February 03, 2011

MobSenDat flies to the edge of space

In Adelaide, South Australia, a group of enthusiasts called "Project Horus" have been regularly getting together to build and fly High Altitude Balloons (HABs) that take payloads to around 35km altitude. That's three times as high as the highest commercial aircraft, and it's so high there's almost no atmosphere and the temperature is -55C. The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible, and the sky is black.

On their last flight, Horus 14, they carried a couple of special payloads. The first was outside the payload canister: a plush Tux mascot sitting on a pole!

A high-def video camera inside the payload canister captured the whole flight, and they edited the result down to an amazing 2 minute movie showing the launch, balloon burst, descent, and recovery.

Horus 14: The Charity Space Balloon Flight of the Linux Mascot "Tux" from Grant VK5GR on Vimeo.

The flight was a fund-raiser for the Queensland flood appeal, and after its return to Earth a poster-size print of the image above was signed by all the keynote speakers at the linux.conf.au Linux conference along with Linus Torvalds, and raised an astonishing $23,239 for the appeal!

As if that wasn't enough, the payload also included a prototype of the Freetronics MobSenDat (Mobile Sensor Datalogger) designed by Luke Weston. Equipped with GPS, a 3-axis accelerometer, barometric pressure sensor, two temperature sensors, MicroSD card, and a radio transmitter, it kept meticulous record of the details of the flight and was tracked in real time via the spacenear.us online flight tracking system.

Congratulations to Joel Stanley and Mark Jessop along with all their helpers who managed to pull off a brilliant result.

You can read more about the epic flight on the Project Horus blog at "Project Horus sends Tux to (near) space!"

December 16, 2010

Matt Hodge's very cool KitTen derivative

With release of our forthcoming KitTen (TwentyTen Arduino-compatible board in kit form) being delayed, Matt Hodge became a little impatient and decided to fabricate his own. The result is very impressive and uses a PCB that he etched at home that implements the same circuit as the KitTen, but with a few minor changes to accommodate the limitations of routing the circuit on a single-sided PCB:

Great work, Matt!

Matt calls it the "KitTen Clone v1.0", but I prefer to call it a "derivative". To me the term "clone" implies that it's a blind copy of something that's more akin to "counterfeit", but what Matt has done is far more than just copying a design. He's taken the KitTen design as inspiration and changed it to suit his own requirements, which is what the creative / collaborative process of Open Hardware is all about.

Matt, you're a champion. Your project gets two thumbs up from us!

Read more about Matt's project on the Little Bird blog:


Oh, and for those waiting impatiently for the KitTen who don't want to go to as much trouble as Matt did: it'll be available for purchase as soon as stock of one final remaining part (the right-angle header for the USB connection) arrives.

November 16, 2010

RFID access control using Ethernet / PoE

Back when Marc and I were first planning the sorts of things we'd make as Freetronics, I thought I'd be like a kid in a candy store: I'd have enough TwentyTens, Ethernet Shields, Prototyping Shields, and other random stuff to let me build whatever I felt like. The problem is that even when I have a box of 200+ Ethernet shields and nearly 1000 prototyping shields sitting in my lounge room, the opportunity to use them just never seems to arise!

Now at last I've managed to do something personal. The front door lock at my house has been controlled by a Diecimila for a very long time, with an RFID reader connected via USB to a Linux host. Now I've taken the Linux host out of the equation and combined the RFID reader and the strike plate controller onto the prototyping area of an Ethernet Shield, along with a PoE Voltage Regulator.

The blue screw terminals on the bottom right go to the electric strike plate. The relay on the right uses 12V from the Power-over-Ethernet feed to trigger the strike plate. The 3-pin header on the top right goes to the status LEDs on the panel beside the door, and the 4-pin header goes to the RFID module.

The actual circuit is a direct implementation of the RFID Access Control System project from Practical Arduino.

It feels good to do something just for the fun of it!

November 08, 2010

Flickr meter using a Freetronics Ethernet Shield

I was just pointed to a very cool project that uses one of our Ethernet Shields with PoE Support to retrieve data from Flickr about viewer count on an image, and drive an analog meter to display the result.

Check it out!


October 28, 2010

Our newest reseller: nicegear in NZ

Welcome to our newest reseller, nicegear, based in Timaru in the beautiful South Island of New Zealand!

nicegear now has local stock of many of our products, so if you're looking for Freetronics gear in New Zealand please check them out.

October 23, 2010

The 802.3AF PoE daughterboard is here

 When designing our Ethernet Shield one of the most important aspects was support for Power-over-Ethernet. I hate having to run multiple cables to Arduino-based network nodes in my home automation system, so having support for PoE was right at the top of the feature list.

PoE can be achieved the cheap DIY way, or it can be done with commercial PoE switches or midspan injectors. Because not everyone wants to use PoE we didn't include it in the basic Ethernet shield but instead brought the necessary connections up on top to a PoE header, allowing use of daughter-boards to support different types of PoE.

Now, thanks to our brand new Power-over-Ethernet Regulator 802.3af, the Ethernet Shield can operate with commercial PoE systems running at a nominal 48V. The regulator daughter-board mounts on the Ethernet Shield and implements the signalling mechanism and voltage regulation necessary to drop the 48V supplied on the wire down to 7.5V to be fed into the Arduino's onboard voltage regulator.

