Hackaday Belgrade: Luka Mustafa on Exploiting IoT Niches

Ecology is a strange discipline. At its most basic, it’s the study of how living things interact with their environment. It doesn’t so much seek to explain how life works, but rather how lives work together. A guiding principle of ecology is that life finds a way to exploit niches, subregions within the larger world with a particular mix of resources and challenges. It’s actually all quite fascinating.

But what does ecology have to do with Luka Mustafa’s talk at the 2018 Hackaday Belgrade Conference? Everything, as it turns out, and not just because Luka and his colleagues put IoT tools on animals and in their environments to measure and monitor them. It’s also that Luka has found a fascinating niche of his own to exploit, one on the edge of technology and ecology. As CEO of Institute IRNAS, a non-profit technology development group in Slovenia, Luka has leveraged his MEng degree, background in ham radio, and interest in LoRaWAN and other wide-area radio networks to explore ecological niches in ways that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, let alone in the days when animal tracking was limited by bulky radio collars.

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Disaster Area Communications With Cloud Gateways

2017, in case you don’t remember, was a terrible year for the Caribbean and Gulf coast. Hurricane Maria tore Puerto Rico apart, Harvey flooded Houston, Irma destroyed the Florida Keys, and we still haven’t heard anything from Saint Martin. There is, obviously, a problem to be solved here, and that problem is communications. Amateur radio only gets you so far, but for their Hackaday Prize entry, [Inventive Prototypes] is building an emergency communication system that anyone can use. It only needs a clear view of the sky, and you can use it to send SMS messages. It’s the PR-Holonet, and it’s something that’s already desperately needed.

The basis for the PR-Holonet is built around an Iridium satellite modem. To date, satellite communication is the best way to get a message out to the world without any infrastructure. It’ll work in the middle of the Sahara, the depths of the Amazon, and conveniently anywhere that was just hit by a category five hurricane.

Along with the Iridium modem, [Inventive Prototypes] is using standard, off-the-shelf equipment to turn that connection to a satellite network into something any smartphone can use. That means pulling out a Raspberry Pi, of course. But building a project for areas that were recently ravaged by hurricanes is no easy task. The enclosure it the key here, and [Inventive Prototypes] is using some great water-resistant, dust-proof junction boxes, solar panels, and a whole bunch of batteries to keep everything humming along. It’s a great project and something that was desperately needed a year ago.

Mechanisms: The Reed Switch

Just about everywhere you go, there’s a reed switch nearby that’s quietly going about its work. Reed switches are so ubiquitous that you’re probably never more than a few feet away from one at any given time, especially at home or in the car. You might have them on your doors and windows as part of a burglar alarm system. They keep your washing machine from running when the lid is open, and they put your laptop to sleep when you close the lid. They know if the car has enough brake fluid and whether or not your seat belt is fastened.

Reed switches are interesting devices with a ton of domestic and industrial applications. We call them switches, but they’re also sensors. In fact, they only do the work of a switch while they can sense a magnetic field. They are capable of switching AC or DC at low and high voltages, but they don’t need electricity to work. Since they’re sealed in glass, they are impervious to dirt, dust, corrosion, temperature swings, and explosive environments. They’re cheap, they’re durable, and in low-current applications they can last for about a billion actuations.

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Fallen Radiosonde Reborn as Active L-band Antenna

If your hobby is chasing radiosondes across vast stretches of open country, and if you get good enough at it, you’ll eventually end up with a collection of the telemetry packages that once went up on weather balloons to record the conditions aloft. Once you’ve torn one or two down though, the novelty must wear off, which is where this radiosonde conversion to an active L-band antenna comes from.

As it happens, we recently discussed the details of radiosondes, so if you need a primer on these devices, check that out. But as Australian ham [Mark (VK5QI)] explains, radiosondes are a suite of weather instruments crammed into a lightweight package with a GPS receiver and a small transmitter. Lofted beneath a weather balloon into the stratosphere, a radiosonde transmits a wealth of data back to the ground before returning on a parachute after the balloon bursts. [Mark] had his eyes on the nice quadrifilar helical antenna used by the Vaisla R92 radiosonde’s GPS receiver, with the aim of repurposing them. He had a lot of components to remove while still retaining the low-noise amplifier (LNA), but in the end managed to get a working antenna with 40 dB gain in the L-band, and with the help of an RTL-SDR dongle he picked up solid signals from Iridium satellites.

Want to score your own radiosonde to play with? First, you have to know how to listen in so you can find them. Or, you know – there’s always eBay.

