Tag Archives: NASA

Infinity Aerospace completes open-sourcing of Ardulab

Last week, our friends at Infinity Aerospace announced the complete open-sourcing of ArduLab, an ATmega2560-powered platform that enables streamlined NASA-approved experimentation to the critical mass. 

Previously costing space researchers, students and experimenters anywhere between $2,000 and $3,500 per kit, the low-cost, plug-n-play electronics platform allows anyone to now devise and launch an out-of-the-box, space-certifiable experiment.


As previously discussed on Bits & Pieces, ArduLab’s maiden voyage to the International Space Station (ISS) took place last September onboard an Antares Rocket/Cygnus spacecraft at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

When it was originally conceived back in 2012, the fundamental idea behind Ardulab was to provide as many people as possible the tools and information they need to be successful in space. Making Ardulab a completely open-source platform allows for all of the intellectual property to be used to its full extent. Capable of being programmed just like an Arduino, ArduLab comes equipped with all of the necessary features and interfaces for use on the ISS. As a result, Ardulab has already been used to create and perform experiments by elementary school students and NASA-JPL researchers alike.


“There are multiple [reasons] why we’re doing exactly what we’re doing [with ArduLab]. One is that space is usually not inclusive of all the people around the world,” ArduLab Co-Founder Manu Sharma told DIY Space Exploration last year. “I wanted to create products that enabled people across the globe… [to] make cool experiments and do anything they want. That was the real reason why we went to open hardware because it allows us to go beyond borders and find people to work on it very easily.”


“Open sourcing the hardware and software is only part of this, we’re also going to share all of the information and resources we’ve collected as a company going through this process over the past couple of years-what works and what doesn’t. We hope to build towards an ecosystem much like Arduino where people collaborate and share around a common platform to help each other achieve their respective goals in space,” ArduLab Co-Founder Brian Rieger explained in the company’s latest press release. Riegers adds, “The Ardulab is an Atmel powered machine that’s won the faith of organizations like NASA and Stanford because of its advanced capabilities in a small form factor and its reliability.”


James Pura, President & Director of Space Frontier Foundation, noted that Infinity Aerospace has the same ideals and goals as Space Frontier Foundation, which is to make space accessible to the widest and most diverse audience possible. “In this respect, we are proud to support them in this endeavor and excited to see how people use this technology and information to benefit their space endeavors.”

Space Frontier Foundation and Infinity Aerospace believe that space settlement will only be achieved when space is cheap and widely accessible to everyone, and this is one huge step in the right direction.

Atmel’s Tom Vu recently had the pleasure of going 1:1 with the ArduLab’s Manu Sharma. You can catch the entire interview here.

The Internet of things, stalk by stalk

The Internet of things (IoT) will enable profound improvements in productivity

Bob Dible is an engineer that now works on his family farm in Kansas. He describes the technological strides made in agriculture. “We generate GPS (global positioning system) yield maps using data from the combine as it harvests. That helps us determine what nutrients are needed the next season at various parts of our 4-square-mile farm. We then program those different nutrient mixes and locations onto the crop sprayer aircraft. As the crop sprayer flies over the field, it uses GPS to locate itself.” The airplane sprays out nutrients or pesticides based on the GPS programming. It dynamically changes the mix of fertilizer based on its location over the field.

The $900,000 Air Tractor model 802 has 1300hp and a payload of 9,249 lbs. In 2013 the plane can change its fertilizer mix every dozen meters. Dible, the former engineer, knows what is coming. “One day we will monitor and grow the corn on a stalk-by-stalk basis. When we plant crops, GPS with RTK (Real Time Kinematics) gives us 1-inch accuracy.” It’s not hard to see Dible’s vision even now. With today’s technology, a small autonomous robot could drive down the rows of wheat (Figure 1).


Figure 1. A team from the Robotics and Cybernetics Research Group (Technical University of Madrid) has built an experimental farm robot they dubbed the Rosphere.

Sensors on the robot could monitor each and every stalk of corn. Those robots can communicate with each other over a mesh network. A mesh network is like a chat room for gizmos. They identify themselves and their capabilities, and are then a shared resource.