Because it uses a switch-mode voltage regulator it runs nice and cool - important for devices embedded in unusual places such as inside walls and ceilings!

For more background information see our tutorial "Power-over-Ethernet for Arduino".

October 03, 2010

Updated Online Thermometer project from Practical Arduino

The Online Thermometer project in my book "Practical Arduino" is a nice demonstration of using Arduino to connect sensors to a network and make them accessible online, but it was based on a version of the Seeed Studio Ethernet shield that is no longer in production. Many people have asked me how they can modify that project to make it work with an Ethernet shield based on the popular Wiznet W5100 chipset, which includes the official Arduino Ethernet shield and also our very own Freetronics Ethernet Shield with PoE Support.

So I've created a modified version of the sketch using the very cool Webduino library, and the details are written up right here:


September 29, 2010

Shipped to our 16th country: Belgium

Something that has surprised me is how global our customers are. I'd expected that we'd appeal to Australian Arduino users but assumed that people in other parts of the world would be a bit more wary of ordering from some weird Aussies down in the bottom part of the world.

I was wrong!

Today we shipped our 105th, 106th, and 107th retail orders, which were destined for Canada, Belgium, and New Zealand respectively. Over those 107 orders we've now shipped to 16 different countries:

  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Czech Republic
  • France
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • New Zealand
  • Singapore
  • South Africa
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
Pretty cool.

September 25, 2010

The new Arduino Uno: what are the implications?

The Arduino team have been teasing us for a little while with a banner on the Arduino site saying simply "We're cooking something new for you!" and a silhouette of a new Arduino model. At last the wait is over and we have a bit of information on what the board will be, and it looks pretty sweet!

When all is said and done it's really not much different functionally to the current model, the Duemilanove, but with the FTDI chip that provides the USB-serial connection on the Duemilanove replaced by an ATmega8U2 loaded with custom firmware.

That's a clever move. It means the Uno can operate in exactly the same way as a Duemilanove and maintain perfect backward compatibility with the previous model as well as third-party boards like our very own TwentyTen. It will probably also save a couple of bucks in manufacturing costs, because FTDI chips are ridiculously expensive. On the TwentyTen, for example, the FTDI chip costs us more than the MCU!

But it also means the Uno can do new things that are a problem for previous Arduino boards. The FTDI chip is a simple USB-to-serial bridge which is perfect for uploading sketches to an Arduino or sending back serial data, but it can't do things like pretend to be a "HID" (Human Interface Device) like a keyboard or a mouse. That takes a lot more flexibility, which is what the ATmega8U2 used on the Uno provides.

In the past it's been possible to emulate a USB HID such as a keyboard by creating a second USB connection controlled by the Arduino MCU directly, but you end up with two USB ports (the FTDI port for uploading sketches, and your own port for HID emulation) and it's remarkably tricky getting the software side of it right. I wrote up a project in Practical Arduino called the "Virtual USB Keyboard" based on work by Philip J Lindsay to do exactly that, but it's flaky both electrically and in the software side. Having a dedicated ATmega8U2 to take care of the connection allows the Arduino to provide both traditional USB-serial *and* HID support on the same port, depending on the firmware running in the 8U2.

All this explains the recent mention of Arduino being issued its own USB vendor ID! I was a bit confused about that at the time, but it all makes sense now.

Just as an aside, I find it a little amusing that the ATmega8U2 used for the Uno USB connection is pretty much the same as the MCU used on the very first Arduino, but with hardware USB support baked in. What was once the main MCU is now relegated to a secondary support task on the very board it used to control.

One possible issue for third-party board developers is the packaging options on the ATmega8U2. Assuming that the firmware for it is released by the Arduino team, I'm sure other board designers will want to incorporate it into their future designs instead of using an FTDI chip. The 8U2 is only available in QFN32 and VQFP32 packages, though, which makes it impractical for use by "fabricate at home" folks. The FTDI chip is surface mount and not exactly a pleasure to solder by hand, but with a microscope, a tiny soldering iron tip, and a steady hand it can be done. Many of the Freeduino kits rely on hand-soldering an FTDI chip to provide the USB connection. That's just not possible with QFN32 or VQFP32. It's not a problem for people like us who use pick-n-place machines and reflow ovens for automated assembly, but it makes one-off build-at-home projects close to impossible.

Of course there's nothing to stop people continuing to use an FTDI chip in their boards, and we'll continue with FTDI on the TwentyTen even though we could easily use QFN or VQFP chips.

My opinion overall is that the Uno is a very nice board and a very worthy iteration of the Arduino reference design. It maintains backward compatibility while adding the potential for interesting new functionality controlled by the firmware loaded into the ATmega8U2.

Great work, guys!

The official announcement is on the Arduino blog.

September 20, 2010

Arcophone: TwentyTen playing music on Jacob's ladders

Every now and then I come across something that hits just the right combination of silliness and coolness. This project from Western Australian hackerspace "Artifactory" is one of them! They've combined a bunch of Jacob's ladders, a MIDI keyboard, and a Freetronics TwentyTen to create a real "mad scientist" musical instrument. Check out the video to see the result.

More details at http://wiki.artifactory.org.au/doku.php?id=projects:musicalcoildriver