From Itch to Launch by@floathub

From Itch to Launch

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(for those linked in here from out of the blue, Floathub is sort of a one-way “Nest for Boats”; a hardware device that monitors a vessel’s systems and sends data up to an online interface)

As we make the final preparations for our KickStarter launch, many of the folks we’ve press-ganged into acting as beta testers have been asking us about FloatHub’s history. Rather than dribbling out snippets of answers here and there, we’ve attempted to set down a relatively brief narrative of how we got here (in a technical sense).

The original impetus was a definite itch; after the umpteenth time arriving at our boat and discovering some minor disaster related to flat batteries, water over the floorboards, etc., etc, we thought, how hard could it be to hack a solution to this problem? There has to be an affordable way to monitor what’s happening on a boat when we’re not onboard. Just solder-up some sensors to an old 2g cell phone and push readings to a server somewhere. Flat file data storage, a few grep scripts, some log rotations, and you’re done. Shouldn’t take more than an afternoon. :-)

Initially, we had no intention of trying to create a commercial product. We just wanted to solve our own problem. Maybe create a few extra copies for friends in the same situation

Hardware Choices

After the first few largely forgettable experimental failures, we made some basic hardware decisions. We wanted to go with a true microcontroller (as opposed to a more complicated Raspberry Pi or other higher level system). The main reason was power usage, since boats often have to make their own. But we were also attracted to a really _simple_ design goal for the device; ideally it would just sit on a boat for months and years, with no-one ever having to intervene and update it, install a new driver, and so on. To the extent that we wanted to do anything clever with the data, we were pretty sure the right idea was to do that out on the network, after it had already been pushed off the boat. Plus there is something hard to define but extremely satisfying about writing low-level microcontroller code; you are in charge of just about _everything_. Working just a compiler above bare wires with memory measured in kilobytes is such a refreshing change from most other kinds of software development.

Since we wanted to talk to other onboard systems (depth sounders, wind speed, etc.) and since most historic data systems on boats use a 4800 baud protocol that is a very close cousin of RS-232/RS-422, we knew we’d want multiple serial ports. Accordingly, we settled on the Arduino Mega for the prototyping platform (it has 4 serial ports). We also wanted to be able to directly measure analog voltages to be able to report on battery levels, charging systems, and pump voltages (to see when and for how long pumps were running). Again we stayed very simple, and started designing a custom Arduino shield that included straightforward voltage dividers composed of simple resistors. We also made sure our board design passed through all header connections so that we could stack more shields on top. Adding an embedded GPS was an absolute breeze (just supply power and make a serial connection to any of the plentiful GPS chipsets, e.g. the ubiquitous Neo 6 family). That gave us not only position, but date and time info as well. We also added a Bosch chip that measured temperature and barometric pressure.

So with an off-the-shelf Mega and a half-breadboard/half-shield prototype, we had a basic system that could monitor 9 voltages, talk to other onboard systems, know where it was in space & time, and take some ambient weather measurements .


FloatHub Hardware v0.0.1 (~2012)

In the first real working iteration of the hardware, we used a cellular shield that interacted with the Mega on serial port 2 and basically used a Hayes Modem command set. With that, we could periodically do an AT-CALL {HOME} (which would get a GRPS-based TCP/IP socket connection to a host and port) and then AT-SEND {STRING OF DATA} to send a packet to the host.

So the next challenge was what should that {STRING OF DATA} actually be composed of?

A Protocol

On the server side, we could, for all intents and purposes, do anything we wanted in terms of data types, markup, handshaking, transmission frequency, security, encryption, and so on. The challenge was the device side, where our little microcontroller took a non-trivial number of clock cycles just to assemble characters into a string. Sending them took longer still. And if the connection was lost, we had to worry about somehow storing the data in a tiny amount of EEPROM and trying to keep phoning home in the meantime.

As far as marking up the data, the most obvious choice was the NMEA protocol that many marine instruments already use, and essentially all GPS chipsets speak. This would have the advantage of making the device really, _really_ simple. It would just be a gateway that sent NMEA up over a cellular link. The main disadvantage is that NMEA is, in this context, idiotically verbose; a GPS chip just keeps spitting out location data on a NMEA link at 4800 baud even if it remains entirely motionless. And since NMEA is really a local, hard-wired serial protocol, it has absolutely no notion of identity or security.

A second natural choice was a then emerging JSON-based standard for onboard systems called SignalK. This had several great advantages, not the least of which is that it is truly free and open. Unfortunately, while trying to mark up JSON in a minuscule memory footprint is just barely possible, it is quite difficult and very limiting in how many pieces of data you can handle (the right place for SignalK in the FloatHub world is as an output from the server, something we are currently actively working on).

