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  • Friday, March 28, 2014 - 14:48
    Enginursday: Get Roving!

    Robotics competitions are a great way to hone your skills by designing with a purpose (and a deadline). There are competitions large and small all over the world, for all skill levels, with all kinds of goals, both constructive and destructive. If you’ve been following SparkFun for a while you’re probably aware of our Autonomous Vehicle Competition, which will be held at the Boulder Reservoir on June 21st. The AVC challenges are for fun and glory, but there’s another robotics competition coming up in April that challenges you to design a Mars rover and try it out in a remote and spectacular part of Colorado.


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    Ron Cogswell

    As a wise man once said, space is big. Really big. Big enough that it’s difficult, expensive, and risky sending people everywhere we’d like to go. We’ve been sending machines instead (and hopefully in advance) of us for decades, and the knowledge gained from these programs has literally rewritten the book on our solar system and beyond. The first robotic explorers just flew by planets, followed by orbiters, followed by landers; each of which provided more and more spectacular results. But even given the astonishing technical achievement of being able to softly touch down on an alien world, there was always an interesting rock just out of reach, or a mountain on the horizon, that scientists wished they could visit. Rovers have given us the mobility to truly start the detailed and long-term exploration of these worlds.


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    Brian Sanders

    The first planetary rover was Russia’s Lunokhod (“moon walker”) 1, which explored the moon for almost a year in 1970. More recently the US has had great success with Mars rovers; Opportunity is still operating after an unheard-of ten years on the ground, and the massive mobile laboratory Curiosity is providing new insight into Mars’s complex geologic past (as well as having a cranky alter-ego). Many more rovers (and flyers, and even submarines) are on the drawing boards of NASA and other organizations. Unfortunately, even the most cost-effective missions are at the mercy of agency budgets, which are currently cut to the bone and beyond. (Write your congresspeople.)


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    Brian Sanders

    Because space is so big, planetary rovers are an ideal application of autonomy (the ability to make your own decisions). The problem is the huge distances involved. For example, depending on where they are in their orbits, Mars may be anywhere between 55 and 400 million kilometers away from Earth. In the vacuum of space, radio waves travel at the speed of light, which means it takes between 3 and 22 minutes for a command to get from you to your rover. And that’s just one-way; any responses or returned video would take just as long to get back to you, so you could be waiting 45 minutes to find out whether your rover fell into a ravine or not. Imagine trying to directly control a vehicle with that kind of lag. (You think gaming is tough!) Not to mention that there are periods when the sun is directly between Mars and Earth, entirely cutting off communications for a week or so. It would be nice if your rover was able to perform investigations on its own during that time.

    In practice, rovers are such a valuable asset that their operations are very carefully planned in advance, and onboard autonomy is usually limited to catching any unforeseen problems while command sequences are being executed. But autonomy is increasingly becoming an effective cost-saving measure on numerous missions (Deep Space Network time is limited and expensive), and we’ll only see more of it in the future.


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    Michael Rael

    Which brings us to the Colorado Space Grant / Adams State University Robotics Challenge, held annually at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado. This challenge is designed to give amateur teams a taste of what it takes to create and operate a Mars rover. The vehicles need to autonomously navigate courses of varying complexity and ruggedness, with the possibility of unexpected obstacles, high and low temperature extremes (April in Colorado can have anything from 80 degree days to whiteout blizzards), and the ever-present blowing sand, which has a way of getting into everything, no matter how well-sealed.


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    Brian Sanders

    A unique part of this challenge is the central radio beacon. To more accurately simulate the conditions a rover would encounter on another planet, GPS receivers are not allowed. (GPS signals are broadcast by a constellation of satellites in earth’s orbit; these signals won’t be available anywhere else until we put similar constellations around other planets.) Instead of using GPS, a 433MHz radio beacon is set up at the center of the course area. The robots must move from the starting point toward the beacon, navigate around any obstacles in their path, and return to the original course. The various challenge courses are laid out in spokes from the central beacon, allowing multiple courses to use the same beacon simultaneously.


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    Brian Sanders

    True radio direction finding is a difficult task. To make the beacon more accessible to amateur teams, a clever technique is used. The beacon consists of a rotating Yagi antenna that continuously broadcasts the compass bearing of the beam as it rotates. The antenna pattern from the Yagi is highly directional, so the robots will only receive the beacon as the beam sweeps past them. If a robot receives the beacon, the data will contain the reciprocal bearing back to the beacon. Just knowing that information doesn’t help you if you don’t know your own heading, so an onboard compass is used to figure out what direction you’re pointing.* Once you know both of those angles, you can figure out the direction you need to drive to get to the beacon.


