Author Archives: Chelsea Moll

From the Field: GroupGets Labs (aka GetLab)

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be letting some of our customers take over the blog to talk about how they use their favorite SparkFun tools and products in their projects, businesses and everyday lives. The best part? All the SparkFun items on their wishlist will be on sale today only!

Ron Justin, cofounder and CEO of GroupGets

Over the years, SparkFun has become our “Staples” for electronic gear at GroupGets. It’s where we find ourselves grabbing the basics, like antennas, ESPxx Thing Wi-Fi boards, FTDI breakouts and rechargeable batteries with JST connectors. These items are not the new hotness in electronics, but they certainly help enable it. Below is a go at narrowing down our three favorite go-to’s, in no particular order.

Ron’s wishlist (on sale today only!):

Number one is the Sparkfun Third Hand Kit. On top of being well… handy, it was also designed by a friend and former colleague of mine, so that’s an added bonus. “Helping hands” rigs are ubiquitous to hold your boards for soldering, but the Third Hand Kit has more flexibility and a wider range of motion than the standard options, and doesn’t have that funky magnifier to get in the way. Crafty veterans prefer to wear a magnifying visor instead anyway. High-five to Ryan Straughn for creating this super useful and clever system, just one of many in his bag of tricks.

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Next on the list is the SparkFun ESP8266 Thing Dev Board. It’s dirt simple to connect up a sensor to it and stream its data to the web. What we really appreciate about it are SparkFun’s quick and easy tutorials to get up and running quickly with it, like this one. This also makes us comfortable giving them out to students and budding engineers when we moderate hack-a-thons, to make their first edge-to-cloud experience as painless as possible. There are multiple versions of the Thing for your ESP of choice, but we love how single-purpose they all are. Many hardware developers get intimidated by cloud apps but the Thing greatly reduces the angst when wanting to get your data online for a demo or proof-of-concept.

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Last but not least, with just a dash of an obligatory shameless plug warning, we obviously use the GroupGets PureThermal 2 FLIR Lepton Smart I/O Board (aka “PT2”) on the daily, since we designed and produce it. The goal of PT2 was to make application development with the FLIR Lepton LWIR core simple by putting an STM32 on board to output thermal video as a USB video class (UVC) stream. With PT2, you don’t need any other board to see its video output; just plug it into a USB port on any macOS, Linux or Windows computer. You can view its video with most open source video viewers like VLC or our own open viewer, GetThermal. Whether we are putting PT2 in some strange test scenario for a customer, adding new features to its firmware or making 3D-printed cases for it, you will often see its thermal video output on some screens at our HQ.

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SparkFun was our first ever distributor years ago for what we called the “classic” FLIR Lepton breakout board, which we also designed and later licensed to FLIR. It’s the same board used in the FLIR Radiometric Lepton Dev Kit, and requires an external development board like a Raspberry Pi to operate. Both boards have their unique place in the evaluation and app development process with Lepton, and many professional developers use both.

So there you have it – a brief glimpse into what’s inside those red boxes on the shelf at GroupGets.

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From the Field: Designing custom PCBs with SparkFun

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be letting some of our customers take over the blog to talk about how they use their favorite SparkFun tools and products in their projects, businesses and everyday lives. The best part? All the SparkFun items on their wishlist will be on sale today only!

I think the first place any aspiring hardware/IoT maker finds themselves (after buying an Arduino or Raspberry Pi) is on the SparkFun website, browsing all the various sensors, breakout boards and tutorials available. I mean the options are endless! From sound, temperature, air quality and pressure sensors; to starter kits for Raspberry Pi, the Inventor’s Kit and Retro Arcade Gaming; to IR Cameras and LiDAR, the possibilities are amazing! And really, there isn’t a better place to begin than buying a sensor or a kit, wiring it all up on a breadboard, connecting it to an Arduino and watching it do something!

Scott’s wishlist (on sale today only!):

Who am I?

