Monthly Archives: June 2021

SparkFun Hooks a Patent Troll

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Any long time SparkFun reader may know that we really enjoy writing about the whacking legal entanglements that we get into. Whether it’s cease and desist letters from Sparc International, tossing out 4,000 DMMs, or dealing with counterfeit ICs. Unfortunately, now it’s time we talk about patent trolls.

Since a few of my international friends looked at me funny when I mentioned it, a patent troll is a company that is specifically set up to purchase the rights to a handful of patents and then sue anyone they feel they can get money from.

Patent trolls are Americans that are destroying American manufacturing and small business. I've got heaps of challenges when it comes to SparkFun but patent trolls are what keep me up at night. SparkFun knows how to manufacture in America, and we've created tons of new open source products, but patent trolls can come out of nowhere and do real harm. It's legalized extortion. There’s a few forms of this so let’s first talk about ransoming. SparkFun has received a few of these over the years. Let’s have a look at a passive one from Feinberg Day:

Patent Troll - Ransom Trick - Feinberg Day

An almost nice ransoming from Feinberg Day

Sal is basically saying ‘Hey there. We noticed you have a website. We have patents that deal with websites. We’ve managed to (supposedly) shake-down Foot Locker and Northern Tool. You should probably call us to discuss this.”

It’s sort of like scam phone calls. If you answer your phone at all, they know there’s a human there and your phone number is now more valuable to other scammers. If you actually call Sal, they’ll know you’re paying attention and worried. The best solution to this type of troll is to ignore it.

Patent Troll - Ransom Trick - Garteiser Honea

Say it with me: RazDog!

RazDog takes it up a notch. Sorry, but I just can’t take RazDog seriously. Just saying ‘RazDog’ makes me giggle. But in this type of patent ransoming they put in a ticking clock. If you respond in two weeks it’s $49,284. If you delay it’s $54,284 so you’d better call now! Again, the best solution is to ignore it.

If you ever find yourself down the rabbit hole of patent trolls you will likely never find the bottom. Gag orders are used thoroughly by trolls to prevent anyone from talking about settlements.

Monday Morning Patent Troll text

Not what you want to read on a Monday morning

Which brings us to Monday morning. My good friend, who happens to be a powerhouse of a trademark attorney, sent me the above text message. She is super nice and I think has some alerts for ‘SparkFun’ in place so she can keep an eye out for me. She was letting me know we were being sued by someone called Altair Logix. More on them in a minute but I’d like to point out that

  1. As of Wednesday June 30th, we have not received any paperwork or been notified of the lawsuit.
  2. I’ve already received two spam emails from unknown law firms letting me know I’m being sued and wanting to represent me.

So imagine you’re a small business that designs and manufactures stuff. And you start being told you’re being sued. You’ve got to focus on building things, keeping the lights on, and keeping people employed. It’s terrifying. In fact, I’m still paranoid about even writing this blog post. We’re really poking a stick at Feinberg, RazDog, and Altair Logix here. These firms could potentially bring a tremendous amount of pain against SparkFun. But we think it's far more important to pull back the curtain on questionable and unethical business practices. Let’s return to Altair Logix.

Altair Logix is located in Frisco, Texas. Texas and patent trolls immediately remind me of the excellent This American Life episode “When Patents Attack”. It’s a great listen and goes far more in depth of the overall patent troll issue. This entity, I'm now calling Al, doesn’t seem to build anything. They don’t really do R&D. I’m hard pressed to even locate a website or contact information for Al. But Al does seem to enjoy suing people: Texas Instruments, Coolpad Technologies, VIA Technologies, Renesas, ASUS, Caterpillar, Nuvision International, Netgear, Lynx Innovation, … oh my! Let’s add SparkFun to that list of people being sued.

Altair Logix v. SparkFun

Altair Logix v. SparkFun

Al is claiming that they have patent number 6289434 which they quickly start referring to as patent ‘434. Can I tell you how humorous it is that an attorney feels it necessary to shorten a 7-digit number to a 4 character abbreviation? Thanks Al. That really saves me some time.