But the real enabling technology is when we put all these mesh networks on the Internet. This is the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). If the robots that evaluate your individual stalks of wheat have a port to the Internet, you get a cascading set of benefits. The server computer on a farm can store and manipulate the corn stalk information. But it can also analyze those crop yields. And it might contact Monsanto’s computers to get the best price and delivery on fertilizers, seeds, and pesticides.


Figure 2. The tractor on the Dible farm, similar to this one, represents a capital investment of almost one million dollars.

The farm’s server computer can contact and execute automated negotiation with several silos in the area, to insure you get the best price for the crop. The tractor Bob uses on the farm has GPS as well (Figure 2). “GPS has really taken over in the past decade in farming. Not only do aerial sprayers use GPS, but we use GPS to spray with ground sprayers such as the John Deer 4720.”

One day ground sprayers will share information with the farm’s server computer. And that server can go on the Internet to order parts, or schedule maintenance on the mechanic’s smart phone while re-scheduling the driver’s time. Already the nearby dairy farm’s newest tractors and loaders “talk” to John Deere’s and Caterpillar’s local dealers.  “The dealers know where the machinery is, how it is running, and when it needs service,” reports Dible.

Perhaps your mesh network of corn examination robots finds a particularly virulent pest or fungus. They could go on the Internet and notify all the farms around yours, as well as the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Perhaps you’re a cattle rancher. You use RFID (radio frequency identification tags) on each cow. Foreign countries might embargo your beef if any cases of Mad Cow disease strike anywhere else in your country. But with individual identification of the cattle, you can prove their provenance, and if your tracking systems are linked to the Internet, your sales to foreign markets will continue unimpeded.

Mesh network antecedents

There are antecedents for the mesh network and the Internet of things. In the 1970’s the American military was bedeviled by North Vietnam soldiers using the Ho-Chi-Minh trail to bring supplies south to support the war effort.


Figure 3. A patent filed in 1971 and granted in 1976 put vibration sensors into radio darts that could be dropped from aircraft.

So the Navy invented small darts that had seismometers inside (Figure 3, Reference 1). These darts could detect footsteps and vehicle traffic and communicated over a radio network. They formed a literal mesh, and although they did not connect to the yet-to-be-invented Internet, they did report to an overarching communications network.

The Mesh in space

The military benefits of a sensor mesh hooked to a network were apparent to people in the science and space communities. NASA Airborne Science operates a fleet of aircraft that can communicate with orbiting satellites (Reference 2). In 2004 NASA started missions that would allow the satellites, the aircraft, and ground stations to interact and communicate over a network. This lets NASA better track and understand hurricanes, polar ice conditions and other changing geophysical events. The real-time knowledge of events is an obvious improving, but a system like this also gives real-time knowledge of itself. Researchers might schedule a mission and only after the planes had landed did they see that the data form a sensor was corrupt of missing. Equally frustrating, they might not have seen that there was an event of interest they could have included in the mission if they only could follow it as the data was taken.


Figure 4. NASA uses the Global Hawk drone in a network of satellites and ground stations (courtesy Wikipedia).

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has made this NASA “network of things” even more useful. Now the operation of the Global Hawk UAV can be moderated and maintained by the network (Figure 4). While not the canonical “Internet of Things”, the NASA network, dubbed NASDAT (NASA Airborne Science Data Acquisition and Transmission) is an Ethernet network just like the Internet.

NASA connecting disparate things together such as airplanes, satellites, instruments, and ground control, presages what the Internet of things will do. With the NASA system, now the airplanes “know” what instruments they are carrying. The instruments in the plane can be fed location, speed, altitude and other flight parameters. The satellites “know” what airplanes and instruments they are connected to and the airplanes “know” what satellites are tasked to its flight. Missions can be far more dynamic and opportunistic. If ground controllers detect some condition or location, the instruments and airplanes can interact and modify the mission to get some important data collected. Flights can be changed in mid-mission by ground control, and all the varied implications will be “understood” by the interconnected instruments, airplanes, satellites, and people.