As a recent hardware enthusiast, I’ve mainly been working as a software developer and business owner for the last 15 years, and have been working with the latest technologies in my own start-up companies, SMEs and in large, publicly-traded companies. I’ve written software for machine learning (e.g. using Google’s Tensorflow), computer vision (e.g. OpenCV), IoT (Arduino and RPi) and Crypto-currencies (Bitcoin, Ethereum). But a couple of years ago, having just finished a software project and bought my first Arduino, I realised just how much I didn’t know about the hardware side of things! As a firm believer that there’s no better way to learn than to dive in at the deep end, I began working on an open source hardware project to get sensors and Sigfox built into an Arduino-style board, which I called Siguino.

Why the “Siguino” project?

While I did end up buying and using many breakout boards and sample sensor kits, I realized that while it was cool to be able to get a temperature or humidity reading and send it over Sigfox via an Arduino Pro Mini, some SparkFun breakout boards, and a few wires and resistors, it was hard to go from there to what I considered a useful device or product – especially when the result looks like the below (yes, that really was sending temperature and light levels over Sigfox)!


I wanted to learn how to design my own single board that both already had some useful sensors, and also had the Sigfox comms chip and antenna on board, so once power was supplied it was already a functioning device (re-programmable later on as needed). I also wanted to make this board open source, so others could build on it or learn from it. It was from this that the concept of the Siguino board arose, and ultimately led to a purpose-designed PCB that had all the components I wanted on board.

Siguino component breakdown

Siguino component breakdown

SparkFun resources:

I really could not have completed my open source project without the knowledge and array of products available on the SparkFun site. Here’s just a small sample of the products I used for this project:

  • FTDI Header: an essential piece for programming Arduino Pro Mini (and similar) boards.
  • Kits and sensors for testing: It’s often a very good idea to breadboard up a messy but functional solution (as I did for this project) using the extensive array of sensors available. Couple this with the availability of the underlying Eagle files, and you can essentially build out a working version of the hardware without ever taking out a soldering iron! Specifically, I used the temperature breakout, accelerometer and magnetometer.
  • Adapter boards: When you get a bit deeper into the hardware and you find a particular chip that you want to try but don’t want to to send off a custom PCB for printing yet, definitely grab an adapter board. Most of the major chips you might want to use will likely be in a standard format, and the longer solder pads really help with the hand soldering, especially if you’re not a solder expert (yet!).
  • “How to” guides on Eagle: These are absolutely excellent guides if you want to get into designing your own boards. Anyone enthusiastic enough to get a messy but functional breadboarded concept up and running can go on to design their own PCBs and this series is very informative and easy to follow.
  • GitHub Eagle libs: Having all the SparkFun product schematics and Eagle designs available on GitHub is a very valuable resource. It’s easy to miss the need for a pull-up or pull-down resistor requirement when trawling through datasheets on various chips you might want to use, so to see the schematic of a working board you can test makes things very easy for the new hardware designer.
  • Arduino code libraries: Programming/communicating with the various hardware chips (such as accelerometers, temperature chips, etc.) can involve a lot of searching though the chip datasheets for SPI/I2C/UART settings, commands, etc., so it’s very useful to have sample code written for Arduino for each of the SparkFun modules that sets you up to quickly make use of the hardware.

Product suggestions/improvements:

  • Power analysis: As I was trying to build a ultra-low power board that would last on a battery for months, accurately determining both the constant as well as spiking power profile was very important, and it turns out this is trickier than you might imagine. In the end, it was a specialist board and software I found from Nordic Semi-conductor that worked the best given the micro power requirements I wanted to accurately measure (down to a few microamps), but this was not an easy module to work with, and I think there should be better solutions available for open source hardware building (a RPI shield or something?).
  • RF analysis: Another very difficult thing to assess for the most part when dealing with radio comms (Sigfox, LoRa, Bluetooth, etc.) is whether or not the board is transmitting at the correct frequency and at what power level. Believe me, trying to tailor an RF net for your antenna and attempting to impedance-match your feed line is a dark art! Anyway, most RF analysers are made for professional hardware companies and come at a correspondingly high price point, but I found an independent device that works very well for an affordable price. It would be great to see it as an option on the SparkFun site.
  • More mainstream low level components: I did occasionally find a SparkFun module for a purpose I was interested in (recently, the GPS breakout board, since my next project will incorporate GPS) where the underlying chip (in this case the SkyTraq Venus634FLPx) doesn’t seem readily available from many suppliers. There are a great many GPS chips from different manufacturers, so it would be great if chips that were more readily available were chosen for the SparkFun modules.
  • Further chip adapter boards: I found the adapter boards for the standard SSOP chips very useful, but there is such a vast array of formats for the various chips (with SMD components in particular) from TQFP, QFN, VFLGA, etc., that it would be great of each of these were catered for also.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of options available at SparkFun, both for the first-time hardware tinkerer (as I was at the start of my project) to the experience hardware engineer, and to those in the former category all I can recommend is to get stuck in building something! Then, if you want to take it further, check out the more in-depth articles on getting started with Eagle schematics I linked to earlier. My own detailed journey from breadboarding to manufactured PCB is available at my website here.

