Like so many consumer products these days, baby toys seem to get progressively more complex with each passing year. Despite the fact that the average toddler will more often than not be completely engrossed by a simple cardboard box, toy companies are apparently hell-bent on producing battery powered contraptions that need to be licensed with the FCC.
As a perfect example, we have Fisher-Price’s Linkimals. These friendly creatures can operate independently by singing songs and flashing their integrated RGB LEDs in response to button presses, but get a few of them in the room together, and their 2.4 GHz radios kick in to create an impromptu mesh network of fun.
Once connected to each other, the digital critters synchronize their LEDs and sing in unison. Will your two year old pay attention long enough to notice? I know mine certainly wouldn’t. But it does make for a compelling commercial, and when you’re selling kid’s toys, that’s really the most important thing.
On the suggestion of one of our beloved readers, I picked up a second-hand Linkimals Musical Moose to take a closer look at how this cuddly pal operates. Though in hindsight, I didn’t really need to; a quick browse on Amazon shows that despite their high-tech internals, these little fellows are surprisingly cheap. In fact, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that given its current retail price of just under $10 USD, I actually paid more for my used moose.
But you didn’t come here to read about my fiscal irresponsibility, you want to see an anthropomorphic woodland creature get dissected. So let’s pull this smug Moose apart and see what’s inside.
Have you ever come across an interesting chip or component that you wanted to experiment with, only to find that there doesn’t seem to be a development board for it? Spinning up your own board is a lot easier today than it has been in the past, but it’s still a bit of a hassle to do it just for your own personal use. This is why [Nikolaj Andersson Nielsen] has decided to release RFCat, his custom long-range Bluetooth development board, onto the community.
The board is based around a module from MeshTek that’s essentially an amplified version of the Nordic nRF52832. According to [Nikolaj], this gives the module 30 times the transmit power of the base model chip.
RFCat is compatible with the Arduino IDE and uses the Adafruit nRF52 bootloader, making it easy to write your own code to take advantage of all this new-found power. Primarily you’d be programming the board over USB-C, but it also supports Serial Wire Debug (SWD) and over-the-air updates that can be triggered with a physical push button on the device.
If you want to get an RFCat of your own, it’s available on Tindie now. The amplified modules were originally intended for building Bluetooth mesh networks, but we’re sure there are other interesting applications out there just waiting to be discovered.
The long-held dream of wireless network hackers everywhere is to dispense with centralised network infrastructure, and instead rely on a distributed network in which the clients perform the role of distribution and routing of traffic. These so-called mesh networks promise scalability and simplicity on paper, but are in practice never as easy to implement as the theory might suggest. Much venture capital has been burned over the years by startups chasing that particular dream, yet most of our wireless connectivity still follows a hub topology.
An exciting development in our sphere concerning mesh networking came in early 2018, when Particle, the purveyors of wireless-equipped dev boards, launched their third generation of products. These offered mesh networking alongside their other features, but this week they have announced that they’ll no longer be developing that particular side of their offering. The Wi-Fi-equipped Argon and Cellular-equipped Boron will remain on sale, but they will henceforth discontinue the mesh-only Xenon. Existing owners of the now orphaned board will be compensated with store credit.
Their rationale for discontinuing mesh networking is interesting, and reflects on the sentiment in our first paragraph. Mesh networking is hard, and in particular their attempt to make it work with zero configuration was simply not successful. But then they talk about the realisation that maybe mesh networking was not the right solution for the IoT applications the boards were being used in, and perhaps another technology such as LoRa would be more appropriate.
So the mesh experiment from Particle is over, but the company and its connected dev boards are very much still with us. We salute them for being bold enough to try it, and we wonder when we’ll next find a piece of similar mesh networking hardware.
Access to fast and affordable internet is a big issue in the USA, even in a major metropolis such as New York City. Amidst a cartel of ISPs who simply will not deliver, a group of NYC inhabitants first took it upon themselves to ease this situation by setting up their own mesh-based internet connections way back in 2013. Now they will be installing a new Supernode to take the installation base far beyond the current 300 buildings serviced.
As a community project, NYC Mesh is run as a non-profit organization, with its community members supporting the effort through donations, along with partnerships with businesses. Its router hardware consists out of off-the-shelf equipment (with a focus on the Ubiquiti NanoStation NSM5) that get flashed with custom firmware containing the mesh routing functionality.
