Fail Of The Week: Never Trust A Regulator Module

[Ryan Wamsley] has spent a lot of time over the past few months working on a new project, the Ultimate LoRa backplane. This is as its name suggests designed for LoRa wireless gateways, and packs in all the features he’d like to see in a LoRa expansion for the Nano Pi Duo.

His design features a three-terminal regulator, and in the quest for a bit more power efficiency he did what no doubt many of you will have done, and gave one of those little switching regulator modules in a three-terminal footprint a go. As part of his testing he inadvertently touched the regulator, and was instantly rewarded with a puff of smoke from his Nano Pi Duo. As it turned out, the regulator was susceptible to electrical noise, and had a fault condition in which its input voltage was routed directly to its output. As a result, a component in the single board computer received way more than its fair share, and burned out.

If there is a moral to be extracted from this story, it is to never fully trust a cheap drop-in module to behave exactly as its manufacturer claims. [Ryan]’s LoRa board lives to fight another day, but the smoke could so easily have come from more components.

So that’s the Fail of The Week part of this write-up complete, but it would be incomplete without the corresponding massive win that is [Ryan]’s LoRa board itself. Make sure to take a look at it, it’s a design into which a lot of attention to detail has been put.

The Solid State Weather Station

Building personal weather stations has become easier now than ever before, thanks to all the improvements in sensors, electronics, and prototyping techniques. The availability of cheap networking modules allows us to make sure these IoT devices can transmit their information to public databases, thereby providing local communities with relevant weather data about their immediate surroundings.

[Manolis Nikiforakis] is attempting to build the Weather Pyramid — a completely solid-state, maintenance free, energy and communications autonomous weather sensing device, designed for mass scale deployment. Typically, a weather station has sensors for measuring temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and rainfall. While most of these parameters can be measured using solid-state sensors, getting wind speed, wind direction and rainfall numbers usually require some form of electro-mechanical devices.

The construction of such sensors is tricky and non-trivial. When planning to deploy in large numbers, you also need to ensure they are low-cost, easy to install and don’t require frequent maintenance. Eliminating all of these problems could result in more reliable, low-cost weather stations to be built, which can then be installed in large numbers at remote locations.

[Manolis] has some ideas on how he can solve these problems. For wind speed and direction, he plans to obtain readings from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass in an inertial sensor (IMU), possibly the MPU-9150. The plan is to track the motion of the IMU sensor as it swings freely from a tether like a pendulum. He has done some paper-napkin calculations and he seems confident that it will provide the desired results when he tests his prototype. Rainfall measurement will be done via capacitive sensing, using either a dedicated sensor such as the MPR121 or the built-in touch capability in the ESP32. The design and arrangement of the electrode tracks will be important to measure the rainfall correctly by sensing the drops. The size, shape and weight distribution of the enclosure where the sensors will be installed is going to be critical too since it will impact the range, resolution, and accuracy of the instrument. [Manolis] is working on several design ideas that he intends to try out before deciding if the whole weather station will be inside the swinging enclosure, or just the sensors.

If you have any feedback to offer before he proceeds further, let him know via the comments below.

LoRa System Commands Drones From A Distance

LoRa has been making quite a stir in hacker circles over the past couple of years, as it offers a fascinating combination of long range, low power, and low cost. It does this by using spread spectrum techniques on unlicensed frequency bands, meaning it can send data a surprising distance and that you don’t need a radio license to use it. It is mainly used for Internet of Things things, but [Paweł Spychalski] has other ideas: he’s building a system to use it to control a quadcopter drone over distances of 5 kilometers or more. That’s an ambitious aim, considering that the parts he is using cost only a few bucks.

He’s using an off-brand Adafruit Feather LoRa board and a couple of home-made antennas with his own software that takes the data from the Taranis control port of the RC controller, encodes it and chirps it out over the LoRa radio. At the other end, a similar radio receives and decodes the data, feeding it out to the drone.

This is definitely still a work in progress, but he has got it working, flying his drone over the link, keeping control of it out to several hundred meters. At the moment, he can’t go much further as it seems that his LoRa radio is being overwhelmed by the video link on the drone, but he is working on changing the frequency spread & hopping and using a better antenna to provide longer range. We’ve seen some interesting stuff from [Pawel] before, like his DIY telemetry system, so this project is worth keeping an eye on if you are a drone fan.

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Build Your Own Antenna for Outdoor Monitoring with LoRa

LoRa and LPWANs (Low Power Wide Area Networks) are all the range (tee-hee!) in wireless these days. LoRa is a sub 1-GHz wireless technology using sophisticated signal processing and modulation techniques to achieve long-range communications.

With that simplified introduction, [Omkar Joglekar] designed his own LoRa node used for outdoor sensor monitoring based on the HopeRF RFM95 LoRa module. It’s housed in an IP68 weatherproof enclosure and features an antenna that was built from scratch using repurposed copper rods. He wrote up the complete build, materials, and description which makes it possible for others to try their hand at putting together their own complete LoRa node for outdoor monitoring applications.

