Baking Pis in Africa (and talking about it at ESC Minneapolis) - Embedded.com

Baking Pis in Africa (and talking about it at ESC Minneapolis)

One of the great things about my job is that so many interesting people get to meet me I get to meet so many interesting people (LOL). For example, I just received an email from Kurtis Unger, who is working on some very interesting stuff in Africa.

I'm hoping that Kurtis will be able to give a presentation on this technology at ESC Minneapolis in November 2015. (I would have invited him to ESC Boston and/or ESC Silicon Valley, but unfortunately both events are already full to capacity with passels of phenomenal presentations.)

Note: If you are interested in presenting a paper at ESC Minneapolis on Embedded Hardware Design, Embedded Software Design, Connectivity and the Internet of Things, or just something weird and wacky in Embedded Space (in which case the Fantastical Theatre of Engineering Innovation is the track for you), then bounce over to the Submissions Portal to propose your provocative presentation.

But we digress… Kurtis's email read as follows:

Hello Max! I have long wanted an excuse to email the illustrious Max the Magnificent (being a regular reader of yours for a number of years now) and, after seeing your name associated with ESC Minneapolis, I am extremely pleased to have found one! I am the senior electrical designer for BRCK (BRCK.com) — a hardware startup in Nairobi, Kenya.

We make a ruggedized router designed to be used in emerging markets and “edge of the network” type contexts. Features include a battery for when the power fails, a cellular modem for when terrestrial connections fail, a cellular antenna to make use of really weak coverage, cloud management capability, and a GPIO port in preparation for the IoT (Internet of Things) in emerging markets.

BRCK fills a niche that is a whole lot different than telecommunications in developed countries. Think about the need to stay connected, even when power and connections come and go, or where the Internet is delivered by a cyclist with a BRCK on his back (not instantaneously), or farmers receiving texts informing them when elephants are eating their crops.

This is an extremely interesting space to be in, and the excitement around BRCK — both locally and internationally — is quite contagious. In fact, we've been featured on CNN, Wired, the BBC, and Fast Company to name but a few.

Max's Note: Now Kurtis can add an appearance on the esteemed Embedded.com to his list — actually, to the top of his list (LOL).

We are just in the middle of bringing a new product to market — it's called BRCK+Pi and it's the latest BRCK MRTR. (You'll like this: Arduino's have Shields, BeagleBones have Capes, and BRCK's have… wait for it, wait for it… MoRTaR's).

Max's Note: Arrgggh! I like a pun as much as the next man, but even I'd find it hard to tell this one in public without wincing (LOL).

Essentially, the system uses a Raspberry Pi compute module to turn the BRCK into a micro-server, where the Pi takes on the computing duty and the BRCK performs the communications. On the technical side; the BRCK+Pi uses embedded Ethernet (i.e., Ethernet without magnetics) to enable the Pi to communicate with the BRCK. It also includes the usual fare of power supplies, a charge controller (it has its own battery), microcontroller (ATmega), and an SD controller.

I am wondering if somewhere in this project there might be a little presentation that people would be interested in hearing. The background material includes the fact that the development is performed in a context far, far away from suppliers like Digi-Key and Mouser, with no nearby PCB shops or contract manufacturers. We have to wait weeks or months to get parts in, and PCBs can get hung up in customs for weeks, so I made a toaster oven into a reflow oven for baking my Pis, and I have done a lot of hand picking-and-placing.

Also of interest is our parent company, Ushahidi, which performs crowdmapping of information. (Ushahidi came out of the need to communicate what was happening during some severe rioting here in Kenya in 2008.) I think people may also like to hear about BRCK's in general, and about other MRTRs we have on the go, including water quality sensors in the Masai Mara and RF sensors for helping with human-wildlife conflict situations.

Furthermore, the application side is filled with human interest stories. The initial uses for BRCK+Pi's are schools (the educational material will be stored on the BRCK+Pi) and medical centers (the medical records system will run off the BRCK+Pi) and emergency situations (first responders to a situation will be able to collaborate and get online as soon as the infrastructure allows it).

If I am accepted for ESC Minneapolis, I can promise a presentation that involves some very unique contexts for hardware development and application of embedded design and the IoT. Here is your chance to include a session where ESC attendees are regaled with tales about visiting rural schools on islands in Lake Victoria to help them get online; rafting the Nile and driving 8,000 miles from Nairobi to Johannesburg and back in the name of product testing; about a herdsman in East Africa who gets a text warning him that a lion is approaching his goats; and how a businessman in Nairobi knows when his employees across Somalia are online. This is a story about Africa that is in stark contrast to the conflict and epidemic items that appear on the news far too often.

