Flexible PCB Contest Round Up

The 2019 Hackaday Prize, which was announced last week, is very much on everyone’s mind, so much so that we’ve already gotten a great response with a lot of really promising early entries. As much as we love that, the Prize isn’t the only show in town, and we’d be remiss to not call attention to our other ongoing contest: The Flexible PCB Contest.

The idea of the Flexible PCB Contest is simple: design something that needs a flexible PCB. That’s it. Whether it’s a wearable, a sensor, or a mechanism that needs to transmit power and control between two or more moving elements, if a flexible PCB solves a problem, we want to know about it.

We’ve teamed up with Digi-Key for this contest, and 60 winners will receive free fabrication of three copies of their flexible PCB design, manufactured through the expertise of OSH Park. And here’s the beauty part: all you need is an idea! No prototype is necessary. Just come up with an idea and let us know about it. Maybe you have a full schematic, or just a simple Fritzing project. Heck, even a block diagram will do. Whatever your idea is for a flexible PCB project, we want to see it.

To get the creative juices going, here’s a look at a few of the current entries

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The Flexible PCB Contest goes through May 29, so you’ve got plenty of time to get an idea together.

Flex PCBs Make Force-Mapping Pressure Sensor for Amputee

What prosthetic limbs can do these days is nothing short of miraculous, and can change the life of an amputee in so many ways. But no matter what advanced sensors and actuators are added to the prosthetic, it has to interface with the wearer’s body, and that can lead to problems.

Measuring and mapping the pressure on the residual limb is the business of this flexible force-sensing matrix. The idea for a two-dimensional force map came from one of [chris.coulson]’s classmates, an amputee who developed a single-channel pressure sensor to help him solve a painful fitting problem. [chris.coulson] was reminded of a piezoresistive yoga mat build from [Marco Reps], which we featured a while back, and figured a scaled-down version might be just the thing to map pressure points across the prosthetic interface. Rather than the expensive and tediously-applied web of copper tape [Marco] used, [chris] chose flexible PCBs to sandwich the Velostat piezoresistive material. An interface board multiplexes the 16 elements of the sensor array to a PIC which gathers and records testing data. [chris] even built a test stand with a solenoid to apply pressure to the sensor and test its frequency response to determine what sorts of measurements are possible.

We think the project is a great application for flex PCBs, and a perfect entry into our Flexible PCB Contest. You should enter too. Even though [chris] has a prototype, you don’t need one to enter: just an idea would do. Do something up on Fritzing, make a full EAGLE schematic, or just jot a block diagram down on a napkin. We want to see your ideas, and if it’s good enough you can win a flex PCB to get you started. What are you waiting for?

Make a Non-Contact Voltage Probe

You’ve probably seen probes that detect live wires in, for example, home wiring, without having to actually probe the wire. These are sometimes used to test strings of Christmas lights, too. We’ve even seen the sensors built into a voltmeter. [Crazy Couple] has a few do-it-yourself versions that can do the job. You can see the circuits in the video below.

A contactless probe picks up the changing magnetic field around an unshielded wire with an AC voltage on it. Current doesn’t have to be flowing since it picks up the voltage (for example, you can detect voltage on a switch that is turned off or a Christmas tree light that is burned out. There are several different circuits using chips ranging from a CMOS IC to a 555. There’s also a version with three bipolar transistors.

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Sensor-Laden Pigeons Gather Data For Urban Weather Modeling

When it comes to gathering environmental data in real-world settings, urban environments have to be the most challenging. Every city has nooks and crannies that create their own microenvironments, and placing enough sensors to get a decent picture of what’s going on in all of them is a tough job. But if these sensor-laden pigeons have anything to say about it, the job might get a bit easier.

The idea for using pigeons as biotelemetry platforms comes to us from the School of Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham in the UK. [Rick Thomas], lead investigator on the “CityFlocks” project, explains that meteorological models are hampered by a lack of data about the air in the urban canyons formed by tall buildings. Placing a lot of fixed sensors has a prohibitive cost, and using drones to do the job would probably cause regulatory problems, especially given recent events. But pigeons are perfect for the job once they’re outfitted with an “Avian-Meteorology Instrumentation Package (AvMIP)”. From the photographs we’re guessing the AvMIP is a pretty simple data logger with GPS and inputs for the usual sensors, all powered by a small LiPo pack. Luckily, the pigeons used are all domesticated racing birds that return to the nest, so no radio transmitter is needed, but if other urban avians such as peregrine falcons and seagulls are used then a future AvMIPS might leverage pervasive WiFi networks to upload data.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen mobile platforms used to fill in gaps in weather data, of course. And if this at all puts you in mind of that time pigeons were used to guide bombs, relax – no pigeons were harmed in the making of this research project.

