Sparkfun Hackers In Residence, Part 1

Travel & Adventure — Sean Bonner @ 3:14 pm

[ Tara and I are currently in Boulder, CO at Sparkfun. This is the first post looking at what we’re working on.]

PROTOTYPE PROPOSAL

We’ve been thinking about personal drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) a lot recently. Both in the context of how these devices could be useful around a house or neighborhood, as well as how they can help with volunteer projects like Safecast – and if these use cases might apply elsewhere. When Sparkfun invited us to help kick off their new ‘Hacker In Residence’ program exploring this drone question a bit more seemed like the ideal project to work on. There are a number of personal drone options available on the market, but for the most part they are either difficult to work with or limited in functionality. Weight restrictions and limited flight time is a big issue with most commercial options. We wanted to see if we could easily hack an out of the box platform like the Parrot AR Drone to add extra functionality or if it made more sense to approach this problem from another direction entirely.

Mary Meeker announced in her recent Internet Trends report that we are entering a third computing cycle of ‘Wearables/Drivables/Flyables/Scannables.’ As founders of member-driven community spaces, Crash Space and LA Makerspace, we see these technologies being used first-hand and hacked on by both hobbyists and experienced hardware engineers. The scope of where they are headed is infinite.

In the days leading up to our arrival we had to seriously think about the use cases. Sparkfun carries a wide variety of environmental sensors (temperature, humidity, barometric pressure), Safecast has high quality compact radiation sensors… but would this appeal to a less scientific or less niche group of people? And what about the device itself – do we want something with extreme maneuverability? Or something with autopilot? The options were really unlimited.

We decided that the focus for our two weeks of prototyping should be to add a much better downward facing camera to a device that could remain airborne for a period of time well beyond the normal battery life. This would enable high-res event documentation from a previously unreachable aerial view or new avenues for personal security surveillance. We thought if we could solve this first use case, then it would be easy to swap out the camera for any number of other sensors.

SPARKFUN

We received a wonderful welcome when we arrived in Boulder. In addition to providing us with a place to sleep while in town, Sparkfun gave us a dedicated room to work from at their offices. Upon arrival we got the full tour of the building – from Engineering to Shipping – everyone was super welcoming and it was awesome to see where all the red box magic happens.

The team at Sparkfun have been incredibly friendly, helpful and accommodating every step of the way, especially considering we’re pretty much making this up as we go. They also provided us with everything from a shopping list we gave them filled with parts from their catalog as well as bits and pieces from all over the web. We’d like to give an extra special shout-out to Sparkfun’s Director of Education, Lindsay Levkoff for setting this whole gig up!

 

TWO PRONGED APPROACH

Two weeks isn’t a terribly long time to solve a problem like this from scratch, so it’s lucky that we’re not starting entirely from scratch having messed around with some of these devices before and relying on some already ready to go solutions like Dropcam which we hoped would save us some time, rather than spending a week (or months) reinventing the wheel.

In anticipation of things not working out exactly perfect the very first time we decided that a two pronged approach would keep things moving in the event that we ran into any major hurdles. The breakout looks like this:

PRÖNG 1\\\

Quadcopter as platform.

We are using a Parrot AR Drone as the base because it just works right out of the box with no tinkering and is something that pretty much anyone with $300 to blow can get ahold of. Having spent time with several other brands of quad and hex copters, we knew that not having to spend a week calibrating and fine tuning balance was crucial to making this work in our 2 week window.

We hypothesized that removing the battery and adding a tether for power might give us more weight to play with as well as extended flight time. For the camera we decided on using a Dropcam because of similar out of the box instant functionality and the bonus of live video over wifi. Combining the power source for both of these devices which have different requirements would be the main trick. For very specific movement control, this plan definitely comes out ahead.

The Parrot works great as is, but is perfectly balanced for it’s own weight, and we want to add more to that. By stripping off the top hull entirely we save some weight, and luckily the Dropcam that we’re adding is fairly light on it’s own. There’s also a good bit of space between the circuit board and the plastic bottom of the Parrot, so by cutting out a small circle and sliding the Dropcam behind it we were able to attach the camera without any additional materials.


