I attended a terrific event on Saturday in Amherst, Massachusetts. The Open Science Hardware Workshop at the University of Massachusetts focused on inexpensive, open source devices for sensing and controlling many types of processes and equipment. Many participants were interested in applying open source microcontrollers based on the Arduino standard. Arduinos are complete computers with CPU, memory, and I/O, and vary in size from smaller than- to a bit larger than a smart phone. They are easily programmable and support multiple output channels for controlling other devices and multiple input channels for feedback and for connecting sensors. A basic Arduino costs $30-$50. We were treated to several elaborate demonstrations of: precise control and reporting of temperature (Craig Versek), camera control to capture split-second events (Jiansheng Feng), wireless control of remote devices (Matthew Brockmann and Don Blair), 3D printing (Ben Gamari) and robotic execution of repetitive tasks (Don Blair). Each of these demonstrations used microcontroller electronics which cost less than $200.
I was even allowed to demonstrate the PLOTS Near-infrared Camera Tool and challenge the group to find a simple way to receive feedback from the flying camera rig so I would know whether the cameras had stopped clicking away when they are 1000 feet up the kite line. There were several intriguing proposals, although I remain convinced that the solution involving two tin cans with a taught line between them may have special applicability here.
The workshop grew out a recent realization that there is a critical mass of people at UMass, most of them graduate students in the physics department, who share an interest in leveraging the power of inexpensive, open source microcontrollers to solve problems faced by researchers and others. The commitment of this group to share their energy and expertise is manifest in their organization of this workshop (without funding) and their current effort to establish regular hacker gatherings to brainstorm and prototype solutions for anyone with appropriate problems. There is some obvious opportunity for collaboration with PLOTS, and the UMass group is currently searching for good projects in need of their help. If you think you have a problem in need of a state of the art open-source hardware solution, contact Don Blair, who played a leading role in Saturday’s workshop, or visit the UMass Open Science Hardware website.
Caption for main photo above: A third of the audience captured by simultaneous shots from the PLOTS infrared camera tool during my demonstration. Data from one channel from each camera were used to compute the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) which has absolutely no meaning in this context.