Fall 2020 Virtual Open House

Hi everyone!

With the ongoing work and success around our camera cars, as well as interest from our presentations, we’ve decided to take our Fall Open House virtual! On November 14, 2020, you’ll be able to take a train for a spin around our lower level loop at SVL, all from the comfort of your home!

Trains will be available from 10am – 3pm Pacific Standard Time. If you are interested in running a train, please sign up via the survey here. Note we are asking for an email and a preferred time slot so we can invite you to a Google Meet to coordinate with you when we start running trains.

If you prefer to just watch, stay tuned! We are aiming to live-stream the Open House on Youtube and will publish more details as we get closer.

Note: As mentioned above – this is a remote Open House. Our layout is still closed to the general public due to Covid-19 restrictions. Only a limited number of members will be allowed into the building to help monitor trains, so please do not come down to the club.

Presentations on Remote Operations

Silicon Valley Lines was featured in two presentations on Remote Operations.

Saturday, September 26th at 9:00am PDT, John Abatecola from TSG multimedia released a new segment in his Model Railroading 101 series covering remote operations at Silicon Valley Lines. This video gives you some insight into how we adjusted our operations scheme to accommodate remote operators while maintaining social distancing rules at the club. We show and explain the technology we’re using to pull this all together, as well as give a glimpse into what a remote ops session looks like.

The same day (September 26th), at 3:00pm PDT, Bernhard and Dave gave a NMRAx presentation about”Remote Operations at Silicon Valley Lines”. This presentation goes deeper into the background and the technology of remote operations. We explain hardware and software setup in detail, and talk about our experience in fine-tuning operations with remote operators.

Photo Shoot at SVL

Dan Munson at work

In preparation for the NMRA convention next year, well-known railroad photographer Dan Munson visited several Bay Area layouts this weekend, including Silicon Valley Lines. Dan, with help from Doug Good, spent several hours with us this morning photographing the layout.

Even with COVID-19 raging in the Bay Area, over the last few months several club members had worked socially distanced on expanding and finishing scenes to put our best foot forward. The layout looked great and the effort was well worth it.

We’re very much looking forward to the results from today’s photo shoot.

The SVL CabCam Project

As Silicon Valley Lines adapts to the current global pandemic, it has become clear we will not be meeting as a full club in person for some time. This has spurred our search for a solution to allow us to run operating sessions and have fun with trains as SVL is foremost a operating layout. We tried a few approaches but it quickly became apparent that we need to give remote operators a way to get immersed with running a train on the layout. We wanted to provide a view from the locomotive cab that is fast and responsive. Thus the SVL CabCam Project was born. In addition we provide layout overview cameras and/or views from key locations on the railroad.

This write-up is the result of a lot of trial and error, getting products fully running then realizing the end-to-end latency was so severe it wouldn’t be workable. It is intended as a general overview for hobbyists wishing to get a track-level view of their own layout, and provides technical instructions for replicating our approach.

A cab view camera is useful for more than remote operations during COVID. Local ops sessions can benefit from this as well.

Overview

We describe how to set up a small computer to stream cab view video from an HO locomotive. This allows remote operation of trains at local or remote layouts, optionally connecting it to video conferencing software like Google Meet or Zoom.

Goals

  1. Easy to set up and maintain.
  2. Easy to access the cab view via a URL or via conference software eg. Zoom or Meet.
  3. Distribute the setup to others for the betterment of the hobby.
  4. Provide a low latency video stream to enable remote control via Engine Driver/WiThrottle
  5. Keep the hardware within HO NMRA clearances.
  6. Use commonly available components and open-source software where possible.

Implementation

Hardware: We are using one Raspberry Pi Zero WH per CabCam car.

Camera: The Pi Zero Spy Camera works well for our purposes.

Software: The project uses Raspian Buster running MJPG Streamer on the CabCam car. This streams video from a URL on the local network. The video can be viewed locally or streamed to conference software via OBS and the OBS VirtualCam plugin.