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DIY Halloween Tricks and/or Treats

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Perhaps unsurprisingly, SparkFun has more Halloween-themed projects and tutorials than just about anything else. Our favorite holiday is only nine days away, but with as many options as you have to choose from here, that leaves you plenty of time to make some of these costumes, props and projects and impress/frighten the whole neighborhood.

Projects and inspiration

DIY tutorials

Twinkling Trick or Treat Bag

Make a light up goodie bag with conductive thread, LEDs, and the LilyTwinkle!

Illuminated Mask

Use LilyPad LEDs, a switched battery holder, and coin cell battery to make a fun light up mask for your next costume party.

LED Crystal Goddess Crown

Follow this tutorial to make your own Crystal Goddess Crown with LEDs!

Night Sky Halloween Costume

Make a beautiful night sky costume using the LilyPad LEDs and the LilyTiny.

Marquee Party Bag

This tutorial provides everything you need to know to make your own Marquee Party Bag!

Fairy LED Bracelet

Light up the world - and your wrist - with this quick and easy rechargeable firefly LED bracelet.

LED PomPom Headbands

Follow this tutorial to make your own light up PomPom headband! Try the beginner version if you are new to electronics or the advanced version if you have some more experience!

DIY Light-Up Shoes

This tutorial provides everything you need to know to make your own light up high top sneakers!

Now get to it, and send us a photo when you’re done!

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Announcing the IoT Without Limits contest winners

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Back in March, Helium, Sparkfun, Google Cloud and Hackster teamed up to bring the community the IoT Without Limits contest. The challenge? Develop an innovative, end-to-end wireless sensing application using Helium and Google Cloud IoT.

Fast forward four months later, 385 registered participants, and many late nights spent hacking together projects, the winner results are in. After serious review by our team of judges, projects were evaluated on creativity, execution and other criteria in the contest rules.

So, without further ado, the moment you’ve all been waiting for:

Honorable mentions

Special shout-outs to some of our contest runners-up:

But wait, there’s more!

With so many amazing projects, we wanted to show our appreciation by rewarding a $200 USD gift card to all remaining eligible submissions, as well as a limited edition Helium hoodie.

Congratulations to the IoT Without Limits contest winners and thank you to everyone who submitted valid projects. We were incredibly impressed by all of the participant submissions and the real-world problems they address. You can learn more about the winning projects below and browse through all of the IoT Without Limits projects on Hackster here. And last, but not least, our current generation hardware is now discounted at SparkFun. We’re excited to see what you’ll build next with Helium. The sky is the limit!

1st place: Clean Water AI by Peter Ma, Justin Shenk, Shin Ae Hong

Contaminated water affects more than two billion people according to the World Health Organization, and while we think water is safe to drink in the United States, events like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, have proven we still face serious water safety issues. In addition, monitoring water contamination is extremely difficult and available water sensors are chemical-based – the most common one is a chemical test strip that can only be used one time.

Clean Water AI

To tackle this issue, Peter, Justin and Shin developed Clean Water AI — an IoT device that classifies and detects dangerous bacteria and harmful particles. With Clean Water AI, cities and towns can install these IoT devices across their water sources to monitor water quality and contamination continuously and in real-time.

Since building the project, the team has been invited to give demos at AIDC, CVPR and Intel DevJam, and plan on continuing development in the near future. Follow their progress here.

