End of 2017 updates

Yeah it has been a while.

October, November and December have been super busy. Holidays have taken quite a bit of my time and focus.  I had a pretty severe plumbing issue in my basement that required a bunch of it to be torn up with a jackhammer and have a pipe replaced.  For that I had to cram a ton of stuff into the studio to make room, that slowed me down for a few weeks.

I also had been spending some time working on other projects, just some general home improvement stuff, which has been taking my time and energy away from filming plants, I only have a couple cameras running at the moment. I have not been completely sitting on my laurels however.

Ill start out with Plants, then Robots, then Studio/shoots.


This has been a bit of a hit or miss for me. I have a couple dozen carnivorous plants that I have been trying to grow. Some have been doing awesome, some have been limping along, and my filming was not producing the results I wanted, so I picked up a 75 gallon aquarium and turned it into a terrarium to see if I could get better results. So far that move has paid off. I have a Nepenthes bicalcarata that has been struggling, once I moved it into the Terrarium it finally started throwing a pitcher. Cant wait to see the fangs!

75 gallon aquarium. The glass is great, but the stand was absolute garbage. I might build my own and see if i can stack another 75 gallon aquarium in there with it and double it up.


Here it is after i first got everything set up. Only a couple of the plants were doing very well. most of them were at least green and not dying, but few of them had ever flowered. I am glad i did not go with a smaller terrarium, this one filled up awfully quick.


I am using some older Humidity and Temperature controls I had built a while back. They have relays that will turn on and off cooling/heating and humidifying/demudifying systems if they get outside the range. For now all they really do is monitor the temp and humidity though, and don’t do any active adjustments.


upper left, in the pot with the brown substrate, that is my nepenthes bicalcarata. It was looking weak, and almost dead. I think I set this all up early November, and already there has been substantial results.
Same plant mentioned above, but now with big thick full leaves and pitchers starting to form 🙂
A closer picture of the nepenthes bicalcarata pitcher. You have no idea how happy this makes me. These are the FANGED pitcher plants. I dont want to link/post a picture in here that does not belong to me, but if you enter nepenthes bicalcarata in the google search bar you will see how friggin awesome these look when they get bigger.
This is my zombie nepenthes ampullaria. I got this about 7 or 8 months ago, and it got a case of root-rot and nearly died. Several experts in these plants told me to chuck it as there was no way it would survive. 4 months later, this lil bastard has survived and is tossing out these cute lil pitchers. I’m super excited this guy did not die on me.
My Cephalotus. I got this guy about 9-10 months ago. It was the size off a dime, and it did not do much of anything the first 6 months. About a month before putting it in the terrarium it grew like crazy. The larger pitchers on it now could have swallowed the plant in its entirety for the first 6 months. Really happy with this one now.


This little dick was totally unexpected. I had a drosera filiformis (another type of sundew) that I had ordered which died, but in its death this lil dude showed up. It is about the diameter of a quarter. He must have hitchhiked in from the nursery.
I have had this plant since 2015!!!! and this is the FIRST time it has ever flowered! This is a Sarracenia purpurea. It grew pretty large, and this was one cluster. I re-potted it and put it in the terrarium and within a few weeks it sprouted a flower! I totally missed filming it, but took notes so next time Ill know how to film it correctly.
Another shot inside. On the bottom center-left is a Butterwort that just flowered which I captured. Have not rendered the footage yet, but I think it will have turned out nice.
nepenthes densiflora x robcantleyi, which has had some boring ugly pitchers really digs the new digs. This is its first new pitcher in quite some time with some great coloring. Cant wait to see how this one develops.




Finn issues

I have been somewhat busy on the Robot front. I had encountered some problems with Finn. This may get a bit hairy to explain, but I will try my best.
I had one copy of Dragonframe. With this, I was able to control multiple robots with no problem. I think I can connect up to 4 motion control devices to a single license of Dragonframe. Only one camera though, so Otto’s camera would record direct to the laptop, and the others would record to memory cards. I would build all of the axis controls in Dragonframe, and one by one set each robot and motion routine up.  I started running into some problems though. When using Otto and Lil Wayne, everything worked smoothly, but once Finn was connected the Dragonframe software would freeze after a few days, and cost me several weeks worth of footage and effort.

