Author Archives: Rob Reynolds

So Close. But Exactly How Close?

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

There are many reasons why we might need to measure distance or proximity in a project. Obstacle avoidance jumps to mind, of course, but perhaps we want a UAV to maintain a constant elevation over changing terrain. Maybe you want to scan part of a 2000-year-old European castle to create a 3D representation of it. For many applications, LiDAR - Light Detection And Ranging - is the perfect solution. But like everything, it does have potential drawbacks. LiDAR units can be expensive, draw high current and, let’s face it, they shoot lasers. Carelessness could easily lead to a sudden loss of depth perception. With the release of the new LiDAR-Lite v4, Garmin has addressed some of those issues and added some great new features, too.

The new lightweight powerhouse!

One of the cool additions to this version of the LiDAR-Lite is its support for Ultra Low Power (ULP) wireless technologies, including ANT and Bluetooth® 5 LE. ANT can be used to transmit data to a computer or microcontroller as it comes in, while the BLE is for updating the device's software wirelessly. ANT is an ultra-low-power wireless network protocol that can handle peer-to-peer, star, tree and mesh topologies. If you’re not familiar with the ANT wireless protocol, you can get a good idea of the basics here. For a complete look at everything the Garmin LiDAR-Lite v4 is capable of, check out their Operation Manual and Technical Specifications sheet.

Happy hacking!

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Where am I, Exactly? A Guide to SparkFun’s GPS Modules

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

At the end of 2018, the US Air Force launched the first of 32 GPS III satellites, which will replace the current constellation of satellites, ultimately offering three times greater accuracy and an eight-fold improvement in anti-jamming capabilities. You may also recall back on April 6th when the GPS Week Rollover on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) occurred. Since the week numbers are encoded into the data stream by a 10-bit field, they were only good for about 19.7 years, or 1024 weeks. However, part of the new system upgrade will include switching the week data to a 13-bit field, meaning we won’t see another rollover for about 157 years.

With all of these improvements happening throughout the field of global positioning, we would be remiss if we didn’t up our GPS game here at SparkFun as well. Over the past decade, our GPS modules have gotten faster, more accurate and easier on the wallet. And if you’re interested in increased accuracy, and are not yet familiar with Real Time Kinematics, you’re definitely going to want to take a look at this video.

To that end, here’s a short overview and comparison of our current crop of GPS modules.

Happy Hacking!

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Introducing the Pizza Roll Console!

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

If you were keeping an eye on E3 last week - that’s the Electronic Entertainment Expo, one of the premiere events for the video gaming industry - then you know Miller Lite introduced the Cantroller™, a beer can, full of beer, that is also a Bluetooth gaming controller. Of course, you couldn’t buy one of these. But you could win one of the two hundred that Miller Lite was giving away, simply by beating comedian Eric Andre in a game of Street Fighter. And naturally, you would both be playing using the Cantroller. It was a great way for Miller Lite to get noticed at this year’s E3. They even released a heavy-on-visuals/light-on-copy commercial before the event, which you should definitely watch.

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"It's a beer can. It's a controller. It's a Cantroller™." Image ©2019 Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI

This is the type of project I can wholeheartedly support. It’s ridiculous, kitchy and fully functional, and there was really no reason for it to exist other than because a bunch of people were sitting around in a meeting, and one said, probably in a Beavis-sounding voice, "Hey, you know what would be cool? If we made, like, a beer can, but it was also a game controller. Heh heh."

We’re no strangers to wireless controllers here at SparkFun - we’ve had the Sparkfun Wireless Joystick Kit for quite a while now. Nor are we strangers to hacking game controllers, so seeing Miller Lite’s controller immediately brought two things to the front of my mind: first, why didn’t I think of this, and second, what could I do that would be similar or complementary to this project?

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From Phillip Torrone's Maker Faire 2007 Flickr

Creating a solution where there is no problem

Instead of looking for what’s needed, I decided to look for what was ridiculous. If you were lucky enough to win one of the Cantrollers, it’s a pretty good bet that you have several gaming consoles. I looked for obvious pairings – game controllers pair with gaming consoles, and cold beer pairs with tasty snacks. From this was born…

The Pizza Roll Console™!

I figured the gaming console would be fairly easy. I used a Raspberry Pi 3 B+, along with the Raspberry Pi 7” LCD Touchscreen, a Hamburger Mini Speaker, and one of our now-retired 5Ah Lithium Ion Battery Packs. I loaded up RetroPie, and Emulation Station, the video game emulator. The RaspberryPi 3 B+ seemed the perfect choice, since it has built-in Bluetooth, and would therefore be compatible with the Miller Lite Cantroller. You can learn how to set up your own RetroPie system here.

