Category: Events

We have liftoff. My first Balloon Environmental Sensing test successfully “slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings” sending data back the whole time. First flight was at the Digital Naturalism Conference in Gamboa, Panama, featuring 10+ sensor values streaming from the balloon to an online data collection system and dashboard.

It was a big success!

This party-balloon platform is designed for inexpensive aerial environmental sensing. Balloon lofting is perfect for scientific research, educational programs, hacker workshops, technology art, as well as low-cost indoor or industrial monitoring. Is the humidity overhead the same as on the ground? Does wind speed change? Is it dusty up there? How much UV light penetrates the jungle canopy at different levels? These are all questions that can be answered with this platform.

Since advanced LTE wasn’t available in Panama and SigFox coverage was absent, I decided to use the Digital Naturalism Lab’s LoRaWAN gateway—long-range radio networking that uses very little battery power. The data collection firmware code was written in MicroPython running on a LoPy4 wireless microcontroller module from Pycom. This first set of tests used all the Pysense evaluation board sensors including light, temperature, altitude, humidity, pitch, roll and acceleration in three axis. This data was taken in real time at 30-second intervals and transmitted using LoRaWAN across Things Network servers to be displayed on a Cayenne dashboard. The Pybytes cloud platform appears promising too, I’m looking forward to exploring that more in later phases of the project.

Gamboa has one very small grocery store. It does not sell helium or any other noble gas. Luckily the generous David Bowen allowed our sensor package to hitch a ride on his drone during my first week, so up we went for initial testing. As is so often the case, even this partial test resulted in lots of changes. In this case I realized we needed a frame counter, better battery connections and voltage monitoring before flying again. A second shakedown flight on Bowen’s drone proved the value of these additions, and gave us an excellent sampling of the data to come. We also did a bunch of range testing work, which is covered in a separate blog post.

A taxi trip into Panama City brought us to Mundo de los Globos (World of Balloons) where helium tanks are available, along with 1-meter balloons in plenty of colors. With a full tank of the squeaky gas, we returned to Gamboa and I started inflating our ride to the sky.

The next morning it was time for the sensor package to take its first balloon ride, and up we went. Andy Quitmeyer got some amazing footage from his drone and Trevor Silverstein shot high-end video from the ground (coming soon). I could not have asked for a better documentation team. The balloon reached 60 meters (about 200 feet) above ground level, which was the limit of the reel line I was using for a tether.

We got great data back from this flight, and soon made a second one—this time in a large field away from balloon-eating trees. It was easy to get LoRaWAN signal from altitude since LoRa works best in line-of-sight conditions. We plan to do more with the Things Network to support the biology and ecology research in Gamboa that are spearheaded by the local Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Here’s a screenshot of the data dashboard from the flight.

And a few graphs:

Another afternoon was set aside for a proper party-balloon experiment. Using a smaller battery I was able to loft the sensor package using 6 small balloons and the small amount of remaining helium. This worked too, though 7 balloons would have provided more lift and handled the wind better. Next time, more balloons!

Data from these flights can be downloaded, and the MicroPython code for the LoPy4 or FiPy can be found on my GitHub.

For the next version of the Balloon Environmental Testing platform, my plan is to explore other sensors and wireless links. I’m especially interested in UV light, air quality, wind speed and loudness. In Gamboa we talked about trying some sound recording too. As the balloon itself is silent, it’s the perfect place to record. For wireless links I’m itching to explore some new cellular low-bandwidth, low-cost protocols, LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT, because they don’t require any dedicated base stations and should work great at the altitudes needed for balloon flights. Additional plans include extended day-long flights, free flight with GPS, and maybe look at hydrogen gas but not near any kids!

The initial prototype goal was to see if the full system will work, and it does! Gamboa was a great success for this project, giving me the time, venue and documentation assistance to bring this idea to life. If you get a chance to attend the next Dinacon, I strongly recommend it. And if you’re interested in balloon sensing for any experiment, class or project, let me know!

Last month we did range testing on a new LoRaWAN radio network installation in Gamboa, Panama. The network, which covers the entire center of town is part of the Digital Naturalism Lab’s commitment to supporting wildlife and environmental research. Gamboa, where the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s laboratory is located, is surrounded by the Soberanía National Park, a large, intact tropical forest that’s jam-packed with rainforest wildlife and flora. Doctoral students and researchers laboriously visit multiple sites daily to collect data that could easily be transmitted in real time wirelessly at low cost over a public science data network. That’s our goal.

