A week in Bir and HillHacks 2017

I attend hillhacks every year (except 2016). It’s an yearly conference/meetup that happens in the lap of Himalayas. Every year I try to bring something to the event which I have made. For the hillhacks 0 it was a modified Prusa 3D printer which could print with chocolate and halwa. And for the hillhacks 1 it was persistence of vision LED display. Here are some pics from the previous events (credit David Huang)

But this year at hillhacks 3 was special for me as I decided to be the part of hillhacks school program and teach kids how to solder. I believe that’s an essential skill every kid should have along with programming. For those who don’t know, the school program is one of the most important part of hillhacks where hillhackers go to neighbouring schools and conduct workshops free of cost for the kids. Apart from this I also made a plasma speaker which generate sound waves from the frequency of current flowing through a high voltage plasma arc. Yes you read it right! It’s actually sound coming from fire.

This post talks about my stay and preparation for this year’s hillhacks.


Preperation

During the hillhacks 0 my friend Akiba brought some solar lanterns based on CL0116 IC from Chiplink. That’s a pretty cool IC which drives the LEDs and takes care of charging a single NiMh battery via a solar panel. Both functionalities in a single TO-94 packaged silicon die. Since I didn’t have much time to think of a design from scratch I decided to modify Akiba’s design and added on an astable multivibrator to add a blink feature to the LEDs and make it more fun for kids.

I quickly designed the PCBs in Kicad and sent them for manufacturing. They came in a week before the event. Meanwhile, I scouted for components and parts from SP Road in Bangalore. Since its hard to get small 2V solar panels in India I ordered them from Aliexpress with 3 day shipping option. Schematics and further  details about the lantern can be found here.

Shipping the NiMh batteries was an issue I didn’t realize until the time I started packing all the stuff for my flight to Delhi. These batteries are safe (if packed properly) and don’t explode like the Lithium Ion ones, but I wasn’t sure about the Indian domestic flight regulations. A friend told me to pack them in aluminium foil to prevent it from getting scanned in X-rays machines. With finger crossed I did it and at the check in counter I told the guy that I have AA batteries in my check in baggage, but I didn’t tell him that I have 67 of those . Luckily he allowed me to check in.

I carry a lot of electronic items (both knowingly and unknowingly) in my hand baggage which sometimes gets me in trouble at the security frisking and hand baggage scan. Previously, I had been asked to remove my soldering iron because it was pointy. This time also I was in trouble for carrying a decent quantity of resistors, transistors, LEDs and other stuff. I explained them that all these items are for school kids and showed them the demo of the solar lantern. After a brief discussion on the future of solar power in India the cops allowed me to carry all components with me


Day 1

Hillhacks this year happened at Beed/Bir located in the tehsil of Baijnath, district Kangra in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The best way for me to reach Bir was to take a flight to Delhi and then take the overnight bus from ISBT to Bir. So after landing at Delhi I took a direct bus from Delhi to Beed.  The bus arrived at 6 am in the morning and dropped few meters away from the venue which was really helpful as I was carrying a heavy bag full of components. There were few more hillhackers in the same bus in which I came and we start walking together to the main venue. The first thing I saw while walking to the venue from the bus drop point was a Tibetan monastery and opposite to that an “infinitely many” Tibetan flags waving next to a harvested wheat field. I had never seen a view like that before. After finishing registration and setting up of my tent I left for breakfast and roamed around Beed. I had heard a lot about the paragliding happening in Beed so I was excited to see and experience it live. Some locals advised me to see the paragliding landing site in Chowgan village which had a even more mesmerizing view. You can see the complete Dhauladhar range at the landing site which travel towards Dharamshala, the previous venue of hillhacks 0, 1 and 2.


Day 2

On the second day I volunteered for the school workshop organised by Tink, Farhi and others. We had a nice little walk till a private school in upper Bir. The school was very small with few hundred kids. We taught them the importance of plastic free environment specially in mountain and touristy regions like Bir. We had a small workshop where we along with the kids cleaned the entire school playground and segregated the garbage. In the afternoon we went to a government-run school nearby and repeated the same workshop there. While coming back we went to Deer Park Institute, which teaches classical Indian wisdom traditions and is also responsible for spreading awareness about cleanliness in Bir area. We had a brief chat with them about our workshop and they also told us about their programs.


Day 3

Third day me and 3 other friends went paragliding early morning at 7:30.  The paragliding launch site is in Billing which is 14 kms up from Beed so we took a Jeep from Beed to Billing. There are a lot of trained paragliding pilots in Bir, they usually charge around 2000 with a go-pro recording and transportation to Billing. Apparently, the ride from Bir to Billing was more rough than paragliding back from Billing to Chowgun in lower Bir. The 14 kms long stretch was bumpy and scary as the driver of our Jeep was driving really fast on the curved roads. When we reached Billing the pilots asked us to sign and form and fill our home addresses in case some mishap happens. Launching your glider is actually not easy, you have to push against the wind force till you are in the air or there are chances that you might just fall off the cliff. But once you have done it, it’s a smooth glide downwards unless you ask your pilot to do some stunts. I asked mine and I recommend others to do it as well.