For reasons I cannot explain, my brain just kept yelling “Pizza rolls! Pizza rolls!” I found that the big box of Totino’s Pizza Rolls looked to be about the perfect size. I knew I would have to make some kind of insert for the Totino’s box so that it had a little structural stability. I also wanted to give it two sections: the bottom would house all of the electronics, while the top section would hold pizza rolls.

With access to a laser cutter here at SparkFun, I used MakerCase to create a finger-jointed box that I could cut out of quarter-inch and eighth-inch acrylic. I made a few adjustments to allow for the screen opening, a hole for the wired controller, some venting to keep the system cool and to let a little sound out, and the separator to keep the pizza rolls out of the electronics. I carefully opened the Totino’s box from the bottom, so I could open the factory sealed top in the video. I test fit the acrylic box, and it was just a little too large - my tolerances were too tight - a reduction in the outside dimensions by two percent, and it was a perfect fit.

Box for components and snacks

The acrylic box, with an opening for the Raspberry Pi screen, side opening for the wired controller, a separator, and some side venting.

It couldn’t be that easy

Having created the insert to house the electronics (and some pizza rolls), I put in the speaker, battery, Raspberry Pi and touchscreen. They all fit beautifully. Then I attempted to slide it all into the pizza roll box. That’s when I learned that the glass of the touchscreen was about 3mm too wide for the box.

Box With Components

Well look at that, the components fit, but the screen glass IS wider than the containment box!

I struggled, forced and pleaded, but it looked like there was no way it would all fit in without tearing the box edges. So I took my hobby knife and carefully opened the box on its seam. I was then able to slide the entire assembly in, then hot glue the box back together as tightly as it would fit. I also made a hole in the side of the box where the Raspberry Pi’s USB ports sit, so I could insert the wired controller once the assembly was sealed inside the box. Of course, this wouldn’t be necessary with a wireless controller.

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Party in the front, party in the back. What's not to like?

Thinking of building your own? Here are some thoughts

Since this was basically just a fast and fun build, designed for a quick fake commercial, there were definitely some shortcuts taken. The biggest, of course, is that the entire system needs to be powered up, then hermetically sealed inside the pizza roll box. To power it down, you either have to tear the box open again, or just play until the battery drains completely.

Ah yes, the battery. This setup could be quite a drain on a single cell LiPo battery. Knowing I would not be using a wireless controller, and not knowing how long the shoot would take, I swapped out the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ for an older Pi 2 that I had sitting around. Since this board lacks Wifi and Bluetooth, I knew it would draw less current, and therefore last longer. With the now-retired 5Ah battery pack, it was still running strong after four and a half hours.

Ideally, a finished product would have, hidden on the bottom of the box, a way to turn the system on/off, a way to turn the speaker on/off (or just use a speaker that could be powered from the Raspberry Pi), and a USB port to charge the battery. The immediate issue that comes to mind there, however, is that single cell LiPo chargers that also allow for output have a current limit of about 1A - not enough to run a system like this. But hey, that’s future me’s problem, and something I’ll worry about if the good people at Miller Lite find it in their hearts to send me a Cantroller™ to go with my Pizza Roll Console™!

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The End of an Era

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

If yo're reading this, I’m going to assume you are familiar with Maker Media. You’ve had a subscription to Make Magazine, you’ve been to a Maker Faire or you’ve built a project from one of their many guides. The bottom line is, if you know SparkFun, then it’s a fairly safe bet that you also know Maker Media.

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You may have seen this installation at any of the last three Bay Area Makers Faires.

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, late Friday night Maker Media announced it had halted operations and laid off its entire staff. Company founder and CEO Dale Dougherty, who has been open about the struggles to keep the company in the black, confirmed the closure to TechCrunch.

While this may not come as a complete surprise, it is still a sharp blow to the maker community – and it truly is a community. I have many friends, colleagues, even occasional acquaintances whom I’ve met through this community. The medium didn’t matter – a welder, a stitcher, a glass blower, and all those makers who it’s difficult to even categorize – they all came together as a community, and not just at Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires. We've kept in touch on forums and chat rooms, maker spaces and sometimes, despite our typically introverted nature, we would even meet up socially to grab a coffee or beer and share ideas and encouragement.

Make Magazine collection

Some of my Make: Magazine collection. Remember how shocked we were with the new size of volume 37?

