Gifts for the Hackers and Adventurers in Your Life

December 17, 2013

By : Jonathan Shuler Jonathan Shuler

With Christmas just days away, and with some of us just getting to our holiday shopping, we at team BRCK wanted to help you find that perfect last minute gift for the hardware hacker or adventurer in your life. Most of these items are things we’ve used and depend on, the rest are just cool!


BRCK Prototype V2, Codename Lilith 1 was sealed and accesorized with Sugru.

This is an easy one for the makers on your list. I can’t think of a more useful or fun stocking stuffer than Sugru.

Sugru is a strong, colorful, moldable plastic that sticks to almost anything in it’s origional. After it air-cures it’s a firm, lightweight plastic with a foamy feel. All you have to do is open up the foil pouch, roll the putty around a little to get the chemistry going, and then start making. It sets up in about 20 minutes and cures in 24 hours.

We joke (kind of) that the first BRCK protypes were held together almost entirely by Sugru, Kapton Tape, and Love (we didn’t have budget for much else!). We’ve used it for loads repairs on and off the field, and early on we actually used Sugru to make quick and dirty button covers and rubber feet.

Sparkfun’s Proto-Snap


Great for someone who’d like to get into hardware hacking but doesn’t know a lot about it yet.

Sparkfun’s Proto-Snap is an intro to Arduino class on a single PCB. Basically it’s an Arduino Pro Mini 328, a USB Programer, buzzer, RGB LED, Push Button, and a little bit of Proto-board all pre-wired onto one PCB about the size of a credit card. This means your budding engineer can focus on learning the Arduino Scripting language with out the frustrations that come with trouble shooting code AND hardware at the same time. Once they feel comfortable with the language, the PCB is perforated, so they can start breaking off the extra components until they have a good, simple AT-MEGA 328 prototyping board with extras for going forward.

Bare Conductive’s Electric Paint Pen

We haven’t used this yet, but like Sugru, it seems like one of those things that could become indispensable once you figure out exactly what it can and can’t do. Because it’s a paint the first thing most people will think about is fabric, but i’m really curious about painting circuits onto wood with it. It might also work well as solder-less field repair solution, but we’ll have to test it to find out.

Teensy 3.1

Gold Plated Teensy3.0 with some extra upgrades. That’s really all you need to know.

Teensy3s are like any other animal in the Arduino compatible menagerie with one big exception: they’re powered by a 32bit ARM M4 processor. Comparing a Teensy 3.1 to an 8bit wonder like the Arduino Uno is like comparing a ’98 Geo Metro to the new Ford Fieta ST: yes they’re both useful and tinny, but only one of them goes very, very fast.

Beyond the gold plating, other upgrades to the 3.1 from the original are 4X memory (64K vs 16K), *TRUE analog output*, two A/D Converters, and 5v tolerance on the digital pins (though it still needs 3.3v for everything else) which is super handy if some of your accessories run at 5v. If you know someone who’s been using an Arduino board for a while, this will be a welcome upgrade. The Teensy 3.1 is one of those tools that will never be the bottle neck of your ambition.

Voltaic 6Watt Solar Charger Kit

We’ve found that many small solar panels quickly show their age in the face of real adventure.

But, not Voltaic Panels.

Voltaic designs their products with aggressive outdoor use and environmental responsibility in mind (less breaks == E Waist!) and as such, their panels are simple to use, light, strong and weather resistant. It also means they can offer a two year warranty. Also they pack more punch than almost anything else in their size class.

Your tech-head adventurer will love Voltaic’s 6 Watt Kit. It’s got a enough juice to charge most portable electronics but isn’t massive or messy (it’s 2013, why have a folding panel kit?). The kit comes with Voltaic’s V15 Battery Pack which is SUPER useful on it’s own for evening charging or even in town as a portable power station for your phone when wall sockets are scarce. I get two full chargers on my iPhone out of the V15 before it’s dead. The construction on the V15 is good as well.

Weller WSTA6 Pyropen Jr

If your out in the bush and you REALLY need to solder something, there’s a chance the thing you need to repair is also your primary source of electricity, which means your iron will have a hard time heating up.

Enter butane soldering irons.

Think of them as cordless soldering irons powered by old fashioned fire instead of electricity. Butain irons are nice for travel because they take up very little space compared soldering stations. Most butane irons also have the added ability to double up as crude heat guns for reflow and heat shrink, or direct flame soldering torches for soft metal work. I like the Weller PyroPen Jr because it fits a sweet-spot between performance and price and all things being equal, Weller tips tend to last longer.

BRCK in the News

December 13, 2013

By : brck brck

BRCK’s been lucky enough to get some exciting press attention in the last month, here are the highlights.

Der Spiegel has a great article about mobile changing Africa and gives a great context for BRCK.

