Category Archives: DIY

This is about DIY and maker culture including LA Makerspace, KitHub, etc.

SparkFun Hackers-In-Residence: The Finale

After two fantastic weeks hacking away at SparkFun Electronics, our time has come to an end. It was hard to say goodbye to the Mother of Hacker supplies, but our dog, plants, jobs and friends back in LA were feeling neglected.

When we first showed up at SparkFun and had the pleasure of meeting the Founder and CEO, Nathan Seidle, we told him about our project and that we planned on reaching our prototype goal in two weeks. He was surprised at the short time frame and wished us luck </ smirk>.  We are proud to report that we met the goals that we originally proposed and feel that we have the basis to go forward with additional prototyping.

We successfully hacked the quadcopter to be powered by a tether and thus allow it to fly indefinitely, not being restricted by battery life, and added a payload (improved optics) to a height of 20 feet. Win!

To be fair, we sped up the process by using off the shelf / ready to go platforms like the Parrot AR Drone and Dropcam. Had we started at scratch, it likely would have taken a lot longer to get going.

Doc Shawn and Sean flying the beast.


We wrote a tutorial for anyone that is interested in trying out and improving on what we did. That will be going up on SparkFun shortly and we’ll be linking to it here.


If we had to do it all again, we definitely would! But seriously, there are probably a couple of things we would have done differently. Going in with a better knowledge of amps and volts and all that other electrical know-how would have been helpful. Thankfully there were enough experts at SparkFun to fill that knowledge gap and it’s motivation to take a course like this one.

Pretty quickly we learned that the balloon/blimp option wasn’t an option at all – No where near enough lift provided by the crappy consumer grade helium we had access to (aka Balloon Time helium from Target), thus no realistic way to let other people try it at home and we really wanted people to be able to try whatever we did on their own and improve on our mistakes.

As we were prototyping we kept the Interwebz informed and a few nice people pitched in with some comments related to our experimenting with the power tether:

  • Juan Carlos Paco: Put a tiny Stirling Generator there, cut the Wire, Profit.

  • Thomas Edwards: Cool concept!  You could use an adjustable power supply with a higher voltage to make up for the I^2*R losses in the cable.

  • Naim Busek: Send a full 110v up and split at the top, then you won’t have to worry resistance on the line at all.

  • Joseph Chiu of ToyBuilder Labs: Raise the voltage to minimize the power drop across the umbilical. By using higher voltages, you can deliver power with less voltage drop on the umbilical.  So instead of 12V, go to 48V, or even higher. And then use a DC:DC converter to bring power down to what the system needs. You suffer some power loss in the conversion process, so it’s not foolproof. But depending on how much power you are losing in the umbilical, it might still be worth it.

I think it would have been helpful to do a daily check-in on Google+ Hangouts where we could share real-time what we were doing and get feedback from the public on how to move things forward. Or maybe that is a terrible idea as it would have just confused us more and we would have been chasing ideas down rabbit holes. Come to think of it, the videos and tweets were probably sufficient.

So this was it, our final test to prove that we could in fact power a quadcopter and dropcam with a power cable, and then, someone had to go potty…


SparkFun was kind enough to allow us to bring the quadcopter back to LA with us so we can continue to hack away at it. We need to continue working on the power tether and figure out how to get enough power up 50 feet of wire. Thankfully there are some smart people at Crash Space and LA Makerspace and the likelihood of this happening is very high. Now that we know the quadcopter can handle the weight of a Dropcam, we want to add some sensors to it and see what kind of data we can collect over a significant period of time. After that we need to consider raising some funds so we can really take it to the next level and write some software to make the user experience seamless between the quadcopter and whatever sensors are onboard. Sound good? We think so too. Stay tuned!


We want to send a huge thank you to Lindsay, Shawn, Nathan, Alicia, Joel, Stephen, Brian, Jeff, all the dogs and everyone else at SparkFun that made our stay fantastic and thought our idea was at least sorta cool.

SparkFun’s Director of Education, Lindsay Levkoff


Sean Bonner


In 2010 Sean co-founded the first hackerspace in Los Angeles, Crash Space. Sean is co-founder and director of Safecast, a nonprofit environmental monitoring company. They have been prototyping a number of drones for Safecast that will carry radiation and air quality sensors to hard to reach locations.

Tara Tiger Brown


Tara is co-founder and Chief Encouragement Officer at LA Makerspace, a family friendly hackerspace in Los Angeles, and co-created Represent.LA to connect and promote the Los Angeles tech startup community. Tara has been working with youth on DIY skill building and following their passionate interests through the LA Makerspace and MacArthur funded Digital Media Learning Research Hub. She is a Forbes Contributor where she writes about Women in Technology and other tech tidbits.

Parrot Drone Power Tethered

We wanted to get the Parror AR Drone to fly with a power tether so we can exponentially increase the time in the air that we get out of the battery (15 mins).

Here you go!

10 ft of 18 gauge wire

We’ll keep working towards our goal of 30 ft.

