3D Printing WorkshopThis past weekend, we had a 3D printing workshop at LVL1.  I built a Mendel Prusa i2, along with 9 other folks in the LVL1 community. Sonny Mounicou came up from Memphis, TN, while Jon Oly of SeeMeCNC came down from Goshen, IN to help us build 3D printers.  One guy had his printer up and running in a mere 14 hours!  I had to get some sleep, so I was a little bit behind that.

Needless to say, everyone had a great time, and walked out with some working 3D printers.  I’ve since gotten my Prusa home and had some time to play with it.

Prusa at HomeI’ve already got plans to make it better.  Tonight, I’m going to redo all the wiring to make it nicer, more reliable, and better looking.  Next, I intend to scrounge a server power supply out of the basement of LVL1.  Currently, it’s attached to a 200W Dell Power supply, which can only push out 200W.  This is fine for most things, but it just can’t put our the juice needed for heating the build platform to ABS temperatures.  I was able to get some calibration cubes of ABS to stick to the build platform, but nothing bigger. After that, sky’s the limit.  I’m also going to use this printer to print parts for another 3D printer, a Rostock.

Unfortunately, I’ll be missing the Midwest RepRap Fest this weekend, but I’ll be there in spirit!



The Shoestring Workshop

Jim William's Workbench
Jim Williams Workbench, courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

There has never been a better time to get into hobby electronics. Unfortunately, the tools required can be daunting for a newbie, and can quickly make the hobby look expensive and unappealing. I’m getting ready to move into a house where I’ll have my own electronics workbench, so I’ve been devoting a lot of attention to budget tools. I’ve got the basics, but since I joined the LVL1 Hackerspace, I’ve really let my tool collection atrophy. In the spirit of sharing, here’s a list of tools needed to get into electronics hobby. These tools are roughly listed in the order of priority, and all of them are list at new prices. You’ll definitely be able to get away with cheaper tools if you’re willing to do a little digging.

A disclaimer: You might not need all of these tools, and this list is not comprehensive! These tools are highly useful for analog and digital circuit design and construction, but if you’re into different areas of the hobby, you’ll need different tools. For example, radio geeks will find antenna analyzers and SWR meters extremely useful! For more inspiration, browse the Electronics Workbench Flickr Group:

If you know of a better/cheaper source for any of these tools, or you’d like to suggest an addition to the list, please leave a comment! This is as much a learning experience for me as anyone, and we all love learning about new sources for these toys.

Unless mentioned otherwise, I have experience with all the hardware mentioned below (although not necessarily with the suppliers). Super Budget items are things that I would tolerate using if I didn’t have a better alternative, Medium Budget items are probably items that I have bought or would buy, and Standard budget items are tools that I would prefer to use. You can definitely spend more than the standard budget on every item in this list, but this is supposed to be a post about the shoestring workshop, and if you’re spending more than the “Standard” budget, you’re no longer in shoestring territory!


Nanino Upgrade


4 months ago, I read about Johan’s Nanino on Hack-A-Day, and thought it would be a great way to teach some folks how to etch their own circuit boards.  Although I’m increasingly shipping PCBs off to China, being able to etch your own boards is a valuable skill to have.  I’ve taught workshops on it in the past, and I’ve described the process on this blog.  Today, I set out to make a copy of Johan’s Nanino, but was almost immediately frustrated by the inability to manipulate and print the board file in a way that worked well for my process.  In the end, I redrew the thing using DipTrace.

Nanino ImprovedThe only change made to the original is the addition of a .1 uF capacitor on the DTR line of the FTDI header.  Some of the traces are a little closer together, but they’re still spaced out enough that etching this board is a cinch.

Here are the files:

Diptrace Schematic for Nanino

Diptrace PCB for Nanino

PDF of Nanino from the Back

You can use this PDF to etch directly.  No mirroring is needed.

Can be printed.  1200 DPI.
Can be printed. 1200 DPI.
Can be printed. 1200 DPI.  No mirror needed for etching.
Can be printed. 1200 DPI. No mirror needed for etching.

DXF of Nanino

And, because the original Nanino is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA, this one is also:
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


It works!
It works!
Good toner transfer
Good toner transfer
The etch was drama-free
The etch was drama-free

3D Printing


I’m not dead.  I switched jobs back in September, and it’s seemed like an impossible task to catch up to everything until now.  But I’m working on some cool stuff!

