Monday, 13 July 2009

Back again!

Camera should be working fine again now, I switched to Orange and the signal appears to be excellent. I think the 3 connection used to roam onto Orange anyway, but for some reason the roaming stopped and that was why we lost connection. I tried Vodafone in the meantime, but no signal there! So onto Orange and a 30 day/£15 month contract, which will mean I can stop remembering to top up once a month too.

The camera is now positioned at the top of the field, looking over the valley towards Devauden. Lets hope the wildlife find it, and we get some good shots again!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Camera Offline

Hmmm, something seems to have happened to the 3UK network - or at least to my connection to it. So while I figure that out, I'm afraid the camera will be out of action.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Caught this fantastic picture of a rabbit posing for the camera. Pretty big rabbit mind, could it be a hare?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


Funny, you wait months for an animal to appear in the night photos, then all of a sudden two arrive - within an hour of each other, and at the same spot. First, the rabbit - then an hour later, what looks very much to me like a rat. Unless its the rabbit, bending over. Its eyes look different to me though, and surely a rabbit wouldn't sit around for an hour? Wierd.

(Click on the photos to see big versions!)

Monday, 23 February 2009

Field Photos in the Kitchen

The idea behind developing the solar powered wireless camera and putting it in the field was to put the photo's it sent on display in the kitchen, to bring the field alive for the family, and remind us that we had it!

Having got the camera up and running successfully, attention turned to the second part of the plan. What I wanted to do was display the photos in some kind of a digital photo frame, that would automatically keep itself up-to-date, so we could always glance at the latest picture without any hassles.

I wasn't starting from the beginning here, as I'd already had a (long-since abandoned) system based around an old Mac Mini, a tiny 7" Lilliput screen and a wooden picture frame, which my friend Richard had neatly carved out to take the screen. This was originally used as a media station to control and play music, but was more trouble that it was worth. Anyway, it seemed like these were the right parts to build a nice tidy picture frame from, with the Mac Mini hidden away, and the little screen on a shelf showing the photos.

A fair bit of Googling and some hackery led to a nice php script to pull the latest picture from my Flickr account, and I worked it up to reload every 10 minutes, so it was pretty up-to-date. I found PlainView a really nice (and free) full-screen web browser for the Mac too, which meant I didn't have to have all the menu's showing - making this look really just like a photo frame!

In reality, just having a photo on a screen seemed a bit dull, so it was back to the hackery to put a "news feed" on the bottom of the screen, underneath the photo. This has worked out really well. We now have a php script which loads up a bunch of rss feeds every 10 minutes (BBC News, Weather, Sport) and then a little piece of javascript which scrolls through the feeds - with a lovely fade out effect.

The system has been up and running on a shelf in the kitchen for a week or so now (though I still need to hide the keyboard-less and mouse-less Mac Mini and tuck the wires away). It has worked out really well. We glance at it often, and see some fantastic blue skies and sunsets, and being able to check the news on the bottom of the screen is a real plus.

Another bonus is that this formerly redundant Mac Mini now properly syncs with iTunes on my Laptop, collecting new music I've bought or downloaded and I can use Apple's FrontRow music software to pick tunes and pipe them through the kitchen stereo - just like I'd previously wanted to do with my old audio system.

The Kitchen Information System is very much alive!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

FieldCam Goes Live!

As you can see from the photo on the right of this page, the FieldCam is now live - and has been for a week or so. 

The wooden sled is attached to a fence post, down towards the bottom of the field and well away from where any lost walkers will wander!

Its not in the ideal postion for the sun, as it gets shady quite early in the day, but I had to make a balance between placing it in a secure, out-of-the-way location and getting a great sunny spot.

I nailed the sled to the fence post, and its also got a couple of cheap bike locks on it, so hopefully it won't be going anywhere!

The system is set to wake up every hour and send me a photo, as long as there is enough life in the batteries. On good sunny days (winter sun, at this time of the year!) I've been getting between four and six photos a day. On the more usual cloudy days, we're down to a couple of photos a day, and there was even one day when no photo was sent at all. Its encouraging that even after this downtime, the system wakes up when it has enough charge and gets on with its job - which I guess means it works!

I have a new processor which will reduce the on-time to only 5 minutes every hour, down from the current 15 minutes, so hopefully when I fit that we should get more photos each day. I'm especially keen to store up enough electricity during the day to see how the night vision works, but may need to wait until sunnier days before we see that happen.

The system is set to email photo's to my gmail account, which in turn forwards it on to Flickr, where I can view the last 200 pictures. The picture on the right is from the Flickr "Photostream" and if you click it (or click here!) you can see the last 200 photos - highlights to date are: sheep, snow, new molehills and a blackbird!

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

FieldCam - A Solar Powered 3G Wireless Webcam!

Of course, the first thing to do when you buy a field is to set up a webcam in it so you can see what's going on - well, maybe that's not the norm, but it seemed like a fun project and a great way to bring the field "alive" for the family. The final plan is to have a digital frame on the wall in the kitchen, which updates with the latest picture from the field, but first we have to get some pictures somehow.

So, where to begin. The field has no power, and obviously no internet...