SparkFun Hackers-in-Residence Part 1

Sean Bonner and I are currently in Boulder, CO at SparkFun. This is the first post that goes over the prototype that we’re working on.


We’ve been thinking about personal drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) a lot recently. Both in the context of how these devices could be useful around a house or neighborhood, as well as how they can help with volunteer projects like Safecast – and if these use cases might apply elsewhere. When SparkFun invited us to help kick off their new ‘Hacker In Residence’ program exploring this drone question a bit more seemed like the ideal project to work on. There are a number of personal drone options available on the market, but for the most part they are either difficult to work with or limited in functionality. Weight restrictions and limited flight time is a big issue with most commercial options. We wanted to see if we could easily hack an out of the box platform like the Parrot AR Drone to add extra functionality or if it made more sense to approach this problem from another direction entirely.

Mary Meeker announced in her recent Internet Trends report that we are entering a third computing cycle of ‘Wearables/Drivables/Flyables/Scannables.’ As founders of member-driven community spaces, Crash Space and LA Makerspace, we see these technologies being used first-hand and hacked on by both hobbyists and experienced hardware engineers. The scope of where they are headed is infinite.

In the days leading up to our arrival we had to seriously think about the use cases. SparkFun carries a wide variety of environmental sensors (temperature, humidity, barometric pressure), Safecast has high quality compact radiation sensors… but would this appeal to a less scientific or less niche group of people? And what about the device itself – do we want something with extreme maneuverability? Or something with autopilot? The options were really unlimited.

We decided that the focus for our two weeks of prototyping should be to add a much better downward facing camera to a device that could remain airborne for a period of time well beyond the normal battery life. This would enable high-res event documentation from a previously unreachable aerial view or new avenues for personal security surveillance. We thought if we could solve this first use case, then it would be easy to swap out the camera for any number of other sensors.


We received a wonderful welcome when we arrived in Boulder. In addition to providing us with a place to sleep while in town, SparkFun gave us a dedicated room to work from at their offices. Upon arrival we got the full tour of the building – from Engineering to Shipping – everyone was super welcoming and it was awesome to see where all the red box magic happens.

The team at SparkFun have been incredibly friendly, helpful and accommodating every step of the way, especially considering we’re pretty much making this up as we go. They also provided us with everything from a shopping list we gave them filled with parts from their catalog as well as bits and pieces from all over the web. We’d like to give an extra special shout-out to SparkFun’s Director of Education, Lindsay Levkoff for setting this whole gig up!


Two weeks isn’t a terribly long time to solve a problem like this from scratch, so it’s lucky that we’re not starting entirely from scratch having messed around with some of these devices before and relying on some already ready to go solutions like Dropcam which we hoped would save us some time, rather than spending a week (or months) reinventing the wheel.

In anticipation of things not working out exactly perfect the very first time we decided that a two pronged approach would keep things moving in the event that we ran into any major hurdles. The breakout looks like this:

PRÖNG 1\\\

Quadcopter as platform.

We are using a Parrot AR Drone as the base because it just works right out of the box with no tinkering and is something that pretty much anyone with $300 to blow can get ahold of. Having spent time with several other brands of quad and hex copters, we knew that not having to spend a week calibrating and fine tuning balance was crucial to making this work in our 2 week window.

We hypothesized that removing the battery and adding a tether for power might give us more weight to play with as well as extended flight time. For the camera we decided on using a Dropcam because of similar out of the box instant functionality and the bonus of live video over wifi. Combining the power source for both of these devices which have different requirements would be the main trick. For very specific movement control, this plan definitely comes out ahead.

The Parrot works great as is, but is perfectly balanced for it’s own weight, and we want to add more to that. By stripping off the top hull entirely we save some weight, and luckily the Dropcam that we’re adding is fairly light on it’s own. There’s also a good bit of space between the circuit board and the plastic bottom of the Parrot, so by cutting out a small circle and sliding the Dropcam behind it we were able to attach the camera without any additional materials.


After we confirmed that the Parrot was able to lift the Dropcam and it’s own battery, we quickly moved onto attaching the power cord so we could extend the time in the air (battery life maxes out at about 15 mins). After stripping wires, soldering, hot glue gunning and zip tying, we got the power cord split into 11v (Parrot) and 5v (Dropcam) and were ready to test.


The Parrot turned on and we heard the sweet sound of the initialization tones, then the propellers started going and we thought we’d see lift. Unfortunately after it draws power and goes into lift mode a brownout occurred. We’re currently attaching things to a scope to see what is going wrong.


Balloon as platform.

Quadcopters are cool for sure, but they require effort to actually fly. We wondered if removing that concern entirely might be a successful approach. Using the hardware from a microblimp as the drive controls and a weather balloon filled with helium for the lift, we thought perhaps this would just stay up on it’s own, allowing us to spend all the time on perfecting the payload. We decided to mount a Hack HD camera to the bottom for our improved visuals, though logged to a card rather than live (a problem we’d need to address later). As a bonus, both the camera and motors run off 3.7v which we hoped would simplify things. While the balloon approach lacks the fine tuned movement of a quadcopter, it completely solves the “how do we keep this up in the air for a long time” problem without even trying.


