The measurement results of: (a) RSSI in dBm collected from gateway 2 and (b) soil moisture during the winter period. (Credit: Maja Škiljo et al., 2022)

Using LoRa Nodes As Soil Moisture Sensing Antennas

Implementation of LoRaWAN-based soil moisture sensing device. (Credit: Maja Škiljo et al., 2022)
Implementation of LoRaWAN-based soil moisture sensing device. (Credit: Maja Škiljo et al., 2022)

Although we generally think of Internet of Things (IoT) and similar devices as things that are scattered around above ground, there are plenty of reasons to also have such devices underground. These so-called IoUT devices are extremely useful when it comes to monitoring underground structures, but communication via radiowaves is obviously impacted when soil is in the way. Although there are ways to get around this, a 2022 paper by Maja Škiljo and colleagues in Sensors covers an interesting way to make use of this signal attenuation property of changing moisture levels in soil.

By quantifying the exact attenuation of the signal received at the gateways, they were able to determine the soil moisture levels around the LoRa node which had been buried at a depth of approximately 14 centimeters. This LoRa node used off-the-shelf components consisting of an ATmega328P-based Arduino Pro Mini and SX1276-based RFM95W LoRa module with a spring antenna.

During experimentation in- and outdoors it was determined that a narrowband, printed (PCB) antenna was optimal for soil moisture sensing purposes. Other than the interesting question of how to keep soil moisture sensing nodes like this powered up over long periods of time (perhaps periodic retrieval to replenish the battery), this would seem to be a very interesting way to monitor the soil moisture levels in something like a field, where each node can provide its own ID and the received signal providing the relevant data in the form of the SNR and other parameters recorded by the gateway.

(Heading image: The measurement results of: (a) RSSI in dBm collected from gateway 2 and (b) soil moisture during the winter period. (Credit: Maja Škiljo et al., 2022) )

New LoRA Distance Record: 830 Miles!

The LoRa radio communication system is useful for low-bandwidth communication, and as many readers will be aware its special skill lies in delivering long range. For most of us that range tops out at a few miles, but pushing the limits of what is possible for LoRa has resulted in some significant records falling. Most recently this has reached an impressive distance of 1336 kilometres, or 830 miles.

The record in question was set from near the Portuguese coast, from where LoRa beacons on a fishing boat and its buoys were able to open up a gateway on the Spanish Canary islands. The conductive surface of the sea makes an excellent aid to propagation, and from amateur radio experience we’d guess that tropospheric conditions aided by the summer weather would have something to do with it too.

Radio amateurs on those coasts and islands chase those conditions and live in hope of making a rare UHF contact across the ocean to the Americas or the Caribbean. The difference in their respective frequency allocations notwithstanding, we wonder whether the same might be possible using LoRa given a fortuitous atmosphere. We’re not quite sure whether a set of dual-band LoRa gateways could be made to test this idea though.

This record breaks a previous one set between Germany and Poland. If you think you’ve seen a far greater LoRa record here before you’d be correct, but only in the modulation scheme and not the frequency.

Hackaday Prize 2023: LoShark, The Radio Debugger For LoRa

LoRa, the Long Range wireless protocol is pretty great for trickling data across long distances. There are some great embedded devices based around STM32, NRF52, and ESP32 microcontrollers. What’s been missing for quite a while is a device that allows for full access to a LoRa radio from a more capable CPU. The wait may be over, as there’s now the LoShark. It’s a USB key form factor, with a MIPS processor running a real Linux kernel. Cool!

The way debugging works is interesting, too. The team at SudoMaker is working on their Resonance runtime, which allows interacting with the onboard sx126x radio chip using JavaScript code. That chip can both send and receive, so this device should be capable of more than just capturing traffic. And if JavaScript isn’t your thing, the Linux system on the device means you can knock yourself out with C or C++ code. Who knows, we may even see Meshtastic running on this thing some day.

If this gets you excited, it’s already available for order for a reasonable $59.99. The LoShark ships in 433, 868, and 915 megahertz versions. It’s a really slick looking device, and maybe worth your time to check out. Enjoy!

Mythic I: An Exploration Of Artisanal Computing

While computers have become ever faster and more capable over the years, it’s hard to say they’ve become any more exciting. In fact, they’ve become downright boring. Desktop, laptop, or mobile, they’re all more or less featureless slabs of various dimensions. There’s not even much in the way of color variation — the classic beige box is now available with white, black, or metallic finishes.

