Nebula Labs develops Internet of Things Installation components for Great Exhibition of the North

Nebula Steams in to News
May 30, 2018
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Nebula Labs is proud to participate in a unique art project, part of the Great Exhibition of the North, being held in Newcastle Gateshead over 80 days between June and September.

In collaboration with Teesside artist, Steve Messam, Whistle is a sound installation designed to recall the North’s engineering heritage and, the role it played in the creation of the railway. It comprises of a series of brand new, cast brass, locomotive whistles, placed across Newcastle City Centre. Beginning just before 1pm each day during the exhibition, each whistle fires a short pip sequentially, around the city, before culminating in a synchronised blast at precisely 1pm, forging past and present together in a special cultural moment.

As technical partner for the project, Nebula Labs designed and installed the control system which allows the whistles to sound everyday automatically.

Each whistle is controlled by a Raspberry Pi computer. These have been programmed to control the release of compressed air through each whistle. This simulates the cascade of steam that would’ve ordinarily produced the whistle sound on a locomotive.

Alongside the Raspberry Pi unit, each whistle installation contains a Wi-Fi receiver connected to a dedicated secure access point. When online, the computers calibrate with the National Physical Laboratory’s atomic clock in London to ensure that they are set off at precisely the same time each day. Should the Wi-Fi fail, each Raspberry Pi has an in-built clock program to ensure that the whistle can still sound at 1pm.  In keeping with the carbon neutral ethic of the Exhibition, many of the units rely on photovoltaics, and solar energy to remain continuously powered.

The status of the project can be monitored from a real time Internet of Things (IoT) control platform hosted in the cloud, designed and built by Nebula Labs for Steve Messam. Along with the software on the Raspberry Pi, it was built using the Node.js framework. Focusing on the specific features of the platform, Steve can check that all whistles have successfully fired on any given day to determine whether any units require maintenance. RethinkDB was used to create this real time database. In addition, WebSockets, and the Socket.io library, have been used to create a program that allows a real time remote-control firing of one or all the whistles, independent of the scheduled 1pm sounding. Overall, the platform has been constructed entirely using JavaScript – a unusual technical innovation for a project such as Whistle.

Whistle successfully launched the Great Exhibition of the North last Friday (22nd June), sounding out across the city as the celebration of Northern cultural heritage began in earnest. Given the uniqueness of this art work, it is no surprise that it has attracted a range of press attention, including from the Raspberry Pi Foundation itself (https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/steve-messam-whistle/), and tech blog Hackaday (https://hackaday.com/2018/06/25/the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-train-whistles/).

Whistle can be heard every day at 1pm around the city until September 9th, with our favourite locations to experience the installation being Newcastle Central Station’s concourse, Live Theatre on Newcastle Quayside, intu Eldon Square Grey’s Quarter, and the Blue Carpet in front of the Laing Art Gallery.

For Nebula Labs, this opportunity has proved to be a truly unique experience, a complete change from our usual app and web platform development projects and provided a great insight in to the world of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, and Creative Technology.

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