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RTMC & Imaging from a Tablet
Richard S. Wright Jr.'s Blog

I'm home and somewhat recovered from the jet lag after attending RTMC this past Memorial Day weekend. It was my first personal experience there. I've heard horror stories about the weather, but I must have hit the weather lottery, because I had two beautiful clear nights, one partly cloudy night, the temps were warm, but not too hot, and cool, but not too cold. It was actually better attended than the Winter Star Party, and the largest star party I've ever been to, despite what people have told me about it being smaller than in past years. The populous is spread over much more area than WSP, so it still didn't seem as crowded or dense as my favorite event in the Florida Keys. From my perspective this is a good thing too, because I can get a little claustrophobic in crowded venues.

Sunday I gave a daylong workshop on Astrophotography in general. I was hoarse by the end of the day, but it was a great experience with a very attentive and engaging class. I also visited downtown Big Bear at the inaugural Starlight Festival. There were a LOT of people there, and dozens of children engaged in a big tent dedicated to STEM activities. This is how we reach and inspire the next generation of telescope consumers, and astro-imagers!

At Software Bisque, we are horrible about keeping secrets. We've yet to ship a product that we weren't talking about a good year in advance, so why should our "next big thing" be any different?

I brought along to RTMC our first prototype system for the ultimate in portable imaging: a Paramount MX+ on our portable pier, with a battery... okay, nothing new there, right? Well, strapped atop my Veloce was a small plastic box running off the +5V DC power supply on the Versa Plate. This box is a small Linux computer running TheSkyX Pro! 

TheSkyX Pro for Linux controls the mount, focuser, camera, and guider, as well as the filter wheel.  A secondary LiFePO4 battery provided enough juice for the Starlight Xpress Trius camera and the whole system can run all night on a single charge.

Four years ago at NEAF, the roots for this idea were born, and you can see the genesis in this video interview of me at our booth:

I was really right about two things, and wrong about one. First, was controlling the mount via the tablet would soon be a reality, and TheSkyX for iOS is out and about, and you can control our mounts with our new WiSky plug in board for the MKS 5000. This is great for the visual crowd and outreach type events. Second was that trying to image from the tablet directly was a fool's errand. Even if we could get a set of cameras and other devices to work from the tablet, it's impractical on many levels. Tablet battery life, background task priorities, memory issues, etc. would make it more of an interesting science fair project than a practical solution for real imaging needs. The part I was wrong about was a laptop being necessary and that bit about all those wires.

Many of our customers are already hooking up a computer to their mounts and controlling them remotely. This is the de facto standard for most remote observatories, but many portable imagers are getting in on the act as well with laptops connected to their imaging setup and then using a remote desktop client to see how the run is going from inside their house, or tent/RV if they are out camping somewhere. They might even use a remote desktop client that runs on an iPad or Android Tablet. The challenge here is that laptops take a lot of power too, and unless power is available, laptop batteries will not power the system all night long. Further, if your truly trying to be portable, you may not want to carry a laptop along, and/or you may just not want to leave a laptop computer outside all night long.

Embedded computers are showing up everywhere, and there are even astro-cameras coming soon that are running embedded Linux. Putting a computer on the mount or in the mount makes the most sense, and there's no reason it has to be a laptop or desktop computer. An embedded version of TheSkyX Pro has all the logic and plumbing to make truly robotic portable imaging a reality. Immediately, we can take advantage of TheSkyX Pro's power on an embedded device to enable control of your mount with a tablet running remote desktop. This option may appeal to many users, but we are going further than that. TheSky HD (our tablet app) will be expanding to contain connectivity to this remotely running instance of TheSkyX. A native, and streamlined imaging interface will then allow for simple remote setup and imaging under the darkest skies that you can get to. Naturally, this will also work with the backyard laptop warriors, and should even work for those with full blown remote observatories.

Another challenge for many customers is getting all the "pieces parts" to work together. With our embedded solution, we'll be providing drivers ourselves for a limited set of devices that we can certify will run well and stable in this environment. Since it's not a desktop computer, there'll be no bloat ware, constant unneeded system updates, viruses, or rouge processes. The system won't suddenly become unstable with some DLL update from a third-party app either. We'll be able to provide portable imagers with a complete imaging system that is robust and reliable... and that you can take anywhere in the world. I can't wait to do this myself!

Robot is online!


Posted 05-29-2014 8:12 AM by Richard Wright


Charles Walker wrote re: RTMC & Imaging from a Tablet
on 06-03-2014 6:45 PM

Super cool. Can't wait!

Alex wrote re: RTMC & Imaging from a Tablet
on 06-06-2014 11:35 PM

That looks like a raspberry pi you got there.  What's the availability of X2 camera/focuser drivers for this sucker? I'd been toying with doing something similar with a Intel NUC, but I'd rather not shell out the $ if necessary.  Do you really have enough horsepower to do plate solves?  A BeagleBone Black would have a bit more horsepower for this. Of course the pi has that extra USB port.


Richard Francis wrote re: RTMC & Imaging from a Tablet
on 06-11-2014 6:28 AM

That embedded Linux computer looks rather like a Raspberry Pi. Is that what it is?

I'm about to begin experimenting with those for observatory control (the building, not the scope).



Richard Wright wrote re: RTMC & Imaging from a Tablet
on 06-21-2014 6:37 AM

Yes, that is a Raspberry Pi. I have TheSkyX, and X2 plug-ins for Starlight Xpress cameras and filterwheels, and a Robofocus up and going. It's "usable", but a bit pokey, and remote desktop is really too much to add to the mix. In headless operation, it may well be fine, but I'm working on two other boards (yes, one is BeagleBoard) for prototypes.

This is my main focus all summer, by Fall we should have some exciting stuff to talk about ;-)



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