The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'CarPuter' Category

Information about my in-car computer system

Simultaneous Wifi and EVDO on Via MII motherboard

Posted by Deliverator on 3rd August 2005

My new MII motherboard has both a Cardbus slot and a Compact Flash slot. I currently have a Senao 200mw card in the cardbus slot. The Senao is one of the best wireless cards around, so I would like to continue using it, but I would also like to get an EVDO access card as well. All the ones I have seen require a cardbus slot, so I have to figure out a way to use the CF for wireless or go back to using my USB Orinoco adapter. One possible solution is the use of a CF->PCMCIA expander. These devices allow you to plug a PCMCIA card into a CF slot. CF and PCMCIA are essentially the same animal in different form factors, the only significant difference seems to be that CF only supports 3.3v card, whereas most pcmcia slots support both 3.3 and 5v devices. I will have to see if my Senao card will run off a 3.3v bus, or whether I will need one of the more expensive, fugly adapters that supports boosting the voltage.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Entropy and Coincidence….aka why god hates me

Posted by Deliverator on 2nd June 2005

I have been having problems this week with expensive devices all deciding to break at the same time for no apparent reason:

  • My eyeglass frames broke after many years of use. The lens prescription was pretty out of date, so it was about time anyways, but even with insurance it will be a pretty penny
  • The driver side door in my car is sticking. It appears that the plastic molding at the base of the door has pulled loose from the frame. I have to force the door to get it open. I am hoping on taking a close look at it tomorrow.
  • A parabolic shaped section on the right side of my touchscreen for the carputer has gone dead. I have tried recalibrating/resetting it a number of times to no result, so I think it needs replacing. I am not sure whether I will try to do so myself, send it back for repair (depends on cost and difficulty), or just get a new one. I could definitely find use for a 7″ SVGA screen with VGA & RCA even without the touchscreen if I decide to get a new one. For now, I am back to using the glidepoint touchpad. I may just decide to do without a touchscreen a I found it to be more trouble than it was worth, sometimes, and a replacement may be too much for my already stretched budget.

Posted in CarPuter, General | No Comments »


Posted by Deliverator on 27th May 2005

I have decided that I am going to hold off on any further SIFF blog entries until the end of the festival, unless absolutely necessary. At the end I will try and do some sort of SIFF 2005 retrospective with reviews, pictures, etc. Until then, back to fun hackery.

Woke up this morning at a loss for what I could plan for the afternoon’s ROV build meeting. The last few build meetings have been “light” on the building, as we have been waiting on a number of parts to arrive. The meetings have been productive in terms of firming up the ROV design and doing fundraising. Two of the contacts made through cold calling people in the phonebook have really paid off. Novaray robotics has donated $2000 worth of 12 conductor neutral buoyancy cable and a very nice pressure housing that will serve as the camera/electronics box. Novaray in turn introduced me to a company called Seal Technologies. The have a very nicely equiped computer controlled machine shop where they can make just about anything (they currently are turning out ultra high precision parts for laser systems). Not only have they offered to do free machining for us (they are already doing some modifications on the pressure housing), but the owner has offered to teach a “machining bootcamp” for the kids this summer. Anyways, back to being at a loss. I went out to the mailbox and found a few pleasant surprises (as well as the usual bills and junkmail) waiting for me. The LED clusters (36 white LEDS on each board) that I ordered for the ROV had arrived, as well as an OBDII reader for the car.

I brought the LED clusters to school and Kevin and I proceded to “pot” them in some clear glass candy dishes using acrylic casting resin. The resin sets totally clear (unlike most epoxies) and without bubbles. The only real downsides that I have observed is the stuff stinks to high heaven and takes several hours to cure to a point where it has much mechanical strength. We ended up using up maybe a third of the resin. We may use it to seal some cable passthroughs or fill some of the electronics comparments with it entirely, so I will probably be taking a trip to Michaels to pick up some more of the stuff.

While waiting for the acrylic to set, Kevin and I checked out the documentation for the 2003 “edubot” controller that we will be using as the brains of the ROV. We originally intended to use a FRC controller, but it is too big to fit in the pressure housing, so we scrounged around and came up with this instead. It is much smaller, but should have enough IO and processing ability for our uses. After googling around for a while, we managed to find documentation for it hidden away in a disused corner of the Innovation First site. Turns out that the controller is more or less a basic stamp. The last time I did any serious programming in basic was probably about 1987, so lets just say I am a little rusty. I aim to try and get some test code running on the controller sometime tomorrow.

