Submarine to Plane: Can You Hear Me Now? The Hydrophone Radar Connection

How does a submarine talk to an airplane? It sounds like a bad joke but it’s actually a difficult engineering challenge.

Traditionally the submarine must surface or get shallow enough to deploy a communication buoy. That communication buoy uses the same type of radio technology as planes. But submarines often rely on acoustic transmissions via hydrophones which is fancy-talk for putting speakers and microphones in the water as transmitters and receivers. This is because water is no friend to radio signals, especially high frequencies. MIT is developing a system which bridges this watery gap and it relies on acoustic transmissions pointed at the water’s surface (PDF warning) and an airplane with high-precision radar which detects the oscillations of the water.

The complexity of the described setup is mind-boggling. Right now the proof of concept is over short distances and was tested in a water tank and a swimming pool but not in open water. The first thing that comes to mind is the interference caused by waves and by aerosols from wind/wave interactions. Those challenges are already in the minds of the research team. The system has been tested to work with waves of 8 cm (16 cm measured peak to trough) caused by swimmers in the pool. That may not sound like much, but it’s about 100,000 times the surface variations being measured by the millimeter wave radar in order to detect the hydrophone transmissions. Add to that the effects of Doppler shift from the movement of the plane and the sub and you have a signal processing challenge just waiting to be solved.

This setup is very interesting when pitched as a tool for researching aquatic life. The video below envisions that transmitters on the backs of sea turtles could send communications to aircraft overhead. We love seeing these kinds of forward-thinking ocean research projects, like our 2017 Hackaday prize winner which is an open source underwater glider. Oceanic studies over long distances have been very difficult but we’re beginning to see a lot of projects chipping away at that inaccessibility.

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Sonar in Your Hand

Sonar measures distance by emitting a sound and clocking how long it takes the sound to travel. This works in any medium capable of transmitting sound such as water, air, or in the case of FingerPing, flesh and bone. FingerPing is a project at Georgia Tech headed by [Cheng Zhang] which measures hand position by sending soundwaves through the thumb and measuring the time on four different receivers. These readings tell which bones the sound travels through and allow the device to figure out where the thumb is touching. Hand positions like this include American Sign Language one through ten.

From the perspective of discreetly one through ten on a mobile device, this opens up a lot of possibilities for computer input while remaining pretty unobtrusive. We see prototypes which are more capable of reading gestures but also draw attention if you wear them on a bus. It is a classic trade-off between convenience and function but this type of reading is unique and could combine with other bio signals for finer results.

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Ultrasonic Array Gets Range Data Fast and Cheap

How’s your parallel parking? It’s a scenario that many drivers dread to the point of avoidance. But this 360° ultrasonic sensor will put even the most skilled driver to shame, at least those who pilot tiny remote-controlled cars.

Watch the video below a few times and you’ll see that within the limits of the test system, [Dimitris Platis]’ “SonicDisc” sensor does a pretty good job of nailing the parallel parking problem, a driving skill so rare that car companies have spent millions developing vehicles that do it for you. The essential task is good spatial relations, and that’s where SonicDisc comes in. A circular array of eight HC-SR04 ultrasonic sensors hitched to an ATmega328P, the SonicDisc takes advantage of interrupts to make reading the eight sensors as fast as possible. The array can take a complete set of readings every 10 milliseconds, which is fast enough to allow for averaging successive readings to filter out some of the noise that gets returned. Talking to the car’s microcontroller over I2C, the sensor provides a wealth of ranging data that lets the car quickly complete a parallel parking maneuver. And as a bonus, SonicDisc is both open source and cheap to build — about $10 a copy.

Rather use light to get your range data? There are some pretty cheap LIDAR units on the market these days.

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Quick Hack Cleans Data from Sump Pump

Nobody likes to monitor things as much as a hacker, even mundane things like sump pumps. And hackers love clean data too, so when [Felix]’s sump pump water level data was made useless by a new pump controller, he just knew he had to hack the controller to clean up his data.

Monitoring a sump pump might seem extreme, but as a system that often protects against catastrophic damage, the responsible homeowner strives to take care of it. [Felix] goes a bit further than the average homeowner, though, with an ultrasonic sensor to continually measure the water level in the sump and alert him to pending catastrophes. Being a belt and suspenders kind of guy, he also added a float switch to control the pump, but found that the rapid cycle time made his measurements useless. Luckily the unit used a 555 timer to control the pump’s run time after triggering, so a simple calculation of the right RC values and a little solder job let him increase the on time of the pump. The result: a dry basement and clean data.

We recently discussed the evolution of home automation if you want to know more about the systems that sensors and actuators like these can be part of. Or for a more nuts and bolts guide to networking things together, our primer on MQTT might help.

Octosonar is 8X Better than Monosonar

The HC-SR04 sonar modules are available for a mere pittance and, with some coaxing, can do a pretty decent job of helping your robot measure the distance to the nearest wall. But when sellers on eBay are shipping these things in ten-packs, why would you stop at mounting just one or two on your ‘bot? Octosonar is a hardware and Arduino software library that’ll get you up and running with up to eight sonar sensors in short order.

Octosonar uses an I2C multiplexer to send the “start” trigger pulses, and an eight-way OR gate to return the “echo” signal back to the host microcontroller. The software library then sends the I2C command to select and trigger a sonar module, and a couple of interrupt routines watch the “echo” line to figure out the time of flight, and thus the distance.

Having two sonars on each side of a rectangular robot allows it move parallel to a wall in a straightforward fashion: steer toward or away from the wall until they match. Watch the video below for a demo of this very simple setup. (But also note where the robot’s 45-degree blind spot is: bump-bump-bump!)

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This Bike Sonar is Off the Chain

On paper, bicycling is an excellent form of transportation. Not only are there some obvious health benefits, the impact on the environment is much less than anything not directly powered by a human. But let’s face it: riding a bike can be quite scary in practice, especially along the same roads as cars and trucks. It’s hard to analyze the possible threats looming behind you without a pair of eyes in the back of your head.

radar-sweep-display[Claire Chen] and [Mark Zhao] have come up with the next best thing—bike sonar. It’s a two-part system that takes information from an ultrasonic rangefinder and uses it to create sound-localized pings in a rider’s ears. The rangefinder is attached to a servo mounted on the seat post. It sweeps back and forth to detect objects within 4 meters, and this information is displayed radar-sweep-style graphic on a TFT screen via a PIC32.

Though the graphic display looks awesome, it’s slow feedback and a bit dangerous to have to look down all the time — the audio feedback is by far the most useful. The bike-side circuits sends angle and distance data over 2.4GHz to another PIC mounted on a helmet. This PIC uses sound localization to create a ping noise that matches the distance and location of whatever is on your tail. The ping volume is relative to the distance of the object, and you just plug headphones into the audio jack to hear them. Bunny-hop your way past the break to check it out.

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Litter Basket Automation

Sometimes the technology part of a project isn’t the hard part. It is having an idea for something both useful and doable. Sure, a robot butler that would do your cleaning and laundry would be useful, but might be out of reach for most of us. On the other hand, there’s only so many use cases for another blinking LED.

[Martinhui] knows how to use an ultrasonic sensor with an Arduino. Driving a motor isn’t that hard, either. The question is: what do you do with that? [Martin’s] answer: Automate a trash can. You can see a video of the result, below.

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