Some of you may have suffered through enough physics in college to remember something called the “Electron in a box” model. Well, today I’m going to show you an Electron coming out of a box.
A while back I wrote up a small project with the Particle.io Photon, a Wifi-enabled prototyping board that can be programmed using Arduino-like code. The Photon also had some nice cloud infrastructure that helped you interact with your device in a variety of ways, including mobile apps and from scripting languages. I got a surprise in the mail this week: an intriguing successor to the Photon, the also unsearchably named “Electron”. I had actually forgotten I’d backed the kickstarter for it. The initial estimate was for October 2015, so they are only about 4 months behind schedule.
What is this device, and why should you care? Well, it is a departure from the traditional IoT on a stick with breadboard pins in that it has a 2G/3G modem, not WiFi or BLE. If you are like me, this gets all sorts of gears turning in your head. For $59 ($39 for 2G) you get a complete dev kit which includes the board, some useful accessories to get you going, and the same cloud infrastructure to connect to your device that Particle.io includes with the Photon.
For $2.99 a month (not a contract), you can transmit 1MB to/from the device (it’s $0.99/MB for overage). That’s not a lot, but as we’ll see there are some cool things that can be done even in that restricted space.
Let’s have a look inside the box.
Opening the box, we’re greeted with an admonition, which we shall ignore for today’s post, and a package full of goodies.
First off, the main event. The Electron comes shipped as a breadboard compatible DIP with (helpfully) a breadboard attached. The “getting started” circuit is a fairly simple exercise of putting the components where indicated. On the top of the board, we can see the uBlox cellular modem taking the lion’s share, a tiny SMA antenna connector at the very bottom, with USB and power at the top.
Flipping the board over, we see two other important items. The MCU is the big chip in the middle and is a fairly beefy STM32F205, a Cortex-M3 based processor with 1MB of flash, 128K of RAM, and 120MHz clock. A lot of that memory space is probably taken up by Particle.io’s frameworks and communication code. Below that is the SIM card connector for the cellular connection.
Beyond the board itself, Particle packs in a few other items that help you get started.
A 2000mAh Li-poly battery (rechargeable through the USB port on the Electron itself) seems like a smart inclusion, as you have enough out of the box to make a truly independent telemetry device that can run for quite a while, if carefully programmed.
Also included is a small bag of parts for making the simple example illustrated on the breadboard.
The final items are reminders that this isn’t the usual fare for IoT boards: a SIM card for the data plan, and a penta band patch antenna, which should allow for creative positioning and some gain.
Overall, a pretty cool package for under $60 and with a data plan which, while not cheap, seems fairly easy to manage if you structure your data carefully. You won’t be streaming audio or video, but you could very easily track a variety of other low data rate sensors (GPS, temperature, light, wind speed, etc.). Add a small solar panel and it could be maintenance free, too.
This device, only different from others in its class in that it has a cell modem, opens up a whole realm of remote sensing possibilities. I can imagine a lot of research projects being made much easier with a network of low-cost cellular capable microcontrollers. One could, as an example, have a network of seismic sensors and create a truly low cost warning system (assuming the cloud could be trusted). Or, you could tack on a GPS and make your own LoJack.
What will I do with it? Well I’ve got some ideas. The first one and perhaps most obvious is to create the equivalent of a cellular-connected weather tracking throwie. My plan is to get a few sensors, a small case (think Altoids tin size), write some software and then place the whole thing somewhere inconspicuous near my favorite beach. If I get ambitious, I might add an audio sensor to track how loud the waves were in the last hour. If I do this, I’ll write it up as I go.
The application doesn’t really matter at this point, it’s just an excuse to play with a device which for some reason appeals to me much more than WiFi IoT boards. Perhaps it’s the idea of communicating with something you’ve built from just about anywhere. To me, that’s like a tiny step towards building a satellite.
I’m interested to hear what you might build with such a device. I’ve already gotten a few suggestions from Twitter (ranging from “doorstop” to “coffee-shop crowd monitor”). Leave a comment or tweet me your ideas @stoneymonster.
(*) New non-Kickstarter orders are scheduled to ship in March.