Maker Faire is more than just a cool place to go and hang out with several tens of thousands of like-minded geeks. It’s, as the event’s organizers say, “the greatest show and tell on earth.” Think of it as the largest high school science fair you’ve ever seen, where people are showing off the ideas and technologies they’re experimenting with at home and at work.
It’s the kind of place where you’ll hear about how a small Sebastopol winery is using low cost UAVs to change the way it buys grapes -- taking consumer technology and finding a new use that benefits a business. If that winery was to use commercially available aerial and satellite imagery, it would cost thousands of dollars each time it wanted to get a look at how the grapes in its contractors’ fields were growing. Instead, a few hundred dollars invested in a simple remote-controlled aerial camera platform lets them view grapes throughout the growing season and plan what should be harvested, and when. Simple filters applied to images can help analyze the data, using color to show what’s happening in the fields, without having to spend hours walking the rows.
That simple DIY drone is the sort of project that can be built using the open source Arduino platform. Built around a range of commonly available micro-controllers, Arduino and its many spin-offs are a bridge from the world of DIY electronics into the Internet of Things.
Where early Arduino platforms were basic programmable controllers that could be stacked with all kinds of multipurpose add-on boards (known as “shields”), the latest devices are designed to encourage experimentation – and include robots and came controller-like boards that can be fitted with LCD displays. Arduino’s easy-to-extend hardware design, and its extensive programming tools, make it an ideal platform for anyone who wants to go beyond programming into working with their own devices.
Need a tool for monitoring local environments, for counting components on a production line? Just build it with Arduino and hook it up to a PC or a Mac or an Android phone – or even a BB10 BlackBerry. There are libraries full of ready-to-run code, and books that guide you through building and deploying Arduino sensors (and kits that let you build them into mint tins…). The open source and education community that’s grown up around Arduino has worked hard to make the little controller boards a hub for innovation, and for education.
That said, there’s been one big hole in the platform: it’s been hard to connect standalone Arduino hardware to the Internet. You’ve been able to use networking shields to provide basic connectivity, but the tiny processors haven’t had the horsepower to run full blown web servers. If we’re to have a widely distributed Internet of Things, those things need to be able to interact with the rest of the Internet – using the protocols that have become the lingua franca of the web (and of the web-programming methodologies that are at the heart of the democratization of programming.
Connecting Arduino hardware to the Internet
The co-founder of the Arduino project, Massimo Banzi, used his annual Maker Faire “State of the Arduino” speech to reveal how the project and its partners were going to solve that problem, unveiling the new Arduino Yún board.
Yún means cloud in Chinese, and the new board mixes two different processors and two different development models to bring web services to Arduino, letting a controller be controlled over the web, as well as delivering information from sensors and devices using familiar web programming techniques. It’s an impressive piece of work that’s been developed in conjunction with Linux control systems specialists Dog Hunter, using a WiFi router SoC running a variant of the OpenWRT Linux-based router operating system.
This new OS, Linino, provides a basic environment for working with web services – as well as a simple web-based configuration tool that makes it easy to quickly reset a device and start again. The Linino side of the board communicates with the familiar Arduino Leonardo, using a new set of bridge protocols – so you don’t need to learn a significant amount of new code when building Arduino apps on the Yún board. If you’ve used a Leonardo before, you’ll be able to get coding quickly, as well as taking advantage of its controller outputs and analog inputs. Arduino apps (known as sketches) will send data over the bridge to web apps running on Linino, written using familiar languages like Python. The Linino side of the board looks like a wireless access point. You’ll be able to connect to it over WiFi or through the built-in Ethernet port (and you’ll be able to configure the network side of things using SSH or the Yún’s web UI.
For only $69 Yún is surprisingly cheap. It’s also a simple way of experimenting with sensor networks and controllers. A partnership with API brokerage Temboo means you’ll be able to connect your Arduino apps to social networks and consumer services, as well as enterprise platforms. That’s the real benefit of the new board, linking a hardware directly to the web. It’s easy to imagine an app that would tweet temperatures in a sauna, or a network of devices that could act as a sensor mesh across a ski run, letting skiers know just what the conditions were – before they left home. Adding Arduino to the cloud extends your reach, and lets you extend your software to new places, and to new inputs and outputs.
Bringing a DIY Internet of Things to your business apps lets you add innovation in ways that were impossible with traditional application (and hardware) development techniques. Arduino’s breadboard roots mean it’s possible to quickly prototype new sensors and their associated software. Mixing mobile sensor platforms like hexacopter UAVs and Arduino’s own $275 robot can take things in a whole new direction, letting you explore new ways of gathering information and using it in your applications, taking sensors mobile and giving you a whole new view of your business – and just possibly changing the way it works.