Tech in the tent

We’re just back from a week or so camping, in the wilds of mid-Hampshire.

It’s more-or-less the end of the season – the youngsters are back to school, the summer has wound down, so the sites are nice and quiet; although the weather is at risk of being more mixed than usual. As it happened, we were pretty fortunate on that front, and managed to get set up and broken down in the dry.

As a maker and techie, I sometimes get a bit antsy when we’re away like this (and when it isn’t EMFCamp… [1]). Fortunately, this time, I had a task that needed solving using technology – in this case, an RP2040 and some MicroPython.

Our tent is a very nice size, and we have space to sit and relax inside, but particularly in the evenings as the days get shorter at this time of year, the lighting situation leaves a lot to be desired. We’ve got a couple of battery-operated / rechargable camping lanterns, but wanted something more adjustable and that would cover more of the space, more evenly.

Like any good maker, I went camping prepared – with a soldering iron, massive power supply, and a roll of LEDs…!

Embedded Mastodon post with the text: "Just spent a bit of time setting up lighting for the tent. Fortunately, like any prepared #maker, I happened to bring soldering iron, solder mat, trimmers, #pimoroni Plasma 2040 #rp2040, and a lot of LEDs along on the camping trip. /cc @Raspberry_Pi TODO: a nice case for the Plasma 2040; I did not bring a #3dprinter with me to this field in Hampshire!"

First off, let’s briefly mention the power. I take a large Jackery Explorer 500 battery with us, along with the same brand’s solar panel for recharging (when it doesn’t rain…!). This trip, I also added an Anker 548 Power Bank as an extra power source; however, the solar panel uses a different connector than the newer battery expects, so I also picked up an XT60 adapter, which allows us to use the panel with the Anker as well, when needed. Works nicely, and we got the sunshine needed to stay topped up ☀️

The lighting arrangement is simple. I cut the strip of WS2812B LEDs to length to fit the arch of the tent (this was the primary reason that I waited until we were actually on-site, to do this piece of work). The strip is inside a rubberised sleeve, which is handy for weather. At the “business end” of the LED strip, I’m running a Pimoroni Plasma2040 board – essentially, a Raspberry Pi Pico (RP2040) board specialised for driving lights, with a 4-way screw terminal, some extra push buttons, and a (as-yet-unused) StemmaQT/Qwiic connector, all with a USB-C connector. I’ve soldered the required wires to the LED strip and protected the connections with heat-shrink.

Code is (of course, if you’ve followed any of my IoT/embedded interests in the past few years) in MicroPython. I flashed the board with the latest Pimoroni MicroPython build, and – for now – trivially adapted some example Neopixel code to enable us to switch between two lighting formats, and also to switch the lights off again.

# - improve colour/brightness (currently a "dumb" division)
# - save/reload state
# - I2C sensor / input
# - (hardware) case for board

import plasma
from plasma import plasma2040
from pimoroni import RGBLED, Button

NUM_LEDS = 156

led = RGBLED(plasma2040.LED_R, plasma2040.LED_G, plasma2040.LED_B)

button_a = Button(plasma2040.BUTTON_A)
button_b = Button(plasma2040.BUTTON_B)
button_boot = Button(plasma2040.USER_SW)

led_strip = plasma.WS2812(NUM_LEDS, 0, 0, plasma2040.DAT)


while True:
        # dim white
        for i in range(NUM_LEDS):
            led_strip.set_rgb(i, round(253/3),round(244/3),round(220/3))
        # bright white
        for i in range(NUM_LEDS):
            led_strip.set_rgb(i, round(253/1.2),round(244/1.2),round(220/1.2))
        # off / black
        for i in range(NUM_LEDS):
            led_strip.set_rgb(i, 0, 0, 0)
        led.set_rgb(0, 0, 0)

# for i in range(NUM_LEDS):
#     led_strip.set_rgb(i, round(253/3),round(244/3),round(220/3))

Plasma 2040 board connected to LED strip, showing the heat shrink.Plasma 2040 board attached to a white USB-C cable, with an LED indicating power, hanging inside a tent with blue and black canvas.LED script arching through a blue tent, lit dimly.

Before you shout at me – yes, I know that having a bare board hanging there like that is “sub-optimal”, so next steps are to wrap it in some nice 3D printed case, as well as considering how or whether to use the Qwiic port… I’m thinking a rotary control for dimming would be more flexible than button presses. As noted in the code comments, it would also be very handy to have the state saved internally when the board is disconnected from the battery.