The Internet lets a mesh network see the future

The power of communications between networks is just one aspect that the IoT can do. Sprinklers are another application close to the hearts of farmers. Having sprinklers on a mesh network brings benefits. For instance, the network nodes that mount on the sprinkler could control and monitor water flow. They could report back to the farm server computer on usage and maintenance problems that reduce water flow. The mesh could even measure rainfall and adjust water delivery accordingly. The system becomes even more potent when you connect it to the internet. Now the farmer’s water system can connect to weather services that predict the rainfall. That way the sprinklers won’t waste water irrigating immediately before a big rainfall.

Industry Leads the Way

Industrial sprinkler systems for farms have led the way (Figure 5).


Figure 5. Crop irrigation systems have hundreds of microcontrollers in them. Now they will be linked to the Internet (courtesy Wikipedia).

Carl Giroux works for electronics distributor Avnet as a technical account manager selling into the sprinkler manufacturers. He estimates that a typical farm sprinkler setup boasts over 300 MCUs (microcontroller units), or about one MCU per sprinkler nozzle.

While industrial sprinklers for farms are already connected, they are a glimpse into what will become available for consumers. Ugmo makes a sprinkler system that is suited to golf courses and expensive homes (Figure 6).


Figure 6. The UgMO sprinker system measures ground moisture and adapts the water usage.

It has a network of moisture sensors that communicate over RF links to monitor and adjust water usage (Reference 3). This wireless sensor network can reduce you water usage 50%. With the constant cost reductions in electric products, you can bet this system will find use in more and more homes. You can also see how the next step is to connect this system to the Internet so home owners can get the same benefits as farmers and commercial installations.

The IoT helps consumers

Consumers will benefit the most from IoT.


Figure 7. This older pedometer uses sophisticated electronics to evaluate your motion and connects to your PC with a USB port. Future devices will wirelessly connect to the Internet (courtesy Wikipedia).

Dave Mathis is a software consultant in Silicon Valley. He advises his overweight friends to buy a pedometer, to keep track of how much walking they do (Figure 7). “Don’t get a 5-dollar pedometer— the sensor is a little ball and spring, like the tilt mechanism in a pin-ball machine,” he warns. “Get the 50-dollar pedometer.” Mathis notes the expensive pedometers use accelerometers, like a video game controller. These are much more accurate in counting your steps and level of activity. It’s only fitting that you would spend more money for something that helps keep you healthy. Of all the machines and gizmos you own, your body is the most important. Your automobile has millions of lines of software and dedicated hardware to monitor its condition. Your body deserve as much.

It’s nice if your pedometer can connect with your treadmill. That way the treadmill can adapt its routine to how much walking or running you have already done. Its better when your pedometer can communicate to your phone. Now the phone can tabulate and record your progress, and remind you when you lag. But it is a whole new opportunity when your pedometer can go on the Internet. Now your progress can go on your Facebook page. When you lag, your friends might send a tweet or email or even call you on a telephone to remind you to not give up. The exercise information from your pedometer might go to your doctor or pharmacy. That way they can adjust the dosages of medication based on your level of activity.

It’s pretty obvious that the industrial farm is leading the way for consumer technology. We can dream when auto makers talk about autonomous cars that drive themselves. But this is already reality on a farm. Dible notes that the tractors and combines use GPS to control steering. “This relieves the operator from having to concentrate on driving. It allows closer monitoring of the equipment which helps lessen mistakes.” Between seed technology, special fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, new methods, and improved control, farming is changing as fast as any other high-tech endeavor.  But it is also like working on an engineering program – lots of long hours, and attention to details. “The only thing about being an engineer is that you spend your time solving other people’s problems.  Now I have to solve my own problems,” quips Dible.

The IoT means safer roads

Already legislative bodies are having automakers look at having connected automobiles to provide for safer roads (Reference 4). The NTSB (National Traffic Safety Board) knows that having vehicles communicate with each other will help reduce fatalities. This technology might first be applied to trucks and busses. But the benefits are obvious for all vehicles. Even motorcyclists will benefit from connected vehicles (Reference 5). Every year, thousands of motorcyclist die or get injured because the other driver did not see them. With connected vehicles the motorcycle can have the car warn the driver of an impending collision. Autos might even simulate the noise of a motorcycle in the surround-sound audio system in the car, to help call attention to the motorcycle.