The Conversation featured BRCK as well

OH, we also made it into Wired UK back in November!!!!

Extending the Rail Lines of Internet Connectivity to the Edges

November 14, 2013

By : Erik Hersman Erik Hersman

I gave a talk at PopTech this year on the BRCK and what I think it means for last mile connectivity in Africa. I believe that digitally connecting people and information is the great challenge of ours.

Here’s the talk itself:

Erik Hersman: BRCK breakthrough from PopTech on Vimeo.

Here’s my post on the talk itself, in its entirety:

A few weeks ago the #Kenya365 final instameet happened, we had finished the full year of Kenyan instagramming and it was a chance to get everyone together. Mutua Matheka suggested we go to the Kenya Railways Museum, a place I hadn’t been since I was in school. I took my daughters with me, and we had a great time exploring the old trains and marveling at the engineering feats required to create what they did over 100 years ago.

As I was getting ready for my talk at PopTech I started thinking about how those engineers of yesteryear connected the world. Since man had first tamed the horse, we had never moved as quickly or as consistently as when the railroad was created. It was a true changing of the world.

A map of global railway lines

A map of global railway lines

There were many incredible obstacles for the pioneering engineers of that time to overcome.

Kenya’s railway museum reminds of us this rich history of overcoming obstacles with the story of Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson who at the ripe age of 31 was commissioned by the British East Africa Company to help extend the East Africa Railway (EAR) through the Tsavo region on the way from Mombasa to Uganda. It was at the Tsavo river that the unfolding of the great “Man Eaters of Tsavo” lion story unfolds, where two extremely large male lions stopped the railroad’s progress for the better part of a year. Official railway records state 28 died, though 140+ is a more accurate number as it constitutes the non-railway employees taken as well. No matter what the thousands of Indians and African workers did, they couldn’t stop the lions from jumping the thorn bushes, entering tents and braving the fires. Too many nights friends and co-workers were dragged screaming and eaten within hearing distance. It was enough that the workers started to flee in their hundreds.

Now for Col. Patterson, being a stalwart Man of Empire, this was a true crisis. His arrival had coincided with the attacks, so he was to blame by many. He was being disgraced and by any means necessary, he had to get the job done. Fortunately he had served a number of years in India and was an accomplished tiger hunter. 9 months later, Patterson bags both lions in the span of three weeks, changing his story from one of scapegoat and failure to one of a hero. Of course the book he wrote about it didn’t hurt his reputation either – and many of us know this story from the 1996 movie where Val Kilmer plays Col. Patterson in “The Ghost and the Darkness”.

Col. Patterson and one of the man eaters of Tsavo lions

Col. Patterson and one of the man eaters of Tsavo lions

If these pioneers were alive today, what would be their frontier?

Physically connecting people and things was the great challenge of their time. Digitally connecting people and information is the great challenge of ours.

They drove this iron backbone into every continent. It is no coincidence that our new backbones run alongside these same rails and roads. The world over, the engineers of our day are building this internet connectivity through fiberoptic cable into every continent, and Africa is no different.

A map of the railway lines in Africa

A map of the railway lines in Africa

A map of the internet terrestrial fiber optic cables in Africa

A map of the internet terrestrial fiber optic cables in Africa

(Once again, we all owe a debt to Steve Song for his maps of Internet in Africa, with this terrestrial cable map. A more detailed PDF.)

Terrestrial Internet Backbones and the Obstacles of Today

We have our own obstacles today. For, though we build the internet backbone into Africa, what happens when the rail ends? We have a problem where the infrastructure doesn’t match the connectivity equipment; meaning burnt out servers and routers due to power surges and brown-outs. This caused us to ask, “why are we using the routers and modems designed for London and New York when we live in Nairobi and New Delhi?”

Poor infrastructure, where high tech is inappropriate tech

With the BRCK, we’re extending the rail lines of connectivity to the edges of the network.

BRCK provides true last mile connection for Africa and other emerging markets. We designed it for our own needs, in Nairobi. It’s a rugged and simple WiFi device, made for our challenging environment where all of the redundancies of the device for both power and internet connectivity equate to productivity. It connects both people and sensors.

We envision it being used him homes and offices around the continent, by travelers, workers and community health workers in rural areas and by organizations managing everything from water flow sensor to remote power station management on the edges of the grid.

While all of the big technology companies go after “the next big thing”, where they endeavor to stretch the edges of what’s possible with technology, most of the world sits unable to take advantage of the older technology. High-end and brilliant technology is being transplanted from the US and EU to Africa – it is the best technology in the world, it just doesn’t work were we live.

It has become clear that no one else is taking this problem seriously. It’s time for us, as African technologists, to stand up and solve our own problems. To grasp the opportunities. We might even find that the addressable market is much larger and lucrative than our Western counterparts are aware of.