In order to figure out what the heck was wrong I picked up another copy of Dragonframe and another laptop and started running into the same problems. I don’t want to get too nitty gritty here, but I did eventually solve the issue. The power supply I was using was just not up to the task. The “brains” of Finn is all powered by the laptop via USB, the power supply was just there to provide the power to the drivers/motors. I’m not exactly sure how that caused the issue, but once I upgraded the power supply the issue cleared up and Finn is running nice and stable.

2nd shooting stage, Finn with its own laptop and Dragonframe license shooting a Butterwort that is flowering.


Just to be on the safe side, I have decided to try to keep all my motion rigs on their own copy of Dragonframe, so if one of them runs into an issue it wont jack up all the other robots as well.   I picked up a pair of the DDMX-512’s from Dragonframe so I can tie them in with the Biolapse Studio Controller.  I am keeping Lil Wayne piggybacking off Otto for the time being, and I have one more laptop with Dragonframe that I will be using to test out a new crane I am building.

The Crane. Project Hector.

Yes. I am building a Crane. I am super excited about this. Honestly, after using Otto the 4 axis Finn and 5 axis Lil Wayne setups feel awfully limiting.  I feel that a mini crane can achieve most of the same shots that Otto is capable of. The big bonus is the XYZ motion instead of just linear.

Raw parts for the Crane.


This is sort of how it will look when complete. The larger aluminum boxes provide the base which will attach to some linear bearings for the slide motion. That bottom part will have a large bearing and steel tube used to swing the whole rig left and right. The short part of the crane will have weights for counter balance, and the structure of the crane will keep the head level even when moving it up and down.
This is the backside of the crane. The extrusion sits a bit low on the back end to allow room for the counterweight.
This is pretty much how it looks as I write this. I still have a lot of work to do, but the form is coming along nicely.

I am using a lot of the same materials from Finn. 1x2inch aluminum extrusion, 1/2 inch ID bearings, Actobotics hubs, mounts, and clamps. The pan/tilt is going to be the same used on Finn, but added on a crane instead of a slider.

Right now the entire structure is rickety as hell. Lots of sloppy slopp. I don’t have a CNC mill. So all the holes for the bearings were cut using a standard hole saw of the right size.  The bearings are slightly smaller than the holes, giving them a little bit of a jiggle in their spot. I have an idea on how to reduce this slop and make everything nice and tight using some beer cans. I am hoping to try it out this weekend.  if I can get the slip removed and make sure the bearings stay put with a night tight friction fit, this should result in a very nice and accurate motion system.

here you can see the two columns coming up and the bearings that hold the arm in place.

Dragonframe is awesome. It has what is called Virtual Axis. To unpack this a bit, the crane setup has an arm that swings left and right, up and down. This covers the X and Y directions, however the arm swings in an arc, so it is unable to move the camera perfectly up and down, or left and right without that arc. This is where the track underneath comes into play, it will allow the entire rig to move forwards and backwards. Dragonframe uses the Virtual Axis to compensate for this arc by moving the entire rig in and out while it swings the arm left and right, or up and down. This will allow it to be controlled in a very similar was as Otto, but smaller, easier to move around, and far cheaper.

Studio and Shooting

I am currently shooting again. I have 3 cameras up and filming. I am really please with the footage I am starting to get. These systems require a LOT of babysitting, a lot of monitoring.

Two shooting stages running. Lil Wayne and Otto running off one laptop, with Finn running off another copy of Dragonframe on another laptop. Keeping them separate gives some redundancy, so if one laptop freeze, or one camera stops responding it will not affect the others.

I will check everything every morning, and every evening. I also use a 3rd party remote desktop application that allows me to log in via my mobile device and check each computer whenever I want and I will check several times a day while I am away.

Otto shooting some Nepenthes Pitchers. This can be a 4-5 week capture.

At one point I had the foolish idea that I could just get everything up and running and leave it, come back in a month and presto, new footage. The fact is it just does not work that way, there are so many factors that have to be taken into consideration.


  1. First, build out the sets, and figure out my shots
  2. Check for updates on the laptop and let it reboot and update. 
  3. Shut off windows update service to prevent forced updates
  4. Once everything is up, start programming in the moves based off my experience with the plant growth.
  5. Turn all cameras off, and turn them all back on.
  6. Verify hard drive space on computers, and ensure memory cards are fresh.
  7. Shut off live view on cameras (can cause issues over time)
  8. Start Filming!

Over the next few days I will check on the plants and progress twice a day in person, and 3-4 times via remote access.

Plant has moved in a way that is pulling it away from the focus point.  I do this every few days, so far with my current shoot which is a few weeks in, I have done this at least 7-8 times.

