nick] decided to figure it out empirically and share the results. The full details are available in Building a Better Mousebite (PDF download) but the essence of the recommendations are: 0.015″ unplated holes, spaced 0.025″ apart (center-to-center), tabs a maximum of 0.118″ wide (so as to be compatible with depanelizing tools), and holes that extend into the corners of the breakaway tab to avoid sharp edges. Holes should be placed slightly differently depending on whether one wishes to optimize the cosmetic appearance versus the physical smoothness of the board edge, but those numbers are the core of the guidelines.

To fine tune, [Nick] suggests increasing the spacing between holes to add strength, or just adding additional tabs. What about thickness of PCB? [Nick] tested boards both 0.8 mm and 1.6 mm thick, and while different amounts of torque were needed to snap the boards apart, things still worked as expected regardless of PCB thickness.

When it comes down to it, the best numbers will ultimately be the ones that your process or fab house can most efficiently handle, but [Nick]’s numbers should not steer anyone wrong, and it’s fantastic to see this kind of work go into refining such a common PCB feature.

The Virtue Of Wires In The Age Of Wireless

We ran an article this week about RS-485, a noise resistant differential serial multidrop bus architecture. (Tell me where else you’re going to read articles like that!) I’ve had my fun with RS-485 in the past, and reading this piece reminded me of those days.

You see, RS-485 lets you connect a whole slew of devices up to a single bundle of Cat5 cable, and if you combine it with the Modbus protocol, you can have them work together in a network. Dedicate a couple of those Cat5 lines to power, and it’s the perfect recipe for a home, or hackerspace, small-device network — the kind of things that you, and I, would do with WiFi and an ESP8266 today.

Wired is more reliable, has fewer moving parts, and can solve the “how do I get power to these things” problem. It’s intrinsically simpler: no radios, just serial data running as voltage over wires. But nobody likes running cable, and there’s just so much more demo code out there for an ESP solution. There’s an undeniable ease of development and cross-device compatibility with WiFi. Your devices can speak directly to a computer, or to the whole Internet. And that’s been the death of wired.

Still, some part of me admires the purpose-built simplicity and the bombproof nature of the wired bus. It feels somehow retro, but maybe I’ll break out some old Cat5 and run it around the office just for old times’ sake.

Twitch And Blink Your Way Through Typing With This Facial Keyboard

For those that haven’t experienced it, the early days of parenthood are challenging, to say the least. Trying to get anything accomplished with a raging case of sleep deprivation is hard enough, but the little bundle of joy who always seems to need to be in physical contact with you makes doing things with your hands nigh impossible. What’s the new parent to do when it comes time to be gainfully employed?

Finding himself in such a boat, [Fletcher]’s solution was to build a face-activated keyboard to work around his offspring’s needs. Before you ask: no, voice recognition software wouldn’t work, at least according to the sleepy little boss who protests noisy awakenings. The solution instead was to first try OpenCV and the dlib facial recognition library to watch [Fletcher] blinking out Morse code. While that sorta-kinda worked, one’s blinkers can’t long endure such a workout, so he moved on to an easier set of gestures. Mouthing Morse code covers most of the keyboard, while a combination of eye, eyebrow, and other facial twitches and tics cover the rest, with MediaPipe’s Face Mesh doing the heavy-lifting in terms of landmark detection.

The resulting facial keyboard, aptly dubbed “CheekyKeys,” performed well enough for [Fletcher] to use for a skills test during an interview with a Big Tech Company. Imagining the interviewer on the other end watching him convulse his way through the interview was worth the price of admission, and we don’t even care if it was a put-on. Video after the break.

CheekyKeys is pretty cool, doing something with a webcam and Python that we thought would have needed a dedicated AI depth camera to accomplish. But perhaps the real hack here was how [Fletcher] taught himself Morse in fifteen minutes.

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