2nd place: Atom Ready Smart IoT Sensor Node by Manuel Alejandro Iglesias Abbatemarco

There is a wave of IoT products and technologies getting into the hands of consumers and developers, but they often come with a high price tag or don’t offer the security, reliability and flexibility needed for today’s changing world. To address these issues, Manuel developed an innovative design of a sensor node for smart IoT applications powered by Helium’s Atom module. The module has several features that make it a great solution for an embedded sensor where reliable and connectivity are the primary requirements.

Atom Ready Smart IoT Sensor Node

The device is designed to be product-ready using commercially available components, and includes a variety of possible configurations for different scenarios, from industrial sensor and actuator devices to agricultural, environment monitoring and portable applications.

3rd place: Bike Route Data Gatherer by Paul Trebilcox-Ruiz

Over the last decade, Denver has seen a population boom and the expansion of alternative methods of transportation, such as bike sharing, that has outpaced infrastructure development and support.

Bike Route Data Gatherer

To solve for the increased supply and demand, Paul created a Bike Route Data Gatherer prototype that can track the location of a rental bike as it’s used throughout the Denver area, and collect route data along the way. With Paul’s prototype, the Helium Element is located inside the bike docking station so when a bike is rented and returned, the state of the device is updated. Data can then be analyzed to make more informed decisions on how to improve on the growth and efficiency of infrastructure and local transportation services that benefits the community.

Contest sponsors and partners

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Story of a SparkFun AVC Rover

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Jesse Brockmann is a senior software engineer with over 20 years of experience. Jesse works for a large corporation designing real-time simulation software. He started programming on an Apple IIe at the age of six. Jesse has competed the last four years at AVC, and won in 2016 and 2017.

JRover Maxx

I first started working on my SparkFun AVC rover back in 2011, but I didn’t have a finished rover until 2014. I first heard about the competition on the SparkFun site and thought AVC would be a great challenge – even then I thought self-driving cars would become mainstream. I hope I can provide some useful information for those of you working on or considering making a rover.

My latest rover uses the following components:

  • Traxxas Slash 4x4 Platinum LCG Truck
  • Anaconda street tires
  • Traxxas RPM sensor
  • RC4WD 35-turn brushed motor
  • Castle ESC
  • 3S 5400mah LiPo
  • Teensy 3.5
  • 2GB+ micro SD card
  • BNO-055 IMU
  • Headers
  • Various jumper wires
  • Tactile Buttons
  • Custom JRover Baseboard and Button Board
  • Digole 2” LCD display
  • Airplane RC transmitter and receiver with PPM output
  • USB battery bank

Traxxas Slash with electronics

The most important parts of the rover are the Teensy, Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) and RPM sensor. The IMU provides a heading, the RPM sensor determines the distance traveled and the Teensy is the brains of the rover. The Teensy 3.5 runs at 120mhz with 192k of RAM and has a SD card slot.

Traxxas Slash

Another important part is the base platform. I chose the Slash 4x4 Platinum LCG (Low Center of Gravity) for a few reasons. Four-wheel-drive gives better traction, which lessens wheel slip that can cause errors in the location. A Slash can better handle some rough spots on track, but I chose LCG because it doesn’t need two or more inches of clearance. The Slash Platinum has upgraded parts for the knuckles that are less likely to fail upon impact with a hay bale, curb or barrel. It also has sway bars that improve turning performance. For street use I’m using Anaconda tires, but I am researching the best tire to use for a packed dirt surface. A 3s 5400mah LiPo is used to provide long runtime and enough speed/power, even with a brushed motor.

Close-up of ESC and motor

I use a Castle ESC because it’s programmable and has better failsafe behavior compared to the Traxxas ESC. I’ve had Traxxas ESC to full throttle when signal was lost. I’m using a 35-turn brushed motor for better slow-speed performance. During testing, this allows the rover to drive very slowly (less than 2 mph) without the jittering that happens with sensorless, brushless motors.

JRover baseboard

I designed my own carrier board (baseboard) for the Teensy and user input board (button board), because there was a specific set of features I desired. I wanted something simple, with breakouts for the PWM outputs, Serial, IO pins and both I2C buses, so I could separate the IMU from the display. I also wanted an input board with four buttons that was small, with robust mechanical buttons.