  1. Pause shooting. ( the new BSC has a switch which I can flip that will pause everything, shut off the grow lights and turn on the fill lights)
  2. Disengage motion control for editing
  3. Turn on Live View
  4. Lock in current position on all motors with new Keyframes on the current location.
  5. Move Otto about 8-10 frames ahead of current position.
  6. Adjust focus and set a new keyframe.
  7. Move Otto out about 50-60 frames and judge if another correction is needed at this point. if so, make adjustment and correct.
  8. Move Otto back to 6-7 frames BEFORE current position to ensure any backlash is reeled in before starting shoot.
  9. Move Otto to the current frame waiting to be taken.
  10. Disable Live view
  11. Re-engage motion control for shooting.
  12. Flip the switch on the BSC to re-engage the timing and lighting. 
  13. Check in an hour to ensure it is working as expected.

So that’s a lot of steps. I have a checklist I follow, but occasionally I find I forgot the disable Live View. Not a huge issue, but sometimes it gets funny and fails to capture an image.

Screenshot of the current shoot



Other things I have run into with the current shoot.  I was tracking the pitcher on the Nepenthes and planned to follow it until it made contact to the ground then start to develop. After about 14 days of shooting, and multiple focus adjustments, the Canon 6D shut off on me. I did not realize that, I just noticed that from about 10pm to 8am 0 images were taken, so it missed about 10 shots which was enough to cause a big enough of a jump that I made the decision to scrap the current and start over.

Along with daily checkups, and remote monitoring, I also have a very nice output from the Biolapse Studio controller so I can tell what it is doing, and how it is performing, and it even helps me debug when things go awry, which I will get into in a minute. The BSC already has some built in troubleshooting skills to make sure the grow lights shut off. In my past blogs I was whining about pink frames, these are images where the grow lights would not shut off when the picture was taken and the pink color they produce was contaminating the images. The new BSC has built in skills to verify and monitor the lights to ensure they are in the correct state, and backup relays that will kill power to grow lights if the primary relays fail. It works like a charm, and I have not had a single “Pink frame” since I replaced the old Biolapse Control Module (BCM) with the Biolapse Studio Controller (BSC).

To help further, I can connect via hyperterm into the BSC and get a feed on what it is doing, time stamps, and get indications of when relays are engaged/disengaged, humitity, temp, and see exactly what happens every time it takes an image.

This is what the output of the BSC looks like. I am hoping to give it the ability to accept commands via the serial connection, as well as the ability to monitor cameras and send me an email if it encounters a problem.

I am exploring the options of giving the BSC capability to send me emails in case it runs into relay problems, and possibly having it monitor the hot shoes on the cameras to ensure it does see the shutter release. That was if a camera shuts off on me, it will see the camera never triggered and notify my via email to my mobile device.

On the new shoot, I have already made 5-6 focus adjustments, a few adjustments to the pan and tilt, and also found a bug in the Biolapse Studio Controller. If the Humidifier was OFF when it started a routine, it would not engage the fill lights. it caused 2 frames to be taken with a pitch black image.

Seen here, two frames highlighted in yellow where the fill lights did not illuminate the subject. This was due to the bug where an image would not be taken if the Humidifier was already off before it took the image. The plant in this image is a cephalotus follicularis

This put me in a bit of a situation. I needed to increase the humidity of the room. I had built a small vent system that would direct the humidifier (this is listed in equipment, it is a home build humidifier that can turn my whole house into a swamp) output directly to some live sets I was growing, but it was not getting the whole room nice and muggy. So I unhooked it from that vent and have it just dumping out into the room. It would hit the high humidity level and shut off, then the images would come out black. So in order to fix this I had to modify the code on the BSC (Biolapse studio controller) and update the software on it.  It was not terribly difficult, but 2 weeks worth of footage was on the line at this point, one mess up and everything would be ruined.  I opted NOT to set everything back and re-shoot those images. It was only 2 ruined, and they were not both in a row. Losing 2 frames like this is very minor and you would not even be able to see that it happened in the final result, however, moving everything back and re-shooting could cause a slight jump in the plant growth which CAN be seen.

This is the Butterwort I just finished filming before setting up the cephalotus follicularis

While Otto was shooting the Nepenthes, I did get Finn setup to shoot a flowering Butterwort. I should have the footage rendered sometime soon. I hit it from 3 angles, and hope it turned out ok. It was sort of a last minute rush as I saw the Butterwort was flowering and scrambled to get the 2nd set setup.