After we confirmed that the Parrot was able to lift the Dropcam and it’s own battery, we quickly moved onto attaching the power cord so we could extend the time in the air (battery life maxes out at about 15 mins). After stripping wires, soldering, hot glue gunning and zip tying, we got the power cord split into 11v (Parrot) and 5v (Dropcam) and were ready to test.


The Parrot turned on and we heard the sweet sound of the initialization tones, then the propellers started going and we thought we’d see lift. Unfortunately after it draws power and goes into lift mode a brownout occurred. We’re currently attaching things to a scope to see what is going wrong.

PRÖNG B\\\

Balloon as platform.

Quadcopters are cool for sure, but they require effort to actually fly. We wondered if removing that concern entirely might be a successful approach. Using the hardware from a microblimp as the drive controls and a weather balloon filled with helium for the lift, we thought perhaps this would just stay up on it’s own, allowing us to spend all the time on perfecting the payload. We decided to mount a Hack HD camera to the bottom for our improved visuals, though logged to a card rather than live (a problem we’d need to address later). As a bonus, both the camera and motors run off 3.7v which we hoped would simplify things. While the balloon approach lacks the fine tuned movement of a quadcopter, it completely solves the “how do we keep this up in the air for a long time” problem without even trying.

HackHD – 1080p Camera Module Test:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPBNpgrM8Wg

 

We’ve been trying to use components that anyone can get their hands-on so we bought some helium used for party balloons but quickly found out that it’s not even close to being pure and the tank we got didn’t come close to filling the 5 ft in diameter, 100g weather balloon. The weather balloon barely floated and thus the cardboard case with the HackHD Camera and Microblimp didn’t lift off the ground. We spoke to a company that sells helium and they said that they would sell some to us if we were using it for scientific purposes and it would cost about $100 to fill our balloon. At this point we are reconsidering the balloon platform and how to fill it without having to purchase a gas. Maybe hot air?…of course that will lead to a whole other set of tests.

NEXT

We have 6 working days left at Sparkfun and we will continue to hack away at our prototypes. We already have some possible solutions in the works but would love to get any feedback or ideas from the Interwebz on how to solve our issues!

To be continued…

 

ABOUT

Sean Bonner
http://seanbonner.com @seanbonner

In 2010 Sean co-founded the first hackerspace in Los Angeles, Crash Space. Sean is co-founder and director of Safecast, a nonprofit environmental monitoring company. They have been prototyping a number of drones for Safecast that will carry radiation and air quality sensors to hard to reach locations.

 

Tara Tiger Brown
http://taratigerbrown.com @tara

Tara is co-founder and Chief Encouragement Officer at LA Makerspace, a family friendly hackerspace in Los Angeles, and co-created Represent.LA to connect and promote the Los Angeles tech startup community. Tara has been working with youth on DIY skill building and following their passionate interests through the LA Makerspace and MacArthur funded Digital Media Learning Research Hub. She is a Forbes Contributor where she writes about Women in Technology and other tech tidbits.

Tomorrowland

Travel & Adventure,Writing & Stories — Sean Bonner @ 2:47 pm

Tomorrowland

The middle aged asian guy who just sat down at the table across from me has the most painful combover I’ve seen in my entire life. It’s depressing just looking at it. He keeps brushing it over with his hand which makes it that much more obvious. I can’t stop watching him and it’s making me sad. Everything about him makes me sad, the combover was just the first thing I noticed. His shorts don’t match his shirt. His jacket is ill fitting – probably purchased in the 90′s before he put on 50 pounds. His backpack is overstuffed, like he’s trying to anticipate any thing he might possibly need throughout the day but instead of being prepared he’s stuck lugging this heavy thing around all day.

Going to Disneyland is easy for me. I live 30 minutes away and have an annual pass. If I have a few free hours and the desire I can go jump on Space Mountain and then go back to my regular life without any real interruption. I imagine that’s not the case for him. When he’s not looking around self consciously he’s focused on a map of the park. And not just casually looking at it, I’m talking hunched over forehead veins throbbing sweaty brow focused. He’s got a pen and is making some notes on it – plans I imagine.