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    Brian Sanders

    Befitting the institutions behind it, the primary goal of this challenge is education. Instead of giving you the rules and saying “good luck,” the Colorado Space Grant Consortium provides pre-challenge workshops in basic skills like soldering and programming, and provides as much information as they can to help teams succeed. Mass and cost are constrained to give as many teams as possible the opportunity to participate; robots must weigh under 4kg or 1.5kg depending on the weight class, and the hardware cost is limited to $500. The rules are also specific about protecting the course environment (the Great Sand Dunes are a national park that contains protected and fragile ecosystems), and that the real goal of the challenge is not to win through finding loopholes, but through solid design, good craftsmanship, and testing, testing, testing.


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    Brian Sanders

    The Colorado Space Grant Consortium, and the NASA-funded Space Grant Colleges in each state, exist to give students practical engineering experience through challenges like these and numerous other opportunities. COSGC alumni have gone on to design, build and operate the current generation of Mars rovers and many other space missions, and work at many interesting places, including SparkFun.


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    Michael Rael

    This year’s Robotics Challenge will be held on April 5th from 8AM to 11:30AM, just past the visitor’s center at the Great Sand Dunes National Park which is about a four-hour drive from Denver. The public is welcome! If you’d like to be involved in next year’s competition, you can find more information at http://spacegrant.colorado.edu/statewideprograms/robotics-challenge. Registration is in December, so get roving!


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    Brian Sanders

    * Unlike Earth, Mars has a very weak magnetic field, so this likely wouldn’t work in real life, but for the purposes of the challenge you have to constrain the problem somewhere. Interestingly, there are indications that Mars had a much stronger magnetic field in the past that, like the Earth’s magnetic field, once protected the surface of Mars from being blasted by solar radiation as it is now. Why the field disappeared is an important question scientists are trying to answer. Write your congresspeople.

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  • Wednesday, March 26, 2014 - 17:17
    SparkFun Live: Temperature-sensing Lunchbox

    Greetings humans. It’s time once again for everyone’s favorite live community project build extravaganza fest, where ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. For this edition of SparkFun Live, which will take place on Tuesday, April 8 at 3:00 MT, Evan in Tech Support will show us how to build a temperature-sensing lunchbox, so you can keep an eye on the decomposition rate of your snack pack in the hot summer months.

    If you’d like to join us, and we do hope you will (what if something catches on fire or Evan makes a hilarious joke?), you can find the wishlist of parts here, and the GitHub code here. See you in a couple weeks!

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  • Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - 17:06
    McGuckin and SparkFun Workshop This Weekend!

    This coming Saturday, SparkFun and local business McGuckin Hardware are teaming up to offer Boulder-area residents a crash-course in beginner soldering.

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    Join us on Saturday, March 29th from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. at McGuckin Hardware at 2525 Arapahoe Ave. in sunny Boulder, Colorado. We’ll be working on our SparkFun Weevil Eye Kit to teach you the in’s-and-out’s of through-hole soldering.

    All are welcome and the event is free! We hope to see you there!

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  • Saturday, March 22, 2014 - 15:32
    SparkFun April Fool's Prank Contest

    We love a good prank. The build up, the suspense - the final moments…it’s just so much fun. Today we want to invite you to participate in the SparkFun April Fool’s Prank Contest. Watch the video for more details:

    Did you watch? No? Ok, well here are the rules or those who prefer the written word:

    • Send us a video of your best prank! The prank must use electronics (though not necessarily from SparkFun). Send an email with a YouTube or Vimeo link of your prank to AprilFools@sparkfun.com
    • We will accept entries until 11:59 p.m. MT on March 31st, 2014.
    • The next day (April Fool’s Day) we will post the top three pranks on our website - the winners will get $300 in SparkFun credit for first place, $200 in SparkFun credit for second place and $100 in SparkFun credit for third.
    • You can submit an old prank project if you want, but keep in mind points will be awarded for creativity, prank effectiveness (did you get ‘em good?!) and your use of electronics.

    But wait - there’s more!

    Don’t have time to build a prank in the next week? No problem! Submit your idea for a great electronics based prank in the comments below. We’ll choose one winner, and after April Fool’s day passes, we’ll build your prank idea and then film it in action at SparkFun HQ. We’ll also send you a $50 SparkFun credit! We’ll accept entries for this part of the contest until 11:59 p.m. MT on March 31st, 2014 as well.

    Good luck - we can’t wait to see your pranks!

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  • Friday, March 21, 2014 - 16:58
    New Product Friday: Sick, Yo!

    Friday is all about new products here at SparkFun. This week is no exception. We have a pretty wide selection this week as well as another Robotics 101 video. First, here are the products.

    Can anyone guess the song that was playing on the Gram Piano? It really brings back some old memories.

    We only have one more Robotics 101 video. The last one will be part 2 of the tool video. We realized we glossed over the tools a bit and we’re adding an additional video for what was missed. Check back for the last video!

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    The SparkFun Inventors Kit for Arduino has been a popular product here. It’s a great way to learn Arduino, but what about other platforms? This week, we announce the SIKIO, the SparkFun Inventors Kit for IOIO. This kit is similar to the traditional SIK, but uses the IOIO-OTG instead of the Arduino platform. This kit will teach you how to integrate hardware with your Android device with 8 simple circuits. All the hardware, software, and instructions are included to guide you along your journey.

