The nRF9160 Feather Is Now Served

A project log for The nRF9160 Feather

A fully featured LTE Cat-M1 and GPS enabled Feather. It sports everything you'd expect from a Feather and more.

JaredJared 08/01/2020 at 03:430 Comments

I was a complete failure. My prototype wasn’t working. I spent at least an hour trying to rework a frustratingly large LTE module on an impossibly small circuit board.

It wasn’t going to work.

So I went back to the drawing board. I poured my years of hardware experience into a tiny form factor.

The end product?

Something smart. Something with LTE, NB-IoT, and GPS. Something anyone could get started with right away.

And thus, the nRF9160 Feather was born.

The nRF9160 Feather Video!

The nRF9160 Feather brings all the features I’ve been craving into a familiar package. Things like low-power shutdown capabilities, built-in 4FF SIM card slot, flexible power supply, and 2MB of external flash. Plus, everything else you’d expect from Feather form factor board.

Plus with a company like Nordic Semiconductor behind the nRF9160, I knew it would be something I’d find myself using every day. I didn’t want to be the only one though.

Open source

The nRF9160 Top + OSHW Cert #

The nRF9160 Top + OSHW Cert #

I could have been secretive about the development of the nRF9160 Feather. Instead, I wanted to share its’ story with everyone. See, the best way to learn is to see and then do. That’s how I built my very circuit board back in 2007 with nothing but some rudimentary knowledge of how EagleCAD worked.

So please, I encourage you to check out the documentation, download the source, and start tinkering. The hardware is under the CERN v1.2 license which is fairly permissive. For more information, check out the campaign page.

How do I use it?

Great question.

The nRF9160 runs on Nordic’s nRF Connect SDK. If you’re a Microsoft Visual Code user, you can check out how I got started. That way you don’t have to go through the same pain I did!

Once you’re setup, the nRF9160 Feather works with many of the SDK examples. For example, compiling and flashing the at_client firmware is as easy as:

cd ncs/nrf/samples/nrf9160/at_client/
west build -b circuitdojo_feather_nrf9160ns -p
west flash

Where am I?

nRF Cloud GPS Plots

nRF Cloud GPS Plots

The nRF9160 Feather has worked with all the active GPS antennas that I’ve tested. Simply attach one, load the firmware and go.

I used the nrf_cloud_agps example (with some slight modifications) to track a recent jaunt around the neighborhood. You can see the path in the screenshot of nRF Cloud above. Many of you have expressed interest in tracking your personal belongings like bicycles, cars, etc. This will get you started in the right direction, fast.

So much more

Since the nRF9160 Feather has been added to Zephyr, you can almost use any example or sample. Many of the nRF Connect examples work with minor adjustments. Here are some of the other examples I’ve used with great success:

nrf/samples/nrf9160/https_client - does the equivalent of an HTTP GET on using SSL.

nrf/samples/nrf9160/gps - basic GPS example with an optional SUPL library that uses Google’s SUPL server. This is a form of assisted GPS that helps get fixes much faster on cold start. (We’re talking about orders of magnitude faster.)

nrf/samples/nrf9160/lte_ble_gateway - a great example for connecting you nRF9160 directly to other Bluetooth devices using Zephyr’s HCI Bluetooth library. It works specifically with the Thingy52. You can adapt it for other devices as well.

nrf/samples/nrf9160/mqtt_simple - establishes a connection with a MQTT server. It subscribes to a topic and replies in an echo so a separate “pub” topic. It’s a great example to start working with an MQTT solution that may not involve AWS.

Cellular service required

The nRF9160 doesn’t connect to the outside world without cellular service though! Here in the states most of the carriers support LTE-M only. This includes AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon. While there are others, my tests have shown they don’t work.

Fortunately, backers of the project receive an included SIM at no extra charge.

Hologram SIM

Hologram SIM

Usually, a single SIM from Hologram costs upwards of $11 with shipping depending on where you are. Once you get it, sign up for an account here,and then activate your SIM in their console. Then, slide your SIM into the bottom of your board and get rolling!

What’s next

The nRF9160 Feather compliance progress is still ongoing. That means more testing before it can conquer the world.

These “badges” are in the form of compliance testing to make sure the nRF9160 Feather is operating safely. At the minimum, the nRF9160 Feather will be FCC Part15 and ICES-003 compliant. That means you can use it stand-alone with no added testing whatsoever. Awesome, right?

The catch? I need your help.

I need your help! 🙏

To make this campaign a reality, I need your help to meet our minimum order quantity of nRF9160 Feathers. Without that, we’re dead in the water! Head on over to the campaign page to reserve yours.

Picture credit goes to the wonderful folks at GroupGets.