Having the vehicles talk to each other is just the first step, similar to an occasional dynamic mesh network. When the vehicles can go on the Internet, it brings all the same beneficial network effects. You can collect, organize and share data worldwide. This might be anonymous data, to alert highway engineers of a dangerous intersection. Or maybe you will use the data to automatically lower your car insurance rates, since you have so few near-accidents on the road. There will be no need to worry about telling your teenager to drive safety. The car will do that for you, and even take the keys away if he is being reckless.

The IoT in your home

All this industrial and automotive technology is poised to leap into the consumer electronics world. We are on the cusp of an interconnected revolution. Gary Shapiro is President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). He recently wrote an article about smart homes (Reference 6). He notes that the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and HGTV (Home and Garden Television) have partnered to build the first-ever high-tech smart home (Figure 8).


Figure 8. The HGTV Smart Home 2013 is intimately linked to the Internet and its own devices (courtesy HGTV).

“The HGTV Smart Home 2013 connects many of the home’s appliances and devices,” notes Shapiro. The outdoors has pool automation that controls lighting, temperature, and fountains from a tablet. You can operate the exterior awnings remotely on demand, but they also include sensors that automatically close the awning to protect against rain and wind. The garage door sends an alert to a smart phone when a door is left open, and families can control the home’s door locks remotely. The occupants can remotely program pre-set temperatures for the shower. The window shades are also connected, and you can raise or lower them remotely.

The Internet of Things will not only let each of these devices communicate to you, it will let them communicate with each other. That way, opening the window shades might cause the microcontroller running the shade to communicate to the air conditioner, to make sure the house stays comfortable with sunlight streaming into the rooms.

Shapriro notes “Who knows, we might surpass the The Jetsons, and the consumer electronics industry might revolutionize the concept of smart living altogether.”  If Dible’s farm can monitor and care for each stalk of corn, it’s not hard to see that our homes and cars will monitor and care for each of their occupants. The Internet of things is ready to let us make another great stride in human progress.


1 Theodore C. Herring, A. Reed 3rd Edgar “Acoustic and seismic troop movement detector.”  Patent US3984804 A. 29 Nov 1971.

2 Forgione, Joshua B, Sorneson, Carl, Bahl, Amit, “Network Interface Links Sensor-Web Instruments,” NASA Tech Briefs, pg 14, July 2013. http://ntbpdf.techbriefs.net/2013/NTB0713.pdf

3 http://www.appliancedesign.com/articles/93619-eid-gold-ugmo-ug1000

4 http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/07/23/19643634-ntsb-calls-for-wireless-technology-to-let-all-vehicles-talk-to-each-other

5 http://www.americanmotorcyclist.com/blog/13-06-27/DC_Insider_Vehicle-to-vehicle_communication_technology_is_coming_%E2%80%93_What_does_it_mean_for_motorcyclists.aspx

6 http://www.appliancedesign.com/articles/93643-association-report-cea-smart-living

Video: MakerBot helps NASA explore the final frontier

MakerBot’s Atmel-powered 3D printers have been helping innovators and DIY Makers transform their ideas into physical objects for quite some time now. Of course, it isn’t every day that 3D printed objects or components make their way into space.

However, when NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018 it will carry parts made with the help of an Atmel-powered MakerBot Replicator2 Desktop 3D Printer. That is definitely one small step for MakerBot – and one giant leap for mankind.

“In 1993, four years after the launch of the Hubble Telescope, NASA began contemplating the next generation of space observatory. 20 years later, the James Webb Space Telescope has come a long way towards meeting its 2018 launch date, with MakerBot playing a growing role in the development process,” MakerBot’s Ben Millstein wrote in a recent blog post.

“The new telescope promises never-before-seen images of our universe using the NIRCam (near-infrared camera), the first space telescope camera optimized for near-infrared light. That means the Webb Telescope will be able to capture infrared wavelengths that cut through cosmic dust and gas clouds.”

According to Millstein, NASA enlisted Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center (ATC) to build the device, with the ATC team using a MakerBot Replicator 2 to get the job done. John Camp, a former mechanical engineer at ATC, led the initiative to streamline 3D printing for the NIRCam development process. After Camp acquired his first MakerBot Replicator 2, he was flooded with requests from engineers interested in (3D) printing various parts.