LoRaWAN is a long-range, low-bandwidth protocol that operates in the 915 MHz frequency range. We are using a MultiTech Conduit gateway that is configured to pass data through The Things Network, a community-supported global network for LoRaWAN data. To test this base station’s range I created a GPS-enabled signal strength measurement tool using a Pycom LoPy4 wireless microcontroller and Pytrack GNSS development board. The code, written in MicroPython, takes a GPS reading and transmits it to the base station, where the signal strength is measured and passed along with the location through TTN’s server. The resulting data was easily transformed into a map that shows the signal strength recorded at each location.

We compared two different setups:

  1. A smaller indoor antenna that came with the MultiTech Conduit gateway, located inside the house near a window on an upper floor. This was tested by walking at street level around Gamboa with the Pycom setup.
  2. A 2-meter-long roof antenna, held in the hot sun on the roof of the house. This antenna sourced from Alibaba is an outdoor antenna nominally for 900 MHz frequencies. We used a short 30 cm cable to connect it to the Conduit router, also located on the roof. The setup was also tested from street level, this time from the back of a pickup truck driving slowly around Gamboa.
Trucking around Gamboa with range testing in the back.

We got a surprise! The indoor setup with the small antenna worked significantly better than the large roof antenna. This is most likely due to degraded performance of the roof antenna itself, rather than its prime location or the short cabling. We are pretty convinced that the Alibaba antenna simply wasn’t up to snuff. For the moment, I’m recommending that we continue with the stock antenna in the current location until we can get an outdoor setup that can be proven superior.

Results

Here’s our testing results. The number next to each is the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) in dBm. If you click on a test location you can also see the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) listed below the RSSI number.

Interactive map: Indoor antenna test:

Interactive map: Outdoor antenna test:

These tests were a lot of fun to do and the results saved Dinalab from installing an antenna that would have reduced system performance, so they were a big success. The Pycom equipment was easy to set up and configure as usual. My MicroPython code and our raw data file results can be downloaded here.

Rust is gorgeous. We marvel at its endless shades of ochre, red, orange and sienna. We appreciate the organic shapes created as right angles collapse and edges decay into jagged landscapes. Rust is poetic, photogenic, artistic and melancholy. It grows on its own and famously, never sleeps.

As an agricultural species, we love to garden. We plant seeds outdoors, water them diligently, watch the miracle of life, trim, weed, and appreciate the lush green plantscape we’ve created. Gardening gets right at our souls. But why limit ourselves to plants?

Let’s garden with rust! Rust gardening is easy and the perfect way to exploit a “brown thumb.” In some ways it’s identical to growing a plant garden. In other ways it’s the polar opposite. A rust garden is created by “planting” metal pieces outdoors where they can weather organically. Patience is required, though the process can be sped up with regular watering, plus a few other tricks. You’ll eventually be rewarded with lush decay, in a myriad of sunset colors. Of course, your rusted wonder won’t bear anything edible, but it also won’t attract any pests. You might even extract a centerpiece-worthy “bouquet” from your rust garden, in leiu of a traditional harvest. Of course pesticides are unnecessary, and weeding is entirely optional.

For this year’s Dinacon I’m planting a rust garden outside of a home in Gamboa, Panama. Since I’ll only be there for two weeks, I’ve chosen to accelerate the initial rusting process using a household concoction of white vinegar, peroxide and table salt. The results are instant, but really just a head start on what promises to be a post-industrial patch of sepia-toned disintegration, offsetting the riot of tropical greenery.

Here’s how to make your own rust garden:

  1. Pick a patch of ground outdoors. You can also set up an indoor planter box or humidity-rich terrarium.
  2. Gather some scrap iron or steel. If it’s already rusting, so much the better.  Painted or coated metals won’t rust quickly. Strip the paint and sand the metal for best results. If you’re not sure a metal will rust, try it anyway. Experimentation is a terrific way to learn, and the artist’s favored tool.
  3. You can leave the metal to rust on its own outdoors, or water it regularly to accelerate the decay.
  • If you’re an impatient gardener, it’s easy to get some rust going immediately. Pour some white vinegar into a plastic spray bottle and mist your metal scraps until they are thoroughly moistened. Wait for the vinegar to dry, around 15 minutes. Next, in another spray bottle, mix:
    • two cups of hydrogen peroxide
    • four tablespoons of white vinegar
    • one-and-a-half teaspoons of table salt (why salt?)