[via RTL-SDR.com]

Autonomous Transatlantic Seafaring

[Andy Osusky]’s project submission for the Hackaday Prize is to build an autonomous sailboat to cross the Atlantic Ocean. [Andy]’s boat will conform to the Microtransat Challenge – a transatlantic race for autonomous boats. In order to stick to the rules of the challenge, [Andy]’s boat can only have a maximum length of 2.5 meters, and it has to hit the target point across the ocean within 25 kilometers.

The main framework of the boat is built from aluminum on top of a surfboard, with a heavy keel to keep it balanced. Because of the lightweight construction, the boat can’t sink and the heavy keel will return it upright if it flips over. The sail is made from ripstop nylon reinforced by nylon webbing and thick carbon fiber tubes, in order to resist the high ocean winds.

The electronics are separated into three parts. A securely sealed Pelican case contains the LiFePo4 batteries, the solar charge controller, and the Arduino-based navigation controller. The communications hardware is kept in polycarbonate cases for better reception. One case contains an Iridium satellite tracker, compass, and GPS, the other contains two Globalstar trackers. The Iridium module allows the boat to transmit data via the Iridium Short Burst Data service. This way, data such as GPS position, wind speed, and compass direction can be transmitted.

[Andy]’s boat was launched in September from Newfoundland headed towards Ireland. However, things quickly seemed to go awry. Storms and crashes caused errors and the solar chargers seemed not to be charging the batteries. The test ended up lasting about 24 days, during which the boat went almost 1000km.

[Andy] is redesigning the boat, changing to a rigid sail and enclosing the hardware inside the boat. In the meantime, the project is open source, so the hardware is described and software is available on GitHub. Be sure to check out the OpenTransat website, where you can see the data from the first sailing. Also, check out this article on autonomous kayaks, and this one about a swarm of autonomous boats.

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Low-cost Drift Buoy Plies the Atlantic for Nearly a Year

Put a message in a bottle and toss it in the ocean, and if you’re very lucky, years later you might get a response. Drop a floating Arduino-fied buoy into the ocean and if you’ve engineered it well, it may send data back to you for even longer.

At least that’s what [Wayne] has learned since his MDBuoyProject went live with the launching of a DIY drift buoy last year. The BOM for the buoy reads like a page from the Adafruit website: Arduino Trinket, an RTC, GPS module, Iridium satellite modem, sensors, and a solar panel. Everything lives in a clear plastic dry box along with a can of desiccant and a LiPo battery.

The solar panel has a view through the case lid, and the buoy is kept upright by a long PVC boom on the bottom of the case. Two versions have been built and launched so far; alas, the Pacific buoy was lost shortly after it was launched. But the Atlantic buoy picked up the Gulf Stream and has been drifting slowly toward Europe since last summer, sending back telemetry. A future version aims to incorporate an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, presumably to report the signals of AIS transponders on nearby ships as they pass.

We like the attention to detail as well as the low cost of this build. It’s a project that’s well within reach of a STEM program, akin to the many high-altitude DIY balloon projects we’ve featured before.

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A Beacon Suitable for Tracking Santa’s sleigh?

High-altitude ballooning is becoming a popular activity for many universities, schools and hacker spaces. The balloons, which can climb up to 40 km in the stratosphere, usually have recovery parachutes to help get the payload, with its precious data, back to solid ground safely. But when you live in areas where the balloon is likely to be flying over the sea most of the time, recovery of the payload becomes tricky business. [Paul Clark] and his team from Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation are working on building a small, autonomous glider – essentially a flying hard drive – to navigate from 30 km up in the stratosphere to a drop zone somewhere near a major road. An important element of such a system is the locator beacon to help find it. They have now shared their design for an “Iridium 9603 Beacon” — a small Arduino-compatible unit which can transmit its location and other data from anywhere via the Iridium satellite network.

The beacon uses the Short Burst Data service which sends email to a designated mail box with its date, time, location, altitude, speed, heading, temperature, pressure and battery voltage. To do all of this, it incorporates a SAMD21G18 M0 processor; FGPMMOPA6H GPS module; MPL3115A2 altitude sensor; Iridium 9603 Short Burst Data module + antenna and an LTC3225 supercapacitor charger. Including the batteries and antenna, the whole thing weighs in at 72.6 g, making it perfectly suited for high altitude ballooning. The whole package is powered by three ‘AAA’ Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries which ought to be able to withstand the -56° C encountered during the flight. The supercapacitors are required to provide the high current needed when the beacon transmits data.

The team have tested individual components up to 35 km on a balloon flight from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility and the first production unit will be flown on a much smaller balloon, launched from the UK around Christmas. The GitHub repository contains detailed information about the project along with the EagleCAD hardware files and the Arduino code. Now, if only Santa carried this on his Sleigh, it would be easy for NORAD to track his progress in real time.