A Network Attached Radiation Monitor

It started as a joke, as sometimes these things do. [Marek Więcek] thought building a personal radiation detector would not only give him something to work on, but it would be like having a gadget out of the Fallout games. He would check the data from time to time and have a bit of a laugh. But then things got real. When he started seeing rumors on social media that a nearby nuclear reactor had suffered some kind of radiation leak, his “joke” radiation detector suddenly became serious business.

With the realization that having his own source of detailed environmental data might not be such a bad idea after all, [Marek] has developed a more refined version of his original detector (Google Translate). This small device includes a Geiger counter as well as sensors for more mundane data points such as temperature and barometric pressure. Since it’s intended to be a stationary monitoring device, he even designed it to be directly plugged into an Ethernet network so that it can be polled over TCP/IP.

[Marek] based the design around a Soviet-era STS-5 Geiger tube, and outfitted his board with the high voltage electronics to provide it with the required 400 volts. Temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity are read with the popular Bosch BME280 sensor. If there’s no Ethernet network available, data from the sensors can be stored on either the built-in SPI flash chip or a standard USB flash drive.

The monitor is powered by a PIC32MX270F256B microcontroller with an Ethernet interface provided by the ENC28J60 chip. In practice, [Marek] has a central Raspberry Pi that’s polling the monitors over the network and collecting their data and putting it into a web-based dashboard. He’s happy with this setup, but mentions he has plans to add an LCD display to the board so the values can be read directly off of the device. He also says that a future version might add WiFi for easier deployment in remote areas.

Over the years we’ve seen a fair number of radiation monitors, from solar-powered WiFi-connected units to the incredible work [Radu Motisan] has done building his global network of radiation detectors. It seems hackers would rather not take somebody else’s word for it when it comes to the dangers of radiation.

The Short and Tragic Story of Life on the Moon

The Moon is a desolate rock, completely incapable of harboring life as we know it. Despite being our closest celestial neighbor, conditions on the surface couldn’t be more different from the warm and wet world we call home. Variations in surface temperature are so extreme, from a blistering 106 C (223 F) during the lunar day to a frigid -183 C (-297 F) at night, that even robotic probes struggle to survive. The Moon’s atmosphere, if one is willing to call the wispy collection of oddball gasses including argon, helium, and neon at nearly negligible concentrations an atmosphere, does nothing to protect the lunar surface from being bombarded with cosmic radiation.

Von Kármán Crater

Yet for a brief time, very recently, life flourished on the Moon. Of course, it did have a little help. China’s Chang’e 4 lander, which made a historic touchdown in the Von Kármán crater on January 3rd, brought with it an experiment designed to test if plants could actually grow on the lunar surface. The device, known as the Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME), contained air, soil, water, and a collection of seeds. When it received the appropriate signal, LME watered the seeds and carefully monitored their response. Not long after, Chinese media proudly announced that the cotton seeds within the LME had sprouted and were doing well.

Unfortunately, the success was exceptionally short-lived. Just a few days after announcing the success of the LME experiment, it was revealed that all the plants which sprouted had died. The timeline here is a bit hazy. It was not even immediately clear if the abrupt end of the LME experiment was intentional, or due to some hardware failure.

So what exactly do we know about Chang’e 4’s Lunar Micro Ecosystem, and the lifeforms it held? Why did the plants die? But perhaps most importantly, what does all this have to do with potential future human missions to that inhospitable rock floating just a few hundred thousand kilometers away from us?

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The Electric Imp Sniffs out California Wildfires

The wildfires in California are now officially the largest the state has ever seen. Over 50,000 people have been displaced from their homes, hundreds are missing, and the cost in property damage will surely be measured in the billions of dollars when all is said and done. With a disaster of this scale just the immediate effects are difficult to conceptualize, to say nothing of the collateral damage.

While not suggesting their situation is comparable to those who’ve lost their homes or families, Electric Imp CEO [Hugo Fiennes] has recently made a post on their blog calling attention to the air quality issues they’re seeing at their offices in Los Altos. To quantify the problem so that employees with respiratory issues would know the conditions before they came into work, they quickly hacked together a method for displaying particulate counts in their Slack server.

The key to the system is one of the laser particle sensors that we’re starting to see more of thanks to a fairly recent price drop on the technology. A small fan pulls air to be tested into the device, where a very sensitive optical sensor detects the light reflected by particles as they pass through the laser beam. The device reports not only how many particles are passing through it, but how large they are. The version of the sensor [Hugo] links to in his blog post includes an adapter board to make it easier to connect to your favorite microcontroller, but we’ve previously seen DIY builds which accomplish the same goal.

[Hugo] then goes on to provide firmware for the Electric Imp board that reads the current particulate counts from the sensor and creates a simple web page that can be viewed from anywhere in the world to see real-time conditions at the office. From there, this data can be plugged into a Slack webhook which will provide an instantaneous air quality reading anytime a user types “air” into the channel.

We’ve covered a number of air quality sensors over the years, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to become any less prevalent as time goes on. If anything, we’re seeing a trend towards networks of distributed pollution sensors so that citizens can collect their own data on their air they’re breathing.

[Thanks to DillonMCU for the tip.]

Hacking The ZH03B Laser Particle Sensor

Laser particle detectors are a high-tech way for quantifying whats floating around in the air. With a fan, a laser, and a sensitive photodetector, they can measure smoke and other particulates in real-time. Surprisingly, they are also fairly cheap, going for less than $20 USD on some import sites. They just need a bit of encouragement to do our bidding.