Generally I don’t like filming plants without observing them, but flowers seem so rare with carnivorous plants I did not want to risk missing the chance.

Screen grab from the Butterwort flowering. These are some fairly unusual plans, almost oddly semi translucent. I filmed 3 angles, I hope it turned out ok, but have not had a chance to really dig through the footage.

Filming the Butterwort was interesting, I had no idea how far the stalk would go up, and it ended up facing the wrong direction. I have about 700 frames on this and 3 different angles.

The new Biolapse Studio controller came in and worked like a champ. The Nepenthes pitchers are normally filmed about one frame about every hour to hour and a half. They are just slow growing. The flowering Butterwort was growing much faster, and needed quicker intervals, every 15-20 minutes. The BSC was made to handle this sort of thing. It has 8 camera trigger outputs, and each one of those camera triggers can be setup to skip frames. Trigger 1 was connected to Otto, and Trigger 2 was set to Finn. I set Trigger 1 to only trigger every 4th interval, and trigger 2 was set to trigger every interval. I set the BSC’s intervals at 20 minutes, so this resulted in Finn taking an image and moving every 20 minutes, where Otto only did it once every 80 minutes. And it worked like a charm! This means I can film multiple plants that have different growth rates at the same time 🙂

After the flower finished blooming I decided to try filming the Cephalotus Follicularis, which is also called the Australian Pitcher plant and is one of the craziest looking plants I have ever seen. It is currently filming right now, and I hope it turns out well.  I am keeping it simple and just put it on a turntable.

Otto and Lil Wayne shooting the Live Set. This set continues to do well, and has 3 types of Nepenthes (pitcher plants) on it, as well as a couple Venus Fly Traps.


This work just requires a lot of work. I miss the days of setting up a rail on a mountain and setting it to go, then relaxing until it is finished. Carnivorous plants are very challenging because most of these timelapses need anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks to film, and the longer the shoot the more problems I will have to work around. There are guaranteed to be modifications, troubleshooting, and reworking that is done on the fly while shooting, and the trick is to overcome all these obstacles without ruining the footage. I am starting to get pretty good at it, but with my current small studio I am limited on how much output I can do with these plants. I don’t want to keep shooting the same plants over and over, and need to give some of the other plants some time in the terrarium in peak health before I film them. So I might be moving to some other plants for a while.

I will try to give more updates on this blog. I am not a very good writer, so hopefully this makes sense and is not too boring or painful to read. I do have some developments happening that I am super excited about. Hope to be able to talk about these soon!



Lotta stuff going on. Robots, Failures, Successes, etc.

Hey everybody!

It’s been a while since my last update. I have been pretty busy as of late. Some successes, some failures, lots of progress.

New Studio Controller Progress

Lets start with the new Biolapse Studio Controller. This is my top priority at this point as my older controller has been having issues,  we will get into that a bit later when I discuss my current shoot.

What is it? What is it used for?
Basically it is a fancy egg timer with relays. The plants need day time and night time cycles. You can shoot with 24 hour lighting but after a few days it can stress the plant.  I use LED grow lights for the day cycle and they work very well, but they have a horrible pink color cast to them and you don’t want to take pictures with those lights on. Instead they need to shut off, and then have a nice photography fill light turn on, then take the picture. Afterwards the fill lights need to shut down, and the grow lights need to turn back on. The BSC (Biolapse Studio Controller) is designed to make that happen. It is also responsible for triggering the cameras and Dragonframe, as well as controlling the temperature and humidity of the room.

The old BCM (Biolapse control module) serves this purpose for now but I have been running into reliability issues. I have spent an enormous amount of time learning how to film plants, and it sucks when I have a perfect timelapse ruined because the old controller is failing on me.

Out with the old. In with the new.

The new controller is all about flexibility, reliability, and redundancy. It has a variety of protection mechanisms in place to ensure that during a power outage that shooting is not interrupted. It has two power rails. The first one just plugs in the wall, and if the power goes out do does everything attached to that rail.  So the grow lights, water pumps, humidifiers, heaters, coolers and other non-critical functions will not be on a battery backup. In case of a power outage, those can all shut off for hours and it will not have any effect on the shoot.  All the critical functions are on the other power rail. This includes the studio lights, cameras, motors, etc. If any of these shut off, it could potentially ruin a shoot. The reason for having two power rails is to prevent non-critical elements from draining the backup battery.

