Part ordering gamble

I have for a very long time wanted to build in the sort of 'scanning' you see in sci-fi movies to our LARP events as an actual working piece of tech. As the majority of our events occur outdoors the obvious answer is GPS. So I've made a gamble and bought forty GPS modules that came up just cheap enough to justify it to myself.

More so than other modules, cheap GPS modules seem to appear, disappear, then a few months later something similar but different appears on the market. I had identified some I wanted for this project a while back but then they disappeared and as I want to make a compact wearable with a 3D printed case, changing modules is non-trivial.

These super-compact modules look just the ticket and ordering them is an attempt to force my hand into making progress on this. The plan is that most things I build which are connected to the mesh network will have a GPS module. I did this a long time ago with the 'magic compass' but doing it at scale opens up the possibility of making something like the 'motion tracker' seen in Aliens etc.

Tasmota temperature sensors

I've been doing a little home automation with Home Assistant recently and this involved putting temperature sensors in every room. I started out with some ugly stripboard SHT11 based things but they were unreliable and inaccurate.

During a Banggood sale I managed to pick up some Wemos 'shields' with an SHT30 temperature/humidity sensor so I converted all my sensors over to these. Tidier but still a bare circuit board with power LEDs lighting the room at night.

I fiddled around in OpenSCAD and came up with a fairly decent 3D printed enclosure and now have eight sensors dotted around my house, including the shed. This design leaves the SHT30 sticking out in free air with a 'baffle' to separate it from the rest of the device. Even so the temperature readings are massively effected by heat soak from the ESP8266 and quite inefficient LDO on the board. I've now put this on Thingiverse.

To fix the heat soak you need to connect D0 to RST on the D1 mini with a short piece of wire and enable deep sleep so they draw (and waste) much less power. In Tasmota this needs two console commands...

TelePeriod 10
DeepSleepTime 300

...the 'TelePeriod' means it sends data 10s after connecting to WiFi and 'DeepSleepTime' means it sleeps until the next five minute interval on the clock. If you're copying this example don't issue the commands until you're happy with the Tasmota configuration. The short wake time makes it a pain to issue changes later.

Now they send decent sensor readings, reliably.

Solar charging ESP-Now BATMAN prototype 2

After over two weeks continuous running my first prototype of the solar charged prototype proved itself with a 2W panel. So I spent a chunk of time designing the next iteration in EasyEDA and ordered five PCBs from JLCPCB in China.

I've taken a small gamble with this design as I haven't built it on breadboard first and have added a number of new features.
  • Thermal protection for the 18650 cells, a feature available but omitted from the MCP73871 evaluation board. They will now only charge in temperatures of 0-50C, which is a default safe option. I don't feel this will kick in often in the UK except perhaps on a very sunny but cold morning however to omit this feature would be slightly negligent.
  • Replacement of the INA219 current monitors with a simple resistor ladder to measure supply voltage after the charge controller with the ESP8285.
  • Connection of the MCP73871 status pins to the ESP8285 rather than indicator LEDs.
  • A microSD socket for optional file storage.
This is quite a simple project compared to the people making their own small board computers or things based on FPGAs but it's only my second ever manufactured PCB. All the pins on the ESP8285 board are in use, although in principle IO0 which has a button attached for putting it into programming mode could be doubled up with for something else so long as it defaulted to a pullup.

Instead of going straight to the final run of boards I'd like to test these five before ordering more. I made absolutely no effort to keep it compact so even if no changes are needed I'll still move things around and tidy it up before the final order.

Once these arrive I'm hoping the extra efficiency of the PAM2301 regulator will make a 1W panel viable in the UK but if not, 2W panels aren't overly huge.

Solar panel doubling

 A bit of data logging showed a single 1W panel useful for supplementing battery power to my mesh network node, but not really enough to charge it meaningfully at the same time. My garden is south facing and the house blocks direct sun lots of the day so it was only the few hours where the panel was in strong direct sun that the result was acceptable. For something that spends a lot of the time asleep this would be reasonable but as I want each node to run for all the waking hours then I need it to do better. I did get 52 hours of runtime, which is technically enough for my needs if I fit two 18650s in the node, but I still don't like the thought of it running down constantly with only a tiny amount of headroom.

The data also shows the regulator board I took out of a drawer is an LDO, not a buck converter, so it's 60% efficient a lot of the time. I will make a pin compatible replacement with the converter I specified for the final boards and that should be a big help.

I've now set up two 1W panels in parallel to make an effective 2W panel. Only a few hours later it's clear this makes a massive difference as they spend lots of time charging the cell rather than just 'treading water'. I'll leave the test to run until the battery protection kicks in at 3.5V but it looks like 2W panels really are what's needed even if I were to replace the LDO. There are some really quite affordable 2W 5.5V cells on Banggood, so going up in size isn't a big deal.

Solar charger data logging


 After a little fiddling around today I had software on ESP8285 node so I can keep track of the battery use and how well the MCP73871 manages things.