As this article by Vice mentions, NYC Mesh is one of 750 community-led broadband projects in the US. Many of those use more traditional fixed wiring with distribution lines, but NYC Mesh focuses fully on wireless (WiFi) links with wireless mesh networking. This has the obvious benefit that given enough bandwidth on the Supernodes that hook into the Internet exchange points (IXP) and an efficient mesh routing protocol, it’s quick and easy to hook up new clients and expand the network.
The obvious downsides of using WiFi and RF in general is that they are not immune to outside influences, such as weather (rain), RF interference (including from other WiFi stations) and of course fairly limited range if there’s no direct line of sight. In a densely populated city such as NYC this is not much of an issue, with short hops between roof tops.
5G is gearing up to be the most extensive implementation of mesh networking ever, and that could mean antennas will not need to broadcast for miles, just far enough to reach some devices. That unsightly cell infrastructure stuck on water towers and church steeples could soon be hidden under low-profile hunks of metal we are already used to seeing; manhole covers. This makes sense because 5G’s millimeter radio waves are more or less line-of-sight, and cell users probably wouldn’t want to lose connectivity every time they walk behind a building.
At the moment, Vodafone in the UK is testing similar 4G antennas and reaching 195 megabits/sec download speeds. Each antenna covers a 200-meter radius and uses a fiber network because, courtesy of existing underground infrastructure. There is some signal loss from transmitting and receiving beneath a slab of metal, but that will be taken into account when designing the network. The inevitable shift to 5G will then be a relatively straightforward matter of lifting the old antennas out and laying the new hardware inside, requiring only a worker and a van instead of a construction crew.
The term ‘Internet of Things’ was coined in 1999, long before every laptop had WiFi and every Starbucks provided Internet for the latte-sucking masses. Over time, the Internet of Things meant all these devices would connect over WiFi. Why, no one has any idea. WiFi is terrible for a network of Things – it requires too much power, the range isn’t great, it’s beyond overkill, and there’s already too many machines and routers on WiFi networks, anyway.
There have been a number of solutions to this problem of a WiFi of Things over the years, but none have caught on. Now, finally, there may be a solution. Nest, in cooperation with ARM, Atmel, dialog, Qualcomm, and TI have released OpenThread, an Open Source implementation of the Thread networking protocol.
The physical layer for OpenThread is 802.15.4, the same layer ZigBee is based on. Unlike ZigBee, the fourth, fifth, and sixth layers of OpenThread look much more like the rest of the Internet. OpenThread features IPv6 and 6LoWPAN, true mesh networking, and requires only a software update to existing 802.15.4 radios.
OpenThread is OS and platform agnostic, and interfacing different radios should be relatively easy with an abstraction layer. Radios and networking were always the problem with the Internet of Things, and with OpenThread – and especially the companies supporting it – these problems might not be much longer.
There’s a problem with products geared towards building the Internet of Things. Everyone building hardware needs investors, and thus some way to monetize their platform. This means all your data is pushed to ‘the cloud’, i.e. a server you don’t own. This is obviously not ideal for the Hackaday crowd. Yes, IoT can be done with a few cheap radios and a hacked router, but then you don’t get all the cool features of a real Things project – mesh networking and a well designed network. Pinoccio is the first Thing we’ve seen that puts a proper mesh network together with a server you can own. The Pinoccio team were kind enough to let us drop in while we were in Rock City last weekend, and we were able to get the scoop on these tiny boards from [Sally] and [Eric], along with a really cool demo of what they can do.
The hardware on the Pinoccio is basically an Arduino Mega with a LiPo battery and an 802.15.4 radio provided by an ATmega256RFR2. The base board – technically called a ‘field scout’ – can be equipped with a WiFi backpack that serves as a bridge for the WiFi network. It’s a pretty clever solution to putting a whole lot of Things on a network, without having all the Things directly connected to the Internet.
Programming these scouts can be done through Arduino, of course, but the folks at Pinoccio also came up with something called ScoutScript that allows you to send commands directly to any or all of the scouts on the mesh network. There’s a neat web-based GUI called HQ that allows you to command, control, and query all the little nodules remotely as well.
In the video below, [Sally] goes over the basic functions of the hardware and what it’s capable of. [Eric] was in Reno when we visited, but he was kind enough to get on a video chat and show off what a network of Pinoccios are capable of by emblazoning their web page with Hackaday logos whenever he presses a button.