Power can be solved to a degree with batteries and solar panels, and I've done some playing around with those before so it seems an obvious place to start. For size and cost reasons I picked up a 12Ah battery from Maplin (about £30), and a 15W panel (and 5A charge controller) from ebay (about £70). I found some figures to suggest that a 15W panel should provide 6Ah of power on a sunny day, so that seemed to fit well with the battery at least. Of course, bigger would definitely prove to be better in both cases, but these should do for now.

One of the decisions I made early on was to conserve power and bandwidth by turning the whole system on every so often, taking a photo, sending it, then powering down. I had a breakthrough here when I discovered the REUK site, a great resource for bits for renewable energy projects.
The guy who runs the site, Neil, also builds custom circuits and very quickly created a module for me which would power-up every hour, check that the voltage of the battery was 12v or above and if so, flip a relay to provide power to the rest of the system. After 15 minutes the relay opens again, and the system powers- down. If the voltage is less than 12v then we just skip that cycle, and give the battery another hour to build up charge. 15 minutes was chosen for reasons that made sense at the time, but actually is far longer than the system needs to be on. I've since asked Neil to re-program the chip on the board to only stay on for 5 minutes - which should give me more photos per day before the battery goes flat.

Internet access is provided by a 3G USB modem - on a Pay-as-you-go plan from 3, for just £10 a month.  I did some tests using a laptop in the field (field tests?!) and found that 3 gave me much better results than O2, which barely worked, and I also liked the lack of commitment in a PAYG plan - so 3 it is.

The USB modem is plugged into a clever little router that 3 sell for about £70 - the Huawei D100 - this can be configured to auto-dial the internet through the USB modem. It also has a network port and a WiFi network built-in.

There was a little wrinkle in that the D100 has a soft-switch, which needs to be pressed after the unit is powered before it will turn on. That foxed me for a while, but then I opened the unit up and soldered some flying leads around the soft-switch. Quickly shorting those together did the same job as pressing the switch (obviously I guess, but I needed to check). Now all I needed to do was automate this shorting process after power is applied to the D100. A quick email to Neil at REUK, resulted in a solution in the post the next day. This module waits 2 seconds after it is powered up, then closes a relay for 0.5 second then goes to sleep, with the relay open. I wired this into the D100 supply and the flying leads around the switch, and sure enough - my modified D100 automatically goes online after it gets powered up without me needing to press the "soft" power button. My rough measurements suggest that the D100 draws about 200mA when its up and running - with 3G and WiFi turned on. That seems good to me.

The final part of the solution is the camera, which needs to be outdoor-proof, IP capable, and be able to schedule a send of a photo preferably by email.
I chose the Y-Cam Black and its weatherproof shell, for about £150 all told. This is one bit of the solution that I think might be over-specified - the Y-Cam Black has night vision, which might be cool so we can see the field at night. And it has WiFi, which I first thought I needed but actually don't use, preferring a wired network connection straight into the router. The biggest issue I have with the Y-Cam  (aside from its bulky ugliness) is its current use, which I measured at about 300mA - and that is with WiFi off and in the day time, so the night vision LEDs are turned off. On the upside, it turns on and finds a network without any fuss, and can be scheduled to take and send a photo to an email address, so it does the job. I will look out for another cheaper and hopefully less hungry camera for this project though, as I can always make use the Y-Cam at home.

So, to recap - the FieldCam has a battery which is topped up by a solar panel. Every hour it powers up, checks the battery level and if that is ok (over 12v), flips a relay to provide power to a mobile internet router and a camera. The camera in turn is set to take a photo and send it to an email address (through the router) some time later. Then it all switches off and hopefully charges up a bit and the cycle starts again.

The final part of the assembly was a big waterproof box to put it in, which again came from ebay - I think its real job is to keep extension leads dry when you plug your Christmas lights in - but it was the right size and a reasonable price.

Here's all the kit in the box - ready for deployment. The battery is easy to spot, then the two blue relays on the custom mmodules. The D100 router is underneath to the right, and the camera and solar panel are out of the box, not in shot.

The plan is to leave this gear in a field and have it send photos to me while its unattended, so I've got to worry a little bit about making it and its parts robust and secure. I did this by making a sort of wooden sledge, which has the advatange that I can carry it, but its quite big and awkward to carry very far.

The picture here shows the sled in my garden, prior to deployment. The waterproof box sits on an old decking tile, underneath the solar panel. A strut goes across the lid of the box, so a screwdriver is needed to get inside and see what's going on. Hopefully this will prove enough to discourage any casual walkers who stumbles across the set-up!

Friday, 16 January 2009

A little piece of Wales

Just before Christmas we finalised the purchase of a small field, a few miles from our house in Chepstow. The field is 3 acres, and located at Trellech Grange - about 15 minutes away, and 100 yards or so from the Fountain Inn!

So, why buy a field? Good question - and one that many have asked! One reason is investment, it just seems more fun than having money sitting in the bank, and should at the very least hold its value, if not grow over time.

The other reason is just that its somewhere to go to do projects and have fun - we've got a few ideas - like planting apple trees to make juice and cider, planting some trees to make a small woodland, digging a wildlife pond and of course its somewhere to go camping too! And as the kids get older, I'm sure we'll find more and more things to do with our own little piece of Wales!