And so, of course, we rolled our own protocol. Details are available, but the gist of it is that we needed two message types, and both of them had to be nice and compact. First, we needed a sample-in-time type of message that showed the current state of all the systems (battery voltages, water depth, etc.). We also needed a point-in-time message that could be sent when an important event had just occurred (e.g. a pump turned on at precisely 11:23:06 UTC). Then we had to have some convention to explain which device the message was coming from (i.e. a unique identifier). On top of all of that, we needed some form of encryption, as otherwise we would be passing plaintext data over TCP/IP (including location information). A full SSL-style stack of infrastructure would have overwhelmed our little Megas, but we did have enough spare program space to squeeze in an AES-CBC routine.

Iterating Hardware

We then spent something close to _3 years_ of otherwise idle time in the evenings and on weekends iterating on the hardware. We’re still far from true circuit design ninjas, but gradually progressed from thru-hole, hand soldered components to mostly surface mount. All of the layout and design was done in Eagle. We tried a few different places for printed circuit board (PCB) prototype manufacturing, but eventually settled on Seeed as they could do both the PCB creation and component assembly in very small batches at reasonable rates.


Hardware Rev P3.A3 (2013)

While our custom shield progressed, we used a few different Arduino WiFi and Cellular shields on the top of the physical stack for communications. We needed an enclosure that could encompass this triple-stacked PCB sandwich, have a cutout where the screw terminals would allow hookups for voltage testing, mounting points for GPS, WiFi, and Cellular antennas, and so on. We did spend a fair bit of time hunting for a ready-made case we could use off the shelf, but never found one that really worked.

So, just to ratchet up the time commitment to this “easy hack” solution, we started fiddling with CAD/CAM software. We knew we could 3-D print a case if we could manage to wrap our brains around modeling software. We started out with OpenSCAD, which we absolutely loved. It’s really more of a programming language than a traditional GUI-based CAD/CAM tool, so we were able to keep thinking like software developers when using it. Data and directives are in the “source code” (e.g. draw a box here, take away the volume of a cylinder there), which is then run through a “compiler” (i.e. OpenSCAD), to create “object” (i.e. files that can be sent to a 3-D printer). We acquired a Printrbot simple and started churning out enclosure revisions. As our volume of prototype units went up, we initially printed them with Shapeways, although recently have been doing more and more with Voodoo Manufacturing.


Hardware Rev P4/P5 (2014)

At some point in 2015, we had really settled on the physical design and thought we were “done” from an enclosure standpoint. Still only half serious about ever moving forward with a real commercial product, we started reading about injection molding. We’d naively assumed that any file that could be 3-D printed would also be just fine for tooling molds. Couple of problems with that: 1) at the time, OpenSCAD was not great with the IGES or STEP files used by most tooling systems, and 2) a little something called “draft”. We designed our enclosure with simple right angles just about everywhere. Turns out that does not work very well for parts that will come out of a mold. You need angles that taper (at least a little) so the part can be popped out after it’s cooled. This notion of draft is probably taught in the first month of any CAD/CAM or engineering course, but it was news to us. Since we were already having format issues with OpenSCAD and we were going to have to redesign the whole enclosure anyway, we switched to FreeCAD for our CAD/CAM work. After more months of spare hours learning the tool and then using it to re-design the case, we finally had something that the automated design checker at ProtoLabs said could be injected molded without too much difficulty.

A Server Process

With the device electronics and physical specification coming along nicely, we turned back to the server side of our home grown data protocol. This was a nice project that had a very well defined scope:

  1. listen for an incoming connection
  2. receive a string of characters from the device, terminated by a newline
  3. acknowledge reception by sending a short response string (and generally closing the connection)
  4. given the unique identifier in the initial part of the string, attempt to decrypt it (AES-CBC)
  5. On successful decryption, parse out data elements and stuff them into permanent storage (a database)

We basically used a Python TCPSocketServer with a threading mixin, running on some fairly small AWS EC2 instances. Each job is very discreet. When the string arrives, there’s a defined section near the beginning that includes a unique identifier. Looking this up in a server side database, we grab the relevant AES key for that “account” (the device’s unique identifier) and attempt decryption. If that succeeds, then we have plaintext data to parse out of the string and store in the relevant table(s) for this “account”.

The only thing we did here which even verged on clever was to realize that the streaming data for each “account” could be stored in its own tablespace (no device data is directly reliant on any other device’s data). We could use a central database to look up “account” information and include in that a pointer to device-specific host/database/tables where message data could be stored. Although each transmission from the device is quite small, they can send up to 120 per hour, and over the days, weeks, and months, the set can grow to multiple GBs per device. Having the data sharded in this way makes it cleaner to work with. For example, deleting an “account” is just a simple table drop, not a careful select on some enormous über-table of data. And we can scale in a relatively straightforward way by just horizontally adding more database instances.

The Amazing ESP8266

Somewhere in 2015, we noticed that we were starting to use the word “account” a lot, implying that we really had started to think of this as something we might try to sell commercially. The biggest remaining technical barrier was then device configuration. Up until that point, we had been making changes in device identifiers, AES keys, network settings, and other parameters largely by editing source code, recompiling, and then re-flashing the Mega. Perfectly adequate for proving out the core functionality, but far from viable as a “user experience”. We experimented a little bit with a very simple serial protocol where you could set parameters via a terminal program, but even that was not terribly user friendly. We also experimented with bluetooth and an app, where we could hide the serial line protocol behind a phone/tablet GUI.


