“Keep building, man, just keep building.”
Name: Dr. Alexander Fell
Vocation: Assistant Professor at IIIT-Delhi
Operates out of: Delhi
Alma Mater: Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
Past Projects: Monitoring System in Antarctica, Weather Station, Display on office door that automatically updated current position (eg:- In office, In meeting,etc.)
Current Project: Small, low cost, low power micro climate recording device
A making technique you can’t wait to try: Continuous Liquid Interface Production technology(Liquid 3D printing)
Dr. Alexander Fell, from Germany, teaches at Indraprastha Institute of Technology, Delhi. He is not just a teacher and researcher, but also a maker. In talks with us for our series Meet The Maker series, he sheds light about what encompasses building a solutions to problems, his shift from total research to making and much more.
You got into making because…
So in Germany we have this system of throwing out bulky waste(large, unusable, equipment and other household items) every month or so after a public service announcement. Now I was in Primary school and going around looking at all the things people had put on the street I was really fascinated by what I could find. Being small I didn’t necessarily understand what functions any particular thing had or how to work them, but I would collect stuff like those analog measuring instruments, the big ones. I would try and see if they could still be used, maybe try and repair things too. Plus labour in Germany didn’t come cheap, so unlike here in India, a cycle repair shop would charge you a lot for even something as trivial as getting a puncture fixed.
So I and my brother we would tend to our bicycles in the garage, we had a hobby cellar and everything so we could take apart our bikes and repair. That way I am handy with building things with my hands. Then growing up and continuing with education I sort of lost touch making or building things; I did not get back to building things up until I joined IIIT to teach. One of the first courses that I had to teach was Embedded Logic Design and so to teach the students, I had to learn Arduino and build something. So now I was rediscovering this old passion of building things. My field is Computer Architecture but I have shifted slightly towards Embedded Systems and I am enjoying the making part it involves.
The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had a a problem, and needed some one to help them, now despite being a fun time faculty, I am not allowed to write proposals on account of being a foreigner. But I do need the funds for my Computer Architecture research and WII needed a solution built so I decided to do Embedded Systems and build them a solution.
There are very few people out there building ready-made solutions. Now you can simply put together different sensors to Arduino, use libraries and say you built a solution. Or you can design a solution that works out in the way that satisfies the requirements of the problem.
I had to basically build, A low Cost and low Power Nest Monitoring System for Snow Petrels(One of the three birds that breeds exclusively in Antarctica ). Several constraints came into play. Like the low temperature involved so I had to choose a power source that lasted longer, plus I had to optimize the system, plus there was a hard deadline, since ships for Antarctica don’t go all the time, if the one that was supposed to carry this system left, there wouldn’t be a second chance until next year. There were lot of things I had to consider, getting the LDR( for detection of Petrels), RTC(for timekeeping) and temperature sensor to work in parallel as well as use SD card to allow ease of access. Another thing you have to appreciate that the system needs to be redundant and the guy is able to repair it with my instruction because you can’t easily get parts delivered to Antarctica. So it was a good effort I had to put for 3 weeks, no payments for it but it was super fun.
Currently working on…
There are a couple things to work on, like one project again for WII is a low cost, low power micro climate recording device. Another is elephant detection device on tracks, we got a few ideas for it too. Plus there is the universal problem of optimization that I am trying to figure out. Suppose you modify the code to so that while data is being is retrieved, instead of delay and the processor being idle in a board like Arduino, it works in parallel to do another task. Moreover could a tool be built to implement optimazion, so yeah these problems requiring research and exploration you know.
Tools that you use…
I am a big fan of ATtiny and I use Arduino IDE plus avrdude for compiling plus editors to write the codes. I also got a high voltage programmer and its pretty cool. ATmega is what I like to use, Arduinos are usually not used. Plus I like working with my hands so power tools and hand tools are something I can work with.
That extra bit, which making adds to life…
See I can always repair if I broke something I bought. I don’t have to run around to get it replaced or fixed. Sure there is a good chance it might never work again but I guess that’s the worst that could happen. You always learn something from trying to fix things, regardless of whether it all works out or not.
Thoughts on the maker movement…
See in India, labour is too cheap and so it is convenient to outsource things. Again there is this attitude of being shy when it comes to doing work by your own hands. There is imagination and inventiveness in people and the movement is giving those with a spark in this direction a push to make and fix stuff themselves. There is support and opportunity to learn and I think that way it is great. See the first time you try doing it by yourself it might not turn out perfect but still it always teaches something you know.
Changes you’d like to see happening in the movement…
I mean, more people should know about the movement. Again there are many who need tools and the movement is helpful in that regard, so more and more folks interested should join the community. Plus, collaborating is not just the end of it. Indian students are fiercely competitive, we can have competitions around making to promote and grow the movement. Also, with IOT becoming a hot topic I would like to see the community work on the security aspects of it, makers thinking about what more the device can be used to do and what responsibility do they bear in this regard.
A word for the new makers out there…
Two words. Keep building.
Disclaimer: Some of the pictures used in this article are not shot or pictures that belong to MakersBox, these have been re-used with permission from Dr. Alexander Fell. In case you feel you are the copyright owner of the image, please do share this information with us so that we can credit you and link it back to the original source.
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