I start crafting this guys story in my head. He’s traveled from far away for this, maybe even been saving up for it for years. Or waiting to collect enough vacation days to allow him to make the journey. It’s a big deal to him regardless and he doesn’t want to miss anything. I imagine him being a lonely guy, distant from coworkers and neighbors. But he’s used to it. I can see that all over his face, he’s very comfortable being uncomfortable. He’s comfortable being alone because that’s all he’s ever known. He can’t relate to other people. He stopped trying a long time ago.

I think about what that would be like. I travel alone when business requires it and enjoy the peaceful time with just myself that provides, I like being alone with my thoughts to help sort through them, but I can’t imagine this. If I go to the movies by myself half of the motivation is to get away from everyone and escape to some other world, even if only for a few hours. This guys motivation isn’t to get away, it’s to go to Disneyland. Being alone isn’t the goal of his trip, it’s just business as usual. I wonder how long it’s been since his last non-transactional conversation he’s had with another person. I can picture years and years of slogging away to an office and never talking to anyone. The same as his trip here to Disneyland – he’s on his own with all of this activity around him that he’s not a part of.

And he’s hiding out in this corner of the park studying this map to make sure he doesn’t miss a thing.

I try to picture him on a ride. Does he enjoy it? Does he smile? Or is he just crossing things off a list. I want to think he enjoys it. I want it to make sense. I want this to be enjoyable for him. I feel his pain and isolation and I desperately want this trip to the happiest place on earth to have an impact on his life. I want to see him stop fucking with his hair and smile. I want to see him content, I want him to feel that this trip was worth it. That the years he planned and saved to be here weren’t for nothing. I don’t want him to go home, back to his depressing life thinking this dream trip was yet another disappointment. One more thing that didn’t live up to the hype.

And then, my whole story is shattered when his family joins him at the table with a tray of food. His wife, his kids. They speak english. He smiles. They smile. His wife kisses him without even thinking about it, like it’s just this second nature thing. It doesn’t even require a reaction because it’s so common place. He’s loved and he knows it. Nothing I thought about him is true. Visiting Disneyland is as second nature to him as it is to me. He can come here anytime he wants, and his family and friends are easily in tow.

I’m suddenly so happy for him, and at the same time horrified about what all this says about me.

Transit

Me, Myself, and this blog,Travel & Adventure — Sean Bonner @ 11:36 pm

Dogenzaka, pre-snow

Making my way from Shibuya back to Atwater Village is time travel. It’s distorting and confusing and exhausting, but somehow it works. This is how my day played out, which isn’t too different than many of Japan->US travel days.