If this scattered email has piqued the insatiable curiously of Max the Magnificent, then please let me know and I will spend some more time putting together a formal submission for a presentation.

Full disclosure: Working out here feels somewhat isolated as there are no “Lunch and Learns” and I have not been to a tabletop show in over a year. So, while I genuinely believe there would be a cohort of ESC attendees who would be interested in this material, I am also very much looking for an excuse to attend an awesome event like ESC Minneapolis and satisfy the geek side of my social life.

I look forward to finding an email from Max The Magnificent in my inbox, even if it is just to say: “Keep up the good work, but we're looking for something different.” (As long as it has some clever alliterations — which I just realized I have been remarkably remiss in remembering to write — then I'll be OK.)

Cheers, Kurtis Unger

“Clever alliterations”? What's the man waffling on about? I don’t do that, do I (LOL)? I must admit that this all strikes a chord with me. In addition to the BRCK_Pi itself, which does sound extremely interesting, Kurtis's points about lack of components and PCB shops and contract manufacturers really strikes home.

It's rare for a day to go by that I don’t get on the Internet to order some components from places like Digi-Key or Adafruit or SparkFun, with every expectation that they will arrive on my desk a day or two later. Similarly, when it comes to PCBs, I must admit to being rather spoiled. For example, while I was working on my BADASS Display this past weekend, I took a look at the original breadboard incarnation of my spectrum analyzer (note that the uni-color LEDs in this prototype are only there as proof-of-concept — the final system uses a matrix of 256 ultra-bright, tri-colored LEDs).

The point is that I didn’t really want to stuff all of this in the BADASS Display, so I called my chum Duane Benson and asked him if he could whip up an Uno-sized Arduino Shield for me. Duane sent me the following just this morning:

I performed a final LVS (layout versus schematic) check, then Duane sent this off to the board shop. I fully expect to have this little beauty back in my hands in 10 days or so. I'm sure Kurtis will be gnashing his teeth and rending his garb when he reads this. He will be saying that I don’t know how lucky I am… and he'll be right.

But it's not all about me (it should be, but it isn't). I would love to hear Kurtis give his presentation, including his tall tales of derring-do in the depths of the Dark Continent. In return, I shall be more than prepared to share my own experiences as a world-famous adventurer — they don’t call me “Tracker Max” for nothing!

I immediately responded to Kurtis, asking his permission to publish his email and pointing him at the ESC Minneapolis Submissions Portal. Now I'm eagerly waiting for his abstract to appear in the portal.

What about you? Do you think Kurtis's talk would be of interest to you? Will you be attending ESC Minneapolis? Do you think you'd like to give a presentation of your own? Would it help to sweeten the pot if I told you that speakers automatically receive an “All Access” pass (a $1,000+ value) that gets them into everything at the event? Plus, of course, all attendees will have the chance to tempt me with a beer, especially if we get to tour the local Tin Whiskers Brewing Company, which is owned by three embedded systems designers. I, for one, cannot wait!


Join over 2,000 technical professionals and embedded systems hardware, software, and firmware developers at ESC Minneapolis November 4-5, 2015, and learn about the latest techniques and tips for reducing time, cost, and complexity in the development process.

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5 thoughts on “Baking Pis in Africa (and talking about it at ESC Minneapolis)

  1. “From Nairobi to Minneapolis- Kurtis is going to experience cultural and environmental shock. His talk does sound promising, being especially exotic in Minneapolis. Almost like my own tales of deepest, darkest, Africa.”

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  2. “Hopefully you'll be able to make it to ESC Minneapolis and we can all quaff a few beers together and exchange tales of such improbability that younger embedded designers will gasp in awe (and offer to buy the next round :-)”

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  3. “I'm sure Kurtis's talk would be of great interest, unfortunately I won't be attending ESC Minneapolis and therefore won't be able to enjoy the beer quaffing with you 🙁 “

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  4. “I still live in hopes of persuading you to come out to ESC Minneapolis and give a talk on the creation of your 8x8x8 3D LED Cube — the work you did with the jigs was absolutely outstanding! “

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  5. “Thanks Max, I just can't see myself presenting in front of an audience. I do seem to have quite a following on my Youtube Chanel though and great feedback on my build method. A serious cube builder and cube kit provider even commented that other cube buil

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