Intel – Inside the Blue

  • Client:- Intel
  • Agency:- Noise New York
  • Role:- Technical Lead/Builder

Interview on Intel IQ
Flying the Signal Fish.
Signal Fish at Maker Faire NYC 2014
Signal Fish project on Github
Inside the Blue on UNIT9.com

When you build a blimp, you want one thing: Neutral Buoyancy. Remember that.

As Ken Kaplan, Intel iQ Managing Editor, explains, “The concept behind Inside the Blue is an ecosystem of creatures that live inside the ocean — like a jellyfish or a whale — which detect different invisible waves using the sensor capacity of the Galileo. The invisible waves are converted and displayed into light, sound or motion, making the invisible world visible.”

The purpose of the Inside the Blue project was to create tutorials for all levels of the maker community that showcase the capabilities of the Intel Galileo development board. The idea was to create something that people could do at home, with parts they could pick up online or at RadioShack, not to create something that looked fantastic, but was unattainable by someone at home. I enjoy teaching, and building things, so this project appealed to me greatly. We created one of the projects that made up the Inside the Blue world, the Signal Fish; an autonomous blimp that detected and reacted based on the wireless signals around it.

This project was a lot of fun. It was a mix of software, hardware, design and madness. The team consisted of myself – the geeky hardware/software guy, Paul Ferragut – the super creative hardware/software guy, and Ann-Kristen Abel – our wonderful fashion designer, plus Christian Bianchini – super geeky hardware guy in London, who sourced all the hardware parts for us.

We had to design an interestingly shaped helium-filled flying machine that could steer itself and would record Wi-Fi signals and communicate wirelessly with an Intel Galileo base station. Interestingly, I had to fully manage the client as there was no producer or project manager, just me, and we were working from the client’s office! That said, the Noise team were great, and never made things difficult or rushed us. I also handled the software side almost completely, both Arduino on the flight rig and Node JS server on the Galileo base station. On top of this I kept an eye on the hardware design and helped where needed, and did all the complicated physics stuff to figure out what shapes held what volumes of helium and how much lift that gave us, and therefore how much weight we could carry.

The setup was surprisingly simple, but it had a lot of moving parts, and most of my time was spent wrestling with the Galileo hardware. The sensor data from the wireless module, altimeter and compass were fed over a pair of XBees from the Arduino flight rig, to the Intel Galileo main board. The Node server on the Galileo read this data, recorded it, made decisions and sent the decision back to the flight rig on the blimp. Either it told the blimp to move forward or to stay where it was and play a light show showing that it “likes” the signals it has found. I built a web-based fly-by-wire control system served from the Node server on the Galileo that could take control of the blimp when required. The blimp could also override any movement signals it received if the onboard sonar sensors detected any objects in the way.

We designed and 3D printed parts, designed the blimp shape and used an iron to hand seal the individual pieces of mylar together. The blimp had LEDs attached so that it could light up with interesting patterns. The night before Paul, my build partner, had to travel back to Europe, we found ourselves frantically desoldering every single neopixel LED and resoldering them, because the wire we had used was coated with a thick plastic and was just too heavy. It was a scary night.

I had to do every part of this project at least once, as I’m the only one in New York, so once Ann-Kristen and Paul had left, I was on my own. Cutting and sealing mylar by hand is not my idea of fun!

My favourite thing about this project was the additional work we did outside the build. We filmed an advert (I’m the beast with the angle grinder on the right), and flew the Signal Fish around
a warehouse in New Jersey. More than that, I was interviewed for
Intel’s IQ magazine.
The real treat was that I got to fly the Signal Fish around at Intel’s tent
at Maker Faire NYC 2014. That was a real treat because it’s not often that I get to witness people’s reaction to my work firsthand. The reaction was great, people really loved it. It was great seeing people look up in shock when they first saw it as they entered the tent. It was a blessing that we did this at Maker Faire. One of the LED joints broke during setup, but fortunately it was a short run to the RadioShack tent where they were teaching people to solder. The very nice people let me borrow a soldering iron and we were up and running again.

One of the highlights of 2014.