Sunday 27 October 2013

Magnetometer progress report: link indicator LED

I recently added a new feature to the magnetometer remote sensor unit firmware. To help indicate when it is within radio communication range of the base unit an LED is turned on at the start of a message communication. When the sensor unit receives the acknowledgement from the base unit of successful message receipt the LED is switched off. In normal operation the LED should blink briefly every 30 seconds, after each sampling interval. If the LED remains on it indicates a problem with the radio link. For the initial installation the sampling time can be reduced to 5 seconds for to obtain faster feedback of whether communication is successful or not.

Improvements for battery-powered operation

Indicating link errors by using an LED is convenient during installation but the power wasted after installation is not compatible with battery-powered operation. To save power the LED is used only the first 15 minutes of operation. Only user-initiated reset actions (power on or reset switch pressed) cause the LED to be used, resets from by the watchdog timer or brown-out detector are ignored. The cause of the reset is detected by examining the microcontroller's status register (MCUSR).

Communication timeout feature added

I've also added a timeout which detects when communication has been lost for an extended period. The microcontroller system is rebooted in the hope that the error is recoverable. Loss of communication, along with low battery status, can also be sensed and reported by running the latest version of the data plotting software on the Raspberry Pi. If either error is detected a message can be sent via email, Twitter or Facebook.

Saturday 19 October 2013

Cloud detector: a review of progress so far

The hardware

My cloud detector has been running outside for over 5 months now. Overall I'm very pleased with how it works. The battery-powered hardware is based on the AuroraWatchNet magnetometer design, which uses my own Calunium microcontroller development board. The remote sensor board and fluxgate sensor are omitted. I've added a Melexis MLX90614 non-contact infra-red thermometer to measure the sky temperature. Clear skies should give low temperatures whilst clouds are expected to have warmer temperatures, although still colder than the ambient temperature. The MLX90614 also outputs the sensor temperature, which should be close to the ambient temperature. I also added a Honeywell HIH-6131-021 humidity sensor which has an I2C interface. Do not confuse with the similar sounding version which has an SPI interface! The HIH-6130 also provides and ambient temperature measurement. To avoid direct contact with water the humidity sensor is placed at the bottom of the enclosure with a hole underneath to expose it to air. This hole also functions as a breather hole and ensures that the internal pressure matches atmospheric pressure. Since this hole was drilled there have not been any more incidents of water ingress.

The Calunium board is running a firmware is a modified version of the magnetometer firmware. It communicates with the Raspberry Pi data logger using an 868MHz radio link, with the same signed communication protocol used by AuroraWatchNet. This means I can use the data recording software from AuroraWatchNet. It also inherits the signed over-the-air firmware update capability. In principle it should be possible to combine both magnetometer and cloud detector functions in one unit.

I started off using the 90°  field-of-view version of the non-contact IR thermometer but later switched to theMLX90614ESF-DCH-000-TU-ND variant which features a 12° field of view. Its greater height meant it was easier to fit into the cable grommet housing. However I think the FOV is too narrow and I plan to switch back to the original sensor when I have time.

Data processing

The data processing and plotting now uses the auroraplot library for Python, which I developed to process the AuroraWatchNet magnetometer data. On the graphs I plot the sky temperature measured by the non-contact IR thermometer and the ambient temperature measured by the humidity sensor. For monitoring purposes I also plot the sensor temperature of the IR thermometer (marked as "detector temperature"); this should be similar to the ambient temperature but its exposed position makes it more likely to undergo solar heating and radiative cooling. For good measure I also plot the system temperature, which is measured by an LM61 temperature sensor connected to the ATmega1284P's analogue to digital converter. This measurement is noisy but useful to check the system doesn't overheat on sunny summer days.

The plan is to estimate the upper and lower bounds that I would expect for the sky temperature, and from that derive an estimate of the cloud cover. I initially expected that with complete cloud cover the sky temperature would match that the lifted condensation level, which I estimate using the ambient temperature and relative humidity. I soon saw temperatures higher than the LCL temperature. Research literature indicates that the clouds can act as a mirror at long IR wavelengths and thus the expected temperature should include an effect of ground temperature too. On the plots this is shown as the effective cloud temperature. The clear sky temperature is derived from results found in research literature but none of the equations tried so far have been a great match. Other researchers have fitted parameters for their specific location (including altitude) by comparison with visual measurements. I have yet to try this but daily measurements are made at the nearby Hazelrigg Weather Station. The graphs are too cluttered for production use but help me to understand what is happening.

Example plots

Below are a selection of plots. You can see the entire archive (from 2013-07-14) at

Cloud detector data for 2013-09-03. The asterisk (*) indicates derived parameters (ie not directly measured).
The figure above include most of the effects that can be identified. After midnight there is thick cloud, which later clears for short periods. At around 0300 UT I think it must have rained, the sky temperature is almost identical to the detector temperature and the variability is much reduced. Whilst the sensor is wet no sensible conclusions about cloud cover can be drawn. At about 0700 UT the sensor clears of water and the sky temperature falls indicating clearer skies. The rest of the day is dry, with heavy cloud cover until 1400 UT. At around 1700 UT the skies are completely clear. The clear sky estimate is too low for this time. At 2000 UT the clouds return, with some clear patches.

Cloud detector, 2013-09-28
Cloud detector data for 2013-09-28 showing the effect of clear skies.
The figure above shows an almost completely cloud-free day. The higher variability in the sky temperature measurements between 1200-1600 UT corresponds to similar effects in the humidity data (shown below); both are direct measurements made by different sensors.

Relative humidity, 2013-09-28
Humidity data for 2013-09-28. Notice how the higher variability occurs at the same times as the sky temperature measurements.


During summer operation dew has not been a problem but now that the nights are colder I have noticed effects which I believe are due to the formation of dew on the sensor. In the first plot below the sky temperature apparently rises from around 2230 UT. The rise is smooth and during this period the ambient temperature is falling, which overnight is often a sign of clear skies. After midnight (second plot) the sky temperature increases slightly before falling sharply around 0630 UT. Sunrise on this day was 0622 UT.

Cloud detector, 2013-10-05Cloud detector, 2013-10-06
This pair of plots is believed to show dew formation on the sensor.


I know from the informal comparisons with visual cloud cover that I regularly make the cloud detector does generally work very well. It does not function during wet periods. As anticipated dew is becoming a problem during the colder nights and a dew heater will be required for reliable winter operation. Future development will be to add a heater, which will need a wired connection to the cloud detector. Once a wired connection is made the radio link appears superfluous so I plan to investigate the options for power-over-ethernet. The Arduino ethernet shield is one possibility, although its compatibility with 3.3V operation has not been established.