Where’s The Cat? Locating Your Moggy Without Eating Batteries

Where the Hackaday Cat goes when she steps over the threshold into the wider world is a mystery, she reveals her whereabouts strictly on her terms and would we suspect be very cagey were we able to ask her about it. [Andy C] however has a need to know where his cat is spending her time, so he’s made a GPS collar for a bit of feline spying.

There are commercial GPS collars for pets, but they all share the flaw of extremely limited battery life. His challenge then was to create a collar that delivered the required pinpoint fix alongside a battery life measured in months. The solution was a combination of a low-power miniature GPS receiver and a low-power PC microcontroller hooked up to an FSK radio whose frequency he doesn’t give but which we suspect is probably the usual 433 MHz. The collar remains in low power mode until it receives a call on the FSK, at which point it wakes up, gets a GPS fix, transmits it, and returns to sleep.

The summary links to a series of posts which provide an extremely detailed look at all aspects of the project, and go well beyond mere GPS trackers for a cat. If you have an interest in low power devices or antenna matching for example, you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff in these pages. Of course, if all you need is a GPS tracker though, you may prefer a simpler option.

Ultra-Low Power, Energy Harvesting Battery Charger

This half-inch square ultra-low power energy harvesting LiPo cell charger by [Kris Winer] uses a low voltage solar panel to top up a small lithium-polymer cell, which together can be used as the sole power source for projects. It’s handy enough that [Kris] uses them for his own projects and offers them for sale to fellow hackers. It’s also his entry into the Power Harvesting Challenge of the Hackaday Prize.

The board is essentially a breakout board for the Texas Instrument BQ25504, configured to charge and maintain a single lithium-polymer cell. The BQ25504 is an integrated part that takes care of most of the heavy lifting and has nifty features like battery health monitoring and undervoltage protection. [Kris] has been using the board along with a small 2.2 Volt solar panel and a 150 mAh LiPo cell to power another project of his: the SensorTile environmental data logger.

It’s a practical and useful way to test things; he says that an average of 6 hours of direct sunlight daily is just enough to keep the 1.8 mA SensorTile running indefinitely. These are small amounts of power, to be sure, but it’s free and self-sustaining which is just what a remote sensing unit needs.

No-Battery HD Video Streaming Does It with Backscatter

What if Google Glass didn’t have a battery? That’s not too far fetched. This battery-free HD video streaming camera could be built into a pair of eyeglass frames to stream HD video to a nearby phone or other receiver using no bulky batteries or external power source. Researchers at the University of Washington are using backscatter to pull this off.

The problem is that a camera which streams HD video wirelessly to a receiver consumes over 1 watt due to the need for a digital processor and transmitter. The researchers have separated the processing hardware into the receiving unit. They then send the analog pixels from the camera sensor directly to backscatter hardware. Backscatter involves reflecting received waves back to where they came from. By adding the video signal to those reflected waves, they eliminated the need for the power-hungry transmitter. The full details are in their paper (PDF), but here are the highlights.

Battery-free camera design approach

On the camera side, the pixel voltages (CAM Out) are an analog signal which is fed into a comparator along with a triangular waveform. Wherever the triangle wave’s voltage is lower than the pixel voltage, the comparator outputs a 0, otherwise, it outputs a 1. In this way, the pixel voltage is converted to different pulse widths. The triangular waveform’s minimum and maximum voltages are selected such that they cover the full possible range of the camera voltages.

The sub-carrier modulation with the XOR gate in the diagram is there to address the problem of self-interference. This is unwanted interference from the transmitter of the same frequency as the carrier. And so the PWM output is converted to a different frequency using a sub-carrier. The receiver can then filter out the interference. The XOR gate is actually part of an FPGA which also inserts frame and line synchronization patterns.

They tested two different implementations with this circuit design, a 112 x 112 grayscale one at up to 13 frames per second (fps) and an HD one. Unfortunately, no HD camera on the market gives access to the raw analog pixel outputs so they took HD video from a laptop using USB and ran that through a DAC and then into their PWM converter. The USB limited it to 10 fps.

The result is that video streaming at 720p and 10 fps uses as low as 250 μW and can be backscattered up to sixteen feet. They also simulated an ASIC which achieved 720p and 1080p at 60 fps using 321 μW and 806 μW respectively. See the video below for an animated explanation and a demonstration. The resulting video is quite impressive for passive power only.