During the day I demoed my plasma speaker to the fellow hillhackers. It was fun watching the face of people who couldn’t believe that the sound of the speaker was coming from a plasma arc at 25 kilovolts. Fellow hillhackers twitted about it too. Some of them asked me how could I carry this in an air plane? HaHa. Here is a video of the speaker on my workbench. More details can be found on the project’s home page.


Day 4

This day was important for me as I had prepared a lot for this day. Farhi had decided that we would do soldering workshop for the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) school in Suja on day 4. Farhi herself did a separate workshop on essay writing. To my surprise a lot of people volunteered for the soldering workshop including Sid, Tavish, Schneider and few more fellows. The school was 4 kms away from our venue site and I was carrying a heavy bag full of soldering components, so Farhi decided that we take a cab to the school. We reached the school before time and had to wait to meet the Principal. Meanwhile, I roamed around the school. The school has a breathtaking view of the Dhauladhar mountains. I am so jealous of the kids who study there and I wish I had a school like this.

When the principal came he introduced us to grade 6th students. There were 30 students so we divided them in 10 groups of 3 each. The groups were formed by the principal but some students interchanged their groups like we used to do during our school days . I thought 6th grade kids would be too young to solder but to my surprise some of them soldered components better than few hillhackers. Probably because they had extra soldering hands as seen in the tweets below Some of the groups were shy to ask for help and some were too much active, they were jumping from here and there and asking for help. Also, the volunteers played a key role in managing the workshop. It wouldn’t have been possible to complete the workshop on time without them. A big for Farhi and the volunteers.


Day 5

This was the last day of the main conference and I mostly spent it by doing soldering workshop for hillhackers. A lot of people showed interest and paid for the lanterns they soldered to support the free school program. Some of them even bought them as a soldering kit for their kids.


Day 6

On the last day me and Tavish decided to go to McLeod Ganj to meet our friend David. He has been living in Dharamshala for the past 10 years and is the most humble person I know. He was the official photographer of hillhacks for the past three years but unfortunately he couldn’t come to Bir this year. So we decided to go and meet him in Dharamshala which is about 70 kms from Bir.

Just to introduce David, photography is just a hobby for him, actually he is an electrical engineer and a cool hacker. He came to Dharamshala 10 years back to help Tibetan refugees. At present, he runs “Knowledge Garden” in Upper Bagsu which is just two kilometres from McLeod Ganj. Knowledge Garden is a small makerspace aimed at improving the life of local people living around. Like fixing the broken Barefoot College’s solar lamp circuit boards and batteries of Tibetan monks living higher in the mountains and fixing broken electronics like washing machine of the locals living near by and that too free of cost.

Me and Tavish took a cab from Bir to Bagsu and reached there at noon. David came to pick us up at Bagsu parking lot and from there we had a tough walk till Knowledge Garden in upper Bagsu as I was carrying the same 20kgs bag full of electronic components and we had to climb several hundred meters up the mountain with that bag. David helped me carry it to the place. On our way up we had a nice chocolate banana cake with lime soda. David drinks a lot of lime soda. I think its helpful if you have to climb up and down the mountain multiple times a day.

When we reached, David showed us the space. I was fascinated  by his work and all the junk and useful electronics lying around. I could relate his home to mine; we both have a lot in common . David told us about the projects he and other people at knowledge garden are working on. Its always interesting to talk to Davis and gain some knowledge and experience from him.

Moments before we were about to leave for our bus to Delhi a kid called Pranu from house next door came to the knowledge garden. At that time I was giving the extra hillhacks solar lantern circuit boards to David so I decided to give one circuit boards to the kid and teach him soldering. He was very excited so David setup the soldering station with lamps. Once Pranu started soldering his younger brother Shubhum also came and demanded that he also wanted to learn soldering. So I taught soldering to him aswell after his brother Pranu finished. To my surprise both the kids spoke really good English and were already introduced to electronics by David at the knowledge garden. That’s something I wish I had done during my childhood days.

Every time I visit David he gives me something. Last time he had given me some cool supercaps and a multimeter which I still day daily. This time he gave me a new multimeter, a RasberryPi Zero, few Barefoot College solar lamp circuit boards and a broken solar lamp with few toroids to fix them You can see David in this rare photo from Tavish.

With all this we were almost late for bus to Delhi and had to run with that 20 kgs bag. David again helped me in descend down the mountain again, a hug and a warm good by followed. With that this year’s hillhacks came to an end for me. Now I have to prepare some cool ideas for the next year’s hillhacks.

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