Saturday
7am Wake up, Shibuya.
7:30am shower, email, etc.. My original flight had been cancelled since it was on a 787 and they seem to have this “bursting into flames” problem, so United rebooked me on a new flight. I double check to make sure it’s confirmed and see they’ve assigned me a bulkhead seat which is nice because of the legroom but crappy because you can’t keep your carry on with you during take off and landing. Also no way to confirm at this late hour if they’ve processed my vegan meal on the new flight – Oh well.
8am Breakfast at hotel
9am Walk to train station and buy day-of Narita Express tickets, then back to the hotel to pack bags. Often I’ll buy round trip tickets from the airport when I arrive but if the JR office is closed when I arrive that isn’t possible.
10am Checkout of hotel, but leave bags at hotel desk. This trip, like many others, I have one small roller board suitcase and my backpack – everything fits in those two.
11am Last minute errands. Today that included helping Naim and Levi and Noa see a little of Tokyo besides the Safecast office. We walked through Shibuya to Tokyu Hands then up Cat Street making our way to Omote Sando for food.
12:30pm Lunch at Brown Rice Cafe
1:30pm Jump on the train back to Shibuya, then rush out to the hotel to pick up bags, then turn right around and go back to the train station to catch the 2:16pm NE’X to the airport.
2:16pm Get on the NE’X. Trains in Japan are on time to the second, so if you don’t get there early you miss it. I usually try and get to the platform 15 minutes early to be safe. Today I got there 3 minutes early, with elevated heart rate. The trip from Shibuya to Narita Airport is about an hour and a half.
3:47pm Arrive at NRT, get out of train station, return the WiFi hotspot I rented last week then make my way to the 4F departure floor where I’m lucky enough to have airline status that gets me an express line to pick up my boarding pass and then head to security. Laptop out, keep shoes on – That’s how they do it in Japan. No pornoscanners so no worries.
4:00pm Clear passport control and head to the airport lounge to get everything in order for the flight.
4:10pm Arrive at ANA/Star Alliance Gold lounge. This is a serious protip here- the United lounge at Narita is a piece of shit. They have no food, crappy drinks and barely a power outlet in the whole place. At the far end of the terminal is the ANA lounge and being Star Alliance Gold gets you into it – it’s a walk but it’s worth it. They have a noodle bar in the lounge, endless Inari sushi and CC Lemon on tap. As well as many other options. This lounge rocks, and usually it’s empty. Today it was packed and I had to stand for 10 minutes or so until a seat opened up. I get some food and catch my breath.
5:00pm Leave the lounge and head back to my gate. Lounge is near gate 47 and I’m flying out of 37, boarding is scheduled for 5:05 but today it’s delayed a little and everyone stands around WTFing until about 5:20.
5:20pm board the plane with first batch of folks. Head to the bulkhead seat and get settled.
5:25pm Dude sits down next to me and immediately starts chatting me up. Was I on that other cancelled flight too? Was LA my final destination? How long had I been in Japan? Business?
5:30pm Another dude shows up and has a boarding pass for the seat I’m in. I check mine and see that sometime between when I looked this morning and when I got to the airport I had been moved 2 rows back. YES! Dodged that bullet. I leave Mr. Chatty pants and go back to a totally empty row.
5:50pm I’m in the window seat and a guy sits down in the isle seat and immediately falls asleep. Flight crew announce all passengers are seated and we’re about to take off. Awesome, middle seat is empty.
6:25pm Take off!
6:45pm I confirm that United fucked up my meal request and they only have beef or salmon to offer me. I’m annoyed but I should have known and I kick myself for not grabbing some snacks earlier in the day.

The next 9 hours are a blur of short naps, light reading and watching movies I’ve already seen on the tiny screen built into the back of the seat in front of me. At some point I remember that I also have a few episodes of something on my laptop and pull that out, a much more rewarding experience.

Saturday
10:29am land at LAX. Yes, I’ve just landed about 8 hours earlier than I took off on the same day. Time travel!
10:45am get to the gate and get off the plane
10:55am skip the customs line and head to the Global Entry kiosk and scan my passport, then hand the print out to the CBP dude. Get waved through.
11:05 jump in an Uber Taxi outside the airport and head home
11:29 Arrive home. Possibly a new record time.

I spend the next few hours playing with Ripley and telling him I missed him, then he says he’s tired and I am too so we snuggle up and take a nap.

6pm wake up, think about how long the day has been. Welcome Tara home from work, wrangle up some food, hang on the couch with the family for a while.
9pm The family crashes, I try to catch up on some work that I might have missed during the epicly long day I just had.
11:00pm Remember I need to blog today and tell this story. Then head to sleep.

Research, global citizenship

I’ve talked about this idea here and there in the past, and am working on a longer piece about it but I wanted to throw out some ideas here and get some feedback to see what people thought and what issues are the ones most likely to be stickiest. So this is obviously a continuation of some of the ideas that have come from the technomads discussions and kind of gets into the roots of what citizenship is all about. And how that all plays into the world in 2013 and beyond.

When thinking about citizenship I think it’s useful to discuss the pros and cons, as well as the past vs the present. Let’s think of the big ones.

Most obviously the major benefit of being a citizen of anywhere is the support that comes along with that. I think this is the main thing – having a government “watching your back” so to speak – at least while traveling internationally anyway. You could argue that many of the benefits you receive as a citizen inside any country are also shared by many non-citizens inside that country so classifying those as perks of citizenship are difficult. Being able to vote is a plus, at least if you want to help influence the direction of some level of politics. If you don’t live in the country you are a citizen of that becomes less important, until you start thinking about “branding.”