Swirl the mixture until the salt has dissolved. Spray it onto your metal scraps and they will turn rusty as you watch. Allow the rusty metal to dry, then repeat as desired.* Careful with this mixture, it will rust anything it contacts, instantly!

“Plant” other metal scraps as often as desired to create a variety of rusty delights. You can include non-ferrous metals like copper which will grow a green patina for contrast. Rust gardens are perfect for photography, try a macro lens for the most beautiful corrosion close-ups.

* Rust recipe inspired by Bob Vila.

It’s easy to do environmental sensing at ground level. But how about up in the air over our heads? If we could somehow reach it inexpensively and safely, can we directly explore what lies above, perhaps making our own discoveries?

One of my projects for Dinacon 2019 will create a party-balloon platform for inexpensive aerial environmental sensing. Everyday balloons offer a number of advantages. They are readily available and very safe to fly. They don’t cost much or require any licensing, training or piloting skills. Balloons don’t use any fuel or batteries, yet they can stay aloft for days at a time, silently. When tethered, it’s easy to control their height and position in space and they’re quite environmentally friendly. Balloon lofting is perfect for children’s science programs, hacker workshops, citizen science research, digital naturalism, technology art, and low-cost indoor or industrial monitoring.

My initial ballooning prototype will explore a variety of sensors to see what kind of aerial data is interesting. For motion we will use an accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS unit to tell us where our sensing station is and measure how it is moving in space. We will also get airborne data on temperature, pressure and humidity since we know these vary interestingly with altitude. Many more sensors are available to be tried. UV sensing, air quality, dust levels, light, carbon dioxide, and wind are all on our list. I’ll be using Pycom’s Pysense and Pytrack shields, augmented by Grove sensors.

There are many platforms for obtaining and transmitting sensor data. For this project I’m experimenting with the remarkable FiPy module from Pycom. It has a ton to offer! There’s plenty of I/O to support our sensors, an ESP32 processor running my favorite MicroPython development environment, and no less than FIVE radio options, all onboard. The FiPy can communicate locally using WiFi and Bluetooth, or long-range with LoRa, SigFox and mobile LTE (Cat-M/NB-IoT). This means a single hardware platform can easily travel between different countries and environments, using the best communications method for the job at hand. So far the FiPy has been very easy to set up and use. I’ve needed to do a bit of updating the sample code for non-European frequencies and radio frameworks. With those set, I’ve been successful in transmitting on all five protocols. There’s even a cloud platform Pybytes to manage incoming data and remotely update devices in the field. And Pybytes is just one option. The FiPy module will communicate with Things Network for LoRa, Cayenne for data display, AWS, Azure, Watson, and many other IoT platforms.

Pycom’s FiPy module with Wi-Fi, Sigfox, LoraWAN, Bluetooth and Cellular radios.

Looking forward to building this at the second annual Dinacon Digital Naturalism Conference, a month-long hackathon where biologists, technologists and artists gather in the jungle to use our skills together far from the comfort of our labs. As a node-leader for the conference I’m also planning to run a 4-in-4 fast prototyping workshop, and perhaps plant a rust garden. Those projects to be covered in upcoming posts.

Spent much of June on a jungle island in Thailand, attending a biology-art-hackathon-“un-conference” to build electronics projects that interact with nature. The first-ever Digital Naturalism Conference on Koh Lon island ran for six weeks of arty, ant-licking, bio-mimicking, data logging, fruit roasting, butane soldering fun that pushed my limits and reminded me how outstanding and wildly creative the maker community can be. More will be written about this but special thanks to Andy, Tasneem and Yannick for their extraordinary efforts to create a wilderness community out of thin air and coconut rope.

Here’s some photos I took during my time on Koh Lon with ~100 motivated makers:

Supply boat to Koh Lon

The island appears

The island appears

The Diva, our floating makerspace

Registration booth

Examining insects

Read More »

XBee radios have rocketed into space! Early in the morning on July 7, NASA launched a NASA Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket from their Wallops Flight Facility. Onboard the rocket was an experiment running the very first wireless XBee network to leave our planet. Here’s a quick description recorded on launch day:

The rocket carried the SOAREX-8 Exo-Brake flight test from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, a kind of thin-air parachute for returning cargo from the International Space Station or for future landings on Mars. The XBee sensor network was used to collect temperature data, air pressure readings, and 3-axis acceleration parameters.

The NASA team retrieved these readings via an on-board gateway created with an Arduino MegaXBee radio, and an Iridium module. The Arduino Mega microcontroller was used to manage communications between the local XBee wireless network and the long-range Iridium satellite uplink. All of these components were chosen as part of a NASA initiative to use commercial off-the-shelf parts wherever possible, and to employ rapid prototyping tools to efficiently explore new ideas.