[Dave Thompson] picked up a ZH03B recently and wanted to get it working with his favorite sensor platform, Mycodo. With a sprinkling of hardware and software, he was able to get these cheap laser particle sensors working on his Raspberry Pi, and his work was ultimately incorporated upstream into Mycodo. Truly living the open source dream.

The ZH03B has PWM and UART output modes, but [Dave] focused his attention on UART. With the addition of a CP2102 USB-UART adapter, he was able to connect it to his Pi and Mac, but still needed to figure out what it was saying. He eventually came up with some Python code that lets you use the sensor both as part of a larger network or service like Mycodo and as a stand-alone device.

His basic Python script (currently only tested on Linux and OS X), loops continuously and gives a running output of the PM1, PM2.5, and PM10 measurements. These correspond to particles with a diameter of 1, 2.5, and 10 micrometers respectively. If you want to plug the sensor into another service, the Python library is a bit more mature and lets you do things like turn off the ZH03B’s fan to save power.

These sensors are getting cheap enough that you can build distributed networks of them, a big breakthrough for crowd-sourced environmental monitoring; especially with hackers writing open source code to support them.

Raspberry Pi as 433 MHz to MQTT Gateway

Many low-cost wireless temperature and humidity sensors use a 433 MHz transmitter to send data back to their base stations. This is a great choice for the manufacturer of said devices because it’s simple and the radios are cheap, but it does limit what we as the consumer can do with it a bit. Generally speaking, you won’t be reading data from these sensors on your computer unless you’ve got an SDR device and some experience with GNU Radio and reading the Nexus protocol.

But [Aquaticus] has developed a very comprehensive piece of software that should make integrating these type of sensors into your home automation system much easier, as long as you’ve got a spare Raspberry Pi lying around. Called nexus433, it uses a cheap 433 MHz receiver connected to the Pi’s GPIO pins to receive data from environmental sensors using the popular Nexus communication protocol. A few known compatible sensors are listed in the project documentation, one of which can be had for as little as $5 USD shipped.

In addition to publishing the temperature, humidity, and battery level values from the sensors to MQTT, it even tracks connection quality for each individual sensor and when they go on and offline. To be sure, this is no simple hack. In nexus433, [Aquaticus] has created a mature Linux service with enough flexibility that you shouldn’t have any problems working it into your automation setup, whether it’s Home Assistant or something you’ve put together yourself.

We’ve seen a number of home automation hacks using these ubiquitous 433 MHz radios,  from controlling them with an ESP8266 to hacking a popular TP-LINK router into a low-cost home automation hub.

Simple ESP8266 Weather Station using Blynk

Today’s hacker finds themself in a very interesting moment in time. The availability of powerful microcontrollers and standardized sensor modules is such that assembling the hardware for something like an Internet-connected environmental monitor is about as complex as building with LEGO. Hardware has become elementary in many cases, leaving software as the weak link. It’s easy to build the sensor node to collect the data, but how do you display it in a useful and appealing way?

This simple indoor temperature and humidity sensor put together by [Shyam Ravi] shows one possible solution to the problem using Blynk. In the video after the break, he first walks you through wiring the demonstration hardware, and then moves on to creating the Blynk interface. While it might not be the ideal solution for all applications, it does show you how quickly you can go from a handful of components on the bench to displaying useful data.

In addition to the NodeMCU board, [Shyam] adds a DHT11 sensor and SSD1306 OLED display. He’s provided a wiring diagram in the repository along with the Arduino code for the ESP8266, but the hardware side of this demonstration really isn’t that important. You could omit the OLED or switch over to something like a BME280 sensor if you wanted to. The real trick is in the software.

For readers who haven’t played with it before, Blynk is a service that allows you to create GUIs to interact with microcontrollers from anywhere in the world. The code provided by [Shyam] reads the humidity and temperature data from the DHT11 sensor, and “writes” it to the Blynk service. From within the application, you can then visualize that data in a number of ways using the simple drag-and-drop interface.

We’ve seen Blynk and ESP8266 used to control everything from mood lighting to clearance-rack robotic toys. It’s a powerful combination, and something to keep in mind next time you need to knock something together in short order.

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Smart Citizen Opens Eyes and Ears in Barcelona

More often than not, our coverage of projects here at Hackaday tends to be one-off sort of thing. We find something interesting, write it up for our beloved readers, and keep it moving. There’s an unending world of hacks and creations out there, and not a lot of time to cover them all. Still, it’s nice when we occasionally see a project we’ve previously covered “out in the wild” so to speak. A reminder that, while a project’s time on the Hackaday front page might be fleeting, their journey is far from finished.

A perfect example can be found in a recent article posted by the BBC about the battle with noise in Barcelona’s Plaza del Sol. The Plaza is a popular meeting place for tourists and residents alike, with loud parties continuing into the middle of the night, those with homes overlooking the Plaza were struggling to sleep. But to get any changes made, they needed a way to prove to the city council that the noise was beyond reasonable levels.

Enter the Smart Citizen, an open source Arduino-compatible sensor platform developed by Fab Lab Barcelona. We originally covered the Smart Citizen board back in 2013, right after it ran a successful funding campaign on Kickstarter. Armed with the data collected by Smart Citizen sensors deployed around the Plaza, the council has enacted measures to try to quiet things down before midnight.

Today people tend to approach crowdfunded projects with a healthy dose of apprehension, so it’s nice to see validation that they aren’t all flash in the pan ideas. Some of them really do end up making a positive impact, years after the campaign ends.

Of course, we can’t talk about distributed environmental monitoring without mentioning the fantastic work of [Radu Motisan], who’s made it his mission to put advanced sensors in the hands of citizen scientists.

[Thanks to muA for the tip.]