1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Eric William


Did you know that 80% of the 2015 Hackaday Prize finalists are powered by Atmel? With only days left until we learn which project will walk away with this year’s crown, we recently sat down with each of the potential winners to get to know them better. 


Confined spaces can be a dangerous part of rescue work, especially for miners and firemen. Not only do they have to worry about walls caving in and trapping people, but hazardous gasses. And while there are several expensive robotic devices out there that can take gas sensors deep into these tight areas ahead of rescuers, Eric William has come up with a much cheaper, more efficient alternative to remotely sniff the air before entering. The Maker has developed a $30 gas sensor “grenade” using a basic Arduino and a few other components, which is capable of analyzing the environment and reporting its levels with real voice output.

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Atmel: What is the Gas Sensor for Emergency Workers?

Eric William: It is a simple gas sensor which monitors for smoke, liquefied petroleum gas (propane, butane, etc.) and carbon monoxide. It is made to be thrown into any unknown or potentially dangerous area before human entry and it relays the gas levels back to the user located at a safe distance via radio frequency. The levels are then broadcasted as human voice in English so anyone can understand the conditions/risks in the area.

Atmel: How did you come to the idea for the Gas Sensor? Moreover, what inspired you to enter the contest with your project?

EW: For several years, I was responsible for the safe work and rescue (if needed) of approximately 18 employees working in industrial equipment. We used industry standard air monitors, which like almost all models, are designed to be worn by the user. This made it quite difficult to measure the conditions in an area before a person enters that area. We resorted to suspending them via string, etc. I wanted a unit which could be tossed into the area from a distance or dropped from above into any area — but one simply did not exist.

This year when I created the basic prototype I happened to see the Hackaday contest on social media on the very night I tested the first voice transmission. I thought it would be a great way to get the open source project out to the world as the timing was perfect.

Atmel: In line with the Hackaday Prize’s theme, how are you hoping the sensor changes the world? What’s the mission?

EW: My hope is that anyone, anywhere can take the design, code and instructions to easily reproduce the sensor themselves.  Areas of the world without access to the industrial versions (they are quite costly at $1,000 or more) could utilize these to add at least some layer of protection. Since they can be recreated at a minimum of cost, perhaps a cost-effective mass produced version can be developed, and existing companies can take the concept and fill this gap within their own product line. Regardless of who supplies it, I think having it available to the world will potentially save lives.

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Atmel: What’s different about the Gas Sensor? What’s your vision for this “grenade” in the next five years? What/who would you hope will pick up the project and use it?

EW: I know of no existing air monitor which can be deployed by the user into any area and receive the results from a safe distance whereby removing all exposure to the unknown risks. All existing ones I have used require the user to see an LCD screen and hear the audio alert (beeper) within the device. The price to reproduce this project is so low (under USD $30 is no problem) they could simply be disposable if mass produced.

In the upcoming years, I envision the project could be improved with additional sensors for oxygen and hydrogen sulfide. This would give it more functionality than most commercial ones already in use today.

My hope would be that people in far more industries could then use this simple device. In my mind, I could see it expand from industrial applications to anyone entering an unknown areas. As the cost could be very low, almost any employee could carry one and toss it into any area before entering if there is a chance of an unsafe atmosphere. This could span all industries with confined spaces (almost all industrial installations), mining, utility workers, emergency responders of all types, city workers, HVAC (heating ventilation & air conditioning), inspectors, hydro workers, telephone workers… this list goes on and on.

Atmel: As we know, the Maker Movement has opened the door for everyone from hobbyists to tech enthusiasts to hardcore engineers to tinker around. What’s your personal background?

EW: I have been an electronics hobbyist since a very young age. In my professional career, I came from 10 years in the automotive repair industry where I did all types of repair but specialized in diagnostics. I left the industry for a career in alternative energy. After some time performing repairs and maintenance on industrial wind turbines, I was put in charge of the maintenance of a large industrial wind farm. After several years I left this role for a position in technical support specializing in the software operating systems and diagnostics.

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Atmel: What are some of the core pieces of hardware embedded?

EW: At its core, the ATmega328 (Arduino Nano) does the work. Beyond that, there is only and MQ2 gas sensor, a battery and a small ASK transmitter.

Atmel: What hardware products or projects are you also building at the moment?

EW: I have too many! 🙂 I am doing ongoing work on an Arduino-based satellite project designed to share the basic cubesat concept and enable anyone to recreate a basic satellite facsimile at home. I plan some upcoming improvements and changes to my Arduino/human brain interface which operates a 3D-printed robotic arm.

I am most excited, however, about a project I am building which is an easily portable educational classroom that can be used anywhere in the world. It is completely standalone and requires no conventional utilities such as hydro or communication access. It should allow anyone, anywhere access to basic educational tools as well as more advanced technology based learning and development.

All my projects are shared open source on my YouTube channel, in addition to on my website.

Atmel: Why pick Atmel (and Arduino) chips?

EW: The price and availability makes them truly amazing devices. The community behind them makes it easy for anyone to create just about any project with almost zero experience. The sheer amount of freely available code and information already published makes just about any design or project a possibility for anyone.

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Atmel: What advice would you offer other Makers when getting into hardware and embarking on a new project?

EW: Just dive in. Get a few basic components, like the Arduino boards, and make something you are interested in. Everyone starts with blinking an LED but after that build what you want — don’t just follow a book of projects. Google for the answers to problems you encounter (you will be astounded at how many times your exact question has already been answered). Ask questions in forums and share your projects back with the world so others may benefit.

Atmel: Any plans to launch a startup and perhaps even take to Kickstarter/Indiegogo?

EW: Not for this project- it is free for the world. I have a couple ideas I think I may someday try crowdfunding, but for now I enjoy just releasing them open-source so all can take them forward.

Atmel: And… if you win, are you heading to space or taking the cash?!

EW: Although a trip to space has long been a dream of mine, I just got married a few months ago so I think I may be in hot water if I didn’t take the cash! [Laughs] With the money I may just be able to take this project (perhaps others) to production. That would be nice.

Atmel: Anything else you want to tell us and our followers?

EW: Thank you to Atmel, Hackaday and all those who have supported the 2015 prize entries as well as open source projects in general. You are all amazing!

Don’t miss our other interviews with fellow HaD Prize finalists Chris Low and OpenBionics!

7 thoughts on “1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Eric William

  1. Pingback: 1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Eyedrivomatic | Atmel | Bits & Pieces

  2. Pingback: Atmel Interviews Eric on the Gas Sensor for Emergency Workers - MKme.org

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