Power: The Juiceb0x Zero is a “hat” for the Pi Zero. While the Pi Zero WH comes with the required header already installed, soldering is required to install header pins on the Juiceb0x Zero board.

Rolling Stock: The easiest approach is build a mounting sled out of styrene as shown below. With a little bit more work the setup can be installed inside a dummy engine, too.

IMG_20200710_191346

How To

This section describes the setup in more detail. Some familiarity with Raspberry Pi and respective software management is helpful.

1. Gathering the hardware

You will need:

2. Setting up the hardware

Connect the camera to the Pi Zero WH. Solder the header pins to the Juiceb0x Zero per the instructions that come with it and attach it to the Pi Zero WH. Connect the battery to the Juiceb0x Zero. Connect the USB charger to the Juiceb0x Zero to charge the battery.

Never connect power to the USB ports of the Pi Zero WH while the Juiceb0x Zero is attached. 

3. Burning the image and setting up the software

Download and install the Raspberry Pi Imager, formerly called NOOBS. 

Run the software and select Choose OS, then Raspberry Pi OS (Other) and select Raspberry Pi OS Lite.
Next Select your SD Card via Choose SD Card and hit Write. Once it is done writing, eject and reinsert the SD card into your computer.

4. WiFi Setup

Now we will configure wifi for your home or club network. With a text editor create (or edit) a file named wpa_supplicant.conf in the boot folder on the SD card. Paste the following text to this file.

country=US
ctrl_interface=DIR=/var/run/wpa_supplicant GROUP=netdev
update_config=1
network={
      ssid="NETWORK-NAME"
      psk="NETWORK-PASSWORD"
}

Change the country code to your two character country code per the  ISO 3166 alpha-2 country code. For many of us it will likely be US or GB. SSID refers to your wifi network name and PSK is your network’s password. Make the respective changes for your network and save the file.

To enable SSH access create an empty file called ssh in the boot folder on the SD card.

Eject and remove the SD card from your computer, insert it into the Pi, and power up the Pi by moving the small slider switch on the Juiceb0x Zero to On. The blue LED on the Juiceb0x Zero should light up, and you should see flashing green lights. Some cameras have LEDs on the connector strip, those should light up briefly as well. Give the Pi about two minutes to boot up. 

5. Logging in to the Pi

Find the IP address your Pi is using and log in using ssh as user pi.

The default password is raspberry.

On a Mac use Terminal. On Windows use PuTTY (you may have to download it)  and put in the IP of your Pi in the Hostname block. When you connect, the default username is pi and the password is raspberry.

On many networks the following also works:

ssh pi@raspberrypi.local

6. Configuring the Pi

Once on the Pi command line type

sudo raspi-config

to enter the configuration page for the Pi. First enter Change User Password and enter a new password if you want to secure the device. Next enter Network Options, select Hostname, and give your Pi a unique name like LayoutCabCam1 or similar. This is helpful to identify which Pi is which if your network supports hostnames. Next select Interfacing Options, select P1 Camera, and enable the camera interface. The last thing to do in the configurator is to expand the file system. Go to Advanced and select A1 Expand Filesystem. After that finishes, exit the configurator and allow the Pi to reboot. 

7. Configuring MJPG Streamer

Now we are going to configure the software to allow us to stream the cab POV. 

Log back into your Pi and run the following commands

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

Follow this with

sudo apt-get install git 
sudo apt-get install cmake libjpeg8-dev -y
sudo apt-get install gcc g++ -y

This will take a while.

Run the following commands to clone and compile MJPG Streamer, this will also take some time. 

git clone https://github.com/jacksonliam/mjpg-streamer
cd mjpg-streamer/mjpg-streamer-experimental

make && sudo make install

Sit back for a bit and enjoy a drink.

Next run

mjpg_streamer -i "input_raspicam.so" -o "output_http.so"

to test the stream with the most basic settings. This should output some stuff on your terminal to let you know it is working. Point the browser on your computer  to http://IP:8080?action=stream (replace IP with the IP address for the Pi from earlier). If you see output from your camera you are ready to move on. In the terminal, hit Ctrl+C to close the stream.