The BSC will also control all the environmental controls, and pumps for automation of the watering systems, and even have the intelligence to know when something is not working correctly and attempt to resolve it on its own.

I spent quite a bit of time working on the code for the new controller using some breadboards, a display, and arduino mega mounted on a piece of plywood. It was enough for me to start framing out the code and to determine how I wanted the display, menu, and control systems to work out. But this sort of design is limited as I cannot attach everything to it.

Bread-boarded prototype for the new studio controller

Once I had made the main design decisions it was time to go ahead and build the hardware, then finish up the software on the new hardware.

I decided to build the new one in a server chassis. I like this design as it has plenty of working space inside, and is rack mountable, so if I ever get a proper studio (maybe sooner than later) I can rack mount it along with the DMC-16 signal generator and the chassis I use to house the stepper drivers.

Kyle was kind enough to help me out by printing some adapter panels for the chassis for all the inputs, outputs, and display.

3d printed panels house the outlets, the power rail switches, external triggers and power inputs.

The front panel on the chassis was removed and replaced with this nice green one from Kyle.  It has a Test Shot button, an Option Button, a Motor Power kill switch, a dial for menu navigation and a 3.5mm input jack.  The chassis built in USB ports, power switch, and reset switch on the front will all be wired in and 100% functional as well.

Green 3D printed face plate

I spent quite a bit of time wiring up the two power rails, switches, and jacks to the 8 solid state relays and the smaller strip of mechanical backup relays. I am pretty pleased with how it came out. I used various colors just to make it easier to trace down the wires and connections if i run into problems. it is very easy to end up with a jumbled mess of wires, and that is what happened on my last studio controller. I wanted this one to be nice and organized.  There are two sets of relays as mentioned, the larger 8 solid state relays are the primary, and they will be the ones doing the switching 99% of the time. The backup relays are “Normally Closed” meaning they keep the connection when not powered up, and break the connection when powered. There is going to be a light sensor that the controller will use to ensure that when it is prepping the lights before triggering the cameras that the grow lights shut off. If one of the solid state relays starts to fail and the grow lights do NOT shut off, it will engage the relay several times to see if it can get the lights off.  If they still do not turn off, it will kill the power via the mechanical backup relay.  This will ensure that the problem of the “Pink Frames” I keep running into will never happen again.

Now that the power rails and relays have been installed and wired up, it is time to move on to the logic and control system. In order to ensure solid reliability, I had designed a new circuit board and ran a small prototype batch. The old controller just used a hacked PCB from one of my old chrono-controllers with a cheap proto-board to make connections.

The pathetically poor wired up inside of the current controller. 4 relays, no customer PCB’s, weak wiring, it is amazing it has lasted me as long as it has.

The new one provides the ports to control 8 solid state relays, 8 mechanical backup relays, 9 camera outputs, multiple input triggers, the humidity sensor, display, clock module, LED indicator lights and everything else.

The new custom PCB designed for this project. This was the first run, unfortunatly it was not without flaws but I am able to work past those and correct the design so I can have new ones made.

I immediately ran into some problems with the new board when wiring up the rotary encoder (dial). I don’t want to get too in depth on it, but I was able to work around the problem so I can continue writing the code and testing it, but new boards will need to be designed and ordered.

I still need to test a few of the input and output triggers, but I am waiting on some jumper wire to be delivered. Tomorrow I plan to have an all day coding session to see how far I can get with the code. I already have menu templates built out, things are in a pretty good place. I need to build the watering system, the eeprom burn, a few other things then I can move onto the actual run engine.  While I am a bit disappointed I have to correct my PCB design and get new ones made, its not really that big of a deal and shouldn’t slow my progress down.  It will be a few weeks before Ill have all the code worked out anyway. I hope to have the board redesigned and ordered by next weekend.

Finn Failure!!

Finn connected to the lab computer for testing and debugging.

