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.

DIY Mini Helical Antennas From Salvaged Co-ax Cable

[Mare] has a visual guide and simple instructions for making DIY mini helical 868 MHz antennas for LoRa applications. 868 MHz is a license-free band in Europe, and this method yields a perfectly serviceable antenna that’s useful where space is constrained.

A metric 5 mm drill bit makes a convenient core.

The process is simple and well-documented, but as usual with antenna design it requires attention to detail. Wire for the antenna is silver-plated copper, salvaged from the core of RG214U coaxial cable. After straightening, the wire is wound tightly around a 5 mm core. 7 turns are each carefully spaced 2 mm apart. After that, it’s just a matter of measuring and bending the end for soldering to the wireless device in question. [Mare] has used this method for wireless LoRa sensors in space-constrained designs, and it also has the benefit of lowering part costs since it can be made and tested in-house.

Antennas have of course been made from far stranger things than salvaged wire; one of our favorites is this Yagi antenna made from segments of measuring tape.

Fully 3D Printed And Metalized Horn Antennas Are Shiny and Chrome

We’ve seen our share of 3D printed antennas before, but none as well documented and professionally tested as [Glenn]’s 3D printed and metalized horn antennas. It certainly helps that [Glenn] is the principal engineer at an antenna testing company, with access to an RF anechoic chamber and other test equipment.

Horn antennas are a fairly simple affair, structurally speaking, with a straight-sided horn-shaped “cone” and a receptacle for standardized waveguide or with an appropriate feed, coaxial adapters. They are moderately directional and can cover a wide range of frequencies. These horns are often used in radar guns and as feedhorns for parabolic dishes or other types of larger antenna. They are also used to discover the cosmic microwave background radiation of our universe and win Nobel Prizes.

[Glenn]’s antennas were modeled in Sketchup Make, and those files plus standard STL files are available for download. To create your own horn, print the appropriate file on a normal consumer-grade fused deposition printer. For antennas that perform well in WiFi frequency ranges you may need to use a large-format printer, as the prints can be “the size of a salad bowl”. Higher frequency horns can easily fit on most print beds.

After printing, [Glenn] settled on a process of solvent smoothing the prints, then metalizing them with commonly available conductive spray paints. The smoothing was found to be necessary to achieve the expected performance. Two different paints were tested, with a silver-based coating being the clear winner.

The full write-up has graphs of test results and more details on the process that led to these cheap, printed antenna that rival the performance of more expensive commercial products.

If you’re interested in other types of 3D printed antenna, we’ve previously covered a helical satcom feed, a large discone antenna, and an aluminum-taped smaller discone antenna.

Antennas That You Install With A Spray-Can

With the explosion in cell phones, WiFi, Bluetooth, and other radio technologies, the demand for antennas is increasing. Everything is getting smaller and even wearable, so traditional antennas are less practical than ever. You’ve probably seen PCB antennas on things like ESP8266s, but Drexel University researchers are now studying using titanium carbide — known as MXene — to build thin, light, and even transparent antennas that outperform copper antennas. Bucking the trend for 3D printing, these antennas are sprayed like ink or paint onto a surface.

A traditional antenna that uses metal carries most of the current at the skin (something we’ve discussed before). For example, at WiFi frequencies, a copper antenna’s skin depth is about 1.33 micrometers. That means that antennas have to be at least thick enough to carry current at that depth from all surfaces –practically 5 micrometers is about the thinnest you can reasonably go. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you are trying to make something thin and flexible, it is pretty thick. Using MXene, the researchers made antennas as thin as 100 nanometers thick — that’s 10% of a micrometer and only 2% of a conventional antenna.

Continue reading “Antennas That You Install With A Spray-Can”

Touch Anything And Everything

Powering IoT devices is often a question of batteries or mains power, but in rare exceptions to this rule there is no power supply (PDF Warning). At the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California, San Diego, researchers have gone the extra mile to make advanced backscatter devices, and these new tags don’t need the discrete components we have seen in previous versions. They are calling it LiveTag, and it doesn’t need anything aside from a layer of foil printed or etched on a flexible ceramic-PTFE laminate. PTFE is mostly seen in the RF sector as a substrate for circuit boards.

We have seen some of the wild creations with wifi backscatter that range from dials to pushbuttons. RF backscatter works by modulating the RF signals in which we are continuously swimming. Those radio waves power the device and disrupt the ambient signals, which disruption can be detected by a receiver. With a BOM that looks like a statement more than a list, integration with many devices becomes a cost-effective reality. Do not however broadcast important data because you cannot expect great security from backscatter.

[Via IEEE Spectrum]

Radar in Space: The Gemini Rendezvous Radar

In families with three kids, the middle child always seems to get the short end of the stick. The first child gets all the attention for reaching every milestone first, and the third child will forever be the baby of the family, and the middle child gets lost in-between. Something similar happened with the U.S. manned space program in the 60s. The Mercury program got massive attention when America finally got their efforts safely off the ground, and Apollo naturally seized all the attention by making good on President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon.

In between Mercury and Apollo was NASA’s middle child, Project Gemini. Underappreciated at the time and even still today, Gemini was the necessary link between learning to get into orbit and figuring out how to fly to the Moon. Gemini was the program that taught NASA how to work in space, and where vital questions would be answered before the big dance of Apollo.

Chief among these questions were tackling the problems surrounding rendezvous between spacecraft. There were those who thought that flying two spacecraft whizzing around the Earth at 18,000 miles per hour wouldn’t work, and Gemini sought to prove them wrong. To achieve this, Gemini needed something no other spacecraft before had been equipped with: a space radar.

Continue reading “Radar in Space: The Gemini Rendezvous Radar”

Harley-Hardened Wire Helps High-Gain Antenna Hack

What does a Harley-Davidson motorcycle have to do with building antennas? Absolutely nothing, unless you happen to have one and need to work-harden copper wire to build a collinear antenna for LoRa.

We’ll explain. Never being one to settle, [Andreas Spiess] needed a better antenna for his LoRa experiments. Looking for high gain and an omnidirectional pattern, he bought a commercial colinear antenna, which is a wire with precisely spaced loops that acts like a stack of dipoles. Sadly, in a head-to-head test [Andreas] found that the commercial antenna was no better than lower gain antennas in terms of range, and so he decided to roll his own.

Copper wire is a great material for antennas since it can be easily formed without special tools and it solders like a champ. But the stuff you get at the home center is nowhere near stiff enough for a free-standing vertical whip. This is where the Harley came in: [Andreas] used his Hog to stretch out the 1.75-mm diameter (a little bigger than #14 AWG) copper wire. Not only did the work-hardening stiffen the wire, it reduced its diameter to the 1.4 mm needed for the antenna design. His vector network analyzer told him that ground-plane elements and a little fiddling with the loop diameter were needed to get the antenna to resonate at 868 MHz, but in the end it looks like the antenna is on track to deliver 5-dBi of gain.

Of course there are plenty of other ways to stretch out a wire — you could just stretch it out with hanging weights, or even with a go-kart motor-powered winch if you’re ambitious. But if you’ve got a bike like that, why not flaunt it?

Continue reading “Harley-Hardened Wire Helps High-Gain Antenna Hack”