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Riverside Weather Station

My personal project for my Drafting and Design 11 class was a solar powered, automatic weather station. The goal was to design a small, compact weather station with the following requirements:

  • Must be solar powered, with a battery for operation at night
  • Must be compact in size, with a non-destructive mounting method
  • Must be able to upload data to the WeatherUnderground network
  • Must be weather-proof
  • Has to measure temperature, humidity, air pressure, and UV radiation

I managed to meet a majority of those requirements; but shortly after I put the weather station up, the barometer stopped working. Currently, the weather station has a thermometer, a hygrometer, and a UV radiation sensor. However, the weather station is still visible on the WeatherUnderground website, where you can view the live weather conditions. By being part of the WeatherUnderground network, the Riverside Weather Station is helping to predict the weather on a hyper-local scale.

Weather Underground PWS IBRITISH466
I greatly improved the design from my old weather station in terms of efficiency. The weather station has an average power consumption of 340 micro-amperes. The backup battery is also far smaller; only a 1000mAh Li-Po battery from an old blackberry, compared to the old weather station’s 5Ah sealed lead-acid battery. I still used the same wireless 433MHz link for the data however, and that limited my range quite a bit.

In the end, I am very happy with the overall design and build-quality of the weather station. It is currently affixed directly above the tech-wing of my school, and is uploading data to WeatherUnderground every 11 minutes.

Prototype circuit:

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I started the project off by building the prototype circuit on a breadboard. I used all new components, except the 433Mhz radio, which I salvaged off the old weather station. But right before I did that, thought of using the ESP8266 Wi-Fi chip instead. I ran some tests on the chip at my school using a USB to UART converter, and I could not connect to the Wi-Fi network. Even though our network had basic WPA encryption, there was an additional login page after you connected. I could not figure out a way to login to that page, so I decided to use the radio link that I was familiar with.

I connected the new sensors to an Atmega328 micro-controller, and powered everything using a MAX604 linear voltage regulator. This regulator was fairly expensive ($7.00), but it had a VERY low dropout voltage in the mV range, which made it very efficient. I used this regulator to bring the 3.7-4.2V of the Li-Po battery, to a perfect 3.3V.

I decided to use an old blackbattery battery for this project because I had one laying around, and because I knew it had voltage protection circuitry, which would turn off the power when the battery got too low. In order to charge the battery, I went with a TP4056 module. This module is very efficient, and it is able to work off a 5v input. I also had a small, 5v solar panel laying around, which was able to charge the battery through the TP4056 board even in low lighting. Here is the full schematic for the Riverside weather station:

Circuit

Making a PCB:

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I decided to make the circuit into a PCB instead of making it on a perfboard. A PCB is more rigid and durable than a perfboard, and I wanted this weather station to be my “legacy” once I graduate from Riverside. I took the breadboard design and transferred it over into an Eagle CAD schematic. I had to search for, and even make libraries for some of the components I used.

Once I had everything in schematic form, I transferred it over to a PCB design. I set the border for the PCB to be a 100mmx75mm rectangle, which was the size of the double sided, copper-clad board that I had. Then came the long and grueling task of laying out the components and making the traces. I laid out the components as simply as I could, and this is how it looked like when I was done:

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To physically make the PCB, I decided to use my dad’s homemade CNC machine. I downloaded PCBGcode, a plugin for Eagle CAD, and used the default settings to export the etch and drill g-code files for the top and bottom layer. I then took those files over to a program called Autoleveler (a free version of this program is available somewhere on the internet). It took the etch files, and turned them into files that made use of the CNC machine’s probe tool.

I started up the CNC machine, put in a 0.1mm, 30 degree etching bit, then used two alligator clips to probe the surface of the copper-clad board. This told the machine where the surface was, which enabled the machine to etch the PCB with a uniform depth.

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I started by etching the bottom layer, then I used a homemade wooden jig to perfectly flip the PCB over, then I etched the other side. I did have to move the home position 100mm to the left when I changed sides.

After the etching was complete, I swapped the bit out for a 0.8mm drill bit. The PCBGcode plugin generated separate files for drilling, so I ran the appropriate file. I did not have to probe the surface this time, but I added some break-trough in the settings to make sure the drill bit went all the way through.

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After that, it was time to take the PCB out, and solder all of the components on. I was a bit off center with the holes on the top layer, but that was okay, since I wasn’t going to solder the top layer (except the vias) anyways.