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    The Gram Piano is a through-hole soldering kit that transforms from a pile of hardware into a tiny piano. It uses a pre-programmed ATmega328 and 13 capacitive touch pads. There’s even a potentiometer for octave control. The kit is great for teaching introduction to soldering, code, and capacitive touch.

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    The Teensy Audio Board attaches to the Teensy 3.1 and gives it the ability to play and manipulate WAV files as well as raw audio. It has a headphone output, line in, line out, and a microSD card. You can even do real-time spectrum analysis!

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    Speaking of electronics and audio, we have a new book that incorporates both. Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking provides a long-needed, practical, and engaging introduction to the craft of making - as well as creatively cannibalizing - electronic circuits for artistic purposes.

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    A few weeks ago we released the BC127 boards, both the breakout and the Purpletooth Jamboree but we didn’t have the bare module for sale. For the adventurous, we now have the bare module for you to play with. It’s in our Eagle library, and of course you can check out the design files for either of our boards to give you a head start.

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    I’m still surprised when someone suggest we carry something that is so obvious, I’m amazed we don’t already carry it. These 2x3 male headers are as the ISP header on several boards. Since our RedBoard doesn’t come with them populated, we should be selling them separately. Before today, we didn’t. Silly us. Now we have them so you can use shields that rely on that header on our RedBoard.

    Well, that’s all I have for this week. Of course we’ll be back again next week for you to get your fix on new products. See you then!

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  • Friday, March 21, 2014 - 01:31
    Fluke Responds to Trademark Problems

    Yesterday, we wrote a fairly-lengthy post about an ongoing customs issue we were dealing with. Essentially, our $15 multimeter, which we source as a quality entry-level meter for DIY enthusiasts is in violation of a trademark held by Fluke Corporation.

    SparkFun Digital Multimeter

    The culprit.

    The problem boils down to the fact that our $15 multimeter is yellow with a dark gray face, and Fluke’s trademark speaks to that effect. We’re still pretty upset that such a broad trademark can be enforced with little recourse for a company of SparkFun’s size.

    But things are changing quickly. We are working with a law firm specializing in customs law to try to split up the shipment and redirect the multimeters to various groups that are friendly to SparkFun but in countries where we don’t violate Fluke’s marks.

    Additionally, Wes Pringle, President of Fluke, graciously reached out to me and explained they would be posting a response on their Facebook page. While we still have issues with the way United States' IP laws are designed and enforced, but Fluke’s response was gracious. Here is what they had to say:


    Over the last 24 hours, we’ve been watching the conversation around SparkFun. We’ve wanted to join the conversation sooner, but needed to make sure we had all the information in front of us so we could help find the best solution. Thank you for your patience.

    Like any organization that designs and manufactures electronics, we actively work to stop lookalike products from making it to the marketplace. We do this to protect our company and the jobs of our employees. We also do so because it is a matter of safety for our customers. Our tools are used in high-energy industrial environments, where precision and safety is an absolute necessity.

    I mention this because we firmly believe that we must be – and will continue to be – vigilant in protecting Fluke and our customers. One step in doing that was registering a trademark protecting the look and feel of our devices so our customers know that if it looks like a Fluke it’s a Fluke.

    It’s important to know that once we’ve filed for and received trademark protection, US Customs has the responsibility to determine what to stop at the border, or what to seize. In this case, we first learned of this issue from SparkFun’s blog.

    We understand how troubling this is for a small company serving the needs of DIY-ers and hobbyists. Here is what we are going to do.

    Earlier today we contacted SparkFun and offered to provide a shipment of genuine Fluke equipment, free of charge for them to sell on their site or donate. The value of the equipment exceeds the value of the Customs-held shipment. SparkFun can resell the Fluke gear, recouping the cost of their impounded shipment, or donate it into the Maker community.

    While we will continue to enforce our trademark, we are taking this one-time action because we believe in the work of SparkFun supporting the Maker and education communities. This is important to us. We have been supporters of the Maker community for years through the donation of over half a million dollars worth of tools and employee time to organizations like First Robotics.

    We look forward to continuing our support of the community, of our customers, and of all the innovators out there.

    Sincerely,
    Wes Pringle
    President, Fluke Corporation


    Thank you Fluke! We would like to take you up on this offer. SparkFun is committed to education and will donate your meters through our outreach events at various school districts and educational conferences. We will be sure your meters make it into the hands of good people.

    While our discontent with the current environment of IP law remains, we are encouraged by Fluke’s handling of the situation and will continue to try to guide trademark law in a more business friendly way.

    It’s amazing what the power of good customers can do. Thank you SparkFun fans for getting change to happen faster and with fewer court fees. We’ll keep sharing the lessons we learn. Get ready for a trademark free crowd-designed multimeter….

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