For example, I’m building a 3D printer:

This is the start to my Rostock 3D printer.  I started printing the parts for this way back in October, and I’ve just now gotten to the point where it’s starting to come together. Unfortunately, a much better version has come out in the mean time.  A couple of people have already come through LVL1 building the improved, extruded aluminum delta bot.  It was almost enough to make me start over and try again, but not this time!  I’ve tried to build three other printers in the past, but they never got further than printing some plastic parts.  This time, I’ve spent real money on the project, so I’m going to forge ahead!

So far, I’ve run into two major setbacks.  The first: the printed arms an u-joints are really, really terrible. Threading an M3 bolt into the U-joint as instructed is painfully difficult, and the result isn’t particularly smooth motion.  I’m going to have to buy a set of real rods before I can continue.  Second, the specced GT2 belting and pulleys were completely unavailable in the lengths I needed, so I had to switch to HTD 3M belting and pulleys.  It was expensive!  The company I bought the stuff through charged me $15 for shipping, on top of $35 for the belt.  Then I cut the belting wrong, so I have to buy even more!

I’ll be using a Printrboard Rev. D to drive the whole thing, unless it blows up in my face.  Then I’ll probably just buy a nice reliable RAMPs setup, or a fully assembled printrboard.  And then, I’ll be off to the races!

This is the wrong way to cut the belting. Instead, leave a long tail, loop it back on itself, and zip tie it together.










Hacking at the Light Strike Laser Tag Game


My friend Jon has been working on Laser Taser tag, modifying perfectly ordinary toy laser guns to provide an electric shock when you get hit.  As he was working on this game for Makerfaire Detroit 2012, I noticed that these guns are really freaking cool.  10 years ago, I paid good teenage summer job money to play laser tag, and it wasn’t as good as this.  You can now buy a $30 toy that rivals the fanciest laser tag equipment of the previous decade.

This is one of the rifles you can buy for the Wowwee Light Strike game.  They’ve got a bunch of capacitive touch button on the side to change gun settings, LED lights to indicate health, team, and who you got hit by, a reload button, an IR receiver and transmitter, and a couple of ports for add-on accessories.  Jon did a lot of the ground work for what I’m summarizing in this post.  The guns (and accessories) send out 38 kHz IR.  The guns use a custom packet format, and each message is 32 bits.

After taking a look inside these guns, I realized that they have a lot of potential.  They’re a really great sensor platform for a laser tag game, with a great form factor, but the electronics inside don’t offer a lot of flexibility in game mode, and players have to use the honor system to keep score.  My end goal is to provide drop in replacement electronics, which allow for more teams, additional game modes, zigbee scorekeeping, custom guns, custom sounds, and provide a standard data output, so people (like Jon) can build accessories a little easier.

Light Strike rifle with all screws highlighted

These guns are really easy to get into.  Just regular phillips head screws, nothing special.  A bunch of them are hidden under the sticker on the side opposite the buttons.  These can be hard to find, so to the left is a picture with all the screws circled (click to embiggen).  Once you get inside, the main feature is a really well-labeled PCB that connects all the different sensors and outputs.  Of  course, the microcontroller is covered in a big blob of epoxy, but I’m going to replace the entire board, so it isn’t going to be a problem in the long run.

 Ultimately, I want the new electronics to be backwards compatible with the old electronics, so I need to decode all the messages that are sent out by the stock rifle.  Fortunately, the rifle comes with a little target practice toy.  Taking it apart reveals an IR decoder, RGB LED, and a speaker. I added a Teensy, wired the IR decoder in, and added an IR LED to output my own codes.  The IR decoder is connected to pin D7 on the Teensy (arbitrary choice), while the IR output is connected to pin C7 (this is the PWM output from the high-speed timer/counter on the Atmega32U4).  I started out using the Arduino IR Remote library from Ken Shirrif, just outputting raw timing values from the IR input.  This ended up being frustrating, and I used a logic analyzer to confirm.  Getting a graphical view of the IR output helped a lot.

