Boat Blog – let’s get moving!

Right, I have a tendency to over plan.  Which is no bad thing except that my projects often take a long time to get off the ground – if they ever do.  Well with this project I thought that I would just dive straight(ish) in.  At the start of this project I had no idea how Remote Controllers work and I thought that the best way to learn would be the buy a basic set-up and play around with it.  Hopefully I can hack-it and perhaps use it in the final boat – if not never mind.

So I browsed a well known auction web site and brought a basic RC set-up for a boat.  It costs a shade over £30.  What arrived is as shown in the picture below along with a 7.2V Ni-MH battery pack.


Now what I’ve discovered is that there are basically 3 parts, 1) Something that transmits instructions (transmitter), 2) Something that receives the instructions (receiver) and finally the 3) The things that drive & steer the boat.

The sophistication of the system is dependent on the number of different instructions that can be sent from the transmitter to control the boat.  In technical language the transmitter has a certain degree of freedom, i.e. 2 buttons are 2 doF, and these a assigned to a channel on the receiver.

So let’s take a closer look at the transmitter.


There are 2 joysticks – one goes up-down and one goes left to right.  Aside from the on-off switch there are a number of other plastic tabs that appear to be sliding switches.  I was a bit perplexed as they didn’t seem to move.  Taking the back off it can be seen that oddly they don’t actually move or do anything.  They are only for ornamentation!


The transmitter uses 8 no. AA batteries (so a nominal 12V) and transmits at 40.680 Mhz – a standard frequency in the UK.

.The receiver has 1) An antennae, 2) Motors connections 2 no., 3) An on-off switch, 4) Power input.


Playing around with the controls – the up-down joystick controls the speed of both motors.  The left-right joystick varies the relevant motor speed and thus steers the boat.  For example pushing the joystick to the left favors the left motor and steers the boat accordingly.  Importantly therefore the motors must be installed the right way around!

All that now remains to built a boat, take it for a spin and reflect on what we’ve learnt.

Amount spent to date: £30.12


Boat blog No. 2 – Know your environment

I want my boat to be specifically designed to work in a particular environment. The environment I have in mind are the small streams and brooks of the North Wessex downs. The area is designated as a Area of Outstanding Nature Beauty that is bounded by the Thames in the east but contains a myriad of small brooks. Before I get down to designing the boat I spent a little time getting to know the environment a bit better.

The photos paint a thousand words.

Brook Pictures

This brook is about 2-3 m wide in places.  Today the water depth along this stretch was about 30 cm in the middle of the steam.  However, at the edges gravel-bottomed shallows occur sporadically long the length (September has been very dry).  The bottom is often covered in a silt that is easily disturbed turning the clear waters murky in an instant.  The banks are often inaccessible and long hanging branches dip into the water.  Where the overhead branches clear and sunlight hits the surface plants flourish.

The design is starting to take shape.  The boat will need to have a broad flat bottom to be able to cope with the shallow water.  The above the water there should be nothing that can snag on the branches.  The propulsion system needs to be carefully thought through because the slightest wave will send a cloud of muddy silt billowing into the flow and that is not good for measuring water quality.




Remote Controlled Boat


I’ve been thinking for a long time about building a remote controlled boat that will allow me to more fully explore the rivers and stream around my home. Often footpaths don’t run alongside the river or the banks are crowded with trees, bushes and reed beds. There are miles and miles of unexplored reaches that are just around the bend, out of sight.

Inspired by the OpenROV project ( I’ve decided to make a start. I’m going to use this blog as a project diary to chart my progress. I find that it helps to write about projects as I go along to marshal my thoughts and documents progress and decisions. Perhaps somebody else may find this blog of interest, but more importantly hopefully others can contribute ideas and helpful suggestions.

The first thing I am going to do is to set out what the boat should do – a functional specification in technical speak. Whilst doing this I am not going to jump to solutions & start designing, that comes later.

1. Boat must be propelled, remotely controlled and be highly maneuverable
2. The boat must be suitable for small river & streams containing debris, shallows and over-hanging branches.
3. Must be capable of taking dip samples from the water at different depths
4. Must be capable of recording photographs and video above and below the water line from a range of positions
5. The location of all samples and images taken should be recorded (e.g. grid reference).
6. The boat must cause minimal disturbance to the environment
7. The boat should contain the minimum amount of specialist equipment

…………and hopefully it won’t end up looking like something from Wacky Races


I am sure that the functional spec will evolve over time.

That’s just part of the development cycle.

