The Things are coming…

Recently, I attended #offcamp – a barcamp style discussion around open data which was organised by @bcs_isleofman and free to attend.

The morning sessions were OK and it was good to see that some thought is being given to making data open and available, especially data that has been collected by governments and already paid for by the public.

However, what really caught my attention was the crowd sourcing of data using sensors and the Internet of Things. I hadn’t realised that the problem of expensive telecoms links for remote IoT devices is beginning to be solved by new RF chipsets based on spread spectrum techniques similar to those used in QRP amateur radio experiments.

Sadly most of these RF technologies are proprietary, but that doesn’t mean that the infrastructure built with them has to be. A group of people from Amsterdam have built The Things Network which is an open movement with the aim of providing free and open communications for IoT devices around the world.

Given my interest in radio and electronics, together with the open philosophy of building something free for community use, I knew that I wanted to get involved with this. So, I’ve established an Isle of Man community with the aim of getting our very own Things Network established here.

IUK 5 A1 IP Camera

On a recent trip to the UK, I called in to a Lidl store because I know they often have interesting (well, to me anyway) bits of tech for low prices. I picked up this little gem for a shade over thirty quid.

When you consider it contains wifi hardware, a web server, pan & tilt motors, speaker & microphone and of course a camera, then I think that is a fair price. The device also comes with a UK mains adaptor and a high quality Ethernet cable too, so it has everything you need to get started.

The camera copes well with a range of lighting conditions. I’ve tested in bright sunlight, indoors with both fluorescent and tungsten lighting and all gave good quality images. One thing which really surprised me was the low light operation. The camera automatically switches to a ‘high gain’ mode when ambient light falls. I’m not sure if has a separate sensor for this but the results are impressive. You lose some of the colour details, with an essentially monochrome image but the camera is able to see better in low light than my own eyes can! The camera also has some infra-red LEDs fitted which it uses as a floodlight, so you can even see in total darkness. This works much better than I thought it would, with enough illumination to see clearly to about 6 metres from the camera.

There is a down-loadable app for both iOS and Android devices which allows you to watch the stream from the camera, and control the pan & tilt motors easily. You can also receive a live audio stream, and the camera also has a speaker in it, allowing you to talk back too.

There are terminals provided for interfacing with alarm systems, and you can control this output via the web interface too, so you could use it for whatever you liked. Feeding your pets remotely from your smart-phone, and then watching them eat maybe?

The camera’s web server seems reasonably secure. Two levels of authentication are used. One to view, and one to configure. However, I should point out that the passwords are sent in the clear in URL requests which is a bit daft. Don’t use passwords anywhere else and be aware of browsers etc caching URL requests.

The device also has a telnet port, which doesn’t respond to the login credentials used in the web browser, so I’m not sure who it’s for. It’s certainly not a good idea to expose this port to the wider internet!

The software in the camera also does motion-detection and can trigger the alarm connector output on detection, send emails with pictures attached and upload images to an FTP server so it’s quite good for security use.

Provided you can firewall this device carefully, then it makes a good streaming camera for general internet access. At the moment though, I’m confining it to my local LAN until I can learn more about that telnet port…

The Weirdest Bug – Lenovo Ideapad S205

Today I offered to help a friend with their new Lenovo S205 which they’d bought a year or so previously, but not got around to using. It had come pre-installed with both Ubuntu 12.04 and Ubuntu 12.10 but wasn’t quite behaving properly.

I thought the easiest option would be to start again, with a nice clean install of Ubuntu 12.04.04 LTS. I attached my trusty USB flash drive, and…

….corrupted display, and no boot.

It turns out you can’t press F12 at boot time, and choose to boot from the USB media in the list that appears. No. You have to go into the boot settings proper, and put the USB media at the top of the list. That was Bug number 1.

So, off goes the install of Ubuntu. All looks good, WiFi working, hotkeys etc… time to reboot and…

….nope. PXE boot ROM kicks in instead. Check the boot settings. Yep, hard drive set to boot before other things, but doesn’t.

Back to booting from USB…. Fiddle with grub settings. No go. OK, re-install with manual choice of partitions…. still no go…. fiddle fiddle…. hours pass…

Finally I notice the drive has an MS-DOS type partition table, despite it booting EFI-style to the previous Ubuntu installs, so I decide to delete it and create a GPT one instead. Still nada…. Add an *empty* EFI partition… re-install… nope…. delete all partitions again…re-install… Voila!
(I’ve no idea which step was the magic one either. Bug number 2.)

So, now Ubuntu booted quite happily, but no WiFi. No worries. Attach an Ethernet cable and let it pull down latest drivers…

…but hang on, it has them all.

Poke about in the terminal for a while and realise the wireless is ‘hard’ blocked. But the wireless switch on the side is in the on position. Moving it disables Bluetooth. Moving it back enables Bluetooth. Still no WiFi, but at least the switch works! Everything driver wise seems to check out. The laptop is adamant that WiFi is disabled by hardware switch. Google. More Google.

What? Seriously?

Yup. On the Lenovo S205, WiFi will not function properly unless….

…the hard disk is the first entry in the boot menu!

Bug number 3, and I hit it because of Bug number 1…

Still, all’s well that ends well, but I never want to see another Lenovo S205 again!