Thanks to [Itay Ramot] for the tip [via Gizmodo].

Door Springs and Neopixels Demonstrate Quantum Computing Principles

They may be out of style now, and something of a choking hazard for toddlers, but there’s no denying that spring doorstops make a great sound when they’re “plucked” by a foot as you walk by. Sure, maybe not on a 2:00 AM bathroom break when the rest of the house is sleeping, but certainly when used as sensors in this interactive light show.

The idea behind [Robin Baumgarten]’s “Quantum Garden” is clear from the first video below: engaging people through touch, sound, and light. Each of the 228 springs, surrounded by a Neopixel ring, is connected to one of the 12 inputs on an MPR121 capacitive touch sensor. The touch sensors and an accelerometer in the base detect which spring is sproinging and send that information to a pair of Teensies. A PC then runs the simulations that determine how the lights will react. The display is actually capable of some pretty complex responses, including full-on games. But the most interesting modes demonstrate principles of quantum computing, specifically stimulated Raman adiabatic passage (STIRAP), which describes transfers between quantum states. While the kids in the first video were a great stress test, the second video shows the display under less stimulation and gives a better idea of how it works.

We like this because it uses a simple mechanism of springs to demonstrate difficult quantum concepts in an engaging way. If you need more background on quantum computing, [Al Williams] has been covering the field for a while. Need the basics? Check out [Will Sweatman]’s primer.

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Active Strain Relief for 3D-Printer Filament

Buying 3D-printer filament is little like eating potato chips: you can’t stop at just one. You start with basic black PLA, then you need a particular color for a special project, then you start experimenting with different plastics, and before you know it, you’ve got dozens of reels lined up. Trouble is, unless you move the in-use reel right over the printer, the filament can get a bit unruly as the printer sucks it up. What to do?

How about building an active strain relief system for your filament collection? That what [Daniel Harari] chose to do, and we have to say that it looks pretty slick. The idea is to keep the filament slack before it enters the printer’s extruder no matter where the reel is positioned relative to the printer. The active bit is a little like a low-force extruder, using a couple of pinch rollers from an old 2D-printer to pay out filament when needed. A clever sensor, consisting of a 3D-printed funnel and a copper wire contact loop, detects when the printer has taken up all the slack in the filament and triggers a payout from the feeder. In a nice touch, the feeder motor is controlled by a couple of 555s rather than a microcontroller. The short clip below shows the feeder being triggered and paying out a little more slack.

In the final analysis, this is just another in a long series of filament management projects, from dry-boxes to filament meters to end-of-spool alarms. It may be overkill, but [Daniel] put a lot of thought into it, which we always appreciate.

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Predicting Weather with the Internet of Cars

Follow this train of thought: cars have sensors, cars are in frequent use over large areas, cars are the ultimate distributed sensor network for weather conditions.

Many years ago, as I wasted yet another chunk of my life sitting in the linear parking lot that was my morning commute, I mused that there had to be a way to prevent this madness. I thought: What if there was a way for the cars to tell each other where slowdowns are? This was long before smartphones, so it would have to be done the hard way. I imagined that each vehicle could have a small GPS receiver and a wireless transceiver of some sort, to send the vehicle’s current position to a central server, which would then send the aggregate speed data for each road back to the subscriber’s car. A small display would show you the hotspots and allow you to choose an alternate route. Genius! I had finally found my billion dollar idea.

Sadly, it was not to be. Seemingly days later, everyone on the planet had a GPS-equipped smartphone in his or her pocket, and the complex system I imagined was now easily implemented as software. Comically, one of the reasons I chose not to pursue my idea is that I didn’t think anyone would willingly let a company have access to their location information. Little did I know.

So it was with great interest that I read an article claiming that windshield wiper data from connected cars can be used to prevent floods. I honestly thought it was a joke at first, like something from a Monty Python sketch. But as I read through the article, I thought about that long-ago idea I had had, which amounted to a distributed sensor platform, might actually be useful for more than just detecting traffic jams.

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