Monday, August 21, 2017

Finally, ADS-B for under $1000.

I am sure everyone has heard of uavionix by now, but wow! This company has it together. They found a potential market for more than the GA market. They figured if they built it, they would come. The UAS market is starting to be a potential market for ADS-B out units. UAS may be a multi-million unit market for avionics, including ADS-B. (or there may be some dopey proprietary solution, that will be expensive, and less compatible).

Using the technology they have developed and mass manufacturing allowed the development costs to be amortized over many, many units. The basic unit, echoUAT is available today for $999 and can be installed on most aircraft. This will output WiFi to a tablet or phone, as well as integrate with existing in panel EFIS systems. It does require an external WAAS enabled GPS though.

I promised before that there were under $1000 solutions. NavWorx ran into a little trouble with their internal GPS, and it may have been outputting incorrect position accuracy information. This has been resolved, but now their cost is about $1500. The store seems to not have anything available right now, so I don't know what the costs are.

There is another version of the uAvionix echo, that looks like a wingtip light. The Skybeacon will replace a wingtip light, and be a full UAT ADS-B out system that can be added to any aircraft, even certified. It can be configured using WiFi, and listens to the transponder in the aircraft for squawk codes. There is an option to feed tablets in the cockpit with traffic information.

As you can see there are finally options for the rest of us. Items we can afford that deliver high performance.

Are you going to get one?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

What Might Have Been part 2.

I was never a good reader. In high school and college I would go to the library to read Aviation Week, or look at books on flying (not many) and electronics. There were always little project books. About 1978, I went into the very back of a B. Dalton Book Store, and found a section on computers. I suddenly was someone who would buy books, and actually read them. B Dalton and Barnes and Noble merged in the early 80's so I would seek out book stores where ever I was.

Through the 90s I relied on Barnes and Noble (B&N) to have the books I needed for the various jobs I was pursuing. As technology changed, so did the book shelves. I think for a while my local B&N store had 2 or 3 rows with multiple shelves full of computer books. The variety was very good from end users, to developers.

In the late 90s Amazon was born, and my book buying shifted. I went from perusing the book shelves at B&N to shopping on line, and ordering whatever I needed. It didn't matter that it might take 3 days to get the book, it was probably available, and I was going to get it. Eventually Amazon gamed the system with their multiply rejected one-click patent, and I vowed never to buy anything there again.

It didn't matter, there were other book sellers on line. I mostly use, but there were others including A1 (now out of business). These book sellers would sell new and used books at a fraction of the price others were.

As technology started moving faster, some of the books were out of date by the time they hit the shelves. Online forums replaced the tech books. Open source software begat open source documentation, and eventually tech books seemed obsolete. I mostly stopped shopping in book stores, since everything I was looking for was on line.

A funny thing happened though. The magazine stores went out of business, so I would go to B&N about once a month to browse magazines for some of the fringe subjects I am interested in (Model Railroading, Wooden Boats). These are subjects I am interested in, not always for the actual heart of the subject, but they are craftsmen and hackers on a whole nuther level.

This month, I had an article published in Kitplanes Magazine and I wanted to get a couple copies. While wandering the aisles in B&N to see what else is going on, I noticed several kits that might be useful. The store carries Little Bits and Arduino kits, along with some other robots and RasberryPi kits.

The kits sold at B&N are not the cheapest, but are probably suitable to the retail space where clerks may not be able to provide much after the sales support. But maybe their staff knows a thing or two. On top of kit display, there was a sign:

Yes a mini maker faire at all the stores. I am hoping the staff is helping and participating. It sounds like they are moving in the right direction. Engaging the community. Go if you can, tell 'em it is a great idea.

If you go, please give me some feedback.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Becoming an Embedded Programmer

Some people want to be embedded software engineers. Not everyone is cut out for doing web pages, an making the page a little more blue (it happened to me when I was confused, early 2000's). No, some people like to get data in the raw, and make it something that people will use.

I've been hiring for the company I work for, doing interviews for the last year. It has been tough sledding trying to find young people out of school, and people with years of experience to understand what embedded systems can be. Some think, raw hardware, no operating system. Some others think once you have the OS, why not make it all web based. Others don't want to do Linux, and think the system ought to be Windows based.

The company I work for writes software for a Linux based embedded system. Most of the projects are reading data from some hardware device, quickly transforming it, and maybe jamming it back into another hardware device, or writing he values to a hard disk, or NVRAM. Data synchronization is paramount, it doesn't work to get something a few seconds from now mixed up with data that is happening now. Sometimes we need to keep two input sources in sync (IE audio and video), so two threads need to know when to start and finish.

Getting a Rasberry Pi or something similar (IE Orange Pi) is a great start. For the cost of a couple cups of coffee (or only one, depending on where you buy things) you can get an embedded system. The Pi systems are Linux based, and allow writing code right on the device. The Pi's also allow developing on desktop systems, cross compiling for the hardware.