“Many of the systems for the Webb Telescope have to go through lengthy cryogenic testing to make sure the machinery holds up in the freezing vacuum of space,” Millstein continued. “MakerBot gave John the ability to test part ideas using 3D printed replicas, while the actual metal components being sent to freezing vacuum of space were put through their paces in a cryogenic test chamber.”

The Webb Telescope is currently slated to kick off three years of intensive testing and tweaking at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX before its eagerly awaited launch later this decade.

“Come 2018, we’ll be on the lookout for spectacular new images of our universe as they beam down from the Webb Telescope’s orbit – 1.5 million kilometers above Earth,” Millstein added.

Computers on the moon

My pals just exchanged a great email thread about the computing technology NASA used to put folks on the moon back in the 1960s.


Richard King loves vacuum tubes, old computers, and high technology.

It started with Richard King, crack EE and the Altium guru over at STEM, sending out this video with a note: “At last a documentary film on the Apollo guidance computer that’s more in-depth than the usual talking heads about how ground-breaking it was and the marriages that were sacrificed to make it.”

Audio guru Steve Williams was first to respond:


Hard to go back that far and remember what did and didn’t exist and was or was not used for any type of electronics construction, even though I was alive back then.

Let’s see, no LSI, not even sure if those cans were really multi-transistor gates or just 3 lead transistors. Spot welded, not soldered into headers in the particular configuration to make a potted logic module. Same with the hand assembled core memory modules. All plugged into a machine assisted assembled, wire wrapped “mother board” / back plane / card cage sort of housing.  No pc boards in sight. Don’t know if the displays were very very  early LED, (black and white film) but I think it pre-dates them as well.  Punch cards and paper tape to help the assemblers control the assembly processes.


Audio guru Steve Williams hold up a Stone Poneys album with Linda Ronstadt on the cover.

Wow, seems so “stone knives and bear claws”. Some of it must have been chosen for the beyond normal mil spec construction needed for space flight. Analog consumer electronics in the same era was using cheap phenolic pc boards with all soldered connections to it’s components, and had been for 10 years, even back to the tube era.


Google hotshot Eric Schlaepfer replied:


They used Fairchild Micrologic. Basically RTL gates in a TO-99 metal can. The functionality was comparable to the more familiar 74 series. I think they avoided using PC boards due to reliability issues (especially with the cheap phenolic types), which is also why they went with welded connections instead of soldered ones. The displays were electroluminescent. Each segment had its own individual latching relay, and the DSKY had a multiplexed I/O arrangement to select and change any relay. The multiplexing was very slow, so in the video you can see the updates propagate through all the segments.


Eric Schlaepfer holds a radio he made with a 555 timer chip. When shown to Hans Camenzind, the inventor of the 555, Camenzind said: “I never expected it to do that!”

The machine itself has very interesting software. It runs a primitive multitasking OS with multiple programs running (tasks). Some tasks ran as native machine code on the machine but others used an interpreter/virtual machine. Someone’s built a replica in his basement. Someone else wrote a simulator.


That got Richard King, the originator of the thread, to comment:


I was particularly amazed by the “Rope memory” system. Whereas traditional R/W [read-write] core memory uses only 3 wires per core (X-address, Y-Address, R/W), rope memory adds an additional wire for each word I presume. Thus for a 128 word memory you’d thread 130 wires through the cores (adding 2 lines for addressing). To read a particular word you’d set the address to access one of its bits and then read its wire. 0’s and 1’s of any given bit were apparently encoded by either passing the wire through the core for the bit or not. You’d build the word by reading it a bit at a time. To keep the number of wires down you could string words together, making long words. The film said that the capacity of the memory block was 8K (65,536 bits) and packing 8000 wires through even one core stretches credulity.

“Stone knives and bear skins” it might have been but it was very, very clever and apparently “stone axe” reliable, a critical requirement. As for the logic, my understanding (from exactly where I can’t recall) is that all the logic gates were the same type, NOR gates. They could build any logic function including flip-flops (storage) from that.