Believing that such a pedestrian appearance isn’t befitting a device that puts the world’s collected knowledge at our fingertips, [Keegan McNamara] started exploring a more luxurious approach to computing. Gone is the mass produced injection molded plastic, in its place is hand-carved maple and Tuscan leather. Common computing form factors are eschewed entirely for a swooping console inspired by fine furniture and classic sports cars. The final result, called the Mythic I, is equal parts art and science. Not just a bold reimaging of what a computer can be, but an object to be displayed and discussed. Continue reading “Mythic I: An Exploration Of Artisanal Computing”

Astronaut Tracy Caldwell in the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Making The Case For All-Female Exploration Missions To Mars And Beyond

A recent study in Nature Scientific Reports by Jonathan P. R. Scott and colleagues makes the case for sending exclusively all-female crews on long-duration missions. The reasoning here is simple: women have significant less body mass, with in the US the 50th percentile for women being 59.2 kg and 81.8 kg for men. This directly translates into a low total energy expenditure (TEE), along with a lower need for everything from food to water to oxygen. On a long-duration mission, this could conceivably save a lot of resources, thus increasing the likelihood of success.

With this in mind, it does raise the question of why female astronauts aren’t more commonly seen throughout Western space history, with Sally Ride being the first US astronaut to fly in 1983. This happened decades after the first female Soviet cosmonaut, when Valentina Tereshkova made history in 1963 on Vostok 6, followed by Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982 and again in 1984, when she became the first woman to perform a spacewalk.

With women becoming an increasingly more common sight in space, it does bear looking at what blocked Western women for so long, despite efforts to change this. It all starts with the unofficial parallel female astronaut selection program of the 1950s.

Continue reading “Making The Case For All-Female Exploration Missions To Mars And Beyond”

LoRa Goes To The Moon

LoRa is a communications method that allows for long range radio contacts to be made using typically low-powered devices. This shouldn’t be surprising given that LoRa is short for “long range” which typically involves distances on the order of a few kilometers. However, a group of students are taking the “long range” moniker to the extreme by attempting to send and receive a signal with a total path of around 768,000 kilometers by using some specialized equipment to bounce a LoRa signal off of the moon and receive it back on Earth.

Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) communications are typically done by amateur radio operators as a hobby, since the development of communications satellites largely rendered other uses of this communication pathway obsolete. A directional antenna and a signal typically on the order of 1 kW are often used to compensate for the extremely high path losses. Using LoRa, which makes use of chirp spread spectrum modulation, they hope to reduce this power requirement significantly. The signals are being generated and received on a set of HackRF One devices fed into a series of amplifiers, and the team is also employing a set of large dish antennas, one in New Jersey and another in Alaska, to send and receive the messages.

The software used is the open-source SDRAngel which is useful for controlling the HackRF and moving the LoRa signal up to 1296 MHz. Normally LoRa is operated on an unlicensed band, but this method allows for finer control of not only frequency but also bandwidth, which helps reduce the impacts of path loss. Right now they have not yet completed their contacts with the Alaska station (partially due to that antenna being covered in snow) but we hope to hear more news in the future. In the meantime, take a look at some more traditional long-range communications using this protocol with more manageable-sized antennas.

Image courtesy of NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Building A Communications Grid With LoRaType

Almost all of modern society is built around various infrastructure, whether that’s for electricity, water and sewer, transportation, or even communication. These vast networks aren’t immune from failure though, and at least as far as communication goes, plenty will reach for a radio of some sort to communicate when Internet or phone services are lacking. It turns out that certain LoRa devices are excellent for local communication as well, and this system known as LoraType looks to create off-grid text-based communications networks wherever they might be needed.

The project is based around the ESP32 platform with an E22 LoRa module built-in to allow it to operate within its UHF bands. It also includes a USB-based battery charger for its small battery, an e-paper display module to display the text messages without consuming too much power, and a keyboard layout for quickly typing messages. The device firmware lets it be largely automated; it will seek out other devices on the local mesh network automatically and the user can immediately begin communicating with other devices on that network as soon as it connects.

There are a few other upsides of using a device like this. Since it doesn’t require any existing communications infrastructure to function, it can be used wherever there are no other easy options, such as in the wilderness, during civil unrest where the common infrastructure has been shut down, or simply for local groups which do not have access to cell networks or Internet. LoRa is a powerful tool for these use cases, and it’s even possible to network together larger base stations to extend the range of devices like these.