One thing the Pi's all seem to have is rich AV capabilities. All seem to have HDMI out, along with audio in and out. Many folks use the Pi systems as desktop systems, all on their own. Most of a Linux system is available, including X windows, and desktop type programs (word processors, spreadsheets and browsers).

As a developer, play with one of these Pi systems, and use it as a data collector system. Go ahead, connect something to the GPIO pins. It could be an LM34 chip measure the temperature of the garage or something. Fire up a web server an built some Perl or Python to display he last 36 hours of temperature. Tada, you have become an embedded programmer.

Examples... Well give me a couple days. Do you want to collect the stuff you need? There is a service called Hackerboxes that will send you random projects every month to build. For September 2016, they have an OrangePi kit. I am downloading a desktop image while typing this in. Compressed the desktop is 540MB.

Keeping thing in sync, use mutexes and semaphores. If you don't know what they are, read on the web. They are a great tool to allow multiple threads to stay in sync, and keep the data correct and useful. If you code in Java, read about wait and notify Java.lang.object. If you use C or Perl look at posix threads.

It is cheap, and you can be an embedded programmer in no time.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What Could Have Been

Radio Shack is no more. I am both sad, and not surprised. I got my start with Radio Shack components, 80 in One kits, and Forest Mims books. I relied on Radio Shack for resistors, and my introduction to Integrated Circuits. They didn't have everything, but they had most of what I needed through college building computers and robots. If I needed some wire, or a 15k 1/4watt resistor at 8pm on a Thursday, Radio Shack was the answer.

Tandy wire and cable made some wonderful coax and other wire. The RG-58 was really nice, and available both with a braided center core and with a solid center core. Of course they sold connectors to go with it. Asking a clerk for help, they happily would cut custom lengths, or suggest pre-made cables.

Somewhere along they way, Radio Shack changed. After college many things were in flux. The computers that people built at home were no longer chips (yes, Radio Shack sold 8085, and 8080 CPU's plus others), but were boards. PC's that people built were now plug together boards. Radio Shack only sold some expansion boards, and pre-assembled computers.

Radios changed as well. Fewer and fewer people were buying component stereos, and self installing car stereos. I am sure the sales at Radio Shack declined during the late 80s and early 90s. To compensate, Radio Shack expanded into television sales, and other consumer electronics. Eventually Radio Shack was getting heavily into the cell phone sales for all the carriers.

Expansion of the consumer electronics area caused the reduction in the component floor space. The clerks didn't want to waste their time selling 10uf capacitors when a customer wanted a new cell phone. The knowledge of the staff was on the decline. I've heard stories about EE students that wanted to work at Radio Shack were actively discouraged because they might spend too much time helping with components.

The last couple of years, the president of Radio Shack was really making an effort to "fix" the decline of the brand. There were engagements with hackaday and other hobbiest web communities, The communities were slightly hostile, but most of the ideas were too little too late. The brand was bought by Sprint in 2015, and most of the stores have closed.

What Could Radio Shack Have Been?

I've been going to Micro Center for a bunch of years. They mostly were the place to get reasonably priced PC's. They had all the accessories, boards, power supplies cases, and cables. Their prices are good, for a retail operation. They had a closeout section that often had some amazing deals.

PC prices have plunged. When a PC or laptop used to cost $1000-1500 in the early 2000's, now a modern PC or laptop only cost $300-500. The gaming systems are not making as much money, it seems, and the book sales are almost non-existent. The shelves are still full of accessory boards, CPU's cases and power supplies.

Micro Center has expanded into the hobby space. They have a very large selection of Arduino boards and accessories. The Rasberry Pi selection is equally full. The prices are as good as mail order as well. At Christmas time, they had Rasberry Pi Zero boards for $5, but were sold out quickly. The aisles were full when I went there yesterday. I don't have any insight to the income this is generating, but people are buying the the hobby electronics, and I will continue to.

What if Radio Shack had followed the hobbyist trends? Well Radio Shack did sell Arduino boards toward the end. The prices were very high (I think I remember looking at an Uno for about $24). It was something I couldn't justify. What if they had kept the prices better? With the mall space rent as high as it is, they might have gone out of business sooner. Hard to say.

Do you think, if Radio Shack had done a better job with hobby electronics, they'd still be around?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Something Similar

My ideas are not unique. Someone else built an engine monitor using some hardware and an Android tablet. The engine monitor box is built by Skylab, and is called a Flybox. The app is in the playstore called Aircraft Instrument Panel.

It is more for ultralights, microlights and LSA's that have only a two cylinder motor. It has:

  • Airspeed (pitot)
  • Altitude (Barometric)
  • Vertical speed (calculated from barometric altitude change)
  • Engine RPM
  • Oil Pressure
  • 2 CHT
  • 2 EGT
  • Oil and Water temperature
  • Fuel computer
  • Battery voltage
  • Total flight hours

It would be nice if the 2 EGT's could be converted to 2 more CHT's (and maybe it can, I haven't looked yet). I posted a question on their facebook page. 

