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Social Media Tool- 27 January 2013

Finally managed to get twitterfeed (http://twitterfeed.com) working on Facebook & LinkedIn.

To ensure that you receive our latest news, follow us on twitter and like us on facebook.

Twitter Feed is a great tool to check RSS feeds and automagically post them to LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Check it out.

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Hobbytronics on the cloud- 22 July 2012

After 1 week of testing we moved the Hobbytronics website over to Windows Azure this weekend. Initially we had some significant performance issues which was sorted out by upgrading our eCommerce software to the latest version. We also experienced that the latency in the West-Europe datacenter (Amsterdam) was much higher then North-Europe (Dublin).

Cloud computing is not only for big corporations - small companies (such as ourselves) can have access to cloud computing. The advantages of the cloud are numerous:

  • Cost effective;
  • Reliability;
  • Scalability;
  • Redundancy.

Why Azure - simple - our shopping cart is written in .Net (nopCommerce) and Microsoft currently offers a 90 day free trial on Azure - so we decided to try it. Since we are a growing our business we want to ensure the best reliability & performance for our clients. The SQL Azure database provides backup and automatic fail-over support.

Why not host a VM in South Africa? For exactly the same reason many web-sites are hosted overseas - price. Also when you choose Azure - there are several data centres around the world you can choose from - unfortunately Africa is not one of them.

Currently we are sitting with an approximate 150MB SQL database; the next step is to remove the BLOB's from the Azure database and install them on a CDN (Content Delivery Network) - which will lower the price (less computing cycles) & increase performance since CDN’s performs caching or proxies can handle these objects much better than dynamic created content.

Our experience so far - it works - no need to switch from & to MSSQL Management Studio, IIS Manager - the current Azure dashboard is slick and you can manage your infrastructure quite comfortably. Using the same dashboard we have setup bi-directional replication between our cloud database and our local database - so we always have a local copy on hand. Since we do quite a bit of interfacing in the office between our production, stock & accounting system (Entity Framework) this is a major bonus. Changes made to our local database are automatically propagated to the cloud and vice-versa.

You can publish your site directly from Visual Studio to Azure - or you can use the more traditional FTP method.

For more information:

Tags :  Azure
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Plex Media Center- 31 May 2012

This post is not about electronics components nor software development or microcontrollers. Instead its about a fantastic software package called Plex Media Center.

Over the years I have used a variety of Media Center software – it started out with MythTV – which I used to record television programs from DSTV. It supports ad skipping & automatically downloads DSTV program schedules. Together with an IR remote it can switch channels and records shows, movies or series on your PC – you simply choose what to download through the scheduler.

I grew my collection of movies and MythTV’s support was lacking in that respect so I switched to XBMC. XBMC is great – it support automatic downloading of movies & series descriptions – I have used it for nearly 2 years. Then I purchased my Samsung Galaxy Tab and found XBMC support not having an Android client. That’s when I found Plex it has a free (Ubuntu, Windows & MAC) server platform and free Windows client platform. For the Android client I paid approximately R50,- ( this entitles me to install it on my tab and on my Galaxy Y phone). It also has iPhone/iPad support.

A great feature is that Plex also supports DLNA – so your newer generation TV’s can talk directly to Plex.

Use Ember Media Manager to clean-up & rename movies (or series). Personally I prefer to use sorttv.pl to clean-up & rename series – it does a much better job then Ember.

 

Tags :  PlexXBMCMythTV
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Arduino's underestimated little brothers & sisters- 28 May 2012

The ATTiny’s are Atmels smaller 8-pin and up microcontrollers. The good news is that these microcontrollers can be programmed with the very familiar Arduino developer IDE & using the all too familiar digitalWrite, analogWrite, delay and analogRead functions. So no C++ or assembly required!

Not all off-the-shelf programmers support these little guys – but good news you probably already own the programmer. By using an Arduino & connecting a few jumpers from the Arduino to the ATTiny you can program the ATTiny from the Arduino IDE.

I tried several examples on the net and found the following to work best, please note you will need to use version 0022 of the Arduino IDE – I was unsuccessful in using the Arduino 1.0 IDE (there are known issues but it might work for you). Here is the link: Programming an ATTiny with an Arduino.

Update 08/06/2012: Found that the current latest release (1.0.1) programs fine with the updated instructions.

Tags :  ArduinoATTiny
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Samsung Galaxy Tab- 10 May 2012

I have been using my Samsung I780 for almost 5 years now - I have managed to keep the firmware and software up-to-date and I was able to-do most things I thought where sufficient for my communications needs - it supports Skype, 3G, has a Swype interface and GPS.

BUT it was getting slow and buggy - missing calls, GPS not working at times when it was most needed. So I went onto Gumtree saw a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10, negotiated the price and now I am the proud owner of one of the next generation Samsung devices.

In one word FANTASTIC, it is fast, reliable, supports my Gmail and Exchange accounts with Push email, and uses Google Maps. It also talks to my Plex home entertainment system (through DLNA) and the Plex App is only about R50,- Using a free Ubuntu One account I can also have access to all my documents with automatic synchronisation.

