SparqEE Adds Cellular to Raspberry Pi or Arduino


SparqEE is launching CELLv1.0 on Kickstarter today, a cellular module that works with Raspberry Pi or Arduino. We’ve seen a plethora of Kickstarter projects using Bluetooth or Wifi to connect to a base station, and then from that base station to the internet. Or devices that connect directly to your smart phone when it is close by. But SparqEE’s solution lets you make projects that talk over the cellular network, and so are untethered. Anywhere your phone might work, so too will the CELLv1.0.

Having looked into this a little bit for our own projects, this looks like it could be a real breakthrough. Dealing with carrier’s M2M policies and getting affordable SIMs is a huge benefit in its own right.

We interviewed SparqEE’s CEO Chris Higgins to find out more about the CELLv1.0 and why it matters.

Hack Things: What makes SparqEE CELL special? What differentiates it from other products on the market (like the Arduino GSM shield)?

SparqEE: Great question and the real reason for launching this Kickstarter – the entire ecosystem is of most value with this project.  The CELLv1.0 hardware is simply much more compact and less expensive than any other option currently on the market, but it’s the other facets that bring the most value:

Price: definitely an important aspect as we’re driving down the price of not only starter kits in the cellular arena but in production systems too. The CELLv1.0 is definitely the least expensive dev kit currently on the market.

Servers: We’re offering our servers for use by the community so that users don’t need to know anything about the server-side, all they see is the CELLv1.0 attached to their Arduino or Raspberry Pi, then the reception of that data at their internet enabled device.

SIM: With the CELLv1.0 users can use their own SIM straight from their smartphone, a prepaid one, or the SIMs we set up for this Kickstarter which are actually one of the most beneficial pieces of this project and for the community at large.  With M2M applications and anything cellular really, the providers are one of the biggest hurdles. Since our goal is to make cellular as ubiquitous as Bluetooth and WiFi we needed to take care of everything, including the providers. So we put together a SIM card offering that works anywhere in the world, is the easiest to setup, no minimums, and is the lowest cost I’ve ever seen – check out for more info.

Hack Things: Can you talk about some of the projects you envision being enabled by the CELLv1.0?

SparqEE:  People have already been writing in to tell us about what they’re going to do with the CELLv1.0 from tracking their bike for theft protection to real-time updates while racing.  Others have mentioned plugging this into their BeagleBoard and thus expanding the capabilities of yet another very useful development platform.  Some ideas we came up with at SparqEE were a vehicle tracker and engine kill switch, a device that could open doors, turn on lights, and control temperature at a remote cabin or beach-house, and even early warning systems looking for heat signatures of forest fires or earthquake monitoring.

The possibilities really are endless with this component, but my favorite idea is to make a remote helicoptor or quadcopter to hold my Canon 60D.  I really like photography and videography and with the CELLv1.0 I could fly across the city and snap pictures or take video of anything, anywhere.

The SparqEE CELLv1.0 steps in wherever there is a project that is simply out of reach using Bluetooth and WiFi.

Hack Things: Where are you manufacturing the board? Are there any lessons you’d like to share on how to bring an electronics project like yours to life?

SparqEE:  Something that I was pleasantly surprised about when setting up the Kickstarter project is that they rejected us because we didn’t have enough details about how we stepped through this process.  So the guys at Kickstarter really got me thinking about helping people understand how these technologies are used and put together.  Since then we’ve inserted a ton of details to the Kickstarter project itself in the timeline section to explain exactly how we went from idea to fabrication.  Not to mention we setup a community forum where we’re going to document the process further and where others can post their projects and get help when they run into trouble – check out!

As for an ideal to keep in mind while working on any project is the concept of the MVP or Minimum Viable Product.  As engineers we tend to “over-engineer” projects when really the best way to create a well-received product is to create the smallest product possible, or MVP, and then get feedback to determine the next direction to take with that product.  Feedback is a very important part of the process and the sooner we can get feedback the better our projects will be!

Hack Things: Why did you decide to provide the servers yourself? Can developers build their own server?

SparqEE:  It’s all about the ecosystem.  I’ve gone through the pains of trying to figure out how every single little component fits together and it’s unnecessarily complicated.  What I keep referring to as the “ecosystem” is simply us explaining and providing code for every component so people can easily learn from the ground up how to implement the hardware, talk to a server in the cloud, and then retrieve the information on an internet enabled device.

The servers themselves are central to this system and are a relatively complicated thing if you aren’t familiar.  So, we decided to open up our servers and even provide all the server code as well if developers want to use their own server or URL.

Hack Things: I notice there’s an external antenna included in the kit. What kind of range does the CELLv1.0 get without that antenna? How small can a product using it be?

SparqEE: The CELLv1.0 is designed to use an external antenna since, depending on the end use, changes the characteristics of the antenna – for example a vehicle application may choose an external antenna like the one provided, whereas our tracking device is going to use an internal PCB antenna like this:

As far as how small a product using it could be, the dimensions of the CELLv1.0 cellular board are 1.35″x1.6″ (34mm x 40mm).  It’s thickness with the jumper board is 10/16″ (15mm).  Since a final product would use the cellular board only coupled to your own processor, thus replacing the jumper board, your application could be that small.

As an example, for our tracker application we’re working on that has a month-long internal battery, the housing is going to almost be a cube, roughly 37mm x 43mm x 30mm, about the size of a keychain and why we’re calling it “Keychain Tracker.”

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