US patent 6289434

Patent US6289434

Patent 6289434 was written in 1998 and granted in 2001. I’ll start by pointing out that patents are valid for 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed or 2018, but I’m no patent attorney. You are welcome to read all 93 pages of it but it’s laughable. I don’t know the original authors Rupan Roy or the Cognigine Corporation; perhaps they thought that a ‘Media Processing Unit’ was really novel in 1998. Today, it’s not.

Make believe Media Processing Unit

Make believe Media Processing Unit

There’s lots of official looking diagrams in this patent. If you ignore the fancy ‘media processor’ jargon, the image above shows a multi-core processor. These are not telling or descriptive or even helpful diagrams; they are fluff.

An SPI Interaction made to look official

An SPI Interaction made to look official

Oh look! It’s a diagram of a SPI interaction with interrupts! (If this doesn’t make sense to you, just know that SPI transfers move data between your SD card and anything that uses an SD card - they are omnipresent).

There is no such thing as a MAU

There is no such thing as a MAU

The goal of patent 6289434 is to take something the embedded systems industry is built on (in this case ALUs or Arithmetic Logic Unit) and change the terminology so that it’s “new”. In the above image the ALU that we use all the time is coupled with something called a MAU which I don’t even have the time to decrypt the meaning of. It’s bullshit. MAUs don’t exist. The mixup of jargon is meant to be thick and confusing so that people who have less technical experience get worried. Why hire lots of expensive lawyers and field experts to fight when I could just settle and get back to building things? Because that only makes more little trolls.

The Altair Logix v Sparkfun Lawsuit

The Altair Logix v Sparkfun Lawsuit

Let’s move on to the lawsuit. The fun starts around page 6. Al claims:

The cost is further reduced by employing only static or dynamic ram as a means for holding the state of the system. This invention provides a way for effectively adapting the configuration of the circuit to varying input data and processing requirements. (Id. at col. 3:6-8). All of this reconfiguration can take place dynamically in run-time without any degradation of performance over fixed-function implementations. (Id. at col. 3:8-11).

Dynamic ram? Can I poke fun at them for not knowing what RAM is? Yes I can.

The above paragraph succinctly describes malloc() which is perhaps one of the most fundamental advancements in modern computing. The problem is that Al didn’t invent it. Memory management (the ability to take RAM and then give it back when your function is done) goes back to the dawn of computing. The use of malloc() and carefully tending to your RAM is pervasive in embedded systems. I literally just wrote a routine this morning for the ESP32 that throttles Bluetooth traffic because my heap was running out of space. They got a patent on memory allocation? Yea. Sure they did.

The present invention is therefore an apparatus for adaptively dynamically reconfiguring groups of computations and storage elements in run-time to process multiple separate streams of data and control at varying rates. (Id. at col. 3:14-18). The ‘434 patent refers to the aggregate of the dynamically reconfigurable computational and storage elements as a “media processing unit.”

Once you get over the words that have obviously not been written by an embedded engineer, the lawsuit is describing variable length arrays. You can slap your “media processing unit” sticker all over it, but it’s just a malloc() call.

  1. Direct Infringement. Upon information and belief, Defendant has been directly infringing claim of the ‘434 patent in Colorado, and elsewhere in the United States, by making, using, selling, and/or offering for sale an apparatus for processing data for media processing that satisfies each and every limitation of claim 1, including without limitation the Sparkfun’s sale of the pcDuino Acadia Dev Board (“Accused Instrumentality”). (E.g., http://web.archive.org/web/20160909142123/https://www.sparkfun.com/products/13610).

Wait wait wait. You’re suing us over the pcDuino from 2016? We stopped selling that board in 2017. Nothing against pcDuino, it was a neat little single board computer for its time but of all the products we sell you pick that board? Why? I suspect it has something to do with Al's previous wins against companies unfortunate enough to use a processor that used the term ‘media’ in their datasheets. Or perhaps it was the approximate date that web.archive.org had data on SparkFun’s website. It’s 2016 - their patent doesn’t expire until 2018...

