Cam­era Investigation

I have made sig­ni­fic­ant pro­gress on the cam­era front.

The first cam­era, the Seek Thermal is avail­able com­mer­cially, but only ship­ping to the US. So I have ordered a sample cam­era using a reship­per, I got noti­fic­a­tion left the reship­per on Fri­day so look­ing at a deliv­ery early next week.

The second cam­era I am inter­ested in is the Panasonic Grid-Eye 8×8. I was hop­ing to buy a USB eval­u­ation board, which while being not quite the sensor I was after would have been close enough to decide on the product. Unfor­tu­nately Digikey won’t ship that product to Aus either, ITAR con­cerns I assume.

With Digikey unwill­ing to sup­ply the chips inter­na­tion­ally using a reship­per for the sup­ply wasn’t really sat­is­fact­ory so I con­tac­ted Panasonic about get­ting another sup­plier. I had made some prior attempts to con­tact them without get­ting any­where so I went full court press with at least four sim­ul­tan­eous inquiry attempts. Call­ing the tele­phone num­ber of Panasonic Indus­trial Devices Sales Asia (PIDS) in Singa­pore actu­ally worked. I was passed to Ivan Khor who has been incred­ibly help­ful, he reserved ten chips out of their next pro­duc­tion run and passed me on to Braemac to handle the local distribution.

So the Panasonic chips are a bit more fiddly and will take more time but the solid link into Panasonic will prob­ably make the effort well worth­while. I also learnt that the eval­u­ation board is actu­ally a Digikey product, so I will have to knock together my own I2C interface.

Screen Invest­ig­a­tion

A key part of what I want to do is replace the stand­ard microwave inter­face with a touch screen, essen­tially mount a phone as the con­trol inter­face. The big gain here is avoid­ing the lim­it­a­tions of a four char­ac­ter dis­play, I think this is why so many of the advanced func­tions are so difficult.

Basic­ally I want the fol­low­ing features:

  • ARM pro­cessor cap­able of run­ning Android
  • 3.5″-5″ touch screen
  • 1x USB host-mode
  • 1x USB slave-mode
  • Some GPIOs or addi­tional USB

I think I could design a board to do this myself, it is essen­tially a stand­ard ARM applic­a­tion note. How­ever that is work, pro­to­typ­ing it is work, test­ing it is work and it being fully cus­tom would be expens­ive. So the lazy me sched­uled in the grand plan a week of try­ing to buy some­thing else that someone else had done, then doing the design if that didn’t work.

My ini­tial thoughts were to get the guts of a cheap tab­let and maybe tweak the BOM slightly. I had heard that the Shen­zhen pat­tern was that most com­pan­ies were very spe­cial­ised, dif­fer­ent com­pan­ies made the screen, the PCB, the chassis, the card­board box, etc. So I went hunt­ing on Alibaba for the PCB ele­ment of that chain. Unfor­tu­nately I mis­un­der­stood the way it came together. As far as I can tell the a com­pany that builds the product does the design of the product selects the parts such as the screens, chassis etc. that they buy. There is also a range of stand­ard pick and place man­u­fac­tur­ers that assemble PCBs accord­ing to the design they are given. The first isn’t inter­ested in just selling PCBs, the second doesn’t retain designs they build to order.

For­tu­nately I think I have stumbled on a solu­tion though. The Banana Pi. Essen­tially a product which was inspired by the Rasp­berry Pi but uses a dif­fer­ent, more power­ful, ARM chip with a bet­ter fea­ture match to what I am after, such as built in flash. It is also, like the Rasp­berry, open hard­ware and offered by a range of Alibaba manufacturers.

I will get quotes to modify the Banana Pi boards, just change the BOM to remove a few expens­ive parts I don’t need. I expect though that it will cheaper to buy the quant­it­ies I am after unad­jus­ted as a frac­tion of a lar­ger stand­ard build.

Other news

Another inter­est­ing thing which happened this week is that Mark Rober came out with a mar­ket­ing video pro­pos­ing to do some­thing sim­ilar to what I am look­ing at though focus­ing primar­ily on the thermal rather than usab­il­ity angle.

It is actu­ally reas­sur­ing to see that other people think this is a good idea and his web­site count­ing the num­ber of people who are vaguely inter­ested is also use­ful mar­ket research.

I’m not par­tic­u­larly wor­ried about the com­pet­i­tion. From the looks of his pro­to­type and videos he is well away from a real­istic design, let along product. Far more con­cern­ing to me is what the major man­u­fac­tur­ers are doing in private and the risk that this may kick those research pro­jects up into a higher gear.

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