Cyborg, Or Leafy Sensor Array?

Some plants react quickly enough for our senses to notice, such as a Venus flytrap or mimosa pudica. Most of the time, we need time-lapse photography at a minimum to notice while more exotic sensors can measure things like microscopic pores opening and closing. As with any sensor reading, those measurements can be turned into action through a little trick we call automation. [Harpreet Sareen] and [Pattie Maes] at MIT brought these two ideas together in a way which we haven’t seen before where a plant has taken the driver’s seat in a project called Elowan. Details are sparse but the concept is easy enough to grasp.

We are not sure if this qualifies as a full-fledged cyborg or if this is a case of a robot using biological sensors. Maybe it all depends on which angle you present this mixture of plant and machine. Perhaps it is truly is the symbiotic relationship that the project claims it to be. The robot would not receive any instructions without the plant and the plant would receive sub-optimal light without the robot. What other ways could plants be integrated into robotics to make it a bona fide cyborg?

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Generating Power with Wind, Water, and Solar

It is three weeks after the apocalypse. No zombies yet. But you do need to charge your cell phone. How do you quickly make a wind turbine? If you’ve read this project, you might reach for a few empty water bottles. This educational project might not charge your phone without some extra work, but it does illustrate how to use water bottles to make a workable air scoop for turning a crank and possibly generating electricity.

That takes care of the wind and water aspects, but how did we get solar? According to the post — and we agree it is technically true — wind power is a form of solar power since the wind is driven by temperature differences created by the sun. Technically true!

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Solar-Powered IoT Sensor Saves Wine Batch From Overheating

Making wine isn’t just about following a recipe, it’s a chemical process that needs to be monitored and managed for best results. The larger the batch, the more painful it is to have something go wrong. This means that the stakes are high for small vineyards such as the family one [Mare] works with, which have insufficient resources to afford high-end equipment yet have the same needs as larger winemakers. The most useful thing to monitor is the temperature profile of the fermentation process, and [Mare] created an exceptional IoT system to do that using LoRa wireless and solar power.

It’s not enough just to measure temperature of the fermenting liquid; viewing how the temperature changes over time is critical to understanding the process and spotting any trouble. [Mare] originally used a Raspberry Pi, I2C temperature sensor, and a Wi-Fi connection to a database to do the monitoring. This was a success, but it was also overkill. To improve the system, the Raspberry Pi was replaced with a LoRaDunchy board, an STM-based module of [Mare]’s own design which is pin-compatible with the Arduino Nano. It includes a battery charger, power management, and LoRa wireless communication. Adding a solar cell and lithium-polymer battery was all it took to figuratively cut the power cord.

Sensing the temperature of fermentation is done by sealing the temperature sensor into a thin aluminum tube, and lowering that into the vat. There it remains, with the LoRaDunchy board periodically waking up to read the sensor and report the tempurature over LoRa before going back to sleep, all the while sipping power from the battery which in turn gets recharged with solar power.

It’s an elegant system that has already paid off. A 500 litre vat of wine generated an alarm when the temperature rose above 24 Celsius for 10 minutes. An email alert allowed the owner to begin mixing the solution and add ice water to put the brakes on the runaway reaction. The temperature dropped and slow fermentation resumed, thanks to the twin powers of gathering the right data, then doing something meaningful with it.

Vineyards and LoRa have joined forces before, for example in the Vinduino project which aims to enable water-smart farming. If you’re unfamiliar with LoRa in general, the LoRa on the ESP32 project page contains a good primer, and if the antenna on the module shown here looks familiar to you it’s because we recently featured [Mare]’s guide on making DIY LoRa antennas from salvaged wire.

The Linux Throwie: A Non-Spacefaring Satellite

Throwies occupy a special place in hardware culture — a coin cell battery, LED, and a magnet that can be thrown into an inaccessible place and stick there as a little beacon of colored light. Many of us will fondly remember this as a first project. Alas, time marches inevitably on, and launching cheerful lights no longer teaches me new skills. With a nod to those simpler times, I’ve been working on the unusual idea of building a fully functional server that can be left in remote places and remain functional, like a throwie (please don’t actually throw it). It’s a little kooky, yet should still deliver a few years of occasional remote access if you leave it somewhere with sunlight.

