An Open Source Toolbox For Studying The Earth

Fully understanding the planet’s complex ecosystem takes data, and lots of it. Unfortunately, the ability to collect detailed environmental data on a large scale with any sort of accuracy has traditionally been something that only the government or well-funded institutions have been capable of. Building and deploying the sensors necessary to cover large areas or remote locations simply wasn’t something the individual could realistically do.

But by leveraging modular hardware and open source software, the FieldKit from [Conservify] hopes to even the scales a bit. With an array of standardized sensors and easy to use software tools for collating and visualizing collected data, the project aims to empower independent environmental monitoring systems that can scale from a handful of nodes up to several hundred.

We’ve all seen more than enough DIY environmental monitoring projects to know there’s nothing particularly new or exciting about stuffing a few cheap sensors into a plastic container. But putting high quality, reliable hardware into large scale production is another thing entirely. Especially when your target user may have limited technical knowledge.

That’s why FieldKit is designed around a common backplane with modular sensors and add-on boards that can be plugged in and easily configured with a smartphone application. Whether the node is going to be mounted to a pole and powered by a solar panel, or attached to a buoy, most of the hardware stays the same.

While the electronics and the software interface are naturally the stars of the show here, we can’t help but also be impressed with the enclosure for the FieldKit. It seems a minor thing, but as we’ve seen from the projects that have come our way over the years, finding a box to put your hardware in that’s affordable, adaptable, and weatherproof is often a considerable challenge in itself. Rather than using something commercially available, [Conservify] has designed their own enclosure that’s inspired by the heavy duty (but prohibitively expensive) cases from Pelican. It features a replaceable panel on one side where the user can pop whatever holes will be necessary to wire up their particular project without compromising the case itself; just get a new panel when you want to reconfigure the FieldKit for some other task. Prototypes have already been 3D printed, and the team will be moving to injection molded versions in the near future.

As a finalist in the 2019 Hackaday Prize, FieldKit exemplifies everything we’re looking for this year: a clear forward progression from prototype to final hardware, an obvious need for mass production, and the documentation necessary to show why this project is deserving of the $125,000 grand prize up for grabs.

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Building An Artisanal Tape Measure

Some tools are so common, so basic, that we take them for granted. A perfect example is the lowly tape measure. We’ve probably all got a few of these kicking around the lab, and they aren’t exactly the kind of thing you give a lot of thought to when you’re using them. But while most of us might not give our tape measure a second thought, [Ariel Yahni] decided to create an absolutely gorgeous new enclosure for his. Because if you’re going to measure something, why not look good doing it?

A CNC router is used to carve the body of the new tape measure out of a solid block of wood and cut a top plate out of clear acrylic. [Ariel] then used an angle grinder to cut off a small section of steel rod which he secured into a carved pocket in the base using epoxy. Finally, the internals of a commercial tape measure were inserted into this new enclosure, and the acrylic top was screwed down into place.

[Ariel] has made the DXF files for this project public for anyone else who wants to carve out their own heirloom tape measure, though it seems likely the designs will need some tweaking depending on the make and model of donor tape measure. While this might not be the most technically impressive project to run on Hackaday, it’s still a fantastic example of the sort of bespoke designs that are made possible with modern manufacturing methods.

This design reminds us of a similar project to turn a basic Honda key fob into a true conversation piece with the addition of some CNC’d hardwood and aluminum.

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Printed It: Custom Enclosure Generator

You’ve written your firmware code, etched your own PCB, and now it’s time to put that awesome new project of yours into an enclosure. Unfortunately, all you have is a generic Radio Shack project box that you picked up when they were clearing out their inventory. If you put your project in that, it’ll have all the style and grace of a kid wearing hand-me-down clothes. Your project deserves a tailor-made enclosure, but the prices and lead time on custom plastic enclosures are prohibitive for one-off projects.

In Ye Olde Olden Days, the next step might have been to start bending some sheet metal. But it’s the 21st century, and we’ve got mechanization on our side. The “Ultimate Box Maker” by [Heartman] is a fully parametric OpenSCAD design which allows you to generate professional looking enclosures by simply providing your desired dimensions and selecting from a few optional features. In a couple of hours, you’ll have a custom one-of-a-kind enclosure for your project for a few cents worth of filament.

That’s the idea, at least. For this edition of “Printed It”, I’ll be taking a look at the “Ultimate Box Maker” by generating and printing a basic enclosure. As somebody whose Radio Shack was out of enclosures by the time I got there and who doesn’t want to slice his hand open folding sheet metal, I’m very interested in seeing how well this design works.

