Lightning Analysis With Your SDR

Perhaps it’s just one of those things adults dream up to entertain their children, but were you ever told to count slowly the time between seeing a lightning flash and hearing the rumble of thunder? The idea was that the count would tell you how far away the storm was, but from a grown-up perspective the calibration accuracy of a child saying “one… two…three…” in miles seems highly suspect. It’s a valid technique though, and it can be used to monitor thunderstorms by the radio emissions created through the electrical discharge. It’s an area the SAGE project has been working in, and they’ve posted some details including a fascinating run-down of the software techniques , on how lightning can be detected with an RTL-SDR.

A lightning strike produces a characteristic wideband burst that shows up in the time domain as a maximum point that can easily be detected but could also be confused with radio interference from another source. Thus after identifying maxima they zoom in and perform a Fourier transform to spot the wideband burst. It’s all done in Python, and the pleasant surprise is how straightforward to understand it all is.

SAGE are working on a distributed sensor network, so we hope this work might one day give us real-time open lightning data. The FFT approach should ensure that it won’t be fooled by false positives as a traditional detector might be.


Solar Weather Station Listens For Lightning

Custom weather stations are a common enough project these days, especially based around the ESP8266. Wire a sensor up to the MCU, power it up with an old phone charger, and you’re half way there. But if you want something that’s going to operate remotely on the long term, you’ve got to put a little more thought into it.

Which is exactly what [BuckarewBanzai] did for his solar powered Raspberry Pi weather station. With an industrial NEMA-rated enclosure, a beefy 35 watt photovoltaic panel, and enough lead-acid battery capacity to keep the show going for days, this build is certainly more robust than most. Some might call it overkill, but we think anyone who’s ever deployed hardware outdoors for more than a few days knows you can never be too careful when Mother Nature is involved.

To keep the 18 Ah battery topped off, [BuckarewBanzai] is using a 10 amp Wanderer charge controller. It sounds as though he burned through a few lesser models before settling on this one; something to consider for your own off-grid projects. An LM2596 regulator is then used to provide a stable 5 V for the Raspberry Pi.

In addition to the BME280 environmental sensor that picks up on temperature, humidity, and pressure, there’s also a AS3935 lightning sensor onboard which [BuckarewBanzai] says can pick up strikes up to 40 kilometers away. All of this environmental data is collected and stored in a local SQLite database, and gets pushed offsite every five minutes with a REST API so it can be visualized with Grafana.

Critics in the audience will no doubt pick up on the solderless breadboard located in the center of the weather station, but [BuckarewBanzai] says he’s already on the case. He’s working on a custom PCB that will accept the various modular components. Not only should this make the station more reliable, but he says it will cut down on the “spaghetti” wiring. Though for the record, this is hardly the worst offender we’ve seen in that department.

Hackaday Podcast 039: Elliot <3 Lightning Detectors, Ikea Dark Mode, The Smartest Watch, Solar Sailing The Sky, And VAWT Controversy

Hackaday Editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys recap a week full of hacks from the solar sailing RC plane that has zero power storage, to geeking out about lightning detectors and hacking Ikea LED controllers to unlock real dimming to building backyard wind turbines. We look up an IoT egg tray with appreciation not for the concept but certainly for the engineering, and scratch our heads on why one-hacker-smartwatch-to-rule-them-all seems like something that should happen but so far has only been a fleeting concept.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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This Lightning Detector Is Remarkably Sensitive

Lightning strikes are quite high energy events, and release plenty of radio frequency energy when they go off in the atmosphere. This makes them easy to detect, and the magnitude of the energy release means it can be done at impressive range. [Jay] decided to build a device of his very own, and was impressed at its detection performance.

The device is a simple but effective design. An antenna is used to capture RF signals, and these are then amplified through a single transistor stage. This is connected to a basic transistor flasher circuit, which is biased to only flash when tipped over the edge by an incoming signal. After building the circuit, [Jay] noticed that the device wasn’t just picking up signals from lightning, but also those from many other smaller discharges. The device was able to detect a shock from wearing socks on a wood floor, as well as discharges from a Van de Graff generator and even just from getting out of a chair!

Lightning detectors have been around for a long time now; we’ve seen others grace these pages before. Video after the break.

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Storm Detector Modules: Dancing In The Rain

Earlier, we had covered setting up an AS3935 lightning detector module. This detector picks up radio emissions, then analyzes them to determine if they are a lightning strike or some other radio source. After collecting some data, it outputs the estimated distance to the incoming storm front.

But that only gets you halfway there. The device detects many non-lightning events, and the bare circuit board is lacking in pizzazz. Today I fix that by digging into the detector’s datasheet, and taking a quick trip to the dollar store buy a suitable housing. The result? A plastic plant that dances when it’s going to rain!
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An Introduction To Storm Detector Modules

Lightning storm detectors have been around for a surprisingly long time. The early designs consisted of a pair of metal bells and a pendulum. When there was a charge applied, for example by connecting one bell to the ground and the other to a lightning rod, the bells would ring when a lightning storm was close by. In the mid 18th century, these devices were only practical for demonstration and research purposes, but very likely represent the earliest devices that convert electrostatic charge to mechanical force. A bit over a hundred years later, the first lightning detector was considered by some as the first radio receiver as well.

As soon as I found out about storm detector chips, I knew I would have to get one working. For about $25, I ordered an AMS AS3935 module from China. This chip has been featured before in a number of excellent projects such as Twittering lightning detectors, and networks of Sub-Saharan weather stations. While there’s an Arduino library for interfacing with this IC, I’m going to be connecting it up to an ESP8266 running the NodeMCU firware, which means digging into the datasheet and writing some SPI code. If any of the above tickles your fancy, read on! Continue reading “An Introduction To Storm Detector Modules”

Automatic Deploying Lightning Rod

As hackers, hams, and builders of all sorts of things that go in our yards or are attached to our houses we often encounter resistance from building associations and by-laws regarding what to us are harmless necessities but to others are risks to their sight-lines, property values, or are seen as safety hazards. A student at the Bergen County Academies Mechatronics Research Lab has identified this same issue with lightning rods for homes, monuments, and buildings of fine architecture; people don’t want to add unsightly lightning rods despite their proven protections. Her solution? Detect when a storm is approaching and automatically deploy the lightning rod for the duration of the storm.

To detect the approaching storm she’s monitoring the changing barometric pressure using an Adafruit BMP085 barometric pressure, temperature and altitude sensor (now replaced by the BME280) connected to an Arduino with a motor shield. If the pressure is low and the trend has been decreasing then she pivots the lightning rod up using a motor salvaged from a satellite dish. When the risk abates, she pivots the rod back down again. Admittedly the lightning rod has yet to be attached and care will have to be taken with how the discharge cable is deployed but it’s a start. You can see it in action in the video below.

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