It looks based on their facebook page, they allow other users to help develop this system. Fly is fun is integrating with them as well. It shows at least for now there is a vibrant community around this system. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

ADS-B compliance, You Can Get a Loan For That

Do your homework, but sure, you can get a loan to install ADS-B right now. Congress just passed a bill that will allow government guarantees on loans for money used in GA ADS-B upgrades. The scheme er plan is called "NextGen GA Fund". The idea is, if you don't have the cash now to upgrade your airplane, just borrow some, and you will be ADS-B compliant sooner rather than later.

Just for fun, I filled out the application. It took maybe 10 minutes, and today I got a note showing I was approved! I can get a loan for $10,000 to equip my Cozy with some new avionics. What would $10,000 cover? Well it wasn't a total magic number. I've been thinking of the MGL smart panels since I started building my airplane. The 8.5" iEFIS would be a wonderful thing to replace the 6 pack in my airplane.

iEFIS Explorer

Their web page says $6000 for the main package, including engine monitor, attitude heading reference and their encoder output box for the transponder. To make this ADS-B out compliant I still need either a UAT or a Mode-S transponder. I'll choose the UAT, since I got this cool display that will allow me to see traffic and weather. The NavWorx for experimentals box was about $700 a year ago, but today it is $1300, which isn't horrible still. That would leave me about $2500 still to go. The MGL panel has remote com and transponder capabilities, and MGL sells com radios and transponders that would connect to that as well, for about $2500 (well $1050 for a com, and $1550 for a transponder). Not bad for $10000.

That upgrade would make my plane pretty sweet. Go fast, ready for the future, and still only have to pay about $320/month.  None of this pricing includes the wiring that would have to go in, or the installation. The installation in my plane, since I am the manufacturer, can be done by me. I can charge myself 50cents an hour if I want. I don't want to be all polly-anna but I could do a lot with ten grand.

If you have a certified plane, I am guessing something similar would be about $30,000, since installation wouldn't be free, and certified equipment would need to be purchased.

(this is where I want to put in a record scratch sound)

Wait a minute, 300 a month for 36 months, that is $10,800. I don't need to put in these avionics yet, I got almost 4 years to go. What if I put away 300 a month for 3 years and wait to see what is available then. I should also look into what I can get a load from my bank for. Probably at better or equal terms than these folks are offering.

There is nothing wrong with waiting 3 years. If it doesn't take a whole year to install all this, my plane will still be compliant in 2020. Avionics are getting better, and cheaper every year. Surely something will break loose and this whole mess will be affordable.

(If you don't know much about paying for airplanes, some airplanes can be bought for under $20,000. Putting $10,000 into an instrument panel for a $20,000 airplane won't increase he value of the aircraft much, certainly not $10K. It is a bad investment. My airplane cost a little more than $20K to build maybe twice that much, even still $10K in the panel won't help the value too much. If I did this it would be for my pleasure. Affordable is still relative, but airplane owners are not all rich people.)

I am sure there are some bankers and others who think this is needed. To me it is some PAC wasting congresses time. The could be working on PBOR2 or funding the FAA or something useful. More and more the congress get the prize for doing something, but not anything useful. (sorry about going political).

Friday, November 27, 2015

Time To Give Up on 8 Bits?

While we were sleeping in, Thanksgiving in the US, the Raspberry Pi folks released a new Pi. The Pi Zero is only $5. This is an amazing board, with 32bits of CPU, 512K of RAM and all the ports people would like, GPIO, HDMI and USB. It supports micro-sd for mass storage.

While the Arduino eco-system is in great shape, is there a reason to stick with an 8 bit CPU for most projects? The Uno and other boards start at over $25. Sure, you can get the boards cheaper on eBay and other Chinese importers.

The Arduino boards are perfect for many projects. If there is a simple input and output situation the Arduino is perfect for these situations. My garage door project is an example. The Bluetooth input, and the relay output makes the Arduino the simple interface.

There are other boards similar to the Rasberry Pi. The C.H.I.P is a $9 computer that has all the same IO as the Raspberry PI, but also has WiFi and Bluetooth built in. The C.H.I.P is still pre-order, but should be available soon.

The big deal with the 32bit processors like the Raspberry PI is it runs Linux (or Windows). That means development can happen on the board or cross compiled (more than likely cross compiled). It also means there are many debug tools available from GDB and tcpdump to a ssh console. The 32bit processors run quicker so other inputs (IE video) are more capable.

I've been planning on putting a 32bit board (waiting for my C.H.I.P) on my robot all fall. The robot will have an Arduino on it for sensor monitoring and motor control. The goal is the two processors will talk to each other and allow the 32bit processor handle thing at a high level, where the Arduino will be doing all the low level work.The 32bit chip can also run R.O.S.

There is a place for 8 bit processors, but more and more it is easy to pass them by.