The “branding” (I don’t know what else to call it) that comes with being a citizen of somewhere can be positive or negative depending. In some places in the world advertising that you are an American for example could attract some unwelcome attention – people who are upset with actions the US government has taken might project those feelings onto individuals. Similarly being an American might grant you some extra freedoms in other parts of the world where there are positive relations.

In the past, being a citizen of some place related much more to where you were, since people didn’t travel as much as they do now. And there was risk of neighboring people invading you, so having a country looking out for you was a pretty good thing. These days, with much more bouncing around the world which passport you happen to have is just as likely to cause problems and headaches as it is to open doors. The argument that a citizenship reflects a culture makes sense in really small geographic countries, not so much in widely spread ones.

I’m thinking a lot about the value of “where you are from” vs “where you are” as well as “where you are going” and how these things play together – nicely or not. I have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. Would love to hear peoples thoughts on anything that might relate to this.

Global Neighborhood

Travel & Adventure — Sean Bonner @ 8:37 am

Somewhere between Vienna & Paris, from above

I was incredibly lucky as a kid to have a family that on occasion took me to far corners of the earth. And while most of it had goofy religious justifications I was really too young to understand that, but still old enough to know I was going on a great adventure around the world. I don’t remember every bit of it, actually just flashes like a slideshow. In fact it’s weird what images from those trips are burned into my head. My grandfather standing in a hallway of a hotel in Rome. My cousins walking through the lobby of yet another hotel looking out over the Adriatic Sea in Split in what used to be Yugoslavia. Some people standing on the side of a street in Medjugorje, current day Croatia. I barely remember the landmarks, but I remember these images vividly. Anyway, point being when I was growing up I was exposed to this wild stuff and it great.

It was great because it taught me that nothing was out of reach, and even these places all the way around the world were accessible. And there were people there just like me.

That understanding continued with me through my teens and early adulthood even though I wasn’t traveling as much at that point. But I missed it, and when I had the opportunity to go somewhere far away and different again I jumped at the chance. I’d dreamed of visiting Japan for as much of my life as I can remember – originally because of an obsession with Japanese monster movies and robot cartoons, and later an affinity for a handful of Japanese film directors and martial artists, as well as the cultural aesthetic in general – but I’d always had a reason not to go. When I finally said fuck it and just went, I was both delighted that it was better than I ever dreamed, and disappointed that I’d talked myself out of visiting so many times previously. (more…)

Shadowboxing

I just wrote the stupidest blog post in the history of text being transmitted across the internet. Seriously it was a nightmare of epic wtfness. What’s worse is that I wrestled with it for hours. Hours! I was thinking about it while walking around yesterday and started typing it up last night and then hit a wall and thought I’d go to sleep and clarity would hit me and then I could polish it off and post it in the morning. I woke up still stumped but I forced my way through and turned it into something that at least had some kind of clear start and finish then then I went to have breakfast and came back to reread it and wanted to punch me in my own damn face for wasting a second it it. Or at least on the approach I was taking. Delete!

Because I know I’ve piqued interest now and I don’t want to leave anyone flustered wondering if what I’d written was dramatic, or somehow impacted them, or what I’m hiding I assure you it was none of the above. It wasn’t a big tell all or anything scandalous. The post was about how isolating being in Japan can be, but in a good way. Good for me anyway, I can certainly see how what I feel when I’m here could be interpreted as loneliness to some people and it might bother them, but I really enjoy it. I talked about how not understanding the chatter around me, being ignored by marketers, having only the most basic of conversations with employees at establishments etc means that there are almost no distractions inside my head, the only conversation is the one I’m having with myself all day long. It allows for some fantastic focus and clarity.

And at the same time because I do have a network here, people and place I know and enjoy visiting it’s almost like my own personal secret society. There was much more to this and I rambled on with a bunch of useless references and then I realized how masturbatory the whole thing was and that’s when I killed it.

Trust me, it’s much better for both of us this way.

Baggage

Travel & Adventure — Sean Bonner @ 6:56 am

Today is a travel day.