 

Making a 3D printed box:

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One of the things my old weather station lacked was a proper enclosure (which is also why I never put the old weather station outside). With the help of my school’s 3D printer (Makerbot Replicator 2), I managed to build a very nice body for my weather station out of while PLA. I used about a 20% infill, with rafts and supports. I designed the case to accommodate the PCB, and I also made a little stand in the back for zip-tying the weather station to a pipe.

The PCB and battery fit perfectly into the base. However, the case still needed a lid. For some reason the Makerbot always stopped in the middle of printing the lid, so I decided to make it by hand out of some 1/4″ high density foam.

 

Software and downloads:

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In order to upload data to the WeatherUndergroun network, I had to write an application for the computer on the receiving end of the 433Mhz radio using the PWS API. The software was written in C# using Visual Studio, and it was quite similar to the old weather station software.

Speaking of receivers, I re-used the same receiver from my old weather station in this project. Mr. Mietzker, my tech teacher, donated an old laptop to function as the receiver for my weather station. I set up the laptop in a place where it should not be disturbed, and made a patch cable to connect it to the internet. I set up my receiver program to run when the computer starts, and set the computer to restart in the event of a power-failure. If nothing catastrophic were to happen to the weather station, it should continue to upload data to WeatherUnderground as long as the laptop has power and internet (both of which happen to go out frequently in my school).

Conclusion:

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In the end, I really liked how this project turned out. I learned a lot about 3D printing, and it inspired me to 3D print more readily in my future projects. I also learned how design a circuit with low power-consumption in mind.

I hope this weather station lasts a long time, and that it helps the students of Riverside to never get caught in the rain without an umbrella.

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$320 Battlestation/Video Editing PC Build

Around mid-summer, my ThinkPad laptop began to show major signs of wear-and-tare. The screen was slowly, but surely, falling off. The performance was not up to par either. Video editing was a nightmare; pre-rendered clips in Premiere Pro were playing back at a very frustrating 21 frames per second. I needed a major performance boost in order to be able to continue making YouTube videos (and to play videogames), so I decided to build a new desktop PC.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on this computer, so I tried to cut as many corners as possible by using parts from old computers I had laying around. The total price came out to about $320 USD, or $420 CAD, with shipping included. Here’s a parts list (of the stuff I had to buy) in CAD:

  • Motherboard: A78M-E35 V2 ($83 from NCIX)
  • Processor: AMD Athlon x4 860K Quad Core ($92 from NCIX)
  • RAM: Corsair Vengeance 8GB DDR3-1600 ($57 from NCIX)
  • Graphics Card: ZOTAC GeForce GT 740 ($88 from eBay)
  • Hard drive: Samsung 830 256GB SSD ($100 from eBay)

These items either had free shipping to my dad’s PO box in Washington, or were picked up in store from NCIX.

Installing the Motherboard and Peripherals:

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Assembling a computer in today’s day and age is as simple as building something with expensive LEGO. I started out this build by putting the AMD processor into the FM2+ socket on the motherboard. The stock cooler that came with the processor already had thermal compound applied, which surprised me since I was used to applying my own thermal compound to all of the old computers I fix.

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For the case, I went with an old HP Compaq case from some d-series desktop. The case had the mounting holes for an m-ATX motherboard, but it also has some mounting supports for an Intel cooler, which prevented me from mounting the motherboard in the case. Since the supports were made from thin recessed steel, I was able to bang them out with a hammer and install the motherboard.

At this point I also connected the motherboard to the 300 watt power supply that came with the old HP case.

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Installing the RAM and Graphics Card:

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Installing the RAM and graphics card was even easier than installing the motherboard, since all I had to do was align the pins and push them into the appropriate slot. The reason I went with a single stick of 8GB RAM is because I really needed 8GB for video editing. Back on my laptop I was peaking 6 or 7 GB of RAM while multitasking in Photoshop and Premiere simultaneously. The single stick also allows me to upgrade the RAM if I were to need more (my motherboard only has two RAM slots).

The graphics card I chose was the GeForce GT 740. I chose it based off its Passmark rating for both performance and value. Performance was about three times better than the Intel HD 3000 graphics in my laptop, and the value was quite high based on the G3D mark/price chart. However, in retrospect I could have gone with the GeForce GTX 750, which offers more than double the performance for about a $20 increase in price. Oh well.

Installing the Fans and Drives:

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I wanted this system to be very quiet and well-ventilated, so I decided to use the best case fans I could find. For the intake fan I went with a 92mm, 2.5 ampere behemoth, which I plugged directly into the motherboard! Well not really; I measured the peak current of the fan to be less than 1 ampere, and the average current to be around 500mA at full speed. So much for the 2.5 ampere rating… The exhaust fan was a smaller 92mm which was about half of the thickness of the intake fan (because the power supply also helps with the exhaust). That’s when I discovered the only downside of this motherboard… the rear fan connector has no PWM, which means that the fan is constantly at full speed. In order to keep the computer quiet, I tried different fans and used the quietest one.

