Nitrogen Tank Monitoring

Lab Monitoring

The Story

For a few months last year, I lived around the block
from work. I would sometimes stop in on the weekends and pick up stuff I forgot at my
desk. One day the power went out at my apartment and I figure I would check in at work
and see if there were any problems. I messaged our Lab Safety Manager on slack to say
“hey the power went out, and I am at the office. Is there anything you’d like me to
check?”. He said he hadn’t even gotten the alarm email/pages yet, so if I would check
out in the lab and send him a picture of the CO2 tanks to make sure that nothing with
the power outage compromised those. Once I had procured access to the BL2 lab on my
building badge, I made my way out back and took a lovely picture of the tanks,
everything was fine.

The following week, in my one on one meeting with my
manager, I mentioned what happened and she and I discussed the event. It clearly isn’t
sustainable sending someone in any time there was a power outage if we didn’t need to,
but the lab equipment doesn’t have any monitoring ports.

Operation Lab Cam was born. I decided to put together
a prototype of a Raspberry Pi 3 with a camera module and play around with getting a way
to monitor the display on the tanks. After a few months of not touching the project, I
dug into it in a downtime day again. The result is now we have an automated camera box
that will take a picture once a minute and display it on an auto refreshing web page.
There are many professional products out there that do exactly this, but I wanted
something that has the ability to be upgraded in the future.

Summary of the Technical Details

Currently the entire process is managed by one bash
script, which is a little clunky, but it’s livable. The implementation of the script
goes a little like:

  1. Take a picture to a temporary location.
  2. Add a graphical time stamp.
  3. Copy that image to both the currently served image, and a timestamped
    filename backup.

The web page that serves the image is just a simple
web page that shows the image, and refreshes once every thirty seconds.

The Gritty Technical Details

The program I’m using to take pictures is the
raspistill program. If
I had written my script to just call raspistill every time I wanted a picture taken, it
would have potentially taken a lot longer to save the images. This happens because it
needs to meter the image every time, which adds up. The solution is Signal mode and
turning raspistill into a daemon. If you enable signal mode, any time you send a
SIGUSR1 to the process, the backgrounded process will then take the

Instead if setting up a service with
systemd, I have a small bash script. At
the beginning, I run a ps
and check if raspistill is running, if it’s
not, I start up a new instance of raspistill with the appropriate options and
background it. The next time this script runs, it will detect that raspistill is
running and be almost a no-op.

After this, I send a SIGUSR1
(kill -10) to take the picture which is then saved, un-timestamped. Next up I call
imagemagick’s convert on this image, I crop out the center (so I couldn’t use
raspistill‘s “-a 12” option) because all I care about is a 500×700 pixel

This is then copied to the
image that is served by the web page, and also backed up in a directory that nginx will
listen to.

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