So anyway, that was a fun camping trip (with added making). Back to regular living situations, now.

How about you, how’ve you been?

[1] I am also now convinced that I need to get to CCC one year! 


Still messing with Helperbot

This little model has been fun to play with!

A silver blocky robot laying on top of a sheet of black paper. The paper has a wireframe version of the same robot drawn on it in silver ink.

Trying out some plotter work. We have an AxiDraw in the studio and we’ll be using it in an upcoming art show in the winter. There’s a nice STL-to-SVG hidden wireframe converter that I tried out to get this image. Plotted using a silver Posco paint pen.

A large silver blocky robot with red eyes, with a LEGO minifigure about half the size in front, holding a LEGO banana. In front of that is a very very small copy of the same blocky robot, but about half the size of the LEGO figure.

Testing out tolerances on the Bambu X1 Carbon. tl;dr I was able to print the model as small as 23mm tall, but it was tricky with smaller, and even at this scale, movements of the print head were liable to break off an arm or leg at the end of the print (depending on orientation and supports). LEGO banana for scale!

I also tested out some Gedeo gilding wax on the larger model for texture and interest, it’s a nice effect and I may use that with other makes in the future.

Liverpool Makefest 2023

Last weekend, we visited Liverpool for a few days. I had an ulterior motive for the trip – my friend Caroline Keep and team were running the Makefest 🛠️️ at the Central Library.

[aside: does anyone know whether there’s a good way to stay up-to-date and aware of where and when maker-centric (and adjacent!) events are happening around the UK? I’d love to get to more of them, if I’m able – in this case, I was following various related folks over on Mastodon, spotted that it was happening, and emailed Caroline to check how things were going]

It had been a few years since we were last in Liverpool, and of course it is a city that is always evolving. We caught the train from Euston to Lime Street on the Friday (I got a few bits of Mastodon-related work done on the way), and made our way to the waterfront where we were staying. It seemed as though every hen party, birthday celebration, and wedding was happening in Liverpool at the start of July, plus, there was the big On The Waterfront festival happening just a short throw from our hotel, so the city was really buzzing, even though the weather was sometimes a bit grim!

On Saturday we made our way to the library, and immediately bumped into my good friends Dan Lynch and Les Pounder (both of OggCamp fame, and with ongoing, separate, high reputes!), as well as finally getting the chance to meet Simon Walters in person, after many years of online connection. I’ve been a long-time supporter and volunteer of events like this one, but on this occasion I did skip the opportunity to get directly involved, as I wanted to be able to explore the show – so, here’s what I saw:

The Makers

The fantastic Neston High School in the Wirral have their own Makerspace, and they were busy recycling plastic into objects that they were selling just outside the library. I’d just been reading about makeshift plastic recycling methods in the latest edition of HackSpace magazine on the train journey up, and the ones on display here seemed pretty sophisticated (it turns out that they have a version of the Precious Plastics recycling system that the teachers operate, to press the plastic sheets). As someone who uses 3D printers, I’m extremely aware of the sustainability questions around the use of the materials, and this was very good to watch in action – it is wonderful that the students have access to their own makerspace at the school, and can learn to use these techniques. A step up from the CDT lessons of my youth!

Inside the venue, Caroline was kind enough to make us honorary Makers for the day, which meant that I got a brilliant badge… maybe next time I can do more than just look around, and exhibit something instead. Remarkable though it may seem, this is the first point in my life that I feel like it might be something I could do.

The Central Library is an amazing space. A friend referred to it as “the most magnificent public reference library in Europe” and it is hard to disagree – a series of galleries spiralling upwards to a glass roof, with some very special reading rooms. A brilliant spot to hold a maker event, and to inspire youngsters.

[WordPress(.com) is unable to embed an image from Pixelfed, so go look HERE]

I’ll skip a booth-by-booth account of of the visit (we were there for most of the day!), but here just a few of things that I was excited about:

  • the lower level of the library had some fun displays, including Spencer’s RC2014 kits (I really need to build my Pride kit!), Derek from Extreme Electronics with his Pico Cray (also just featured in HackSpace magazine issue 68!) and other gear, and a gentleman “Toy Hacker” who converts and upcycles old toys using electronics – his wife “Creative Stitch” had some absolutely wonderful mixed media pieces on display as well.