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Exquisitely Crafted Nixie Tube Weatherclock

The Weatherclock is more than just a clock sporting Nixie tubes and neon lamps. There is even more to it than the wonderful workmanship and the big, beautiful pictures in the build log. [Bradley]’s Weatherclock is not only internet-connected, it automatically looks up local weather and sets the backlights of the numbers to reflect current weather conditions. For example, green for roughly room temperature, blue for cold, red for warm, flashing blue for rain, flashing white for lightning, scrolling white for fog and ice, and so on.

neonixieclock_02The enclosure is custom-made and the sockets for the tubes are seated in a laser-cut plastic frame. While seating the sockets, [Bradley] noticed that an Adafruit Neopixel RGB LED breakout board fit perfectly between the tube leads. By seating one Neopixel behind each Nixie indicator, each number could have a programmable backlight that just happened to look fabulous.

Witpreboxh an Electric Imp board used for WiFi the capabilities of the Weatherclock were rounded out on the inside. On the outside, a custom enclosure ties it all together. [Bradley] says his family had gotten so used to having the Weatherclock show them the outside conditions that they really missed it when it was down for maintenance or work – which shouldn’t happen much anymore as the project is pretty much complete.

It’s interesting to see new features in Nixie clocks. Nixie tubes have such enduring appeal that using them alone has its own charm, and at least one dedicated craftsman actually makes new ones from scratch.

Need An Enclosure? Try Scrap Wood With Toner Transfer Labels

This utilitarian-looking device takes an unusual approach to a problem that many projects face: enclosures. [Jan Mrázek] created a device he calls the Morse Thing for a special night’s event and used what appears to be a humble two-by-four plank for the enclosure. The device is a simple puzzle using Morse code and was intended to be mounted to a railing, so [Jan] milled out the necessary spaces and holes for the LCD and buttons then applied labels directly to the wood via toner transfer – a method commonly used for making PCBs but also useful to create clean, sharp labels.

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Tools Of The Trade — Injection Molding

Having finished the Tools of the Trade series on circuit board assembly, let’s look at some of the common methods for doing enclosures. First, and possibly the most common, is injection molding. This is the process of taking hot plastic, squirting it through a small hole and into a cavity, letting it cool, and then removing the hardened plastic formed in the shape of the cavity.

The machine itself has three major parts; the hopper, the screw, and the mold. The hopper is where the plastic pellets are dumped in. These pellets are tiny flecks of plastic, and if the product is to be colored there will be colorant pellets added at some ratio. The hopper will also usually have a dehumidifier attached to it to remove as much water from the pellets as possible. Water screws up the process because it vaporizes and creates little air bubbles.

Next the plastic flecks go into one end of the screw. The screw’s job is to turn slowly, forcing the plastic into ever smaller channels as it goes through a heating element, mixing the melted plastic with the colorant and getting consistent coloring, temperature, and ever increasing pressure. By the time the plastic is coming out the other end of the screw, and with the assistance of a hydraulic jack, it can be at hundreds of tons of pressure.

Finally, the plastic enters the mold, where it flows through channels into the empty cavity, and allowed to sit briefly to cool.  The mold then separates and ejector pins push the part out of the cavity.

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Hackaday Links: November 22, 2015

There’s a new documentary series on Al Jazeera called Rebel Geeks that looks at the people who make the stuff everyone uses. The latest 25-minute part of the series is with [Massimo], chief of the arduino.cc camp. Upcoming episodes include Twitter co-creator [Evan Henshaw-Plath] and people in the Madrid government who are trying to build a direct democracy for the city on the Internet.

Despite being a WiFi device, the ESP8266 is surprisingly great at being an Internet of Thing. The only problem is the range. No worries; you can use the ESP as a WiFi repeater that will get you about 0.5km further for each additional repeater node. Power is of course required, but you can stuff everything inside a cell phone charger.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the most common use for the Raspberry Pi is a vintage console emulator. Now there’s a Kickstarter for a dedicated tabletop Raspi emulation case that actually looks good.

Pogo pins are the go-to solution for putting firmware on hundreds of boards. These tiny spring-loaded pins give you a programming rig that’s easy to attach and detach without any soldering whatsoever. [Tom] needed to program a few dozen boards in a short amount of time, didn’t have any pogo pins, and didn’t want to solder a header to each board. The solution? Pull the pins out of a female header. It works in a pinch, but you probably want a better solution for a more permanent setup.

Half of building a PCB is getting parts and pinouts right. [Josef] is working on a tool to at least semi-automate the importing of pinout tables from datasheets into KiCad. This is a very, very hard problem, and if it’s half right half the time, that’s a tremendous accomplishment.

Last summer, [Voja] wrote something for the blog on building enclosures from FR4. Over on Hackaday.io he’s working on a project, and it’s time for that project to get an enclosure. The results are amazing and leave us wondering why we don’t see this technique more often.