After the meeting, I headed over to Vetco and picked up the lamp socket connectors used by the LED clusters. I also picked up some banana probes and alligator clips. While ringing up my purchases, I noticed a solitary CCD camera sitting in the back of the display case near the register. I checked out the spec sheet and they were pretty respectible. Most importantly, it didn’t have a ring of lights around the camera, as almost every “security camera” model seems to these days. Given that the camera is going to be behind glass in the pressure housing, any lighting coming for the camera itself just results in a hell of a reflection! Anyways, I added the camera to the pile and headed home with my wares.

Once home, I tested the camera out and found it to produce a very clear picture. Color accuracy, resolution, noise levels all seem much better than the SWANN security camera that I purchased prior to Atlanta. As far as I can tell, the only way in which the SWANN camera beats this one out is in its ability to use a wide angle lens. I haven’t measured the viewing angle on this one yet, but just eyeballing it I would say it has around a 40 degree FOV. I think we will use the SWANN for general navigation and have this one focused on the near field immediately in front of the ROV. Of course the true measure of these cameras will be how good an image they can provide using only the illumination provided by the LED clusters.

While waiting for it to get dark (so that I could test the cameras using only the LEDS), I went out to the car and installed the OBDII reader that arrived in today’s mail. For those not in the know, OBDII is a government mandated interface to your car’s ECU (Engine Computer Unit?). It can be found in pretty much all cars manufactured since 1996 (except for a few that run newer protocols). By hooking up a handheld reader device or computer interface to the OBDII port (which by mandate has to be within a few feet of the steering wheel) you can gain access to a wealth of diagnostic information. While you can’t alter any of the engine computer’s settings, the information provided by the ECU is invaluable for tuning purposes, early troubleshooting of problems/breakdowns and can be used to create a “digital dashboard” as well as do neat stuff like intelligently track gas usage. Installation of the unit from ScanTool was a snap, although I am going to have to go back tomorrow and come up with a more permanent mounting solution for the interface box and a way to run the cables out of sight. The unit immediately powered up on connection to the OBDII port and started spitting out data when queried by the manufacturer’s program. OBDII is actually a query based protocol. You basically ask the car for a certain piece of data and it spits it back to you. Because of the slow cycle speed of OBDII (on the order of 3-4 hz if standard compliant), it isn’t really practical to monitor more than 7-8 values in realtime. What is really needed is a program that allows you to specify an update interval or relative importance value of some sort to the various parameter that can be monitored. So, for instance, I could measure engine RPMs and speed once a second, but only monitor oil temperature once a minute. All the programs that I have tried thus far let you specify which parameters to monitor, but query them all at equal intervals. The good news is that there is a lot of third party software available for this particular unit, and a lot of sourcecode as well. In particular, ProScan, Digimoto and PCMScan look promising. Unfortunately, they are all commercial and none of the freely available things that I have tried so far are nearly as advanced.

After a fairly unnecessary trip to a gas station (my tank was still pretty full, I just needed an excuse to try out the OBDII), I returned home and tested out the new camera with the lights. While not as good as in daylight, the camera still picks up quite a bit of detail and color information from an object placed 10+ feet away from the lights, so I think it is going to be a winner. With an additional LED cluster (or better focusing of the light coming from these ones) I think we will have just about an ideal set up. I just wish Vetco had another camera, as we have really been planning on having 3 cameras onboard.

Clusters setting in acrylic

Whole lot of light

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff, Titan Robotics Club | 1 Comment »


Posted by Deliverator on 4th May 2005

Last night as I was headed out of Crossroads, I noticed a table filled with geeky looking people and a sign announcing it as the monthly Eastside Webloggers group. Having nothing else to do (sad, I know), I grabbed a nametag and introduced myself. Apparently they have been to arrange the meetings for quite some time. It was interesting to meet someone that uses the service and get their take on the recent switch to being a user paid service. I also had some fruitful conversations about (particular data-mining thereof), various blogging packages and some new, highly effective methods of blocking comment and referal spam. So, in a way I got my hacknight anyways. After all the caffeine from camping out by starbucks all evening the thought provoking conversation and some research into ROVs that needed some time to sink in, I had great difficulty getting to sleep. I ended up getting about an hour and a half of sleep before needing to get up and get ready for my first client of the day.

Today I had a new corporate client that ended up being very pleased with my work. I have a feeling she will be a good source of referals, as she runs a business management company that handles front office tasks and rents space to dozens of small businesses. Afterwards, I had just enough time to stop at Fry’s and pick up iGuidance and install it on the way to the first ROV design meeting. It took quite a while, as it does some extensive map parsing/decompression during the installation process. I actually needed to put the carputer into suspend mode midway through the installation process so that I wouldn’t be late for the TRC design meeting. The installation resumed with no complaint a few hours later and I have to say I am extremely impressed with this package. The maps are great, positioning is dead on, controls large and simple to use with a touchscreen and it has what is easily the best adaptive turn-by-turn routing system I have seen. If you make a wrong turn, it instantly recalculates a new route to get you back on track. There is an updated version (2.1) that is available for the cost of S&H that I am requesting from the company. It has a couple nice features, including full-screen mode, better skinning support and 500+ MB of new maps. It is easily the best package I have use, but this update should make it that much better.