Arduino Clone Wars

Arduino clones are now everywhere.  Often on websites such as Amazon it is difficult to know definitively whether you are buying an official one or not.  But Arduinos are open-source right? So what’s the problem?  Well I never really thought that hard about it until I read this on the Arduino web site.

Note [from Massimo]: We stress the fact that the Smart Projects boards are made in Italy because in this globalised world, where getting the lowest possible price for products sometimes translates into poor pay and working conditions for the people who make them, at least you know that who made your board was reasonably paid and worked in a safe environment.

It is the word sometimes that causes the trouble.  Cheaper doesn’t have to mean poor working conditions, just as higher prices don’t always mean inefficiency.

As consumers we need to demand more information.  We need to make the reason for our choices more explicit – to send a clear message.  What we buy is as important as who we vote for.



Energy Saving – Part 2.


OK, now for step 2.  In step 1 we began to track how much energy we use overall.  In step 2 we will delve a little deeper into our electricity consumption

No. 2 – List the things that use electricity & estimate how much they use.

Go around your house and make a list of all the things that are plugged in and using electricity.  We are going to break down our total electricity consumption to help us see where we can make savings.  Play particular attention to the things that are always plugged in rather than gadgets like mobiles phones, etc.

My home is heated using gas so the major items for me are,

  1. Electric cooker (oven)
  2. TV with DVD player and digital TV box
  3. Fridge
  4. Washing machine
  5. Microwave
  6. Central heating pump
  7. Kettle
  8. Power Shower
  9. Internet router
  10. Lighting
  11. Other miscellaneous items (e.g. laptops, mobile phones, vacuum cleaner, toothbrushes, etc.)

Now we need to work out the contribution of each of these items to the overall electricity consumption that we’ve been tracking in Step 1.  The results for my house are shown in the chart below.

Elec Con

You can now see that I can save a significant of electricity by;

  • Making sure that nothing is left on stand-by – especially my TV / DVD player, washing machine and microwave – switch it off at the socket.
  • Only boiling the amount of water I need in the kettle
  • Double checking that I have energy efficient light bulbs
  • Maybe eating less energy intensive meals (ie. not oven cooked)
  • Check that the seals on the fridge are in good shape
  • Perhaps switch to a lower RPM spin-cycle.

All this stuff is pretty simple and maybe you’ve heard it before.  Importantly it doesn’t involve any sacrifice on your part.  You don’t have to sit in the dark, shivering to make these savings.  They are pure waste.  You may discover different things, for example, you may be surprised at how many things are left permanently plugged in, and you may be shocked at exactly how much your tumbled dryer costs you (when you can let at least some of the washing dry naturally).

I want you to measure the consumption so you can see the impact of following advice on energy saving.  I believe that the act of measurement reinforces these messages and ensures that these good acts become permanent habits.

I haven’t said how I completed this analysis.  I did it in 2 of ways.

A.  Using a Power (watt) meter

B. Estimating based on knowledge of voltage/current/watts and usage.

More about these next time.

Saving Energy – Part 1.

Last week I backed Neurio on Kickstarter. I was not surprised to see it smash its funding target hitting 281%.  Backing Neurio was a no-brainer for me – I can see this gadget paying for itself within a couple of months.  Neurio is a neat little device that energy aware technology inc ( have in development.  It measures your energy consumption and facilitates energy savings.  (I won’t go into detail about what is does.  The creators of the system do a much better job – check out their web site for details.)

However you don’t need gadgets to save money & energy (and thus reduce climate change).  I thought I would share my experiences of saving energy in my home over a couple of blog posts.  Share some of my light bulb moments, if you’ll excuse the pun.

No. 1 – Measure how much energy you use every week

For me measuring is fundamental.  When you understand how much energy you use you will be able to,

  • Track your performance, set targets & give yourself an incentive to save (maybe think of something nice to do with some of the money you will save)
  • Compare your consumption with others to see how energy efficient you are at the moment
  • And get the right deal from electricity and gas suppliers

I take an electricity and gas meter reading at the same time each week.  I do this on Sunday at about 7 o’clock as I am usually at home at this time.  I record this in a spreadsheet and create a graph of how much energy I use each week.  It is important to take it at about the same time (without being too obsessive!) to make it easier to compare how your consumption changes over time. A snip of my spreadsheet is shown below.  You can see when I went on holiday and when I switched by gas central heating on! 


Your your energy use does vary a bit week by week.  In winter energy use can go up as the central heating is on and we spend more time at home.  Ideally it would be good to monitor energy use before you start saving so you know how much you have saved – you might consider it a little odd, however, to continue to waste energy! – Your call. 

Step No 2.  Turn off all the things that don’t need to be on!

More about this in the next blog.