As you can see from the logical analyzer output, there are a few different marks and spaces (marks are where the LED is active).  There’s a long header mark at the start of the message, followed by equal-length inter-bit marks, with either a short space (for 0) or a long space (for 1).  Timings are as follows:

  • Header Mark: 6750 us
  • Inter-bit Mark: 900 us
  • Zero Space: 900 us
  • One Space: 3700 us

At this point, I modified the IRRemote library to decode the incoming messages.  I had to add the mark and space timings above, and write functions for decoding and encoding data.  I also had to modify some #defines for the Teensy to tweak the outgoing IR into a 50% duty cycle, and adjust the timings: The guns send out ~37.8 kHz IR, but the default settings sent out ~38.2 kHz IR.  This shouldn’t matter, but a simple tweak made everything work as it should.  The most difficult part was getting the IR send function working.  Here’s my new IR Send:

In order to get the gun to accept the header, I had to send out a 0 length space after the header pulse, then begin sending data.  This took a while to nail down. I’ve put the code on GitHub here:

Amazingly, after decoding some data packets, it appeared that everything was just a 32 bit output packet, and some obvious patterns emerged once I fired a few shots with different weapons and different teams.  Of the 4 bytes in the message, Byte 3 indicates the team (0x07 for Blue (default), 0x04 for Red, 0x05 for Yellow and 0x06 for Green), Byte 2 indicates a count of some sort (only used for the turret bomb mode.  It increases by one every time the bomb goes off, but any number of “count” will trip the gun, except 0.), and Bytes 0 and 1 indicate the weapon.  Below are the weapons:

  • Laser Strike: 0x0502
    • 12 hits to kill from full health
      Inside of the target, with the stock electronics, modified with wires for power and sensor input to the teensy.
  • Stealth Strike: 0x0602
    • 12 hits to kill from full health
  • Pulse Strike: 0x0703
    • 8 hits to kill from full health
  • Rail Strike: 0x0806
    • 4 hits to kill from full health
  • Sonic Strike: 0x908
    • 3 hits to kill from full health
  • Bomb: 0x0E18
    • MUST include a non-zero “count” field
    • 1 hit to kill
  • Sentry: 0x0F08
    • 3 hits to kill from full health
  • Health: 0x08–
    • MUST be used with team 0x08
    • Final byte is team byte for healing pulse (0x07 for blue, etc)
    • 3 hits to full health
Target with Teensy installed

Interestingly enough, the guns appear to be more particular about the codes they receive than the sentry or the target module.  Both of these devices will activate on codes that don’t activate the gun.  The target, in particular, treats team codes 0x0D, 0x0A, 0x0B and 0x0C as Blue, Red, Yellow, and Green, respectively.

Now I think I’ve got enough data to build a protocol for the new electronics that will be backwards compatible, but add a whole lot of functionality. If you’d like to mess around with this on your own, check out the Arduino code I’ve uploaded here:


How to fly across an ocean


This post is cross-posted from the White Star Balloon Blog

Flying across the ocean is no small feat.  It takes the concerted efforts of dozens of people, working hard at lots of difficult problems, from modeling balloon volume and flight dynamics, to planning interactions with air traffic control.  The diagram above gives a little bit of an idea of the effort involved in getting across the ocean.  Any single block represents tens to many hundreds of man-hours worth of effort.

Components in Purple represent things which will actually be flying across the ocean.  This hardware and software must perform flawlessly at all times.

Components with a red heptagon represent significant software efforts.

The red square shows the components which lie on amazon EC2, spread across three instances, with a total cost of $100 a month (during flight season) to maintain.

Pink commands are sent using PubNub, a service without whose generosity our public page would not be possible.

All of these systems are in the critical path, and a failure of any single flight system will compromise science data.  Fortunately, we always have positive control of our craft, thanks to a dead-man cutdown, which operates entirely autonomously, and a 9602 modem which will respond with rough location coordinates even if all other flight systems have failed.  Our ground systems all have hot-backups, and can all be operated from anywhere on the Internet, so these systems are as redundant as they can be.


White Star Balloon Tracking Page


Lately, most of my free time has been devoted to the White Star Balloon project.  One of the parts of the project I have become involved with is the tracking page.  This was a major portion of the project a year ago, when we still had lots of buzz and momentum going.  Unfortunately, it was a huge disaster, and we had to cobble something terrible together at the very last moment. Since then, a lot has changed. We’ve become more skilled, new technologies have matured, and new hosting solutions have become cheaper.