Once it’s built, you can use this simple method to range test your nodes and if you get really good, you might be setting distance records like this.

At 71,572 KM, You Won’t Beat This LoRa Record

A distance record for LoRa transmission has been set that you probably won’t be able to beat. Pack up your gear and go home, nothing more to achieve here. At a superficial reading having a figure of 71,572 km (44,473 miles) seems an impossible figure for one of the little LoRa radio modules many of us have hooked up to our microcontrollers, but the story isn’t quite what you’d expect and contains within it some extremely interesting use of technology.

So the folks at Outernet have sent data over LoRa for that incredible distance, but they did so not through the little ISM band modules we’re used to but over a suitably powerful Ku-band uplink to a geostationary satellite. They are also not using the LoRaWAN protocols of the earthbound systems, but simply the LoRa modulation scheme. So it’s not directly comparable to terrestrial records such as the 702 km we reported on last year, and they are the first to admit that.

Where their achievement becomes especially interesting though is in their choice of receiver. We are all used to Ku-band receivers, you may even have one on your house somewhere for satellite TV. It will probably involve a parabolic dish with a narrow beam width and an LNB whose horn antenna is placed at its focus. It would have required some skill and effort to set up, because it has to be pointed very carefully at the satellite’s position in the sky. Outernet’s mission of delivering an information service with the lowest possible barrier to entry precludes the extra expense of shipping a dish and providing trained staff to align it, so they take a very different approach. Their receiver uses either an LNB horn or a small patch antenna pointing at the satellite, with none of the dishes or phased arrays you might be used to in a Ku-band installation.

You might wonder how such a receiver could possibly work with such a meagre antenna, but the secret lies in LoRa’s relatively tiny bandwidth as well as the resistance to co-channel interference that is a built-in feature of the LoRa modulation scheme. Even though the receiver will be illuminated by multiple satellites at once it is able to retrieve the signal and achieve a 30 kb/s data rate that they hope with technical refinements to increase to 100 kb/s. This rate will be enough over which to push an SD video stream to name just one of the several examples of the type of content they hope to deliver.

It’s likely that the average Hackaday reader will not be hiring satellite uplink time upon which to place their LoRa traffic. But this story does provide a demonstration of LoRa’s impressive capabilities, and will make us look upon our humble LNBs with new eyes.

Via ABOpen.

Plastic Model Emulates the First Untethered Spacewalk

Here’s something really wonderful. [Dave Akerman] wrote up the results of his attempt to use a high-altitude balloon to try to re-create a famous image of NASA’s Bruce McCandless floating freely in space with the Earth in the background. [Dave] did this in celebration of the 34th anniversary of the first untethered spacewalk, even going so far as to launch on the same day as the original event in 1984. He had excellent results, with plenty of video and images recorded by his payload.

80’s “Astronaut with MMU” model kit.

Adhering to the actual day of the spacewalk wasn’t the only hurdle [Dave] jumped to make this happen. He tracked down an old and rare “Astronaut with MMU” (Mobile Maneuvering Unit) plastic model kit made by Revell USA and proceeded to build it and arrange for it to remain in view of the cameras. Raspberry Pi Zero Ws with cameras, LoRA hardware, action cameras, and a UBlox GPS unit all make an appearance in the balloon’s payload.

Sadly, [Bruce McCandless] passed away in late 2017, but this project is a wonderful reminder of that first untethered spacewalk. Details on the build and the payload, as well as the tracking system, are covered here on [Dave]’s blog. Videos of the launch and the inevitable balloon burst are embedded below, but more is available in the summary write-up.

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LoRa Is the Network

We’ve become used to seeing LoRa appearing in projects on these pages, doing its job as a low-bandwidth wireless data link with a significant range. Usually these LoRa projects take the form of a client that talks to a central Internet connected node, allowing a remote wireless-connected device to connect through that node to the Internet.

It’s interesting then to see a modest application from [Mark C], a chat application designed to use a set of LoRa nodes as a peer-to-peer network. In effect LoRa becomes the network, instead of simply being a tool to access it. He optimistically describes peer-to-peer LoRa networks as the new FidoNet in his tip email to us, which might be a bold statement, but we can certainly see some parallel. It’s important to note that the application is merely a demonstrable proof-of-concept as it stands, however we’d agree that it has some potential.

The hardware used for the project is the Heltec ESP32-based LoRa board, which comes with a handy OLED screen on which the messages appear. As it stands a PC connection is required to provide text input via serial, however it’s not impossible to imagine other more stand-alone interfaces. If it interests you the code can be downloaded from the GitHub repository, so maybe this can become the seed for wider peer-to-peer LoRa networks.

There have been no shortage of LoRa projects featured here over the years. Recent ones include a handy local LoRa packet sniffer, and news of an extreme distance record from a LoRa node on a balloon.