I’m also mildly surprised that they used wire-wrap for the module interconnect in the rack. Working at Link Flight where we did 40MHz pipeline logic boards with 100’s of ICs all connected very reliably with wirewrap it wasn’t a total shock though. It was also interesting to see how much automation was put into the Apollo computer’s manufacturing, since I doubt they made more than a 100 or so computers for the entire program.


Industrial designer and ME Dave Ruigh found a one-hour CAD simulation of Apollo 13 mashed up with the real CAPCOM communications right when the O2 tank blew up. It shows a simulated control panel and a CAD rendering of the spacecraft.

Dave notes:


That little computer sure got a workout this day (text transcript here). Amazing, 3 guys in a spacecraft 180,000 miles from earth, going through checklists and talking to Houston. No raised voices, no confusion, no panic. As calm as Southwest 2795 talking to ATC [air traffic control] on long final to SJC San Jose airport]. Nothing like the movie, as great as it was.


Dave Ruigh installing $1500 of Kokam lithium-polymer batteries into his GO-1 carbon fiber recumbent tricycle.


I remember seeing the Apollo 13 movie when it came out. When we came out of the theater, my girlfriend told me “You started breathing hard towards the end”. What a testament to Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, that they got me so emotionally involved when I already knew there would be a happy ending. And I do agree with Mission Control, this was their finest hour.

Back to the computers that made all this happen—Eric Schlaepfer finished the thread with another cool video. He reported: “There’s a really good video series on the Apollo program on Youtube. Here’s the one on the computer:”

Eric goes on to comment, “Apparently at one time the guidance computer program was consuming 60% of US integrated circuit production!”

All this space talk fits right into what I have been working here at Atmel. We have one program with a startup aptly names Made In Space. They are launching an Atmel-powered 3D printer into orbit. There are a lot off cool things that happen when you have a zero-gravity environment to make parts.

Atmel is also involved with Infinity Aerospace and the Ardulab. The Ardulab is an Arduino-powered laboratory module meant to be launched into space. The XMEGA chip in the Arduino will automate a lot of the data collection and lab control tedium, sparing the astronauts for more useful work. Stay tuned, in a week or two I can tell you about the 9/15 launch of the Cygnus rocket to the ISS (International Space Station). There will some cool Atmel hardware on board, besides the Arduino.

Cutaway drawings of planes, trains, automobiles and ships

I am doing research for an article about the Internet of things. A NASA Tech Brief article led me to a blog post with 20 different cutaway drawings. Yeah, it’s a year old and maybe all you hotshots read Gizmodo, but us analog dinosaurs aren’t as hip. I have always loved cutaways ever since I was an auto engineer. Some might dismiss it as simple technical illustration, but I see them as fine art.


The Gee Bee Model R Super Sportster made by Granville Brothers Aircraft of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1932.

Looking up one of the cutaway drawings to get permission to print it, I came across the mother lode of airplane cutaway drawings. Flightglobal is a trade paper like EDN or Machine Design. It is owned by Reed Business Information, the outfit that used to own EDN magazine. I had a wistful feeling seeing this magazine still at Reed Business. They got the whole Internet thing a decade before most companies. And they sure understood SEO (search engineer optimization). I could mention a buddy’s name in an EDN blog, and by that night he was getting calls from old High School buddies that saw his name in the post.

Oh, and in the hopes the fine folks over at Reed Business are longer on Marketing than on lawyers, this is cutaway of the Global Hawk (aka un-weaponized Predator drone).


The Global Hawk is cutaway by FlightGlobal magazine.

Arduino-Based Personal Satellites Could Launch This Fall

The Arduino platform has become a common component in robotics and an array of do-it-yourself (DIY) tech gadgets. Now, Arduino boards, based on Atmel AVR megaAVR 8-bit and ARM processor-based microcontrollers, are poised to power personal satellites that could get launched into space as early as this fall.

One of the driving forces behind these cracker-sized satellites, dubbed “Sprites,” is Zac Manchester, who recently talked to the San Francisco Chronicle about his Kickstarter-funded project. Working from NASA’s Ames Research Center, Manchester and his team are aiming to get 250 of the personal satellites into space via a container placed inside the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which resupplies the International Space Station.

More on the Sprite project here. What would you do with your own personal satellite?