JRover Button Board

Keep in mind if you use mechanical switches that they can be triggered upon impact with a barrel or other obstacles, so try to shield them. Also, dirt or dust can get into the switches and cause failures, so you might want to have a backup.

Menu system

The menu system is crucial for rover control. From this I can run diagnostics, change parameters, record a path or start an autonomous run. A 2-inch LCD Module is used to display this menu. An LCD has improved visibility in direct sunlight compared to an OLED. Two inches is a reasonably-sized display, and I can have eight lines of text on the display, which I find sufficient. The four buttons are used to select and change items as required, and I can also use the RC transmitter for control as well.

I use a standard airplane RC transmitter (TX) and receiver (RX) to send steering and throttle commands to the rover during manual mode, and also for recording waypoints. The baseboard can use standard RC signal Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) or Pulse Position Modulation (PPM) to read commands from the TX. Using a RX with PPM requires only one pin to read six channels, and the code for PPM is part of the Teensy libraries. The extra channels of an airplane-style TX allow for more advanced control of the menu system.

A USB battery pack is connected to the micro USB socket on the Teensy to power the rover. I suggest using a soldered battery rather than loose cells in a holder. Failures I had in the 2014 and 2015 AVCs were caused by loose cells. The micro USB connector on the Teensy is vulnerable, so avoid connecting/disconnecting as much as possible. I used some glue around the micro USB connector to strengthen it, as impacts can cause it to fail.

Winning path from 2016 AVC

Winning path from 2016 AVC

Winning path from 2017 AVC

Winning path from 2017 AVC

My rovers uses heading and distance traveled to determine its location. This is a method known as dead reckoning. The pure pursuit algorithm is used to steer the rover. It works by determining how far the rover is off of a direct line between waypoints, and computing a steering angle to put the rover back on the ideal track at a further point down the path.

JRover Maxx

If you want to build your own rover for AVC here are my recommendations:

  • Skip GPS since you can get bonuses for not using it, and GPS isn’t that accurate (typically 3 meters).
  • Don’t overthink your design; keep it simple.
  • Drive your platform without any autonomous components for several hours. Get a feel for the platform and look for any weaknesses by intentionally hitting the curb a couple times.
  • Keep in mind the effects of extra weight and test as much as you can.
  • Be prepared for things to fail. Log your failures in a notebook and what you did to correct the issue. If you notice a pattern, don’t be afraid to try something else.
  • Have spares for anything you see failing regularly or upgrade to a better part.

I am working on multiple upgrades: bump sensors, a new BNO-080 IMU, LIDAR sensors for obstacle detection, and closed-loop throttle control for speed. I also have several secret upgrades I am working on as well.

If you would like more information about my rovers, or have any questions on building a rover please join DIYRovers. I also started a local chapter of DIY Robocars if you happen to be local to Iowa.

Will you be at the 2018 Sparkfun AVC in September?

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Our favorite LED resources

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

It’s the season of long days (at least in the northern hemisphere), and what better way to celebrate all this light than with some bright, delightful, LED-based projects, videos and tutorials? Rhetorical question; there is no better way. Fortunately we have more LED resources than you can shake a battery pack at, and for every skill level. Check out some of our favorites, and start your summer project today!

Blog posts


Building Large LED Installations

Learn what it takes to build large LED installations from planning to power requirements to execution.

Interactive LED Music Visualizer

Use an Arduino and the SparkFun Sound Detector to create visualizations on Addressable RGB LED strips.

DIY Light-Up Shoes

This tutorial provides everything you need to know to make your own light up high top sneakers!

Interactive 3D Printed LED Diamond Prop

In this tutorial, we will learn about how to create an interactive theatrical prop for a performance by 3D printing a translucent diamond prop using a non-addressable RGB LED strip and AT42QT1011 capacitive touch sensing.

Das Blinken Top Hat

A top hat decked out with LED strips makes for a heck of a wedding gift.

LED Robot Pop Up Card

Craft a paper circuit pop up card with a cycling RGB LED, battery, and copper tape.

LED Cloud-Connected Cloud

Make an RGB colored cloud light! You can also control it from your phone, or hook up to the weather!

Marquee Party Bag

This tutorial provides everything you need to know to make your own Marquee Party Bag!


What LED projects have you made? Any that you’re looking forward to making?

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