By Lisa Rein
Matteo Borri is an inventor and engineer in San Rafael, California that is currently working with NASA and the Mars Society. His chlorophyll detector will be included on the equivalent of the next Mars Rover.
Matteo’s company, Robots Everywhere LLC, has been working with NASA to create three different prototypes for detecting Chlorophyll in unchartered territory. These devices use “chlofluorescence” to detect the presence of Chlorophyll. They are all handheld devices that can be used indoors or outdoors, and are often operated using a simple Android phone.
LR: So how did you discover this technique for detecting Chlorophyll?
MB: I got the idea from an experiment I did in college. I wanted to build a day-for-night filter that didn’t use any post processing. What I ended up with instead was a filter that would show green fabric one color, and green plants of the same hue another color. Adding a laser to that in order to only “trip” the right fluorescent frequency was done by trial and error.
LR: And when we are detecting Chlorophyll, we are essentially looking for “life” on another planet, right?
MB: Yes. Mars is not seismically active like for example Europa is, so the Sun would be needed to put energy into anything living. If it doesn’t use chlorophyll, it will use a molecule that has to work in a similar way, so it will have to react to sunlight in a similar way.
LR: So, what’s “chlofluorescence” exactly? Is it as simple as a color shade? Or is there something more complex being detected?
MB: Chlorophyll is a lot more efficient than solar panels, but it’s not 100% efficient. So, it transmits out some of the light it receives back out. The tricky part is detecting it! It’s a bit like trying to see a weak LED turning on or off in sunlight.
LR: So was the review basically: This works great! Except 1) we need to make sure a flourescent green sharpy marker doesn’t work and 2) we need a larger interface to accommodate the astronauts clunky gloves? 🙂
MB: Yes. There are a few false positives, notably green fluorescent markers — not a big surprise there given that they are green and fluorescent! — but if we find those on Mars, well, someone has beat us there. As for the gloves, it was a complaint from a research team: the real instrument is not going to have a touch screen, but it was cheaper to wire in a phone (with a touch screen) as the camera and CPU than work from scratch, for the purpose of this test.
LR: Tell me about this stuff you invented to help Puerto Rico. It is really interesting. The solar cell phone charger and the thing you call a “Vampire Charger,” that enables you to get whatever battery power is left out of any battery without the danger of blowing up your phone if the voltage doesn’t match.
MB: Yes. I named it the “Vampire Charger.” It is an inefficient but flexible device which will take any voltage that you might find in the world – from 1.5 volts to 12 volts – to even 110! (That’s when it stops, as 220 will blow it up, but 220 is not a common voltage in the U.S., so if you’re over here, it’s not a problem. I’ll have to come up with an European adapter 🙂
LR: So this is for when something bad has happened, obviously, and you need whatever power you can get, right?
MB: Yes. The idea is that you can use it with any kind of source of power that still works. You don’t know the voltage, you don’t know the current. You don’t even know which is plus and which is minus. You don’t even know if it’s AC or DC!
It has two alligator clips.You connect them to ANY two contacts of the part in question, in any way. (To be clear: the color it doesn’t even matter, in this case.) And it gives you USB power, safely!
LR: I’ve never seen anything else like these Vampire Chargers – in terms of options to keep your phone alive after a disaster. I mean there are batteries that you can keep charged up; and this. Right?
|Vampire Charger – How It Works|
|Here’s a short video where Matteo explains how the Vampire Charger works.|
|Step 1: find a battery in some device, and you don’t know exactly:
-what exactly the voltage is
-what exactly the current is
|Step 2: Connect the contacts to your phone:
– plus or minus/color doesn’t matter
– AC or DC
LR: Why doesn’t the plus or minus or AC/DC matter? What is going on technically?
MB: It has a Schottky rectifier. Then it has a step up. Then it has a step down. So, it’s a bit inefficient, but flexible.
LR: Inefficient how?
MB: Let’s say there was 10 watts of power in a battery. Only 6 watts of that might make it to your phone. Beats the 0 watts you would get without an adapter, or with the wrong adapter.
LR: What about the solar power project you were working on with folks in Puerto Rico?
MB: Right. My friend Luca bought a home in Puerto Rico right before the giant hurricane hit. He bought a bunch of solar panels that were all different brands and different types. So, I had to help him figure out how to hook them up in such a way that they would generate power and not damage each other, which can happen when they are connected wrong. He didn’t know what he was doing — He used to be a real estate lawyer, and he didn’t know how to do any electrical work.
LR: And he was able to follow along with your simple instructions?
MB: Yes. There is certainly an incentive to learn something new when you are without power. In this case, it was a really good thing too. Because, at the time, there was nobody else there that knew how to do it. As is often the case when you are in a disaster situation, he had to use the resources he had available to him right there and then. In this case, we had three 12 volt panels and 1 48 volt panel, and we had to connect them together in such a way that they worked without self destructing.