HackHD – 1080p Camera Module Test


We’ve been trying to use components that anyone can get their hands-on so we bought some helium used for party balloons but quickly found out that it’s not even close to being pure and the tank we got didn’t come close to filling the 5 ft in diameter, 100g weather balloon. The weather balloon barely floated and thus the cardboard case with the HackHD Camera and Microblimp didn’t lift off the ground. We spoke to a company that sells helium and they said that they would sell some to us if we were using it for scientific purposes and it would cost about $100 to fill our balloon. At this point we are reconsidering the balloon platform and how to fill it without having to purchase a gas. Maybe hot air?…of course that will lead to a whole other set of tests.


We have 6 working days left at SparkFun and we will continue to hack away at our prototypes. We already have some possible solutions in the works but would love to get any feedback or ideas from the Interwebz on how to solve our issues!


Sean Bonner

In 2010 Sean co-founded the first hackerspace in Los Angeles, Crash Space. Sean is co-founder and director of Safecast, a nonprofit environmental monitoring company. They have been prototyping a number of drones for Safecast that will carry radiation and air quality sensors to hard to reach locations.

Tara Tiger Brown

Tara is co-founder and Chief Encouragement Officer at LA Makerspace, a family friendly hackerspace in Los Angeles, and co-created Represent.LA to connect and promote the Los Angeles tech startup community. Tara has been working with youth on DIY skill building and following their passionate interests through the LA Makerspace and MacArthur funded Digital Media Learning Research Hub. She is a Forbes Contributor where she writes about Women in Technology and other tech tidbits.


LAdy Tacos Being Consumed By DIYGirls

Late last year I met up with a few ladies and we chatted about forming a ladies only group to work on tech-related projects together.  We created a group on called LAdy Tacos, a “Sausage Free Zone.”

LA is a big place and it can be really hard to find others that work in the tech industry, interested in learning how to code or hack on some hardware. It’s especially hard to find other women who are into tech.

LAdy Tacos is for women in LA interested in and/or working in technology to get-together to hack on software and hardware, mentor each other and help increase the number of women in tech.

You need to be a woman, interested in tech and have a sense of humor.

Since then we’ve expanded the group and learned about:

  • Arduino
  • Soldering
  • iOS apps
  • Twilio APIs
  • Twitter APIs
  • eTextiles
  • Mozilla Open Badges

Around the same time that this group was created, my friend Luz Rivas started DIYGirls. They’ve been meeting to learn about everything from woodworking, to blacksmithing to programming.

Aside from the name of Luz’s group being a little more, shall we say, easier to share publicly, it sounds more welcoming to females of all ages. My main focus right now is on Teach Me Stuff as part of the Connected Learning work I’m doing at UC Irvine and LA Makerspace, so although I’m a bit sad to do it, it just makes awesome sense to merge LAdy Tacos with DIYGirls and help Luz with organizing events. doesn’t have a way to merge two groups, so I’m going to ask LAdy Tacos members to join DIYGirls.

Thanks to everyone who brought their sense of humor to our LAdy Tacos events. See you in DIYGirls!



p.s. LAdy Tacos Forever!


Maker Faire 2012

Maker Faire 2012 was everything that I hoped it would be. The creativity and enthusiasm was infectious. I wanted to see and try everything but I would have needed weeks to do that.

I covered some of my favorite things during my interview with Super Awesome Sylvia and Joey Hudy, two of my favorite young makers.

The Take Apart tent was a ton of fun. Kids were everywhere taking computers and who knows what apart.


Some were making some new creations out of the chaos using soldering irons and hot glue guns.


I spent some time at the Exploratorium Tinkering Station making a Mobile Headband. I’m not sure I’m going to wear it outside of Maker Faire…


S~q~u~i~s~h~Y Circuits!! Weeeeee


Not just an apple II, an apple II signed by WOZ


Over at Lynne Bruning’s eTextiles Lounge we learned how to sew and light up an LED using conductive thread and a watch battery.


Here’s my pal Bunnie getting his pic taken of his head. I’m eagerly awaiting a 3D Model of my head from AutoDesk. Guess what you’re getting for Christmas!


There were SO MANY 3D printers. These colorful 3D printers are very attractive, but the $50 cartridges are kind of a turn-off.


GameDesk helped 13 year old Jasper fly like an Albatross (he said it has been his dream since he was very young 😀 ).


A Laser Cutter for $3k? Whoa.


Here’s the Little Bits tent. My son Ripley has recently been introduced to them and I’m excited to see him build stuff!


I’ve been eyeing the MaKey MaKey Kickstarter campaign. Out of nowhere Josh from the Rockwell Group gave me a free kit. WIN!


Thanks to old friends and new for such an awesome time!