Can I also just say how amazing the Web Archive is. Their Wayback Machine is incredibly fun but their mission and what they are attempting to preserve is critical for future generations to understand how our digital world changed over time. The fact that Al is using them is just a taint on a good cause.

  1. Plaintiff has been damaged as a result of Defendant’s infringing conduct. Defendant is thus liable to Plaintiff for damages in an amount that adequately compensates Plaintiff for such Defendant’s infringement of the ‘434 patent, i.e., in an amount that by law cannot be less than would constitute a reasonable royalty for the use of the patented technology, together with interest and costs as fixed by this Court under 35 U.S.C. § 284.

So what does Al want? If patent 6289434 is to be found legitimate (which it is not), they want royalties. Now, there is something to be said here about what I call the ‘American Patent Dream’. It goes something like this:

  1. I come up with a phenomenal idea that no one has had before.
  2. I patent that idea.
  3. I never have to lift a finger and just enjoy cashing my royalty checks from the beach.

You can see the flaws. I am a big believer in Open Source Hardware but I do not believe that the entire patent system is trash. If SparkFun was infringing on actual IP, from a company that was actually building something, I would work very hard to not step on their toes. Al is not building anything. They just want to sit on their beach in Texas.

We’ve sold 221 units over the entire time we carried the pcDuino. You want to sue us for $500 worth of made-up royalties to use your bogus patent? Sure. Come get it.

What can you do about Patent Trolls?

Talk about it if you can. We are not the only small business that has to deal with this but we are in a rare situation where we may be able to talk about it. If you have been sued or received a ransom letter, talk about it! Trolls win when we're too scared to talk.

Email your representatives. Senators and Congress people do listen to the communication they receive. Email Governor Polis (who is a big supporter of patent reform and fights against patent trolls). Let them know that patent trolls are Americans that are destroying American manufacturing and small business. Trolls are terrible for the economy, destroy jobs, gum up the judicial system, and hinder innovation.

Work with smarter people than me. Tell your politician to listen to and work with groups like the EFF and Patent Progress who have spent years working on good solutions to trolls like Al.

We’ll let you know how the suit goes. We’re pretty sure it’ll be a fight, but no matter what, I’ve got to get back to actually creating something in this world.

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A Continuously Sprouting Project: ML in Crop Quality and Environmental Tracking

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Some projects are built for a singular purpose, like turning on lighting strips to the beat of music, or roasting a hot dog via a sundial. But there are also the projects that are extendable - the ones where you realize that it could actually have a couple of use cases! These types of projects could solve maybe two or three challenges simultaneously, like a machine learning model that could use a camera to count skittles and count cards. And then there’s the over achiever projects that could be effective in half a dozen use cases, all within the same framework. Sumit with Team TensorCrop has built one of those projects, and on top of that it aims to solve real world challenges, ranging from assisting in farming, to tracking wildfires or illegal logging, and it’s all done through environmental sensing and audio analysis.

alt text

His project utilizes the RedBoard Artemis ATP (with the on-board microphone) to conduct ML audio analyses with a variety of use cases.

SparkFun RedBoard Artemis ATP

SparkFun RedBoard Artemis ATP

DEV-15442
$24.95
1

One example could be detecting harmful or beneficial organisms for plants; Sumit gives the example that flowers listen for bees, and it helps make their nectar sweeter. Another use case is detecting specific frequencies for wood cutting tools to determine if illegal logging is occurring. Sumit also took advantage of the SparkFun Environmental Combo Breakout to encourage lower use of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides, and instead to take advantage of ML models to determine abnormalities in crop growth and photosynthesis rate.