Finn is on my shit list for now and sitting in the “Time Out” corner. It keeps dropping connection to Dragonframe. I had it connected and running down in the studio, and 3 times in 6 days Dragonframe failed on me. Once I removed Finn, everything started working. Lil’ Wayne is still connected and solid, and has the same circuitry, just different physical hardware for the robotics.  Rather than debugging this in the production environment and have it continually mess up my shoot, I pulled it out and purchased another Dragonframe license and put that on a new laptop I picked up for a lab environment. This will let me test out new moco gear and ensure it is stable before bringing it into production.  I know the PCB is good as Finn now has a black matte clone that is waiting for delivery to its new owner this weekend, and that system sat in the lab connected to Dragonframe and ran for a week flawlessly. The Arduino within should be good as those are pretty rock solid. I suspect the issue might be the power source. When it was connected in the studio it was running off the same power supply as any of my other 12v devices. That power hub only provides 2 amps per channel, and Finns clone uses a 4 amp supply, while Lil Wayne uses a 6 amp supply.  Right now all the motors and power supply have been removed from Finn, the only connection is the Arduino to the Laptop, and it has been 2 days without a drop. If remains stable through the weekend that would be a strong indicator that the Arduino is good and the power supply is the culprit.

Trouble on the set!

Ugh. This is driving me nuts. So this last shoot has been a mixture of excellent success, and lousy failure.

The Good: Otto is running perfectly. The connection to dragonframe is rock steady, and I have made 8-9 changes to the current sequence it is filming to adjust the focus and make sure things are on track and it has all worked flawlessly.

The Bad: When making adjustments to Otto, I i did not shut off the axis for Lil Wayne in Dragonframe. So I would move the system about 15-30 frames out then make all the proper adjustments, but since I did not disable the axis for Lil Wayne, when I would apply a  keyframe it applied to Lil Wayne too and screwed up its motion. Not a HUGE deal, that footage is pretty much waste but I made an important discovery and that is anytime I make an adjustment on Otto, I absolutely have to disable Lil Waynes axis control from the arc moco page, make the adjustments, and then turn them back on. I will add them to my shoot process checklist and I wont be making that mistake again.  I am kind of bummed though, because I really liked the scene Lil Wayne was capturing.

LCD view of Lil Waynes camera filming a nepenthes with hanging pitchers.



This is the worst thing. Everything was running beautifully, I was working on tracking another Nepenthes Pitcher nub as it grew out and started forming into a pitcher. Unlike last time, it ended up facing the correct direction, and everything was running perfectly. Then disaster struck, and the BCM failed to shut the grow light off for 7 images.

7 images in the middle of the capture were taken with the grow light still turned on.

Unfortunately this is virtually un-recoverable. I am shooting at 1 hour 25 minute intervals, if I chuck those 7 images out I lose about 11 hours of footage and the jump from the last good frame to the next good frame will have too much of a jump. This is all right when the Nepenthes is getting ready to open. I cannot color correct for these either, even if i could, they scene is illuminated from a different lighting source and during those 7 frames all the light will be from the wrong. This is why I have such a huge urgency to replace the failing BCM. I have been shooting this for about 4 weeks now. That is a lot of wasted time. With any luck the new studio controller will be up and running and I will never have this problem again, and this is the reason I am adding a light sensor and backup relays to ensure 100% that the lights shut off as expected. The new one will also give me an error log to report any relays that are not functioning as expected., and everything will be re-assignable, and I will be even be able to command the system remotely.  Right now the old studio controller is the only thing holding me back.

So whats on my plate in the next few weeks?

Well, first I need to get the studio controller finished. Next I plan to start working on a new robot. Going with a crane style setup this time. Call me spoiled, but after working with Otto, Pan, Tilt, and Slide just does not cut the mustard anymore.  A crane setup will give me almost the same level of control I get from Otto in a smaller package.

I am also looking to build a proper studio. Talking to contractors the last couple weeks and this is a very realistic goal at this point.

Studio has been dark. The BSC.

I have not been shooting anything the past 2 weeks and it is driving me up the wall. I am hoping to correct that in the next few days, but the past couple weeks I have just been super busy.

Bread-board prototype of the BSC (Biolapse Studio Controller)


I have not been sitting on my ass though. I a building another Project3 robot for a client that wants a plug and play dragonframe moco system. I have also been busy working on the BSC (Biolapse Studio Controller), and it is shaping out to be a beast, and I cant wait to get it finished and in the studio. This is going to be a direct replacement of the older BCM (Biolapse Control Module) I have been using.

On the tail end of my last shoot, the BCM started failing to shut off the grow light again. I think it is just getting old. I have already replaced the arduino and the relay, the wiring inside it sorta sucks, as I really just threw it together. It has served me well the last several years but it is time to replace it.  This weekend I plan to pull it apart and replace the internal wiring, I have already replaced the relays and the arduino, it has to be the shitty prototyping board I used to make some connections.

For those who are wondering, the BCM is a fancy intervalometer that coordinates the lighting system and environmental controls.  This next version is going to be a heavy upgrade on all levels. The BSC will be built like a tank and should get me by for the next 20 years.