For the storage, I went with a Samsung 830 256GB SSD, and an old Samsung 300GB HDD as a backup/storage drive. I mounted the SSD using a 2.5″ to 3.5″ inch converter that I bought from eBay for $3. The SSD can deliver read/write speeds of 300Mb/s and 500Mb/s, respectively. I used this drive to house the OS and programs, which made the overall computer very snappy when opening up programs.

Monitors/OS:

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Since the graphics card I used has a DVI and VGA port, I was able to utilize an old VGA monitor and a newer BenQ 19:10 monitor in this lopsided dual monitor configuration. The extra-space is super-useful for multi-tasking, even though the monitors aren’t identical.

For the operating system I went with a fresh install of Windows 7 Pro. I’ve tried Windows 8 and Windows 10, and I could never get used to the look and feel of the system. Plus there is no downside of using Windows 7 for the time being, since most programs support it.

Benchmarks:

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Benchmarks are only useful if you compare them to a result that you already know. Here are the Passmark results for my computer (in red) and my old laptop (in purple). The new $320 PC outperforms the (back then $800) ThinkPad E420 in most categories except the 2D graphics mark. This can be attributed to the Intel HD Graphics in the ThinkPad, which are specifically made for superior performance in Windows, but deliver sup-par performance in video games.

In terms of video-gaming performance, this computer can play Battlefield 3 and 4 at a very decent 40-45 FPS at the “High” preset and Minecraft at 80 FPS on High. These are the only games I have actually tested so far, but games like TF2, Kerbal Space Program, and Left for Dead 2 have no visible lag at the full 1650 x 1050 resolution and on medium settings. Overall, I am extremely satisfied with this computer, and even though the graphics card is not top-of-the-line, this computer should serve me well for the next 5-10 years.

Here are some more benchmark results:

 

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Electric Skateboard v3.0: The Banana Board

Introducing my third prototype electric skateboard: the Banana Board! It’s lighter, cooler-looking, and has a longer range than the second electric skateboard. This board features a CNC cut deck, a longer range than my previous skateboard, new electronics, and a smaller electronics enclosure. Weighing in at 11 pounds, it’s also the lightest electric skateboard that I have built so far. This post will be a rough guide/build log on the Banana Board. I’ll make a video on it as soon as I upgrade my computer.

CNC deck:

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The deck I used was cut from 1/2″ scrap plywood using my dad’s homemade CNC machine. I started the design process in Photoshop, where I imported and refined a deck design. I then took the resulting image file over to Inventor, where I made a 3D model of the deck. Then I took the 3D model and brought it over to Mastercam X5, where I was able to generate the code needed to cut the deck.

Down in the garage, I loaded the .NC file into Mach3 Mill, drilled some pilot holes using a counter-sink bit, then cut the deck using a 1/4″ end bit. I repeated the process again, and ended up with two identical decks. I’m really happy with the deck style I chose; it’s the perfect balance between speed and control for an electric skateboard!

Here’s the G-Code I used to cut the deck: Deck.NC

New Electronics:

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The new circuit for the electric skateboard consists of 2x 3s 4Ah 20C Li-Po batteries hooked up in parallel in order to power a 3s ESC, rather than a 6s like on the old skateboard. This means that the top speed of the skateboard is limited to about 22km/h. However, the speed limit is a good thing. These brushless motors are more efficient at lower speeds, and even though we used less capacity batteries, we get slightly more than 10km per charge.

The receiver we used was once again the GT2B, but I’m planning on replacing it with one of my Bluetooth smartphone receivers to make it more of a commute vehicle, rather than a super fun toy (which it most certainly is!). The drive system/motor assembly was the same as the one in the electric skateboard v2.0.

Conclusion:

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This electric skateboard is a great improvement over the old versions. It’s light enough to carry, yet has enough power and endurance to really be used as a “last-mile” commute vehicle. This particular board is for my 9-year-old cousin (who’s feet are shown in the very first photograph of this post) but the board definitely has enough power to propel a growing teenager like myself, and my dad (but not at the same time!).

The next board is going to be a variation of this banana board, but it’s going to include a chain-drive, and the electronics from the previous electric skateboard. I’m going to be making very detailed videos on this project, and many of my other projects once I finish building my editing workstation PC, so be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel if you haven’t already!

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