A short while ago, I described the power stages for this solar-powered, cloud accessible Linux server. It only activates on demand, so a small solar cell and modest battery are sufficient to keep the whole show running.

Where we left off, I had a solar cell that could charge a battery, and provide regulated 12 V and 5 V output. For it to be a functional device, there are three high level problems to solve:

  1. It must be possible to set up the device without direct physical access
  2. You must be able to remotely turn it on and off as needed.
  3. It needs to be accessible from the Internet.

The funny thing is, this hardware reminds me of a satellite. Of course it’s not meant to go into space, but I do plan to put it somewhere not easy to get to again, it runs off of solar power, and there’s a special subsystem (ESP8266) to tend the power, check for remote activation, and turn the main computer (Raspberry Pi 3) on and off as necessary. This sounds a lot like space race tech, right?

As I have a bit more code than usual to share with you today, I’ll discuss the most interesting parts, and provide links to the full firmware files at the end of the article.

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Self-Powered Sun Tracker Takes a Cue from NASA Solar Probe

Getting a solar array to track the sun has always been an interesting problem, and it has led to some complicated solutions. Controllers that use GPS and servos seem to be much in favor these days, but as this NASA-inspired sun tracker shows, the task needn’t be overly complex.

It’s pretty obvious from the video below that [NightHawkInLight]’s solar tracker is just a proof-of-concept for now, but it certainly shows promise. It’s based on NASA’s sun-skimming Parker Solar Probe, which uses sensors at the rear of the probe to maneuver the craft to keep sunlight from peeking around the sides of the shield. [NightHawkInLight]’s design simplifies that scheme even more, by using solar cells as the four sensors. The cells, mounted behind a solar shade, are directly connected to small gear motors that control azimuth and elevation. When a cell sees the sun, it powers the motor that moves the panel the right way to occlude the sun again, thereby cutting power to the motor.

[NightHawkInLight] mentions the obvious problem of what happens when the sun comes up and the array is pointing the complete opposite direction after the previous sunset, but we’re still not sure his solution – a larger array with tracking cells mounted further apart – will work. We’re also not sure how it will scale to larger arrays that need bigger motors to move. We’ve seen such arrays handled with more complicated trackers, of course, but we hope the simplicity of this design can be made practical for real-world use.

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The Linux Throwie: Powering a Linux Server with a 0.3W Solar Panel

Have you ever had one of those moments, when you’re rummaging through your spare parts heap, and have a rather bizarre project idea that you can’t quite get out of your head? You know, the ones that have no clear use, but simply demand to be born, of glass and steel and silicon?

This time, the stubborn idea in question was sort of like a solar-rechargeable LED throwie, but instead of a blinking light, it has a fully cloud-accessible embedded Linux server in the form of a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. Your choice of embedded Linux board should work — I just happen to have a lot of these due to a shipping error.

There were two main challenges here: First, it would have to combine the smallest practical combination of solar panel, power supply, and Li-ion cell that could run the Raspberry Pi. Second, we’ll need to remotely activate and access the Pi regardless of where it is, as well as be able to connect it to WiFi without direct physical access. In this article we’ll be dealing with the first set of problems — stay tuned for the rest.

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Travel to Mercury on Ion Power

Star Trek — as much as we love it — was guilty sometimes of a bit of hyperbole and more than its share of inconsistency. In some episodes, ion drives were advanced technology and in others they were obsolete. Make up your mind!

The ESA-JAXA BepiColombo probe is on its way to Mercury riding on four ion thrusters developed by a company called QinetiQ. But unlike the ion drive featured in the infamous “Spock’s Brain” episode, BepiColombo will take over seven years to get to Mercury. That’s because these ion drives are real.

The craft is actually two spacecraft in one with two different Mercury missions. The Mercury planetary orbiter will study the surface while the magnetosphere orbiter will study the little planet’s magnetic field. Check out a video about the mission, below. The second video shows [Neil Wallace] talking about how the ion propulsion — also known as solar electric engines — differ from traditional chemical thrusters.

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