Working at my desk it seems to seamlessly charge then swap over to battery if needed, but more importantly if there's roughly 0.5W charging capacity, which is what I'm expecting from the solar panels I have, available it'll run the ESP8285 and use excess to top up the single 18650 I've fitted for now. This is exactly what I was hoping for from the chip, but what's not clear yet is how well it works around dawn and dusk. Playing around with my bench PSU would give me some idea but with solar cells varying voltage under load I've just gone straight for a practical test.

The code I've put on isn't anything like the final application but it does sit there connected to WiFi pushing data to MQTT every 30s so it's a pretty reasonable test. I'm dropping the output into a .csv file on my server and I'll look at it periodically to see how the battery fares. As I wanted real timestamps on the data I used the quite nice ezTime library to sync with NTP but more importantly maintain a usable time based off the ESP8285's internal clock and only periodically update it. This is a feature I will need when things happen for real, although I'll probably have to use GPS and a local NTP server due to lack of guaranteed internet access.

Also Blogger has changed and all my layouts are broken. Sigh.

Solar charging ESP-Now BATMAN prototype

Putting a 'production' board together rekindled my interest in a solar charging prototype of my mesh network nodes.

A small solar cell in typical UK weather is not going to be able to run the node 100% of the daytime, but it will almost certainly work as a useful 'runtime extender'.

I started looking at this way back last autumn then like a lot of things my enthusiasm waned and it languished in a box for months. Today I finished off putting it together to a point where I could knock some software up and start logging charging/load data.

I'm using the same ESP8285 module I have for the nodes, with an MCP73871 development board for charging and power management. The naive approach would be to stick a conventional LiPo charger in parallel with the batteries but the load messes with the charging.

The MCP73871 manages the power path so that depending on the charging power available it will run the load from that while also charging the batteries, run the load from it, or once it it is too low run the load from the batteries. As the battery isn't directly connected to the load this can be done while maintaining proper charge behaviour for the LiPo. It is not proper MPPT tracking for the solar cell, but it does sensing of how much current it can draw before the voltage drops too low that will have a similar effect. For extra efficiency a DC-DC converter that does MPPT would help, but I'm going to suck it and see if this prototype is 'good enough'.

I've shoehorned several INA219 current/voltage sensors into the power path so I know the battery, charging and load detail. My plan is to stick this inside my shed, with a solar cell outside and simply log the data until it falls off the network because the MCP73871 has decided to protect the battery.

ESP-Now BATMAN boards

Back in February I was faced with a looming deadline for our LARP in March where we would be using my ESP-Now mesh network for messaging between props and also to end devices used by players.

For this to work we'd need some fixed nodes to give minimal coverage. I had previously built ten static nodes using Wemos D1 mini Pro boards and NiMH batteries and used them in testing but battery life was only around eight hours which wouldn't be enough even with overnight charging.

I did a few sums, came up with a power budget and figured something with a more efficient regulator, no indicator LEDs and a couple of 18650 cells in parallel should easily run for a whole weekend, eliminating another point of stress for the game.

Scratch building all this would have been a drag so I designed and ordered twenty boards from JLCPCB in China.

I had previously tried designing boards in KiCAD but found the interface impenetrable even for simple things and got deterred. For these boards I tried out JLCPCB's own web based EDA software, EasyEDA and was pleasantly surprised.

While I did have a bit of a struggle finding matching footprints for the components involved the process really wasn't hard. They also integrate this fairly tightly with the PCB ordering making the generation of gerber files, drill files and so on something you don't need to worry about too much.

This smoothing over of the complicated process meant I was able to get to grips with EasyEDA, design a board and order it in a morning with my only previous experience being a couple of failed attempts to do something useful in KiCAD.

Sadly with the postponement of our game due to the pandemic these boards have sat on the side since delivery but today I finally built one and it works! I added a reset switch to make repeated programming easier, and were I to design them again I would add a reset and flash button on the board, but for now these suffice. There's almost nothing to the circuit, it's an ESP8285 module, buck regulator, battery holders and some headers. No charging or protection circuit and nothing to leech power that isn't needed.

Until I add more features I have in mind like onboard solar charging then they'll do. In the meantime I'll do some current measurements and rundown tests with this one to check its performance. I'm really hoping these will give us the coverage we need for the game and now I've some more time to work on it I can actually check properly.

Creality automatic spotlights

A while back I wired both my Creality 3D printers so that they are powered on and off through Octoprint. This is useful because I work two floors away from the printers and perhaps more importantly because it switches the printer off after a long print.

This has been working perfectly but I often have the light in my cellar switched off making the camera monitor pretty useless unless I go and switch the light on.

I figured it stood to reason that switching some lighting on with the printers was a good idea and I made up a couple of little spotlights attached to the printer frames and connected them to the same SSRs that switch the printer power.

The spotlights are made from some ceramic GU10 bulb holders I had, 20mm electrical conduit and some 3D printed parts I quickly knocked up in OpenSCAD. I knew from my work with making fittings for GU5.3 12v bulbs that heat from the bulb wouldn't be an issue with the printed parts, they barely get warm to the touch even after several hours.

I only did this yesterday but it's already meant I haven't been leaving the cellar light on as much while working on projects.