Warning, I am about to get nerdy on this one. 

I have several upgrades planned.

  1. I am moving away from mechanical relays to solid state relays, and rather than just having four, it will control eight. These are much higher quality than the cheapo Sainsmart 4 channel relay that I had been using,  and being solid state they do not have any mechanical parts to wear out.
  2. Custom made circuit boards. The old BCM uses one of our chronocontroller boards hacked in with a blank prototyping PCB for the connections. This is where I think a lot of the problems stem from. Using a new PCB instead of jumpers for those connections will keep things nice and tidy and more reliable.
  3. Assignable switched outlets. The current BCM uses four relays, each has a specific task, one handles the Grow lights, one for the fill lights, another for the humidifier, and the last for a heater. They are hard set for these functions, and if i want to change them I have to re-write the code. The new BSC will have eight switched outlets that can be assigned for different purposes.  Lets say I am using one of the relays to provide power to a heater in switched outlet 1, if it starts having problems I can just move the heater cable to outlet 2 and reassign the heating function to that outlet and continue with the shoot, and then pull the BSC apart and replace that relay afterwards.
  4. Switchable Dual Power Rails. Like the fist BCM, this new one will also sport dual power rails, one that can connect to a battery backup, and one without the battery backup. I use this already as if there is a power outage I don’t want the grow lights sucking up all the battery power, I want to reserve the battery power for the fill lights, camera, logic board, etc. The humidifier, heater, grow lights, none of these need battery backup, if they shut off for an hour it is not going to cause any problems.  On this new BSC each outlet will have a toggle to take them from one power rail to the other, where as the BCM had them hardwired.
  5. I am adding function groups to cluster several relays together for specific functions.  So i can assign outlet 1 through 4 as grow lights, 5 and 6 as fill lights, then 7 for the humidifier and 8 as a spare.  When using the manual relay function to turn them on and off, 1-4 will all turn on and off together.
  6. Extra functions.  Right now the BCM only controls 4 relays to cover Grow lights, Fill lights, Heater, and Fogger. This will be expanded to include the ability to control a Cooler, Dehumidifier, Pump, etc.
  7. 3 Day/Night zones. Controlling multiple grow light ones for up to 3 different day/night times for different zones to accommodate shooting on multiple sets and being able to meet the requirements for various plants.  I might have one that stays on 24/7 for filming flowers blooming while another one works with 12/12 hour cycles for a plant, and the 3rd doing 16/8 for another. All these would still be disabled before shooting.
  8. Improved display and control setup
  9. Multiple triggers with assignable skips.  When filming a Nepenthes I like to keep my intervals at an hour or longer, but when filming flowers 10-15 minutes is better. I plan to give it 8 camera trigger ports, of which can be set to only trigger every X amount of shooting sequences. With this, I can film Nepenthes at 1 frame per hour, while I film 6 frames per hour on a flower.
  10. Metric output. Every time the system runs an event it will log the data to a terminal session on a computer.  This will help with debugging in case any issues arise.
  11. Interval ramping. I like the idea of gradually increasing/decreasing the intervals between frames. This can be used to adjust the capture speed without making an obvious change in the rate of growth, it also would allow for some interesting effects as well.
  12. Physical Build is going to be far more substancial, everything from the upgraded Arduino to the upgraded solid state relays, to the Server Chassis I will build this one into. This is going to be a heavy duty overbuilt beast.

Everything above has already been coded in, and now that it is starting to shape up I have to make a few final decisions before having the PCB’s manufactured and delivered.

A couple other ideas I am considering

  1. Adding a light sensor to monitor and ensure that a light has in fact shut off before it takes an image. When running into the issue with the BCM not shutting off the grow lights, it does not always fail and continue to fail, sometimes it only fails for a single frame.  By giving it the ability to make sure the light has shut off, it something sticks it can pause and try to turn the relay on or off multiple times to see if it can “jiggle it free”, then take the image and resume.
  2. Pump control. I already have this in the first BCM, but most never use it. It may be worth adding in to automate watering.
  3. Optional audible warning pre-trigger.

Project3 Final

Well Project 3 is done, and I’m calling this one Finn.

