Adafruit fuels the creativity of tomorrow today
Up ten floors in a building at the heart of SoHo, there is something you might not expect: manufacturing in Manhattan. The manufacturer is Adafruit, which designs and resells open source electronic kits, components and tools, primarily for the hobbyist market.
Founded in 2005 by MIT graduate Limor “Ladyada” Fried, Adafruit seeks “to create the best place online for learning electronics and making the best designed products for ‘makers’ of all ages and skill levels.” Today, the company employs over 100 next-gen factory workers in its 50,000 sq. ft. space in New York City.
As a provider of quality tools and components for makers and engineers of all ages and skill levels, Adafruit is constantly searching for new technologies to challenge and engage their community in ways that fuel creativity, learning and innovation.
Adafruit added Panasonic’s 64-pixel Grid-EYE sensor to its catalogue. This addition built on the company’s thermal sensor offerings in ways that expanded the potential for many of Adafruit’s build projects.
After selling thousands of Grid-EYE sensors, Adafruit reports no yield issues. In contrast, it receives significant positive feedback on the Grid-EYE sensor – including new ideas that expand on the available technology. When Adafruit initially released the product, it was only available with the 8x8 pixel output. As makers purchased and experimented with the sensor, Adafruit noticed that users were building with the product in novel ways, such as implementing technologies like interpolation filters to take the product’s performance to a new level.
How “makers” are leading disruption
Makers are inventors and innovators, flourishing in areas ranging from food to clothing to tech. As a member of the open-source maker community, Fried has a saying: “What makers are doing on the weekends, every engineer is going to be doing in a couple of years.” She sees makers as the “cutting edge” – the first to experiment, explore and expose the newest technologies. This is because they can move quickly: they don’t have much overhead or management, and they tend to work on projects they feel are the most interesting. These communities are taking components off the shelf and making new technologies that are less expensive and easier to use – the definition of disruption, Fried says.
“This happened with 3D printing, machine learning, IoT, sensing and rapid development. I remember when DIY drones was a big maker community,” Fried recalls, “And that was 10 years ago.”
Panasonic plays a pivotal role in this disruptive maker’s market as a reliable partner, according to Fried. As makers and engineers design the next generation of technologies, they need a partner that’s capable of providing quality components that are actually available on the market. “Panasonic is that reliable friend that’s with you every step of the way. You know that if you spec in a Panasonic part, you’re going to be good to go,” she says.
In keeping with her company’s mission, Fried personally selects, tests and approves all Adafruit tools and equipment before adding them to its online store. To provide value to Adafruit’s open-source maker community, these products need to be innovative and reliable, with the potential for customization. They must also be reasonably priced to keep the barrier of entry low for new engineers, including high school students.
One component that fits the bill? Panasonic's Grid-EYE 64-pixel thermal sensor.
Seeing the Grid-EYE
Fried first noticed the Grid-EYE on the catalogue website for Digi-Key, an electronic components distributor. At the time, Adafruit was stocking various infrared sensors, but those only had the capability for single-point temperature reading. Customers wanted something with a greater potential for additional uses and customization beyond the limits of a single pixel. Specifically, Adafruit recognized a demand for the ability to make an infrared (IR) camera, which requires the multiple points made available through additional pixels.
“You’ll see the IR cameras that plug in to phones,” Fried said. “They’re really expensive and super fancy.”
When Fried discovered the Grid-EYE, she saw the potential to give customers new functionality for a reasonable price. The Grid-EYE’s 8x8 pixels offered just enough detail to detect shapes, identify multiple heat sources, or find the “hot-spot” of an area without having to scan a single pixel across any given space. Furthermore, the sensor was not overly complex in a way that would inflate its price. “It’s really easy to pick and place,” Fried said.
Panasonic’s Grid-EYE sensor operates on I2C, a simple method of networking that allows data to be shared between two electronic devices, whether they’re on the same printed circuit board or separated. Fried notes that benefits of Panasonic’s AMG88 sensor series, of which Grid-EYE is a part, include the ease of establishing the I2C network and the cleanliness of data sharing. Because of the Grid-EYE’s networking capability, Adafruit was able to use the sensor on everything from microcontrollers to single-board computers.
“Panasonic has a really good I2C implementation, which is really important,” Fried explains. “You’d be surprised how many vendors get fast and loose with the I2C spec, and that makes integration really challenging.”
The Raspberry Pi application
To build one of the company’s popular projects, Adafruit plugged the Grid-EYE into a Raspberry Pi temperature sensor, which is a single-board, low-cost, high-performance computer first developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. By plugging the Grid-EYE into the board, the Raspberry Pi became a thermal camera, allowing the sensor to read onto a single-board computer using the I2C host.
The company has customized the sensor into different boards, including a FeatherWing and a Breakout, which allows makers to utilize the sensor in designs without having to solder the Grid-EYE. The FeatherWing is an Adafruit-designed connector pattern – a standard shape and size to fit with a variety of different development boards. Adafruit has 150 Feather boards that are cross-compatible; for example, the Grid-EYE can be added to a Feather board with a display to make a camera.
This kind of customization is owed to the standard I2C protocol. The sensor also has the capability to change its I2C address to allow for two sensors in one build. Fried notes that, unlike other sensors she’s tested, Grid-EYE sensors have not undergone clock-stretching or other I2C modifications that can make them harder to use.
When measuring the success of a new component, Adafruit primarily examines two metrics: how many components are sold and how much customer support is required. (For an ideal product, these two metrics would have an inverse correlation.) Adafruit aims is to ensure all of their boards work out of the box within five to 10 minutes on a wide range of microcontroller and microcomputer platforms, from 8-bit up to single-board computers.
How has the Grid-EYE measured up? According to Fried, after selling thousands of these sensors, the support has been simple: no customer problems or boards that suddenly stop working as a result of yield issues.
Fried also notes positive feedback on the Grid-EYE sensor. As a part of the open-source maker community, Fried’s favorite feedback comes in the form of new ideas that expand on available technology. As customers got their hands on the components, Adafruit began receiving input that makers – from hardcore engineers to high school students – were implementing technologies such as interpolation filters to improve the performance of the product by increasing the amount of data points around the pixels.
“As we’ve released more projects, we’ve seen people add the Grid-EYE sensor to DIY thermal cameras or their own tricorders where they’re measuring their environment,” Fried recounts. “It’s really nice to see people contributing to the community.”