  • ConcreteDog aka Jo Hinchliffe (another one of my primarily-online contacts from the hacking sphere) was launching hot air balloons through the atrium space…
    [annoyingly, WordPress will not let me embed the video, so you can watch it HERE]
  • I was very excited to see Tanya Fish, who was busy showing off her NFC-related magic. Tanya is such a great ambassador for technology and a wonderful communicator, I’m a fan! (and I may have picked up a couple of her kits, which you should do as well, so that she can do more events like this!)
  • In the run-up to the event I’d been looking through the list of makers and saw Electric Flapjack Guitars… I looked up his site and saw the amazing stuff he is doing with 3D printing and traditional methods to create some very cool custom guitar builds. The Älgen did not disappoint: it is a thing of beauty…
  • There was a strong emphasis on sustainability and recycling, with the Plastic Tactics group also showing their recycled items. Overall, this has inspired us to think a lot more about how we can do more to improve our material usage and footprint.
  • Finally (just for this round-up, since there was so much more to see and investigate!) SolidMaps had an interesting 3D rendering of the centre of Liverpool, which was very cool. The challenge with this kind of topological modelling is the data for the buildings etc. This was printed using an SLA (resin) technique, which is something that I’ve not yet explored for myself.

Lots more was on offer to explore, and I tried to talk to most of the makers if they were not too busy, although I preferred to give priority to the youngsters who had come along with friends or parents so that they could have their imaginations sparked by all of the cool stuff on offer.

After the show

In the evening, we were fortunate enough to also be able to head along to DoES Liverpool to hang out with some of the makers. Adrian McEwen, yet another old friend and contact from the IoT and MQTT circuit, was one of the founders of this makerspace and co-working club and was gracious enough to give us a full tour – so many useful and exciting gadgets and tools, many of which I was aware existed, but don’t currently have ready access to. Thank you again, Adrian! (we may well be back…!)

A few more images [because WordPress(.com) will not let me embed a Mastodon post… 😠️]

I’ll end with an image taken at the makerspace, as it was a suitably inspiring way to conclude the Saturday.

Thank you, Liverpool Makefest team, volunteers, makers, and library staff! 🫶🏻

Makers are cool

Today was (hopefully the first) Brighton Mini Maker Faire.

Now, I may have aspirations to creativity myself, but the truth is that the artists and inventors who took (and deserved) an exhibition space at the Faire were all truly amazing people.

From Brighton Mini Maker Faire 2011

It was my intent to record a travelogue/podcast for Hacker Public Radio at the event, but as it happened, the background noise was not in my favour. I’ve shared a bunch of photos on Picasa[1] instead. They were all taken with a phone (albeit one with a pretty decent camera) so I’m sure better images and videos will emerge around the interwebs.

Aside: it must be about 10 years since I’ve been to Brighton, and although it was a fantastic day to be by the coast, as a driver I found the city to be maddening… although part of that definitely comes down to the accuracy of TomTom and other maps in navigating the one-way systems.

So… a Maker Faire. What’s one of those? well, basically, the concept is that of an event showcasing the creative talents of “Makers” – inventors and craftspeople, innovators:

Started in San Mateo, California in 2006, and now expanding to Detroit and New York, Maker Faire is the premier event for grassroots innovation. Held annually in each of these locations, the event may expand elsewhere in the future. Maker Faire is supported by MAKE Magazine and O’Reilly Media.

There was a big Maker Faire in Newcastle last year, but the Brighton “mini” event was certainly easier for me to get to!

Hopefully the photo gallery tells more of a story than I’m able to do justice to here, but I’ll summarise. It was a really fantastic day, and I’m glad I went. Some of my highlights and comments, in no order whatsoever:

Thanks to everyone involved in making the Brighton Mini Maker Faire happen (and apologies that I didn’t discover it in time to volunteer to help) – the sponsors, exhibitors, volunteers, and staff at the Brighton Dome. I had a great time.

Final note: if you were there and you’ve posted coverage of the event, don’t forget to add a link to the Lanyrd page – it is open to anyone (well, those with Twitter accounts) and it helps to link all the content together 🙂

[1] Why Picasa all of a sudden, not Flickr? well, it is primarily down to the fact that I took all of the photos on my HTC Sensation today, and the Google+ app uploaded them automatically… making it fairly simple to create and share an album in Picasa. I’ve not posted about G+ here so far, but you may have noticed the link to my profile in the blog sidebar. I still far prefer Flickr, with all of the features and superior usability it offers, but in this case Google Photos/Picasa/Plus/Whatever just made it simpler.