The end of making do with things not made for our needs

It’s the end of making do with things designed for other people, from other places with other needs. We’re entering a time where good enough is no longer good enough. The BRCK is just one of many new products that are designed for us, by us and meets our needs.

What’s next for BRCK?

We’re raising a round of investment now for BRCK, you can find out more on Angel List at The IP is held by Ushahidi, and the BRCK has spun out as an independent commercial entity in a way that if it does well, so does Ushahidi. We have a strong business strategy, and a fantastic team with which to execute it.

This coming week we are traveling to the far edges of the network as we chase the November 3rd solar eclipse. The BRCK will be stress tested to it’s very limit, for ruggedness, connectivity and reach. If we get the VSat (BGan) connection we’re looking for, then we might be able to live stream the solar eclipse on Nov 3rd from the edges of Lake Turkana to the rest of the world.

BRCK Eclipse Day 7 – Home Again!

November 7, 2013

By : Erik Hersman Erik Hersman

Some puddles along the way

We started out early from Kurungu towards Baragoi, we didn’t have any issues with bandits as there was an increased police presence in the area. It had rained the night before, so the ground for our whole trip was a bit damp, perfect for fast riding. It also created some very waterlogged areas, where we had to get completely soaked up to our waists in the water as we rode through.

Taylor Martyn riding through a deep puddle, north of Maralal, Kenya from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

Until we got to the rocks near Maralal, it was a fairly easy ride, then things began to toughen up. One puncture on Taylor’s bike, a quick change, and then off on our way again put us into a rainy Maralal by lunchtime.

The views from 30km north of Maralal, one of the most stunning views in Kenya

We went through some massive puddles along the way, so our boots were completely soaked and we were then able to empty the water from them as we enjoyed some hot chai, chapatis and stew at a local hoteli.

Hot chai, chapati and stew for lunch in Maralal

Back into our wet socks and waterlogged boots, and we were off for some rocky, wet and slippery riding down towards Rumuruti – where the tarmac roads begin.

From there it was a quick run down to Gilgil, which we reached by 6:30pm and started for Nairobi, only 1:30 ours away (or so we thought…).

Now, due to the number of spills the bike that I was riding had endured, none of the lights worked, except for the headlight and the right blinker. We put Taylor’s fully functioning bike in front, me in the middle, and the Land Rover behind. The car alternator had gone out the night before, so we didn’t run the car with much electronics all day and the battery seemed to be holding up well.

20 minutes later, just past Naivasha, my headlight went out.

Now, the only place more dangerous than driving on a road in Kenya at night, is the side of the road. But, there we merrily sat, Philip and Reg testing out the electronics and finally realizing that the bulb itself was burnt out. I wondered what a flashlight would look like inside the headlight casing. It turned out to be surprisingly bright, so Fady donated his super expensive and very bright bicycling flashlight to the cause, which turned out to fit perfectly.

Flashlight + Headlight housing = new motorcycle headlight

As we duct taped that jua kali light into place, the Land Rover’s batter gave out it’s final death call and the lights went out.

No problem, we put it in reverse and pushed it back down the hill to jump start it. Fortunately, we had a 12,000 mAh Brunton Solo 15 solar charged battery on hand (similar to their new Impel), and we hooked that up to the vehicles lights.

Off we rode into the night, now the truck in front, me on my raggedy old cludged together light bike in the middle, and Taylor riding anchor. It was now very cold, as it gets in the Kenyan highlands during the rains. Then, as we got up towards the top of the escarpment, at the 8,000 feet high level, it started to seriously rain. Now, it’s already hard to see at night on a bike with a headlight pointing up and blinding pilots, with people’s brights deflecting off of the droplets on your visor it becomes even harder. Pop up the visor and you can see again, but the cold and stinging rain now hits you in the face. Better to live with a little pain than die in a collision, so up it went.

We had just passed the Kijabe turnoff when the Land Rover’s second battery died. Fortunately, we were in my territory, as my alma mater RVA was 15 minutes down in Kijabe. We pulled over at a petrol station, called up my old dorm parent Mark Kinzer, and he found a friend who was willing to donate us a fully charged 12v battery for the remainder of the trip. 20 minutes later we had a battery and were moving down the road again.

16 hours after leaving Kurungu, wet, cold and utterly fatigued, we arrived home and well in Nairobi.

Thank god for old friends, good (enough) roads, no bandits and safety through the night drive. A bunch of creative problem solving was needed to get through, as well as stamina and perseverance in the face of the friction that is thrown at you on a trip like this. I can’t tell you how happy I was to get some warm food at home, a warm shower to thaw out my body, and a warm bed to crash collapse into as I went comatose for the night.

