Tony asks:

I am really interested in learning about electronics and how to make kits and potentially make things with my kids. However, I am more creative than technical and I was wondering where would be a good book/kit/guide to start with. I am not an engineer and I don’t know anything about circuits, semiconductors or Arduino. My dream would to be able to make a gadget i could put on my dog’s leash and it would transmit signals via GPS/3G as to where he was if he ran away (which he manages to a lot).

While the Arduino is a powerful tool for creating your own electronics projects, a basic understanding of analog electronics can prove to be essential in making them really come alive. A classic book to begin with is Getting Started in Electronics by Forrest Mims. In it, he takes you step-by-step through the basics of electricity and magnetism, on to simple descriptions of what individual components do, and then on to many example circuits you can put together yourself. Besides being a wealth of information, it’s also elegantly scribed with accompanying hand-drawn diagrams.

One of Mims’ projects is the Atari Punk Console, a lo-fi audio signal generator. This is a great project in which you’ll learn by doing, and when completed you’ll have a wacky noisemaker that’s fun to use for kids and adults alike.

Another great basic electronics book is our own Make: Electronics. It’s a really well-design, well-written primer on the subject, and brings you all the way through analog components and into the world of robots and programming microcontrollers. You can check it out in the Maker Shed.

As for your dream of a dog leash transponder, it’s certainly possible, but there are some sizable hurdles you’d have to overcome. The great thing about Arduino is that it’s excellent for prototyping projects, but can sap energy and space relatively quickly. Thus, keeping the device light, compact, and durable can prove to be difficult for a beginner. The size of your components, how much power they draw, and a suitable battery for your needs all will contribute to the project’s possibility for success.

There are already products on the market, like the PATMicro, that transmit based on GPS data. Down the line it might be more fruitful to figure out how to hack one of these devices to suit your personal needs. If readers can make more specific suggestions for a project like this, please do so in the comments section.

Good luck with your first foray into electronics, and please keep us updated with your projects.

See all of the Ask MAKE columns

Michael Colombo

Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

  • Jesse

    A cheaper, safer solution would be to install one of the many pre-made implantable GPS trackers into your dog. While this is not as fun as making a tracker yourself, it is less likely to shock the animal and is almost impossible to accidentally remove. My veterinarian requires that all dogs she neuters/spays have a GPS implanted into the dogs at the same time, so my dog has been implanted since I got him as a 3 month old puppy back in 2005. Just Google “pet GPS” and you will find that the GPS implant is both common and cheap. There are even home kits so you can perform the implant yourself, though I think for the sake of the dog you should let a professional handle it.

    • Michael Colombo

      That’s great to know. Thanks for the info Jesse.

  • Will

    More than likely (especially if it was implanted in 2005) what Jesse is talking about is not a GPS implant, but an ID microchip. These are passive RFID devices that don’t require power, and contain a unique number that can be looked up to identify your dog or cat. It’s effectively the same as a collar tag that can never be lost, but it can’t be used to find the location of a lost animal.

    Location tracking would require a powered transmitter. Directional RF tracking could be an option – people use this type of tracker for model rockets and (I think) weather balloon projects. I’ve never built one, but this page looks promising:

    GPS would be great, but you would have to power a GPS unit AND a transmitter to send the location to you somehow (a cell phone would be a great starting point, but it would be hard to get around paying for cell or data service).

    I’ve thought about this some before – my in-laws’ dog has run away several times after jumping their 6′ 6″ fence…

  • Andreas

    For the GPS Dogtracker, an arduino+gps shield and SMS hardware would do the job. That would be bulky though, so maybe use a smaller arduino clone, and smaller gps/GPRS boards.

    I would rather suggest the more low-tech version of spending more time on dog training. If the dog runs away all the time he is basically telling you “Man, you are sooo booooring”. Go to youtube and search for zakgeorge21 and other amazing dog training videos…

  • Wilson!

    For the dog tracker, how about a cheap data-only cell phone attached to the collar, and some software.

    See for one such project.

  • skr

    Id start with training your dog to not run away.

  • Aaron Shaw was covered in Make a long time back. The Boost mobile iDen phones are as low as $50 without contract and only require you to put $10 on the phone every 90 days to keep the phone running. They have a web service add on for 50 cents per month, but that is not needed, that is only used for the web browser that comes on the phone. You can write your own programs for the phones in Java Mobile. Some of the phones have Bluetooth and cameras too.

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