However I shortly found out it doesn’t support making calls (other then Skype and Google Talk). So back to Gumtree and few hours later found a Galaxy Y. I only want to make calls with the phone and the occasional other little nifty little apps. The price is low - about the quarter of the price than my second in line - the Galaxy SII - but I'll use the tab for keyboard & screen intensive work - much easier.

Back to the app store to try out Plex on the Y - download and install (since I already purchased it for my Tab I didn’t have to pay for it again) and now I can watch my movies and series on my Y - small - not very useful – but very cool and impressive.

Some usefull links:

Ps Ubuntu One is free for storage up to 5GB.

Tags :  UbuntuPlexSamsung
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Warehouse Stock Automation Project - Part I - 22 April 2012

Note: this article is for educational purpose only. Lasers are dangerous and can do damage to the eyes.

Our stock is growing, stock is moving around and to become more efficient we need to implement an automated system to retrieve and possibly manage our stock automatically.

Note – visuals of this projects progress are available on Facebook. When the project is complete a video will be posted to Youtube where you can witness the operation of this project.

Our first objective is a visual assistant. The software will position the servos and pulse the laser to indicate the desired item. When the item is scanned the laser will move to the next item - matching the closest proximity of the current item. When stock comes in from our suppliers - simply scan the stock-item barcode and once again the laser will indicate the current location of that stock item.

What we have built so far is a laser guided stock assistant. We took an off the shelf CAT5 wall mount, a servo bracket, 2 servos, a laser, an Arduino and an Arduino Ethernet shield and the result can be seen here.

I am adding a joystick which will ease with the movement of the servos. The Arduino code can be downloaded here:

The data protocol between the software and Arduino is in simple text format – which allows for easy readability – for a production environment I would definitely recommend some form of encryption / authentication. Simply telnet into the Arduino on port 80 to control the stock laser. The following commands are available:

  • L00 – disables laser 0;
  • L01 – pulse laser 0 (adjust the duty cycle and duration in the source code);
  • S0XXX – move laser 0 to position XXX (0 – 179 on X – axis);
  • S1XXX – move laser 1 to position XXX (0 – 179 on Y – axis).

The Windows software consists of a back-office application and an MSSQL database. The database contains the information of the product item (barcode) and the positions for the X & Y servos.

The focus of the laser can be adjusted by turning the knob at the front of the laser – from a 1mm2 dot to approximately 10cm2.

I mount the hardware on a 3U face plate instead of using the specially design enclosure which can house the Arduino and Ethernet shield. The face plate can be installed in a half-height 19” server rack containing some of my other projects.

In our next part we are going to build a mobile robot carrier which will use a wireless solution ( XBee or Bluetooth), instead of the Ethernet shield, stepper motors, more servos, proximity sensors, a vacuum pump and some extruded  T-Slotted aluminium to build an wireless automatic stock picker. The Arduino will be replaced by a Mega – to accommodate for more I/O.

The robot carrier will be powered by LiPo batteries and dock itself for charging. The carrier is also able to identity stock items by scanning our entire warehouse. This way we can add or move stock around and the robot will find the item after doing a stock-sweep.

In our third part we want to robot to automatically manage inventory - stock coming in from suppliers will be collected and dispatched to the correct shelf. The major challenge here is that 99% of our stock is hanging. We perforate our stock packaging an hang it on hangers. The challenge for the robot is to match the perforated hole and slotting it into the hanger. One idea is to retrieve the stock from an existing hanger at a fixed position. That way the Y - axis would remain the same. A CMOS camera , feeding images back to the PC for processing, can assist in tracking and locating the hanger.

The software & design is open source  - its still in pre-Alpha stage – but if you are interested you can email support@hobbytronics.co.za  and I can provide you with the source code.

 

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Analogue (Standard) and Digital Servos?- 18 April 2012

Here is a nice article explaining the difference between our standard analogue servos and the digital servos:

http://www.futaba-rc.com/servos/digitalservos.pdf

Tags :  ServoAnalogAnalogueDigital
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Items required to get you started on electronic projects- 07 April 2012

Some of the items required to work on electronic projects:

  1. Helping hands
  2. Power - supply

Power supplies can be expensive - fortunately there is a cheap alternative for a reliable power source. An old PC - power supply can be converted in a reliable tool - providing current protection and +12V, +5V +3.3V and -12 V.

See this post how to convert a PC power supply to a bench-top power supply: Converting a PC Power Supply

Sources for disused power supplier where you should be able to pick-up a decent power supply between R50,00 and R100,00:

  1. Screw drivers
  2. Bread-board
  3. Bread-board jumper wires ( Round PIN ) or ( Square PIN, recommended)
  4. Side cutter & pliers
  5. Multi-meter – preferably one where you can test conductivity audible

For those interested in learning to work with micro controllers (Arduino) we have the following kit available (click here) which contains items such as Arduino board, multiple sensors, LEDs stepper motor etc.

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