Remembering Japan – Contribute to a Fantastic Open Source Project

A prototype of the Onyx Radiation Detector, with OLED screen and captouch button array. 

March 11th, 2011 — the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded devastates the Tōhoku region of Japan, killing over fifteen thousand and resulting in the Level 7 meltdown of three nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi power plant complex. Radiation concerns increase and international sales of geiger counters (ionizing radiation detectors that measure nuclear radiation) immediately skyrocket. Companies like International Medcom, which has spent decades producing high-quality instruments, sell out of their stock almost instantly. Following the disaster, their policy was to send every instrument they built to Japan, with preference to people who could share the data they gathered. One of the groups that formed during that time was Safecast, a non-profit that focuses on collecting and publishing free radiation data.

Safecast is a fantastic example of the good that comes out of the open source community when passionate people strive to make a difference. Despite being spread around the world, a few key collaborators launched the project with the goal of collecting as much radiation data as possible. The earthquake revealed an interesting problem – there was never a large amount of data collected pre-crisis, so there was little to compare the post-crisis readings to.

MAKE friend and open source advocate Dr. Andrew “bunnie” Huang stepped up, offering to create a reference design for a compact geiger counter that people could carry around, and record data with, all the time. The device revolves around a LND 7317 pancake geiger tube, a large sensor capable of detecting multiple kinds of harmful radiation: Gamma (the most penetrating), as well as Alpha and Beta particles. You can read more about bunnie’s design process here.

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A view of Japan from the Safecast iOS app. Download it for free here.

To further fill the gap of radiation data points, Safecast members collaborated with the Tokyo Hackerspace to build a Geiger Counter that can be attached to a car. With electronics based on Medcom’s Inspector and a bento-sized Pelican case to keep it safe, the original bGeigie records data every five seconds and pairs beautifully with Safecast’s iOS app and web maps. The current version, the Nano, uses different electronics and supports wireless data transfer and GPS, so all the user has to do is strap one to their car and start driving around. Thanks to the bGeigies in the wild, over 7 million data points have been collected, with more coming in every day.

Dan Sythe of International Medcom, Inc. (left) and Joe Moross of Safecast Japan pose with a car-mounted bGeigie Nano as the O’Reilly Tarsier looks on.

A bGeigie Nano outside of it’s protective Pelican case.

Fast forward to this past week. Joe and Dan set out to find a laser cutter and a willing volunteer to help etch serial numbers onto the back plates of the Onyx devices for backers of Safecast’s successful Kickstarter project. After showing off one of the Onyx prototypes, a bGeigie Nano, and telling the Safecast story, I was inspired and offered to help.

Joe Moross explains the function of the bGeigie Nano parts to me (left) and MAKE Intern Nick Parks.

I cut a jig out of cardboard so I could lay sixteen of the back plates inside our laser at once and began etching the serial numbers. Medcom will start shipping the assembled Kickstarter instruments tomorrow and begin selling the commercial version in April.

I’m happy to be a part of such an important project and will continue to help out when I can; developing radiation data collectors will only benefit us in the future. Prices will drop as they become more popular, leading to more data points, citizen science, and most importantly, preparation for another crisis (which will hopefully never occur).

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Back plates in our Epilog Laser, prior to etching. You can learn more about the Onyx and preorder one here. A portion of the sales of both the Onyx and bGeigie Nano Kits will go to support Safecast’s mapping infrastructure.

If you donate to Safecast between now and 11:59 PM EDT tomorrow, March 11th, Global Giving will match your donation 200%. As long as funding remains, they’ll even match your donation 100% until March 15th. Click the image below to learn more and contribute to a great project.




Eric is a Mechanical Engineer with interests in machining, mass manufacturing, product design and kinetic art. While not building things, he enjoys skiing, cycling, and juggling.

View more articles by Eric Weinhoffer