The ESP-8266 WiFi Microcontroller

Around the same time, everyone and their uncle started writing about a new WiFi-centric microcontroller called the ESP8266. This chip has a whole TCP/IP stack onboard, can do both access point and regular station mode (and even both at the same time), was quickly supported within the Arduino environment, and is ridiculously cheap (less than $10, even in a full breakout-board configuration). We started experimenting and realized we could add one to FloatHub and have it serve two roles: 1) replace shield-based WiFi solutions for sending date off the device, and 2) run a minuscule web-server right onboard that would let end users set configuration values.

Compared to the modern web development world of complex application server stacks and API’s to API’s, writing a whole microcontroller-based http server is starkly clear cut. Much like our previous code for the Mega, you’re dealing with tiny executable sizes, and pretty severe memory limitations. For example, we needed cookies for our device logon, so we had to actually come up with a small-as-possible C struct to represent them. Graphic elements in the interface had to be byte-coded into the executable, as there is no traditional file system to serve them from.

The ESP8266 is also _rock_ solid as an upstream data channel. As long as it can see it’s designated WiFi connection, it will stay connected, and the interactions over loosing a connection and then asking it to re-establish one are very straightforward and reliable. The fact that it can do Access Point and regular Station mode at the same time means FloatHub effectively has two WiFi interfaces; a “private” one with it’s own 192.168.4.* address space, and a “public” one where it connects with the outside world. Our only grumble is that since these two modes share the actual same physical hardware, they have to be at the same WiFi frequency. So if the upstream connection has to move to a new frequency to connect, it must drag along the private connection to that new frequency as well, effectively bumping off clients and forcing them to re-connect. But it’s a very small price to pay, and a joy to be able to fiddle with device settings with any browser that happens to be handy.

Since we needed the ESP8266 on all FloatHub devices (even the cellular version) in order to do device configuration, we realized we should also add an option to broadcast NMEA over WiFi. That is, have a little server process in parallel with the http server that would push NMEA data to any connected client. This is really a NMEA to WiFi gateway, pushing any valid data generated internally by the onboard sensors or seen coming in from other devices (via serial). There are lots of marine applications for phones, tablets, and computers that can make a connect to these sorts of servers and then display vessel location, depth, wind speed, etc. Originally this was an almost accidental by-product of the fact that we needed some way to easily configure a FloatHub. Now it is easily the favorite feature among our beta testers.

Online Site & Web Interface

The last major piece of the, “is this actually something we could sell?” question was to make a functioning website with an interface to the data. We’re really more server side developers than front-end types, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.


FloatHub’s Web Interface

Our core framework is Flask, which we run with gunicorn. Nginx is the public facing web server (and handles https with letsencrypt certificates). Our Flask-based user accounts, e-mail based verification, etc. is all fairly vanilla stuff. We set up Stripe for payments and subscriptions. There is a main user account databases on an RDS instance, and then the flow of device data is pulled in according to the shard setup we mentioned earlier.

The actual vessel monitoring interface is a simple “one page application”, in that it shows a bunch of data and updates automatically as new data becomes available. Nothing really novel in how we implement that; we use a JQuery getSON() approach to call the data API every 30 seconds and see if new data has arrived. If it has, we update the gauges and displays accordingly. You’d _never_ want to use it to actually navigate with, but for a quick summary of what’s up with your boat or for following along with a vessel on a voyage, it’s quite serviceable.

For the gauges, we looked at a fair number of different packages. There are a _lot_ of them out there. We settled on Canvas Gauges by Mikhail Stadnyk, because it has wide browser support, is under active development, and works as advertised. We haven’t really done full justice to what’s possible with Canvas Gauges yet, and plan to add more detail and nicer polish over time.


Charts from the Web Interface

To display historical data (and update it live), we went with C3 (based, in turn, on D3). C3 makes it dead easy to create attractive, interactive charts. Because it’s D3-based, there’s a fairly rich set of code to draw on, including JSON methods where you can just ask for some data from the API and the code will automatically draw the relevant graph once the data comes back. There are some great examples of this and many other features of C3 in the documentation.

Off to Launch

That pretty much sums it up. Of course we’ve skipped over lots of detail, but we’ve covered the major items in getting from there to here. At the time of putting these thoughts and notes together, we have just a few days left before our KickStarter launch. We’re optimistic, as we think FloatHub is a really useful product and service and our beta testing group has been giving reasonably positive feedback. But whether FloatHub enjoys successful adoption or sinks into insignificance, it seemed like the right time to try and get some of this history down.

From that one little itch, we got to spend time exploring circuit layout, microcontrollers, protocol design, WiFi chipsets, embedded servers, CAD/CAM modeling, injection molding (draft!), component sourcing, database design, server processes, Flask, front-end libraries, Javascript/JQuery, and responsive data interfaces.

Please let us know your thoughts or comments here or via email at [email protected].

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