Picking the Right Sensors for Home Automation

Imagine that you’re starting a project where you need to measure temperature and humidity. That sounds easy in the abstract, but choosing a real device out of many involves digging into seemingly infinite details and trade-offs that come with them. If it’s a low-stakes monitoring project, picking the first sensor that comes to mind might suffice. But when the project aims to control an AC system in an office of temperature-sensitive coders, it pays to take a hard look at the source of all information: the sensor.

Continuing a previous article I would like to use that same BMaC project from that article as a way to illustrate how even a couple of greenhorns can figure out how to pick everything from environmental sensors to various actuators, integrating it into a coherent system that in the end actually does what it should.

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New Contest: Flexible PCBs

The now-humble PCB was revolutionary when it came along, and the whole ecosystem that evolved around it has been a game changer in electronic design. But the PCB is just so… flat. Planar. Two-dimensional. As useful as it is, it gets a little dull sometimes.

Here’s your chance to break out of Flatland and explore the third dimension of circuit design with our brand new Flexible PCB Contest.

We’ve teamed up with Digi-Key for this contest. Digi-Key’s generous sponsorship means 60 contest winners will receive free fabrication of three copies of their flexible PCB design, manufactured through the expertise of OSH Park. So now you can get your flex on with wearables, sensors, or whatever else you can think of that needs a flexible PCB.

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Rifle-Mounted Sensor Shows What Happens During Shot

People unfamiliar with shooting sports sometimes fail to realize the physicality of getting a bullet to go where you want it to. In the brief but finite amount of time that the bullet is accelerating down the barrel, the tiniest movement of the gun can produce enormous changes in its trajectory, and the farther away your target is, the bigger the potential error introduced by anticipating recoil or jerking the trigger.

Like many problems this one is much easier to fix with what you can quantify, which is where this DIY rifle accelerometer can come in handy. There are commercial units designed to do the same thing that [Eric Higgins]’ device does but most are priced pretty dearly, so with 3-axis accelerometer boards going for $3, rolling his own was a good investment. Version 1, using an Arduino Uno and an accelerometer board for data capture with a Raspberry Pi for analysis, proved too unwieldy to be practical. The next version had a much-reduced footprint, with a Feather and the sensor mounted in a 3D-printed tray for mounting solidly on the rifle. The sensor captures data at about 140 Hz, which is enough to visualize any unintended movements imparted on the rifle while taking a shot. [Eric] was able to use the data to find at least one instance where he appeared to flinch.

We like real-world data logging applications like this, whether it’s grabbing ODB-II data from an autocross car or logging what happens to a football. We’ll be watching [Eric]’s planned improvements to this build, which should make it even more useful.

This Machine Teaches Sign Language

Sign language can like any language be difficult to learn if you’re not immersed in it, or at least learning from someone who is fluent. It’s not easy to know when you’re making minor mistakes or missing nuances. It’s a medium with its own unique issues when learning, so if you want to learn and don’t have access to someone who knows the language you might want to reach for the next best thing: a machine that can teach you.

This project comes from three of [Bruce Land]’s senior electrical and computer engineering students, [Alicia], [Raul], and [Kerry], as part of their final design class at Cornell University. Someone who wishes to learn the sign language alphabet slips on a glove outfitted with position sensors for each finger. A computer inside the device shows each letter’s proper sign on a screen, and then checks the sensors from the glove to ensure that the hand is in the proper position. Two letters include making a gesture as well, and the device is able to track this by use of a gyroscope and compass to ensure that the letter has been properly signed. It appears to only cover the alphabet and not a wider vocabulary, but as a proof of concept it is very effective.

The students show that it is entirely possible to learn the alphabet reliably using the machine as a teaching tool. This type of technology could be useful for other applications as well, such as gesture recognition for a human interface device. If you want to see more of these interesting and well-referenced senior design builds we’ve featured quite a few, from polygraph machines to a sonar system for a bicycle.

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RFID Doing More than ID

RFID is a workhorse in industrial, commercial, and consumer markets. Passive tags, like work badges and key fobs, need a base station but not the tags. Sensors are a big market and putting sensors in places that are hard to reach, hostile, or mobile is a costly proposition. That price could drop, and the sensors could be more approachable with help from MIT’s Auto-ID Lab who are experimenting with sensor feedback to RFID devices.

Let’s pretend you want to measure the temperature inside a vat of pressurized acid. You’d rather not drill a hole in it to insert a thermometer, but a temperature sensor sealed in Pyrex that wirelessly transmits the data and never runs out of power is a permanent and cheap solution. The researchers have their sights set on glucose sensing and that news come shortly after Alphabet gave up their RFID quest to measure glucose through contact lenses. Shown the top of this article is a prototype for a Battery Assisted Passive (BAP) RFID sensor that uses commodity glucose testing strips, sending data when the electrochemical reaction occurs. It uses six of these cells in parallel to achieve a high enough peak current to trigger the transmission. But the paper (10.1109/RFID.2018.8376201 behind paywall) mentions a few strategies to improve upon this. However, it does prove the concept that the current spike from the test strips determines the time the tag is active and that can be correlated to the blood glucose detected.

How many of our own projects would instantly upgrade with the addition of a few sensors that were previously unobtainable on a hacker budget? Would beer be brewed more effectively with more monitoring? How many wearables would be feasible with battery-free attachments? The sky is the figurative limit.

Thank you, [QES] for the tip [via TechXplore]

Organic Ornithopter Sensor Drone

Bees. The punchline to the title is bees carrying sensors like little baby bee backpacks. We would run out of fingers counting the robots which emulate naturally evolved creatures, but we believe there is a lot of merit to pirating natural designs, but researchers at the University of Washington cut out the middle-man and put their sensors right on living creatures. They measured how much a bee could lift, approximately 105 milligrams, then built a sensor array lighter than that. Naturally, batteries are holding back the design, and the rechargeable lithium-ion is more than half of the weight.

When you swap out brushless motors for organics, you gain and lose some things. You lose the real-time control, but you increase the runtime. You lose the noise, but you also lose the speed. You increase the range, but you probably wind up visiting the same field over and over. If your goal is to monitor the conditions of flowering crops, you may be ready to buy and install, but for the rest of us, dogs are great for carrying electronics. Oh yes. Cats are not so keen. Oh no.

Teardown: D50761 Aircraft Quick Access Recorder

Everyone’s heard of the “black box”. Officially known as the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), it’s a mandatory piece of equipment on commercial aircraft. The FDR is instrumental in investigating incidents or crashes, and is specifically designed to survive should the aircraft be destroyed. The search for the so-called “black box” often dominates the news cycle after the loss of a commercial aircraft; as finding it will almost certainly be necessary to determine the true cause of the accident. What you probably haven’t heard of is a Quick Access Recorder (QAR).

While it’s the best known, the FDR is not the only type of recording device used in aviation. The QAR could be thought of as the non-emergency alternative to the FDR. While retrieving data from the FDR usually means the worst has happened, the QAR is specifically designed to facilitate easy and regular access to flight data for research and maintenance purposes. Its data is stored on removable media and since the QAR is not expected to survive the loss of the aircraft it isn’t physically hardened. In fact, modern aircraft often use consumer-grade technology such as Compact Flash cards and USB flash drives as storage media in their QAR.

Through the wonders of eBay, I recently acquired a vintage Penny & Giles D50761 Quick Access Recorder. This was pulled out of an aircraft which had been in service with the now defunct airline, Air Toulouse International. Let’s crack open this relatively obscure piece of equipment and see just what goes into the hardware that airlines trust to help ensure their multi-million dollar aircraft are operating in peak condition.

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