LR: So you have done other cool tech with the Mars Society in the past, right? For instance, using a 3D printer to print scalpels?
MB: Oh yeah – that was a while ago. I came up with a 3d printer filament that was tough enough for that job, but it loses its edge quickly. Still, it would be good, during an emergency.
LR: How do these Mars Society experiments work?
MB: The Mars Society offers a fantastic test bed not only for tech intended to go to Mars, but also tech intended to be deployed in hostile environments on Earth, which is good news for people who work on oil rigs or maintain remote radars and the like.
LR: You make your plans readily available, right?
MB: I release pretty much all of my work under a creative commons license (CC-BY-NC-SA).
LR: You build all your tech so that it can be modified easily right? Remember when you were explaining to me that, although it’s actually cheaper sometimes to build things that are able to be opened up and modified, many companies are against people working on their own electronics, and will put things in cases that make the tech inaccessible. While we, of course, believe it is a better school of thought to allow for constant improvement and modification.
MB: Yes! That’s why almost everything I make has a prototyping area (if there’s room for it on the build). If you want to add a LED or a level shifter because it will make my thing fit better with your thing, that gives you room to do so in a neat fashion. If you want to solder on an extra fan, go right ahead. And so on.
Other companies do this too, a well known example of hacker friendly products are Parallax and Trakr. It helps me, too: my last build for the MDRS was the optical equivalent of a crystal radio, which I easily adapted from my existing lasers by building a modulator onto the prototyping area.
I also try to design the casing for my products in such a way that it’s easy to 3D print with an old single-extruder printer (as in, a cheap one that a local maker space is likely to have) and share the case designs on my site. This way if you get a scratch or dent you can get rid of it the next day, and you don’t have to be afraid of causing damage.
LR: Okay let’s talk about the Solar Survival work that you’ve been working on with me for Aaron Swartz Day. You made a solar cell phone charger for one of our VR artists that’s living in the desert that works like a charm. How did you come up with that design?
MB: I improvised it with the parts that I had in the shop, honestly. Off the shelf voltage regulators are pretty good if you connect them to the right passive components.
LR: So, it’s just two 5 watt solar panels and some simple connections, right?
MB: Yes, it’s intended so that a 7 year old can put it together (As far as I know, a 11 year old followed the schematic and got an A in science for it.) It will also be easy to fix if it’s easy to build. And, like the one I did in 2011, it will be possible to build it without a soldering iron, just using superglue, if you are careful.
LR: Now we’re going to build a swamp cooler. How does that thing make cool air out of dry heat in the desert?
MB: Latent heat of evaporation. The technology is nothing new: the trick is, again, coming up with a design that is a good compromise between efficiency and ease of maintenance.
LR: OK we’ll come back to that in a few weeks! So! You’ve had a few bad experiences this last few years with people ripping off your tech. Tell me about those.
MB: All I ask is that people don’t copy my designs to sell. In fact I encourage people to replicate my work – if it’s for their own personal use. But people try to take advantage of the license. One instance recently has been Endurance Lasers, from Russia. They took my design from 2015 when we had a reseller deal, changed the resistor values, claimed that this constitutes a new design so they aren’t bound by the Creative Commons license, and started selling their bootleg of my laser… for about twice the price as the one I sell!
LR: Yikes. But wait, are these using your designs? Or not? The pictures look like poor soldering and poorly printed parts.
MB: They are using the schematic on my site, specifically, the oldest one at the bottom.
LR: What were those diode laser ideas you mentioned that seemed to have caught on?
MB: Oh, just that I must have given someone some ideas, because you didn’t use to see Chinese diode lasers more powerful than about 1W until I started selling my 2W model. Now they sell lasers that they claim output 16W and then when you look at the fine print it says 6W continuous. Mine is 10W continuous. But I consider that to be a good thing. I don’t want to spend all my time optimizing the laser, and eventually someone will do it better than me. All I ask is that people give me credit.
What you want to do is look out for folks who will disregard CC licenses, or who will do things like the OpenROV guys; where they asked me to build them a prototype, took my stickers off, and then showed it off as if they had done the work.
LR: Whoa. Where did that happen? Did they ever get caught?
MB: It was at Maker Faire 2011 and 2012. Make Magazine gave them an editor’s choice prize. When faced with the evidence – timestamped video – they asked the OpenROV guys to send me the prize, which in fairness, they did without complaining. It’s a little certificate and blue ribbon; my mom hung it on a wall.
Make Magazine also updated their website with the real winner. The only bad thing is that there was a ceremony that I didn’t get to attend. It must have been awkward for them to go to the ceremony knowing that they hadn’t fully earned it. Then again, they’ve done good work developing the idea since then.
See Matteo’s inventions first-hand on his Robots-Everywhere website.