I remember the first time I found Make Magazine. It was almost summer, 2005, and as I waited for my car to get its oil changed, I wandered into Barnes & Noble and there it was. The cover boasted of a DIY R2-D2, and in the table of contents, it promised to teach me how to hack my old mouse into a light-seeking robot, and how to use a lens from my SLR camera to create a webcam telescope. I was hooked! I purchased the next two issues that year from a local news stand, and at the beginning of 2006 I started my subscription. As issue after issue continued to roll in over the years, I had great plans to build about 80 percent of the projects I saw, as I read each issue cover to cover. I probably started about 15 percent, and finished about two percent, but I loved every minute of it. Every success and failure, every frustration and new bit of knowledge re-ignited my passion for making, hacking and engineering.

SparkFun RC Plane

Inspired by the RC plane "The Towel" in volume 30, I made this SparkFun-themed variation. (Yes, it actually flies!)

I remember my first Maker Faire. I remember all of the Maker Faires I attended. It was at my third Faire that I bought my first 3D printer, because even though it was still more than I could afford, the discount being offered was so great I couldn’t afford NOT to buy it! I saw amazing projects and met incredible people and was inspired a thousand times over in a thousand different ways! I felt like these were my people, this was where I belonged, and everyone there, whether presenters, exhibitors, or attendees, brought something interesting to the table.

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Attendance had started to level off in recent years, and actually began decreasing at the flagship Faires.

As the above graphic from Maker Media shows, attendance at Maker Faires (and interest in the maker movement, one can assume) has continued to grow. However, attendance at the Bay Area and New York flagship Faires had in recent years leveled off and actually declined, and although there continues to be an increase in interest around the world, interest does not always equate to profitability.

With the plethora of free online content available to makers, and the increasing costs of publishing a printed periodical, subscriptions fell. Additionally, the cost of producing an event the size and scope of the flagship Maker Faires became unrecoupable, with major sponsors like Intel, Microsoft and Disney exiting not only the Maker Faire, but the entire maker market.

What’s next?

Dougherty still believes that even though the company may have failed as a business, it is certainly not failing as a mission. In his interview with TechCrunch, Dougherty said, “We’re trying to keep the servers running. I hope to be able to get control of the assets of the company and restart it. We’re not necessarily going to do everything we did in the past but I’m committed to keeping the print magazine going and the Maker Faire licensing program.” He went on to say, “It works for people but it doesn’t necessarily work as a business today, at least under my oversight.”

While we may very well have seen the last Bay Area Maker Faire, at least in the form with which we’ve grown familiar, it’s important to remember that there have been over 200 owned and licensed Maker Faire events (featured and Mini Maker Faires) per year in over 40 countries. Even if we have, in fact, seen the last of the Bay Area and World Maker Faire New York events, I think it’s safe to say that in one form or another, there will continue to be gatherings of makers. We will still meet up, share ideas, learn from each other and help push each other to new heights, and if Dale Dougherty has his way, they will remain under the Maker Faire flag. Maker Media and Make Magazine have done amazing things for the maker community, and they will forever have my gratitude.

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Is That Justice Calling?

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Last week, when I should have been in the studio filming another new product video, I was instead sitting in a large room with a few hundred other civic-minded individuals, fulfilling my annual jury duty obligation. I was pulled for a jury pool, brought into the courtroom and questioned for what seemed like an exceptionally long time by both the prosecuting and defense attorneys. Finally, in the end I was released, and didn't have to sit on the jury this time around...

...just not in time to crank out this new product video. However, I wasn't about to pass up a chance to demo something as exciting as a battery charger! For all of the information on it, take a look at the product page, as well as the Hookup Guide.

So without further ado, here it is, the new Sparkfun LiPo Charger Plus!

Sorry, Your Honor, but this is the only charge in which I am interested

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How’s the Weather Up There?

via SparkFun: Commerce Blog

Springtime in the Rockies can bring with it some very interesting weather. So this week, I decided to grab our SparkFun micro:climate kit for micro:bit, put it all together and see exactly what was happening outside our windows here at SparkFun HQ. I've programmed it to record and broadcast temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction and rainfall, although that last one takes a bit of patience. And while my desk is right on the edge of the micro:bit's Bluetooth radio range with the interference that the building creates, I can walk over to the breakroom and watch all the information scroll by perfectly on my second micro:bit. And by using the SparkFun OpenLog (included in the kit) to record all of the data to a file every sixty seconds, I can always go back and see what happened out there while I was locked inside our windowless studio.

If you haven't yet worked with the micro:bit, or if you want to start digging into block coding (with Microsoft MakeCode), MicroPython or even JavaScript, this kit will help you gain a mountain of working knowledge, with a very gentle learning curve.

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