The ROV design meeting went well. Attendance was high and the kids were eager to ask questions and voice their opinions. We have a pretty good idea sketched out as to the general components and functionality of the ROV and should be able to start on the frame this weekend while we let some of the other subsystem designs gel a bit. One thing that I wasn’t expecting is that outgoing TRC Ceo, Cheuk allocated us $625 from the TRC budget for the project. I was expecting to have to do some fundraising before any serious construction could begin, so this was a nice windfall. We should be able to get the ROV itself build for somewhat less than that, but some of the things we need to do with the teather to enable reliable signalling over 350+ feet of cable will likely push us a few hundred over. Still, we won’t have to worry about that eventuality for some time to come. Towards the end of the design meeting we took a conference call with Fredi Lajverdi from Carl-Hayden HS. He had a lot of great tips for us and gave us some good leads on parts sourcing. I am really glad to have found someone as generous with his knowledge as Fredi, as many within the Marine community seem to keep pretty tight lipped. I have heard that there isn’t nearly the same spirit of “gracious professionalism” in the MATE competition as is the norm in FIRST. After MIT’s defeat at the hands of a high school team, I have a feeling they are going to be even more stone faced next year. Hopefully, the friendly collaboration between our two teams can help to change this sad trend.

After the meeting, I drove Greg Barello home and pulled into his driveway right as Larry was getting home. We ended up talking robotics for about an hour before he and Greg had to get ready for a lecture at Beneroya Hall. Larry is working on a really neat, two wheeled balancing robot (think a Segway sans driver) that he is planning on entering in the Robo-Magellan contest in the fall. The whole contest centers around robots autonomously finding their way to a destination (hopefully following a series of traffic cones) over fairly difficult terrain. Last years robots didn’t come close, but a lot of people have kept their eyes on the prize and Larry says there is a report about a week old of the first robot to sucessfully touch the final cone, though it bypassed most along the way. Ryan wants to create an entry and I am interested in working with him on the task, but I think he is underestimating the scale and complexity of the project, particularly given how little time remains. Larry has been working upon his entry for several years. Given my time commitments to the ROV project I don’t think I will be able to devote much time to the project until summer, at which point Ryan intends to go on an extended bicycle trip with my brother along the whole of the eastern seaboard…I also somehow managed to find the time to wash two cars and see the movie “Kungfu Hustle,” so who knows, we might pull it off. If nothing else, it should give me a chance to learn more about GPS, accelorometers, gyroscopes and computer vision systems.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff, Titan Robotics Club | 2 Comments »

Carputer Revamp

Posted by Deliverator on 28th April 2005

The car-puter revamp is underway. Today I:

– Picked up a Mini-ITX case today at Computerstop and mounted my existing gear in it. Computerstop also stocks Epia motherboards, but not the model I want. The case is manufactured by Morex, which is a pretty well known small form factor case manufacturer. The case comes with a small DC powered ATX powersupply (needs a regulated input, so inappropriate for my purposes) and a laptop style transformer to power the thing. I tossed both of these into the spare parts bin, as I am using my Opus PS. I think there may be just enough room to shoehorn the Opus inside the case, if I mount it upside-down to the cd-rom mounting bracket. Doing so will require drilling some holes and breaking out the tap and die set, so I put it off for now and instead just punched a hole in the side of the case to pass through the ATX power cable to the Opus, mounted in its usual external project box. The case comes with all the hardware necessary to mount a slim-line (laptop style dvd or cd-r drive) optical drive, including the adapter for the funky notebook connector on most slimline drives to convert it to using a standard 40 pin eide connector. It also includes a 40 -> 44 pin cable adapter for using notebook hard drives. All in all a very nice case, and quite an improvement over the old project box, which itself was a major upgrade from mom’s orange tupperware…

– Got a Holux GPS “mouse” cheap off eBay. This is pretty much a gps receiver built into a small waterproof puck that sticks to your car roof via a strong magnet. These things have a single USB cable leading from them which is used for both power and data. The puck shape with the single usb cable leading away makes them look a lot like a mouse, hence the name. This particular model seems to have gotten really good reviews and the price was most definitely right.

– Hoovered the inside of the car and scrubbed the floormats. I try to keep my car cleaner these days than pre-carputer. Nothing worse than finding a french fry stuck in fan.