Would I do this trip again? Absolutely. In fact, “BRCK Expeditions” are a new thing for us that we’ll continue to do as a company and that we’ll look forward to hearing about from our BRCK users around the world.

I wrote up another blog post on my personal blog today about some of the things I learned about our team. They are:

  1. Work together, help each other selflessly.
  2. Think creatively and push harder to get through the friction.
  3. Always get back up, persevere.

There and Back again.

November 6, 2013

By : brck brck

There and Back from BRCK on Vimeo.

A quick sneak peak at our adventures up country thus far.

Eclipse Trip Days 5 & 6 – Many roads and no progress

November 5, 2013

By : Erik Hersman Erik Hersman

Yesterday we took off from Sibiloi towards Loiyangalani and then on towards South Horr. Besides a tire puncture along the way for the car, it was nice and easy. We were able to stop and talk about the eclipse with a few eclipse chasers from Spain and they said they got a somewhat clear picture of it, with just a small bit of cloud cover. There were so many vehicles leaving the north, that big clouds of dust covered us and made us look like brown powdered humans.

While stopped on the side of the road, about 100 Kilometers from Loiyangalani we could get a very weak Edge mobile phone signal. Enough to send some tweets and call people, but no real media uploads. We spent some time with the Wilson amplification antennas, but didn’t have too much luck because we didn’t know the exact location of the tower from where we were. It’s a great piece of equipment though, one we love to break out and use with the Yaggi antenna from the top of the Land Rover.

Fady got his second motorcycle riding lesson. Again, on some of the worst roads that Africa can throw at you… amazing really. He did it all with speed and grace, and just a single tip-over.

We overnighted at the Swanepoels again, where we talked about the route possibilities. Massive rains have cut off a lot of the roads. Our 3 choices were: Marsabit (safe, long), Korr (not possible due to rains) and Baragoi (security issues, but short). We were heavily cautioned about Baragoi and Maralal, so opted for Marsabit and set off at 5:30am.

Today’s trip started off with eating a lot of flying ants. They flew so thick as we rode that it was like riding in a snow storm, except with wings. I got the all in my goggles and helmet, light and other gear. Everyone was covered in flying ants when we stopped 30 minutes later.

The Land Rover, stuck on the road between Gatab and Kargi

2 hours later found us sitting by the side of the road wondering how we were going to unstick a very stuck Land Rover. We had slipped and slid our way through, and Fady earned his “wet” riding badge with honors.

4-hours later, we were still stuck, after trying every trick we knew. I even tried something very stupid, and paid for it, trying to pull with my Suzuki DR650 and burning out the clutch plate. Now my motorcycle isn’t running and I have to leave it in South Horr with my friend to get it back down to Nairobi in a few weeks. This, I’m not happy about, but I should have thought through what I was trying to do.

Philip working out that my clutch is busted

A Landcruiser came through in a few hours and helped pull us out. 2 riders and 2 motorcycles sat by the side of the road while the others tried to push through. However, a new lake had formed on the way to Kargi and Marsabit, so they turned around and came back. A Land Rover had showed up, and we hired him to take my motorcycle back to South Horr.

Back at the Swanepoels in Kurungu, or as we like to call it BRCK HQ North

So, now we sit in the same place that we sat yesterday at the same time.

Tomorrow we shoot off towards Baragoi. Though there have been bandits on the road, we’ve heard from another friend who went that way today that there is a lot of extra security on it and that they’ve just graded the road. With a lot of luck, we can make it to Naivasha and onto Nairobi by tomorrow night.

Catching the Eclipse

November 4, 2013

By : brck brck

Nothing is certain. You’ve thought through all the variables, your made your plan, you’ve prepped, but nothing is certain. The next best thing you get after certainty is reliability. BRCK stood up to the rigors of one of Africa’s most challenging environments even as the total eclipse was hidden behind a passing storm. We’re proud of how BRCK held up in our field trial and we’re looking forward to showing you how some of that worked in the coming weeks.

We did get a brief view of the eclipse through the clouds late in the event. Here’s a photo. Well have lots more to share soon.


The Hybrid Eclipse, from Sibiloi Kenya

November 3, 2013

By : brck brck

The Hybrid solar eclipse, as seen from Sibiloi, Kenya on the shores of Lake Turkana

Well, we had a great trek up to northern Kenya, to the shores of Lake Turkana to catch this rare hybrid eclipse (see past posts). However, we had a massive dust and rain storm hit 45 minutes before the event. Unfortunately, those clouds hit the sun just the few minutes before the eclipse.


All of us in Sibiloi saw the light dim out, but didn’t get to see the moon cross over the sun.

An airplane just landed, that we think got the eclipse from above the clouds. Wish we had one of those!

We’re now catching a partial bit of the eclipse as the clouds break open. Image shortly if we can capture it.