Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Nifty Mi-Fi

Loosely referred to as the "dongle", dongles are small cellular transmitter-receivers, about the size of a computer USB memory stick, which when shoved into the USB port on your computer, allows said computer to access the Internet, without the use of wires.

One of the greatest problems with using dongles on boats is that you invariably have to sit in strange places around the boat, in order to get a signal.

If you ever see a boater sitting on the roof of their narrowboat, holding a laptop, in the middle of the winter, there's a good chance its because he has a temperamental dongle.

Most cellular networks in the UK are geared towards highly populated areas, motorways etc.
There isn't much mileage for these operators, in putting masts up near the canals.

This usually means that the signal strength on the cut is from middling to non-existent.

As a direct result of this rule, boaters have experimented with everything from external aerials to putting their dongles in freezer bags and hanging them from broomsticks on the roof.
The extra height can often improve reception.

Unfortunately, you still need to sit attached to the dongle by a USB cable.

Today I purchased a new solution.

Its the Huawei E5830 Mi-Fi Dongle.

Essentially, its a normal dongle, which works on the Hutchinson Telecom "3" network.
Its difference is that it contains a wireless (Wi-Fi) transmitter, so once it has acquired its signal through the cell, it then transmits to any wireless device in range.

This means that a wireless ready laptop, netbook or iPod Touch will suddenly be the lucky recipient of internet access, without the use of wired routers.

So, to cut an already long story, short, I now have wireless on my boat, which works anywhere I can get "3" coverage.

As we chug our way around Englands green and pleasant canals, I take my own personal Wi-Fi "cloud" with me.

The Mi-Fi fits nicely in the cratch, where it is protected from the rain, but permanently powered by a mini USB port (which is currently supplied from the boats AC inverter supply).

It means that I can use my laptop or my iPod anywhere in the saloon. I can sit comfortably, with my feet up, on the sofa or sit at the table on the dinette.

Whats more, as the Mi-Fi allows more than one user to access its wares, the first mate can use her laptop while I'm surfing on my iPod.

Its a bit early for a full road test report, but one little niggle so far; if you don't refresh a web page for a while, the Mi-Fi disconnects itself from the service, which means a trip to the cratch for a reset (you have to push a button on the side of the Huawei unit).

Also, it would be nice if you can see what the Mi-Fi signal strength is, from the laptop.

Well you can't have everything and I think Mi-Fi is "sci-fi".

Friday, 26 March 2010

My Boat Has Just Sent Me a TEXT

One of the little projects that I am currently working on, is remote control of boats by SMS.

Now, before you all starting writing to your M.P's, I'm not talking about moving the boat by SMS (that would be silly !!).

No, I'm talking about switching on items of equipment on the boat, remotely, by sending it a text.

Just Imagine - you only use your boat at the weekend !!

It's Thursday lunchtime and its going to be a nippy Easter Bank Holiday.

You plan to drive up to the boat this evening after a hard week at work.

The journey to the marina is going to take an hour or two in the traffic.

You'll arrive to a cold boat and spend the next couple of hours trying to warm it up.

BUT: you can text the boat with your mobile and tell it to turn the heating on !!!

Really ?

Well, to be precise, you can text the boat's SMS Portal and it will recognise its you and switch the diesel heater on for whatever duration you tell it.

What's more it will text you back and confirm that it's done it.

You start your drive to the marina and you've got all the food for the weekend in the boot of the car.

However, you don't have a shore line, so the fridge will be off and it's going to take a while to chill down and get the beer/wine cool.

No problem, text the boat and tell it to turn the fridge on.


You've have a great weekend, relaxing and cruising.

You finally get home on Monday night, worn out.

As you pull on to your drive, what you don't know is that you forgot to lubricate the stern gland after your trip.

Its been dripping away since you closed the boat up and drove away from the marina.

Water is slowly but surely building up in the bilge.

Its very slow, but it will be several weeks until you will return to the boat. Lets hope the bilge pump and the batteries are up to it.

Suddenly, your Bilge Alarm Monitor goes off - it's detected 5mm of water rising on your baseplate.

Nobody can hear it sounding inside the boat.

No problem - your mobile vibrates.

The boat has texted you and tells you there is a problem.

It's a long drive back to your boat when you are tired, but it's better than finding a flooded bilge in a fortnights time.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Shine On Harvest Moon

As part of my long term commitment to the owner of Harvest, my last task in the Harvest ECO boat project is to get the remote control installed and working.

Back in 2005, as an interesting theoretical challenge, I started designing Harvest with Paul.

The design brief was that the boat would be capable of being remote controlled.

In 2007, the agreement was made that no money would change hands, but I would be allowed to publish details of the project on the Just Canals forum, in exchange for my efforts.

The main problem is that everything was purchased in 2006 and has been sitting around on the boat ever since.

Luckily, I tend to keep copious notes and drawings.

The batteries in the remote control (transmitter) have been discharged for four years and Paul, the boat owner, couldn't find the key for the switch which is needed to switch it on.

No problem.

I managed to hot-wire the key switch and put the batteries on charge.

There are basically 3 steps to full remote control:

1. Bow Thruster
2. Propulsion
3. Rudder Steering

Paul is still busy getting the hydraulics bled and sorted, so we elected to leave the rudder steering for another day.

So, I installed the receiver unit to the 24VDC supply and got that to power up. The receiver was then connected to the thruster panel first. 

We had a little debate about whether the thruster arrows should indicate thrust or boat direction, but in the end, agreed to mimic the set-up on the hard wired control panel.

When all was powered up, it was quite amazing to stand on the towpath next to a securely moored boat, press the thruster buttons on the yellow transmitter box and watch the bow surge against its tethers.

The system appears to be quite safe. If the radio signal drops out or one of the buttons malfunctions, a microprocessor in the receiver unit senses this and drops an interlock relay so that nothing moves.

This was inadvertently tested because we have a teething problem with either the power of the transmitter or the aerial location.

The receiving aerial is currently inside the console and cannot stay there. Also, we are not sure if the rechargeable batteries are goosed as they have been sitting around for so long.

When you start to walk away down the towpath from the wheelhouse, the radio link is lost after about 3-4 metres. 

The contactor drops out in the receiver and all control is switched off so everything stops.

On my next visit, I will have to replace the batteries and try to rig up a remote aerial that can be seen at all times, in order to maintain the "line of sight" contact needed by radio systems.

Before I left the boat, I also managed to interface the remote control to the electrical propulsion.

So thats two out of three - to be continued....

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Twittering Nicholsons Updates

I see that the Nicholsons Updates blog is twittering news of each and every update as they are issued.

Seems a good idea as it means you don't have to keep checking the blog to see if anything useful has changed.

After all, I haven't got time to religiously update all my Nicholsons guides for every update from NU, but its quite useful to just update the guide for the stretch you're on, as and when.

Twitter notifies you if there is something of interest and then you can go to the blog to make a note of the correction detail.


http://twitter.com/      @nicholsonupdate

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Hey, Willie Winkie, are you coming in?

Last May, I blogged about Tesco: 


I seem to have a love/hate relationship with the chain of stores.

I hate going there, but am inexplicably drawn to their hallowed portals. 

Now I hear that they have banned shoppers from wearing their nightclothes in the shop.


Shame, because if you have to do it, the wee hours are the best time to shop...