#61. Maker mindset (Part-2) and the Engineering redux

First, the IoT project that I had mentioned in my previous post. Wrapped it up – I have a fully functional AQI device (which measures the Air Quality Indicator, temperature and humidity). All put together, it costed by less than $25 (a similar device retails for $279 from Purple Air, which means the economics of doing this is a slam dunk – but anyway, that was never the point of this exercise). See below for the block diagram and the device itself. Extremely easy to replicate – including the code (which I will put up on github). And with that, I had contributed my own data to the already vast, expanding universe of data (some might say that all I have done is to add yet more digital detritus – and they wouldn’t be incorrect either!)

Overall block diagram and the AQI device (you can see it is quite simple)

So, what did I learn from this diversion?

  1. The technology is quite mature (and improving rapidly) thanks to a very large and extremely active open source community. Open architectures exist for some very sophisticated hardware. Libraries are available for pretty much everything, all the way from processing analog signals from the devices to calling the APIs to push data to the cloud.
  2.  Building these solutions has become extremely affordable. For less than $5, you can now get a fully programmable Wifi Microcontroller Unit. Data aggregation and processing on the cloud is well, free (at this scale at least).
  3. Above all, this was a project that turned out to be fun (and a running joke in the family for the last couple of weeks when I would sneak out to work on it). And a good opportunity to clean the cobwebs and brush up on programming (C++ in this case)
  4. And here is some trivia that I picked up along the way:
    1. A big part of the IoT developer community is from Asia (although China and India continue to dominate, I saw several projects from Bangladesh, Indonesia etc.) and Africa. Very heartening to see how this is spreading.
    2. Surprisingly, there still isn’t a global standard for measuring Air Quality. Different countries follow their own methods mostly to drive the narrative on pollution (another example of politics over science). The least we should be doing is to get to a common definition – that would be a basic starting point, given that air pollution is already one of the leading causes of disease/illness globally.

So, what?

A long time ago (circa 1999), I had read an essay called the ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ by Eric Raymond which was a paean to the hacker culture (remember the early days of Linux). The exciting question – just as open source technologies have dramatically transformed the software world, will something like that scale up hardware as well? After all, a kid from a small town in Africa can program a full Wi-Fi MCU and hook it on the internet – all with a single SOC for less than $5. Just imagine the ideas that this could spawn from around the world and could have profound implications in terms of accelerating the democratization of engineering. The developing countries and even within them, less economically well-off populations are already bearing the brunt of the some of the most challenging problems today: global warming, pollution, low-cost and reliable access to healthcare – the list goes on. To me, it is almost inevitable that the next set of meaningful solutions for some of the most important problems could come from these corners of the world, empowered by access to inexpensive hardware and software.

From the very small to the very big. Serendipitously enough, I am also having bit of a space moment – been reading up on the very big splurges on technology: the ‘new space race’. For those of you who are not yet plugged into this, certainly worth tracking. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson put together, have poured in several hundreds of millions of dollars into building and launching rockets into space. It feels like Spacerace 2.0 – except that this time around, it is all happening in the private sector. Not to miss the Inspiration4 spectacle that we all got to see last week (even converted into a made-for-TV series now on Netflix. Brilliant piece of marketing)

What is fascinating in all this – what motivates someone to pour huge resources, time and energy into a venture that has all the odds stacked up against them? If you think about it, space exploration meets all the criteria that would drive any investor away: very high capital investments, high risk of failure, small (although exclusive) market and the potential for some very bad publicity. All the reasons why governments have had to fund space research and exploration all these years. That is changing now – driven by a combination of personal ambition (thinking big is what has defined Musk and Bezos), ego (hard to think of bigger bragging rights) and of most importantly, wealth (lots of it helps, especially when it comes to space exploration). This is one area worth following for the next few years – for one, looking forward to see how firms like SpaceX, Blue Origin etc. are going to push the boundaries of technology. We may or may not end up going to Mars anytime soon, but what will be equally interesting to see what technologies come out of this burst of investment and innovation. And how can we take these to solve some of the more immediate problems here on earth.

In any case, one thing is becoming clear: Engineering changed the world dramatically with the automobile in the early 20th century, Space 1.0 starting in the 1950s, the internet in mid-1990s. Engineering – especially the trifecta of software, devices and data – is leading the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and wherever you are in the world, it is an exciting time to be one. As Bill Gates is supposed to have said “Be nice to the nerds. Chances are you will end up working for one”.

PS: Redux – ‘to bring back, revive’. Picked it up from the excellent Rabbit series by John Updike. Written in the 1960s/70s, but still very relatable

PPS: Here’s the link to the AQI monitor’s outputs: https://thingspeak.com/channels/1483191

References/Further reading:

  1. The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Essay by Eric Raymond
  2. Space Barons by Christopher Davenport: The new Space race between Space-X (the hare) and Blue Origin (the tortoise) and a flashy sideshow from Richard Branson
  3. Lift-off by Eric Berger: The early days of Space-X. Fascinating story of one man’s ambition, drive and his ability to build a tribe of highly committed engineers.

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