SparkFun Environmental Combo Breakout - CCS811/BME280 (Qwiic)

SparkFun Environmental Combo Breakout - CCS811/BME280 (Qwiic)

SEN-14348
$35.95
20

Even though the dataset he used for audio was downloaded from Kaggle, he didn't directly download the audio data onto the microcontroller - he rerecorded it with the Artemis microphone so that the device itself could actually run inference. He used a Python script to stream audio from the Artemis Apollo3 microphone, and then used an audio splitter to split audio files into one-second increments so that they could be trained on the Artemis board.

alt text

The audio training entails labeling the the data; in Sumit's case the wanted sounds would be "aedes, anopheles, culex, bee, chainsaw," as seen in his code.

alt text

Ultimately, once the training is finished, the model is converted into a lite model so that it can be deployed on an edge device.

Much like a sunflower, the sky is the limit for Sumit and this project. He aims to track the height of plants, develop systems using servos to cover plants in the event that CO2, temperature and light aren't enough to encourage healthy growth, and measure environmental data to notify surrounding people if there may be a fire.

It's a good reminder for all of us that most projects can be extended or repurposed to solve dozens of other problems, whether that's in our own lives or affecting the globe. So pick up an old project this week and see how you can tweak it slightly to solve an entirely different challenge, and happy hacking!

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Friendship is Cryptographic

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Happy Friday, everyone! This week, we have three new products that we've been excited to launch, starting with the new SparkFun Cryptographic Development Kit. This is a simple kit that provides everything you need to secure your next IoT project or idea (it also uses the ATECC508A, so you won't need to sign an NDA to use it)! Following that, we have a new version of our Qwiic Air Quality Sensor - this one improves the SGP30 to the new SGP40. We round out the week with a new wireless version of the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4.

It's been a bit. Welcome back, product videos!

SparkFun Cryptographic Development Kit

SparkFun Cryptographic Development Kit

KIT-18303
$59.95

With the SparkFun Cryptographic Development Kit you will get everything you need to learn the fundamentals of cryptographic authentication and how to use the ATECC508A Cryptographic Co-Processor Breakout with the Artemis RedBoard to add a soaring level of security to your projects.


SparkFun Air Quality Sensor - SGP40 (Qwiic)

SparkFun Air Quality Sensor - SGP40 (Qwiic)

SEN-18345
$16.95

The SparkFun SGP40 Air Quality Sensor provides a measurement of the quality of the air in your room or house. The SGP40 is based on Sensirion's CMOSens® technology and uses a metal oxide (MOx) sensor with a temperature controlled micro hotplate and provides a humidity-compensated volatile organic compound (VOC) based indoor air quality signal. Both the sensing element and VOC Algorithm feature an unmatched robustness against contaminating gases present in real world applications enabling a unique long term stability as well as low drift and device to device variation.


Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 32GB (Wireless Version) - 2GB RAM

Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 32GB (Wireless Version) - 2GB RAM

DEV-18351
$50.00

The Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 represents a huge change for the Compute Module line. The biggest change being the move from the DDR2 SODIMM connector form factor to a high density connector on the bottom of the board. But true to the line, the Compute Module 4 packs all the best features of the Raspberry Pi Model B 4 into a more favorable form-factor for embedded or OEM applications. This model has 2GB of LPDDR4-3200 SDRAM and 32GB of eMMC Flash storage along with the wireless capability (2.4GHz and 5GHz IEEE 802.11b/g/n/ac wireless LAN and Bluetooth 5.0)


That's it for this week! As always, we can't wait to see what you make! Shoot us a tweet @sparkfun, or let us know on Instagram or Facebook. We’d love to see what projects you’ve made! Please be safe out there, be kind to one another, and we'll see you next week with even more new products!

Never miss a new product!

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Come Join the SparkFun Team

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Hello everyone! If you have ever wanted to join SparkFun, now is a perfect time to take a look at our job openings! We're updating our careers page soon, and in the meantime wanted to point out our openings for anyone interested. Many of these positions are closing soon - some even within the week - so don't delay (also note none of our current open positions are remote, but Boulder County is - in our extremely unbiased opinion - an excellent place to be :)).

Join the SparkFun team!