(Note, these are NOT real time speeds, this routine was shot as a timelapse with 10 second intervals on both robots)

This one was a real pain in the ass due to some errors I made. I wanted a nice finish so I spent quite a bit of time cleaning the aluminum and prepping it to be painted. Even after hours of prep, once the paint dried some of it immediately flaked off.  I decided to give my hand a powder coating, which is not something I have ever done before, but first I had to strip it back down to the metal. I picked up some excellent paint stripper from Ace Hardware, which also melted the gloves I was using and gave me some minor chemical burns. I found the best way is to use long pliers and some steel wool.

I picked up a powder coating system and practiced on a couple pieces of scrap metal and it worked great. It is not a pro-grade job for sure, but considering this was my first attempt at it, I feel i did pretty good. Just make sure you have a good hobby oven for this sort of thing. I have a convection oven i use for cooking circuit boards which was perfect, just sit the grate at the very top and hang the pieces from it.

Unfortunatly when I took the Pan/Tilt frame out of the oven, one of the welds broke loose. The motor mounts were not going to come off, so I had to either order new motor mounts and delay the process, or strip it all again. So I learned that paint stripper works well with powder coating as well. A few more minor chemical burns later, I cleaned it all up, re-filed the areas for the weld, and re-welded it. This time it is very solid though, once it cooled down I wrenched on the parts trying to break them loose and they are not coming apart. re-powder-coated it again, and this time I was golden.

The final build went pretty easy. I did have to re-tap some of the screw holes where the powdercoating got in, but that was not a big deal.

The  BDIU (Biolapse Dragonframe Interface Unit) was sort of a pain in the ass. I wanted to have some sort of port in which to plug the motors, so i marked out some lines, drilled some holes, and used some files to shape the holes into rectangles. Drilled a spot for the power supply and another one for the USB and then powder coated it.

I decided to attach the box underneath, but this box could easily have some feet stuck on the bottom and be perfectly sitting on a bench or set somewhere.

The connections are stupid easy.  Add a 12v power supply (preferably 6amp, but right now its running just fine on a 2amp channel off the 12v power center I built for my studio) and a USB cable to a computer running Dragonframe and presto, instant motion control for timelapse or stop-motion animation.

I admit, the rail is a bit short, 400mm of travel. But for this kind of work longer sliders just get in the way.

So if anyone is interested in one of these, After doing the entire build, i would be happy to build them for $1500 a pop for a 4 axis system, any color you want. That would include slide, pan, tilt, and linear.  The specs would be custom to your needs and built to order. Price may or may not go up depending on the requirements.  If interested shoot me an email.


This time lapse is a failure. 

But even as a failure, it is the most important timelapse I have done to date. The subject is a Nepenthes Sanguinea.

When I started to film this plant, I had a rough guess as to how the plant was going to behave. I have a lot of trash footage, because unfortunately as much as I want to predict the plant, they often have a way of surprising me and either growing out of frame, or out of focus, and when that happens the entire shoot is trashed. The longer the shoot, the bigger the risk of failure, and the larger loss of time.

I have been working on a technique I call Interactive Timelapse, which is a technique that allows me to follow the plant, so if it grow outside the area in focus, I can make live adjustments on the fly and continue to film. An entire year of building Otto, learning Dragonframe, working out the bugs, improving my workflow, and learning how to resolve issues mid-shoot has led up to this failure of a time lapse, and I have never been so excited about the work I am doing.

First off, thanks to the team at Dragonframe, all the bugs are finally worked out. Otto is running perfectly. A huge thank you to Dyami for his time and energy in helping me resolve these. Once Otto was finally running 100% rock solid, I was finally comfortable to take filming to new lengths and increasing the intervals to an Hour and longer.

This one first failed about 240 frames into the shoot. I was filming the closest pitcher with the intent to move the focus to the tip on the growing leaf, then follow it through its entire pitcher development. Around frame 240 the “nub” drifted out of focus. So I stopped the routine, moved Otto about 20 frames ahead, corrected the focus, then moved back to the last frame taken, and re-started the system.

It failed again about 50 frames later, same type of issue, same type of fix. And then again right before the nub makes contact to the ground, I had mis-predicted the location it would land and had to make more adjustments. After the pitcher was growing, the grass it landed in ended up pushing it to grow away from the camera, so another focus adjustment.

All of these were corrected, so why is it a failure? My stupid BCM failed to shut off the grow lights after 3 weeks and I got about 20 frames in a row where the grow light contaminated the images, that one I can NOT recover.

However, this is a proof of concept that I CAN in fact chase plants, respond to realtime changes, and alter the program on the fly, and to my knowledge this has never been done before. 

This is a preview of things to come.

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