Illustrating circuits and electronics using Fritzing

Illustrating circuits and electronics using Fritzing

Arduino bottomI found Fritzing a few days ago and have been having a lot of fun with it. This free software/website combo allows you to easily create great looking electronics illustrations. It can handle pictures of the actual parts (like an Arduino and a bread board), schematics, and even PCB layouts.

I’ve decided this would be a great program to use for making illustrations for SproutBoard. Fritzing comes with a bunch of Arduino graphics but the SproutBoard is unusual in that it mounts an Arduino upside down. Nobody else does this so I had to make the graphic for it from scratch. It was surprisingly easy! Fritzing uses SVG graphics so I was able to create the image in just a few minutes using Inkscape. You can download my custom part if you’d like to use it. I plan on making custom parts for the SproutBoard as well, but those will be a bit more complicated so it’ll be a while before I finish them.

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Using my Arduino, a 7-segment LED, and a shift register

Using my Arduino, a 7-segment LED, and a shift register

7-segmentI dug out a pile of my old electronic components to see if anything would be useful with my Arduino only to discover that most of the stuff I have just isn’t needed when you are using a microcontroller. I did, however, have a 7-segment LED. At first I plugged it into the outputs on the Arduino, but this used up nearly all of them to run the single 7-segment LED. I did some searching and came across the amazing shift register. I had never used one before, but found this great introduction at bildr, including sample code for controlling eight LEDs. I replaced the LEDs from the example with my LED segments and voila! It worked! I didn’t feel like getting my camera out, so this post has an awful cell phone picture with bad lighting. It is showing a J on my 7-segment LED.

Shift registers are amazing. I used an 8-bit shift register, which let me control 8 pins using only 3 pins on my Arduino. Even cooler, you can daisy chain the shift registers. For example, if I had two 8-bit shift registers then I’d be able to control 16 pins using the same 3 pins on my Arduino. With three 8-bit shift registers I could control 24 pins using only 3 pins, and so on.

These little gizmos cost $1.50 plus shipping at SparkFun, but if you are willing to wait for slow shipping from China then you can get a pack of 20 for only $4.99 with free shipping at AliExpress ($0.25/each). Turns out you can get a lot of the little bits and pieces available at SparkFun (like push buttons, ICs, and LEDs) for significantly less on eBay and AliExpress if you are willing to wait for it to arrive from China or Hong Kong.

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My first Arduino

My first Arduino

Anna loves the ArduinoA few weeks ago I ordered my first Arduino as part of the SparkFun Inventor’s Kit. I bought direct from SparkFun without realizing that it was the same price on Amazon but with free shipping. Bummer, but I’ve moved on with my life. Anyways, it arrived today and I got to spend an hour or two playing with it. Oh man is it fun! The kit came with a few basic tutorials to get you up to speed with basic circuits (already had this covered) and the Sketch programming language (which is basically a version of C/C++), along with a small breadboard and a bunch of electronic components.

I ran through the first few example circuits and got to one that played a little tune using a piezo element (a little speaker). Anna really liked it, and I showed her how to hit the reset button on the Arduino to make it play the song again. I decided to make it more fun for her, so I added a few LEDs that alternate between yellow and red with each note, a push button to reset the song (so she doesn’t have to wait for the Arduino to reset), and eventually a second button to play a different song. She had a blast hitting one button for Baa Baa Black Sheep and another for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, both of which she has been singing nearly non-stop all week. I’m really excited to make a bunch of little electronic toys for her! I hope to make some worth packaging up as kits and selling on SproutBoard, but those projects will have to wait until we make a little bit of money off of the main product line.

In the meantime, maybe you’ll enjoy a video of Anna enjoying my Arduino:

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Starting a new company

Starting a new company

About two weeks ago I was happily drifting off to sleep when my cell phone rang. I hate getting voicemails more than I hate getting woken up in the middle of the night so I took the call. To my surprise it was a mission buddy, Jon, pitching me a business he wanted me to invest in. I’ve been trying to come up with a unique physical product to sell for years, so I was very excited to have one practically fall in my lap. I did some research, liked what I saw, and a few days later we signed an operating agreement for our new company. A few days after that (on my birthday!) we finalized a deal to purchase the rights to our new product from its creator.

So what, you may be asking, does this new company sell? SproutBoards. We aren’t a household name yet so you probably have no idea what that is, so let me explain. A SproutBoard is a sort of motherboard or breakout board for the popular Arduino microcontroller. This gives any SproutBoard user a slew of inputs that can be connected to sensors, outputs that can be used to control equipment, and the ability to use one of our acrylic chassis to mount their project on the wall or in a standard server rack. In addition to that we are developing software for the SproutBoard that will make it easy to tell your SproutBoard to take different actions based on the input of sensors.

sproutboard

So what can you actually make with a SproutBoard? Here are a few ideas:

  1. A server room monitor that can email, txt, or call you when the power goes out, it gets too hot, it detects flooding, or an unauthorized person tries to get to your equipment.
  2. An indoor greenhouse that turns the lights on and off as needed, maintains the appropriate humidity, and waters the plants when they get thirsty.
  3. A home security system that lets you use an RFID key fob to enter your home without a key, uses a low cost prepaid wireless service to alert you to problems even if the power is out, and lets you grant access to visitors even if you aren’t home.
  4. An aquarium control system that monitors temperature, pH, salt content, oxygen levels, and the water level, and lets you know the moment your fish are in danger.

Those are just a handful of the projects that we’ll be providing full tutorials and documentation for in the near future.

Well that is pretty much it for now. My partner and I have been working long nights trying to get the website moved over to our own server, getting documentation cleaned up, and doing all the tedious new business paperwork. We’ve been brainstorming new products and have a long (very long) list of products we plan on developing in the near future. It’ll be a few days before our inventory arrives so we’ve temporarily suspended sales but you’ll be able to place an order soon.

We are also gearing up for the Mini Maker Faire in Austin on May 5th. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend, but my partner will be there showing off a hydroponics system built using a SproutBoard. If you live anywhere near Austin, please stop by the Maker Faire and say hi to Jon for me!

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