White Star’s tracking needs are somewhat unique among the amateur balloon community. Most balloons end up using sites like and  These sites are great, and the guys working on them are better web programmers than I’ll ever be.  Unfortunately, they don’t meet our needs. is designed to used with devices carrying APRS transmitters (which we cannot use over the ocean), and is designed to be used with a distributed network of receivers, which doesn’t fit our model very well.  We also wanted to plan for a contingency of getting a large number of visitors very suddenly, in case we hit CNN or Reddit.

This year’s tracking page is run entirely on the client side.  All telemetry processing is done by the client, and displayed on maps, gauges and graphs. This allows us to use static hosting for everything. I used the following resources to make this happen:

  • Twitter Bootstrap – A super quick and easy CSS framework.  Looks good out of box, if a little cookie-cutter.  Don’t have the time or the design skill to go further, though.
  • OpenLayers – More fully-featured than anything from Google. Switched to this when we thought Google was going to price us out of GMaps. One downside: It’s huge!
  • HighCharts – Very pretty, easy to use charts.
  • jsgauge – The best JavaScript gauge I could find.  There aren’t a lot out there, and most suck pretty hard.  This one isn’t great, but it gets the job done.
  • JQuery
  • Amazon S3 – Used to store all static files.
  • PubNub – Push data provider with javascript client.  Super easy to use, super nice company that really helped us out.
  • Crockford’s “JavaScript: The Good Parts” – An alarmingly thin, amazingly effective JavaScript book.

Everything is up on GitHub, and ready for inspection and shed painting. More about the specifics below.


A SOPA you can get behind


Introducing a useful SOPA- The Stop Online Productivity Avoidance box.

After having an extremely productive day on January 18th, I had a thought: What if every day were January 18th? Well, at the push of a button, now it can!

The button, switch, and display are wired to an Arduino.  The Arduino communicates with a python script running on the router, which controls a Squid3 proxy blacklist.  In SOPA mode, the whole of the internet is my oyster.  In NOPA mode, however, distracting websites like reddit, hacker news, and hackaday are blocked.  This isn’t very useful without a great deal of self control, however.  In weaker instances, nuclear mode must be employed.  Turn the key switch and press the button and all distracting sites are blocked for one hour.  The only recourse is to restart the router, but the router requires 15 minutes to restart, blocking the entirety of the web for the duration.  Overriding nuclear mode is not appealing.

All code is posted online at

A video demonstration and more pictures of construction lie below the break.


A Tiny Balloon Computer


Another PCB design gets shipped off to China for manufacture!

This is a tiny balloon computer.  Without battery or GPS, it weighs less than 40 grams.  It can transmit RTTY or CW at 25 mW on the ham 2M and 70cm bands, and will last up to 16 hours on a single AA.

This board will be Arduino compatible, and the primary goal will be to support White Star‘s superpressure balloon experiments.  A superpressure balloon maintains some pressurization above ambient in order to maintain altitude.  In order to figure out how to design the balloon envelopes, and to verify our math, we need to know what’s going on inside the balloon.  It’s difficult to pierce the balloon without generating leaks. The ideal solution is to place a second balloon computer inside.  Both will transmit pressure to the ground, and we’ll be able to compare pressure inside the balloon to ambient pressure for model verification.  The pressure sensor can sense a change as small as 4×10-4 PSI, so this should work.

This is my first attempt at real RF design.  Fortunately, operating within the ham radio bands means I don’t have to worry too much about spurious transmissions or leaky harmonics.


Makerbot Sumbot


LVL1 has a small rivalry with a few of the regional hackerspaces.  Back in October 2010, when we were but a fledgling space, we hosted a Sumo Bot tournament.  Hive13 and Bloominglabs came by, and we kicked their butts.  Hive13 held the rematch a few months ago, and I started work on my SumoBot.  Unfortunately, I didn’t finish in time, but the effort itself is worthwhile, and my bot will live to see the next match.

Sumobots are robots which seek to push each other out of a small ring.  The ring is black, with a white boundary circle.  Two robots enter, one robot leaves. Our competitions use the Mini-Sumo class of rules, allowing for a Sumobot which can fit inside a 10cm by 10cm rectangular tube, weighing under 500 grams.  I decided to print my SumoBot on our makerbot.