Production

  • Machine Operator (Evening Shift) - The Machine Operator is responsible for running a variety of pieces of machinery including stencil printers, pick and place machines, reflow ovens, selective solder machines, board washers, and automated optical inspection (AOI) machines. This is the start of the overall board assembly process, and is an integral one in setting the pace for the rest of the assembly process. Prior PCB assembly equipment operations experience is not required. We will train the candidate that is best fit for the position.
  • Packager - The Packager is responsible for ensuring that in-house assembled PCB products are safe for transport and storage in the warehouse. They are the final step in the overall Board Assembly process. The Packager is also responsible for assembling Light Packaged Assemblies, which are things like buttons, switches, sensors, transmitters and receivers.
  • Board Assembly Technician - The Final Board Assembly Technician is responsible for completing the PCB assembly, and ensuring it is ready for customer use. This includes any rework needed to fix the assembly, final test code and/or bootloader code uploading, and 100% in-circuit testing of every product to ensure full functionality.

Software & IT

  • Senior Systems Administrator - The Senior Systems Administrator is responsible for maintaining the uptime, performance and security of all critical SparkFun systems. This includes all external systems and web properties (www.sparkfun.com), and internal systems that run our day-to-day company operations. This role will coordinate projects, collaborate on development and the deployment of system updates. Following an Agile development methodology, the ideal candidate identifies systems needs and works closely with fellow team members as well as all departments within the organization as needed.
  • Software Development Manager - The Software Development Manager is a critical role within SparkFun, facilitating the creation, communication and realization of our systems that run our e-commerce platform, production operations and our new À La Carte application. Leading a team of technical professionals, the Software Development Manager is responsible for all team management duties including staffing, employee development, mentoring, and team interactions. The Software Development Manager is a member of SparkFun’s Technology Group, reporting to the CTO. The right candidate collaboratively works a variety of internal customers, guiding their inputs and interaction throughout the entire software development lifecycle. By facilitating the creation and management of user needs, the elaboration and prioritization of work, and successful user acceptance testing, the Software Development Manager ensures development and delivery of the desired user functionality.

Shipping

  • Shipping Associate - Shipping Associates will be responsible for performing duties that maintain good inventory practices and a productive work environment. This will include but is not limited to: utilizing our ERP system to pick and ship inventory, packaging orders for shipment according to SparkFun's standards, and packaging of Lithium Batteries according to current Hazmat regulations. Someone who likes being on their feet and working on a team will enjoy this environment. Overall, we are looking for a helpful addition to our energetic shipping department and a great contributor to the SparkFun community.

Sales Operations - Business Development

  • Technical Sales Support Specialist - The role of the Technical Sales Support Specialist is to support the Sales Team in achieving sales growth objectives by providing in-depth technical consultation and an amazing customer/potential customer experience. The Technical Sales Support Specialist will have direct communication with accounts; work closely with Sales, Technical Support, Engineering, Supply Chain, and Product Services; will be relied upon for deep technical knowledge as well as the ability to communicate and build relationships with accounts; and will help build foundational knowledge of the Sales Team. This position is highly technical and is at the front line to engage in meaningful, technical conversations, consulting with the Engineering Team when necessary.

Kitting

  • Kitter - The Kitter is responsible for assembling full kits, ensuring they are ready for customer use. This includes pulling raw materials from inventory, counting out correct quantities of parts, and ensuring each kit receives the correct combination of raw materials.

Do you have what it takes to join the SparkFun team? We'd love to have you become a 'Funion!

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The SparkFun RTK Express is Shipping!

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Great news, everyone: the SparkFun RTK Express is now shipping! That means if you ordered one between Tuesday, June 1st, and Friday, June 18th, you should (hopefully) be receiving it in the next few days! We do still have some extras built up but we expect them to sell out soon. So, if you haven't picked up your own RTK Express, now might be a good time.

SparkFun RTK Express

SparkFun RTK Express

SPX-18019
$499.95

WIth the official release of the SparkFun RTK Express, we wanted to make sure you were also aware of the new guide we wrote for it! The RTK Express is your one-stop shop for high precision geolocation and surveying needs. For basic users, it’s incredibly easy to get up and running and for advanced users, the RTK Express is a flexible and powerful tool. The RTK Express is a fully enclosed, preprogrammed device. There are very few things to worry about or configure but we cover all of the basics in the tutorial below.