Posted in CarPuter, General | No Comments »

Carputer Plans

Posted by Deliverator on 26th April 2005

I have been contemplating upgrading the carputer for a while now. I originally was planning on waiting for the smaller Nano-ITX boards to hit the shelves, but it seems increasingly unlikely that they ever will, at least not in significant numbers. Via keeps showing new generations/models of nano-itx boards at trade shows, but unlike Mini-ITX boards, they really don’t seem to be selling them in the general marketplace. If they are selling them at all, it must be to OEMs/ODMs exclusively. It is kind of sad, because these microscopic motherboards have great potential for hobbyists. So, what I am thinking of doing is buying a Via Epia MII 12000 board. This Mini-ITX board has a built in CF and Cardbus slots and has a processor that is twice as fast as my current one, while only consuming a few more watts of power. I plan on putting a 1xRTT/EVDO card (cellular based internet access) in the Cardbus slot and a Bluetooth card in the CF slot. I will run an antenna for the 1xRTT card up to the roof and then run ethernet to a WiFi access point in the trunk (also with a roof antenna). Using Microsoft’s ICS system to link the two, I should be able to get internet access on my Laptop or Jornada as long as I am reasonably near my car.

At the same time, I plan on replacing the existing GPS system with one that speaks NMEA standard sentences and has an external antenna jack. My current GPS solution (kindly loaned to me by Matt Westervelt) outputs a proprietary Rockwell binary protocol, which is only understood by a few pieces of long (in internet time) defunct mapping software. The skymap software that I use works well, but the maps are getting a bit dated.

I may also purchase a new USB hub, as the one I currently use seems to have a flakey port. I will have to test it out tomorrow, to be sure. I could simply wire up some more ports to the motherboard USB pin headers, but VIA boards don’t cut power to the USB ports during suspend to ram mode, which tends to result in a higher power drain on the battery. By plugging all USB devices into a hub powered off the +5v line coming off the supply, as soon as you put the computer into suspend mode, all power to USB devices is shut down, which is perfect for my uses.

Lastly, I plan on replacing my car battery with a Optima Yellow Top deep-cycle battery. My current battery has suffered enough at my hands and no longer holds a very good charge. I don’t need hard cranking ability (in cold weather, for example), so a deep-cycle battery should be a better fit for all the charging/discharging I tend to do on my battery.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Opus, solved, just in the nick of time!

Posted by Deliverator on 9th March 2005

Got my Opus DC-DC power supply back from repair yesterday. They definitely repaired, rather than replaced it. I put two tiny black dots on the PCB before sending it in for repair to double check their honesty (In case they sent me back the same unit, told me that it was a new one and then blamed any problems on me). So far, it is working perfectly. I am going to write them and find if my suspicions, as to the cause of the problem, were correct. The power supply will undergo some serious stress testing over the next few days, as I am hauling a number of students down to Portland for the Pacific Northwest Regional First Robotics Contest. Everyone please wish us luck in the competition!

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff, Titan Robotics Club | No Comments »

Opus Solution?

Posted by Deliverator on 6th March 2005

I recently sent my Opus 90W DC-DC power supply back for repair last week after reading this forum posting at mp3car. It seems that some of their 90w supplies develop a problem where the supply goes into a “thermal safe shutdown mode” when you try to start it after a cool (anything less than about 50 degrees F) night. This control circuit was meant to keep the system from starting up in abnormally cold temperatures, like -10 to 20 below, but becomes miscalibrated or something over time. Because of the large capacitors supplying juice to the controller, the power supply stays in shutdown mode for days after disconnecting the supply from the battery. The only way to get it going again quickly is to pull the fuse on the power supply, which is a rather difficult task, considering that my supply resides in a sealed (although well ventilated) project box beneath the passenger side seat. So, I sent it back for repair/replacement. USPS tracking shows that it was delivered last Wednesday. They promised they would have it repaired or replaced within a day of arrival. I should hopefully have the car-puter back into shape before heading down to Portland on Thursday. Having the GPS would be very helpful, as I don’t really know my way around Portland very well.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Posted by site admin on 12th December 2004

I pulled the processing block from the car for the umpteenth time in recent history. I think isolating the problem is going to necessitate a more or less complete system inspection. This means I am going to have to remove the passenger side seat, which I really don’t want to do. The last time I removed the seat, one of the bolts slipped and fell through a hole in the floor and into some sort of compartment on the under-side of the chasis. So, there are now only 3 (rather huge) bolts holding the seat in place. My guess is I could recover the missing bolt fairly easily, if I could get the car up on jacks. There is no way I can get myself under the car without proping it up quite a bit, as I am “big boned” :)

Maybe I could con my skinny brother into doing it for me? I bet he could change my oil too, as long as he is under there getting dirty!

Posted in CarPuter, General | No Comments »