I’m heading out in a moment to catch a flight to Japan for 10 days. A few days in Sapporo for a conference and then to Tokyo for a Safecast hackathon. I’m bringing one small suitcase that fits in the overhead compartment of the smallest airplanes and a very thin backpack. This is almost identical to the baggage I had with me while we spent December in Europe. Truth is, packing for one or two days is difficult, for anything over 4 days is easy. In fact, I never pack clothes for more than 4 days. I do laundry in my hotel room every night so at any given moment on my trip I have the clothes I’m wearing, a set of clothes drying in the shower, and one or two sets in the closet ready to go. You never need more than that. For this trip, I might even have more gadgets than clothes.

Checking luggage is one of the biggest headaches in air travel. It costs more, you have to wait around for ever to get it, you have to deal with dragging extra bags all over the place, lost or delayed luggage is common and throws giant wrenches into your plans. It’s not worth it. When you have carry on only, checking in is a breeze. Getting out of the airport is lightning fast. Getting from the airport to wherever you are staying is painless. Carry on only is the way to go.

I’ve been preaching this gospel for years and I’m still confronted with people who scratch their heads in awe of how someone could travel without bringing their entire wardrobe with them. The worst thing you can do when you travel is bring too much stuff. If you get home and there is something in your bag that you didn’t use that is a fail. If you are traveling to any kind of a city, chances are you can default to bringing less stuff and in the worst case you can buy something there if you really need it. Think closely about everything you pack – is this something you are going to use every day on your trip, or just once – maybe? If I can avoid it I never pack a “maybe” item. A mental game you can play is to threaten yourself – if you pack something and you don’t end up using it, you aren’t allowed to bring it back. With stakes like that getting choosy is a little easier.

I put 90% of my stuff in my suitcase, and keep a very small bag for under the seat. In that bag the only I have is my laptop and power cord (in case I’m lucky enough to get a seat with an outlet), my kindle, my camera, an eyeshade, earphones, ear plugs, my geiger counter (for logging in flight) and a flashlight. Maybe a snack bar. That’s pretty much everything I could need. Jackets never got in suitcases – just shove them in the overhead.

As nailed as I have my travel set up, my real life is a disaster compared to that. Boxes of stuff in the closet, in the garage. Mental clutter. I think about how painless and awesome my approach to travel makes my life, and try to take those lessons and apply them elsewhere. I’m not quite as good at that, but I think it’s a worthwhile goal. We need the stuff to get through today and tomorrow. Worrying about next week doesn’t help at all. It’s all about today. It’s all about right now.

2012: The year in review, in photos

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know the drill, 6 years ago I did a post looking back over my previous year by looking through the photos I took and posted online. My thought being, if I’d posted it online it was important enough to remember – so I restricted it to that as opposed to crawling through personal libraries as well. It was cathartic to say the least, so I’ve done it every year since then. (Feel free to take a stroll through my visual time machine… 2007 & 2008 & 2009 & 2010 & 2011). I find it to be kind of wild looking back at a full year in one shot like this, so here we go for 2012….

The first thing I noticed as I began this is that I posted considerably fewer photos to flickr at the beginning of the year than I had previously. I think I was going through some question about the future of the service – I’ve been a long time user but Yahoo! had all but abandoned it and over the years my friends had slowly dropped off as well. That changed by the end of the year with returned enthusiasm from both my friends and Yahoo! but for a good chunk of 2012 I was trying out lots of other photo sharing / storage options and trying to find something that fit. Disappointingly, I don’t even remember everything I tried and thus whatever I might have posted has drifted away to forgotten land. Which is a bummer, and makes me again realize how important flickr has been for me and why I keep using it.

At the same time, I started shooting a lot of photos on film rather than digital, which when you add in developing and scanning times and my own habits of waiting until I had 10 or so rolls to make a trip the lab, means something that happened in January might not have been documented online with my photos until April. It seems like even some digital stuff I shot didn’t end up on line until months later for some reason. Every year that I’ve done this I’ve searched through my archive using the “posted on” date, but this year “taken on” became much more important. But even that is confusing. (more…)

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