New!

SparkFun RTK Express Hookup Guide

June 21, 2021

Learn how to use the enclosed RTK Express product to achieve millimeter level geospatial coordinates.

By connecting your phone to the RTK Express over Bluetooth, your phone can act as the radio link to provide correction data as well as receive the NMEA output from the device. It’s how $10,000 surveying devices have been operating for the past decade - we just made it easier, smaller, and a lot less expensive.

GNSS RTK is an incredible feat of engineering that has been made easy to use by powerful GNSS receivers such as the ZED-F9P by u-blox (the receiver inside RTK Express). The process of setting up an RTK system will be covered in this tutorial, but if you want to know more about RTK here are some good tutorials to brush up on:

What is GPS RTK?

Learn about the latest generation of GPS and GNSS receivers to get 14mm positional accuracy!

Getting Started with U-Center for u-blox

Learn the tips and tricks to use the u-blox software tool to configure your GPS receiver.

Setting up a Rover Base RTK System

Getting GNSS RTCM correction data from a base to a rover is easy with a serial telemetry radio! We'll show you how to get your high precision RTK GNSS system setup and running.

How to Build a DIY GNSS Reference Station

Learn how to affix a GNSS antenna, use PPP to get its ECEF coordinates and then broadcast your own RTCM data over the internet and cellular using NTRIP to increase rover reception to 10km!

Let us know in the comments below what you plan on using your new RTK Express for. Is there a project or idea you want to implement it is? Let us know, we are excited to hear from you!


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Combining Art and Technology for Interactive Learning

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Here at SparkFun, we have turned out thousands of different boards and components over the years. We’ll see a need in the market, or find a new chip that looks like it may have great potential for our users, and set to work. We’ll design a board for it, create a few simple examples, and release it into the wild. The following week, we’re at it again, and often we don’t get to see what our users do with the products we create. That’s why it’s always nice when we find someone sharing what they’re working on with SparkFun parts.

For me personally, I get extra pleasure when a build using SparkFun parts is part of an artistic project or installation, as that’s the world from which I emigrated into the tech world. That was the case with a project build we recently found on Twitter. Artist and engineer Alexson Chu (@AlexsonChu) is working on an interactive book to go on display at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

alt text
Alexson Chu uses RFID tags, electric paint, and projection mapping to create an interactive book exhibit at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

According to Alexson’s tweet, the design uses the SparkFun Simultaneous RFID Reader placed under the left side of the book, with aluminum foil shielding under the right side of the book to keep the RFID tags from being read when not wanted. Each page has an embedded RFID tag, so the program knows what page the reader has turned to. The pages also contain interactive “buttons,” able to trigger additional videos corresponding to the initial images on each page. These buttons are created using electric paint from Bare Conductive, which adds no unnecessary thickness to the pages, while still allowing for capacitive touch triggers.

alt text
By using electic paint and copper tape, buttons can be added to each page without adding bulk.

The main interactive content/projector source is written in Unity, which is an ideal programming language for interactive museum installations. For the general concept in builds such as this, Alexson believes that there is great value in combining a physical object with which people, and especially children, can interact.

He says that even in museums, there are too many screens in our lives - he's tired of seeing more exhibits turning to nothing more than a screen-type kiosk, and thinks that by giving children - and all those who frequent museums - a chance to get information and feedback from interacting with something physical, they will take more from that experience than they would from the passive act of just watching a video on the same subject.

This current WIP exhibit is scheduled to open this summer at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, and we’ll be sure to follow up with Alexson to see the final product in its new home.

Alexson Chu is a member of the group Extended Reality Art, a Hong Kong-based, technology-driven creative collective that creates art installations and experiences by using extended reality, immersive technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning. He is also the Innovation Director for Don’t Believe In Style, a Live Experience Studio that curates and creates live experiences with immersive and experiential technology.

alt text
DBIS combines art and technology to create large-scale immersive and experiential exhibits. (Image courtesy of Don't Believe In Style.)

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