If the University of Washington seems familiar in the context of backscatter, that’s because we’ve previously covered their battery-free (almost) cell phone. Though they’re not the only ones experimenting with it. Here’s where backscatter is being used for a soil network. All of this involves power harvesting, and now’s a great time to start brushing up on these concepts and building your own prototypes. The Hackaday Prize includes a Power Harvesting Challenge this year.

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MIT Extracts Power from Temperature Fluctuations

As a civilization, we are proficient with the “boil water, make steam” method of turning various heat sources into power we feed our infrastructure. Away from that, we can use solar panels. But what if direct sunlight is not available either? A team at MIT demonstrated how to extract power from daily temperature swings.

Running on temperature difference between day and night is arguably a very indirect form of solar energy. It could work in shaded areas where solar panels would not. But lacking a time machine, or an equally improbable portal to the other side of the planet, how did they bring thermal gradient between day and night together?

This team called their invention a “thermal resonator”: an assembly of materials tuned to work over a specific range of time and temperature. When successful, the device output temperature is out-of-phase with its input: cold in one section while the other is hot, and vice versa. Energy can then be harvested from the temperature differential via “conventional thermoelectrics”.

Power output of the initial prototype is modest. Given a 10 degree Celsius daily swing in temperature, it could produce 1.3 milliwatt at maximum potential of 350 millivolt. While the Hackaday coin-cell challenge participants and other pioneers of low-power electronics could probably do something interesting, the rest of us will have to wait for thermal resonator designs to evolve and improve on its way out of the lab.

[via Engadget]

Underwater Logging for Science

Logging data with an Arduino is old-hat for most Hackaday readers. However, [Patricia Beddows] and [Edward Mallon] had some pretty daunting requirements. Their sensors were going underground and underwater as part of an effort to study conditions underwater and in caves. They needed to be accessible, yet rugged. They didn’t want to use batteries that would be difficult to take on airplanes, but also wanted more than a year of run time. You can buy all that, of course, if you are willing to pay the price.

Instead, they used off-the-shelf Arduino boards connected together inside PVC housings. Three alkaline AA batteries are compact and give them more than a year of run time. They wrote a journal paper to help other scientists use the same techniques for the Sensors journal published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.

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How Low Can an ESP8266 Go?

We’ve been tuned into coin cell designs lately given the coin cell challenge, so we were interested in [CNLohr]’s latest video about pushing the ESP8266 into the lowest-possible battery drain with coin cells. The result is a series of hacks, based on a reverse-engineered library and depends on a modified router, but that gets the power consumption down by more than a factor of ten!

Although the ESP8266 has a deep sleep mode that draws only 20 microamps or so, that isn’t as rosy as it seems. If you could go to sleep for a while, wake up for just a moment, send your data, and then go back to sleep, that might be one thing. But when you use conventional techniques, the device wakes up and has to do about ten seconds of work (at high power) to connect to a nearby access point. Then it can do what you want and go back to sleep. That ten-second hit is a killer on small batteries.

Since that’s all you can do with the standard libraries, the next step was to find [pvvx] who has reverse engineered a great deal of the libraries and provides a library with no WiFi capability. That’s a two-edged sword. The pro is you get a 30 ms startup from a deep sleep. The downside is — well — you don’t have WiFi.

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Remember Your Birthday For Fifty Years

Our Coin Cell Challenge competition has turned up some amazing entries, things that we wouldn’t have thought possible from such meagre power sources. Take [Vishnu M Aiea]’s entry for instance, a device which he claims can light up as a birthday reminder every year for up to fifty years.

At its heart is a modified Arduino Nano clone that draws a measured 608 nA from a CR2450N. From the specification of the cell he has calculated the 50 year maximum figure, as well as a possible 29 years for a CR2032 and 64 years for a CR2477. He does however note that this does not take self-discharge into account, but you can probably afford a new battery in a decade or so.

The Arduino clone carefully selected for its “P” version low-power processor has had its serial bridge IC removed to achieve this power consumption, as well as a voltage regulator and some discrete components. Interestingly he notes that the ATMega168P is even more frugal than its 328 cousin, so he’s used the former chip. A selection of internal flags are set for minimal power consumption, and the internal oscillator is selected to use as low a clock speed as possible. There is an Intersil ISL1208 low power RTC chip mounted on a piece of stripboard to provide the timing, and of course an LED to provide the essential birthday alert.

When the LED lights for the big day there’s always the hope you’ll receive another coin cell, this time powering an edge-lit musical birthday card.