NASA-XBee-Arduino-WSN

An on-board wireless XBee network relayed science data back to NASA throughout the space flight.

The XBee network soared to an altitude of 206 miles before ending its maiden voyage in Atlantic Ocean after completing its duties. Since all data was relayed successfully back to Earth, NASA did not plan to recover the payload.

Here are some more stories on the flight:

moma-logo-post-new1We are pleased that Botanicalls was not simply acquired by the Museum of Modern Art but is also being presented in a new exhibition called “This is for Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good” running through January 31, 2016.

Here’s a description of the show:

“This exhibition takes its title from the Twitter message that British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) used to light up the stadium at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremonies. His buoyant tweet highlighted the way that the Internet—perhaps the most radical social design experiment of the last quarter century—has created limitless possibilities for the discovery, sharing, and expansion of knowledge and information. As we revel in this abundant possibility, we sometimes forget that new technologies are not inherently democratic. Is design in the digital age—so often simply assumed to be for the greater good—truly for everyone? From initial exploratory experiments to complex, and often contested, hybrid digital-analog states, all the way to “universal” designs, This Is for Everyone explores this question with works from MoMA’s collection that celebrate the promise—and occasional flipside—of contemporary design.”

You can read more about this intriguing new exhibition on the MoMA blog.

Constructing-IoT-Strategy
Last week I presented “Constructing an Internet of Things Strategy” at Forensecure’15 near Chicago, Illinois. This talk is about how any business can develop and adopt IoT methods to remain competitive in a connected world. The conference is sponsored by  IIT’s Center for Cyber Security and Forensics Education, who were kind enough to invite me to speak. I also joined a panel discussion on “The Internet of Things” with Mel Gehrs, Silver Spring Network’s Distribution Automation expert, and Tonnetta OubariVerizon’s Manager of IoT for Smart Cities & New Business Innovation. The panel talked about security, new protocols, building automation and the bright future of the IoT.
Here’s the abstract for my talk:
Planning for the Internet of Things has become a competitive necessity. Pundits have endlessly heralded the arrival of an IoT mega-trend. Yet creation of a workable organizational strategy around connected devices has not received nearly as much attention. Many important questions remain. Does the Internet of Things really offer business benefits? Are there any realistic plans that can be implemented today? What does an IoT strategy even look like?

In this presentation, we’ll share the key factors that IoT-ready organizations should consider, the essential people and roles to get involved, and the tremendous real-world advantages that a successful strategy can offer. We will begin by reviewing how IoT methods can address previously intractable problems and the pathways to inventive solutions.

IMG_6732

At the podium for “Constructing an IoT Strategy”

Attendees will learn the key elements of an IoT strategy, how each can be put into action, and how to create IoT business cases with valuable outcomes. Hard benefits, soft benefits, customer advantages, social rewards, priorities, and timing considerations will all be covered. Need to author a documented IoT strategy that provides immediate benefits for your organization? Here’s how to get started!

logrono-lie-detect-robFor the latest Digi Hackathon, I headed overseas to hold our first ever creative construction event at Digi’s office in Logroño, Spain. Using XBee WiFi Cloud Kits, the four teams hacked away for what was the most competitive session yet. In a matter of hours, each team had to quickly brainstorm, build, and present their cloud-connected projects. Their results were terrific.

Projects included:

  • The Garbage M.A.N.: Smart garbage containers monitoring for smart cities
  • Germinator Plus: An automated system for remote greenhouse seed germination monitoring.
  • Lie-Detect-o-Meter: A mobile battery-operated wristband lie detector for public questioning.
  • The Smart Plug-Y-Play: A power consumption monitor and remote control for computers and other electrical appliances.

Read more and see pictures on the Digi blog.

Hack10

Last week, we held a Digi Employee Hackathon to put the new XBee Wi-Fi Cloud Kit to the test. This is one of several ways we are working on designing outstanding user experiences for new Digi products. With the kits, the teams were able to build projects that connected with the cloud right away. One team member reported, “I got from the box to the cloud in under 20 minutes.” Using the kit’s dashboard, new widgets were  developed to whimsically represent data being collected by Device Cloud. Rain, food safety and even child development were addressed by our project teams.

I’m looking forward to doing more of these internal hackathons in the coming year. They’re fun!

Read more about this hackathon on the Digi Blog.