The following command uses the parameters we set at SVL.

mjpg_streamer -i "input_raspicam.so -x 640 -y 480 -fps 15" \-o "output_http.so"

The Internet uplink bandwidth at SVL is quite limited. For cab control with remote operators we found that SD resolution is sufficient and limits bandwidth demand. We are using a frame rate of 15 images per second. The stream doesn’t get smoother turning this up, it only gets darker. If your camera is upside down you may need to insert -rot 180 before -fps.

We want to turn on the stream at on startup. A small startup script will get us there.

Enter the following

sudo nano /home/pi/startcam.sh 

Enter the following in the text editor.

#!/bin/bash

mjpg_streamer \

-i "input_raspicam.so -x 640 -y 480 -rot 180 -fps 15" \
-o “output_http.so”

Hit CTRL+X to leave the editor, hit Y and  Enter to write the file to the SD card. 

Make this file executable with

sudo chmod a+x /home/pi/startcam.sh

To cause the camera stream to start whenever the Pi boots, edit the /etc/rc.local file. To do this run

sudo nano /etc/rc.local

and add /home/pi/startcam.sh close to the bottom of the file right above the exit 0 command. Exit the editor with CTRL+X Y Enter.

Reboot the Pi with sudo shutdown -r now. After reboot you should be able to see the stream in your browser at the URL you used above. After placing the camera on a flatcar, it should look something like this.

Put your CabCam car on the front of a train, and run the train while watching the video stream in the browser.

Bernhard wrote down some thoughts on camera placement and car choice on his blog.

9. What’s Next?

To stream the video to remote operators we use OBS with the VirtualCam plugin, configured with CabCam feeds. This is connected to Google Meet and can even stream to Youtube Live. Other video conferencing software like Zoom, Duo, Skype, etc. can be used, too. Remote operators join the video conference and use Engine Driver or WiThrottle to control trains via JMRI. We’ll cover that in a separate post.

Variations

Hardware: While we are using a Raspberry Pi Zero WH, any Pi with built-in Wifi will work.

Camera: Any compatible Raspberry Pi camera can be made to work. Possible options are the official Pi camera, the spy cameras, or other compatible cameras available from e.g. Adafruit.

Power: The Zero2Go board is an alternative to the Juiceb0x Zero. However, the Zero2Go can’t charge the battery. In either case, do not power the Pi from the onboard USB while the power solution board is attached.

Some people had success with using a small form-factor USB power bank connected to a Pi Zero without additional hardware.

Socially Distanced Ops, June 2020

Screenshot from the camera control computer

Tonight was the ops session we have been planning for the last few weeks. Since we are in the middle of a global pandemic, we decided to severely limit on-site attendance, institute social distancing, wearing masks, and try out remote participation.

Instead of the usual 10 – 15 session participants in the layout room, we had only four: A yardmaster for Nowheres, and three engineers. Plus one member for taking care of cameras, Internet, and streaming stuff. We also had three club members joining us remotely as engineers, and a remote dispatcher.

Remote control of our web-based layout panels and locomotives on the layout is easily accomplished using a VPN application that connects remote devices to the club network. EngineDriver’s automatic discovery of JMRI’s Withrottle Server doesn’t work over the VPN connection. Instead, remote participants need to enter IP and port number of the computer running JMRI manually. In our case 192.168.8.10, port 12090. The control and dispatcher web panels are available at http://192.168.8.10:3000 over the VPN connection as well.

Upacking technology

Over the course of the afternoon we installed cameras in the layout room. We used Foscam X1 security cameras, as well as old Android phones with the IP Webcam app. All four cameras were streaming video into OBS.

The four cameras were set up to cover as much of the layout room as we could pull off. The intent was to give remote operators maximum visibility of the main line, so that they get to see the trains they are running.

We also streamed from OBS to Youtube Live for some time during the session. Using the Present from window Google Meet feature worked for the video stream, but resulted in unacceptable latency for remote participants. We will need to try this again with the OBS VirtualCam plugin.

The control stand

On the left is the FRS Radio / Meet gateway. This old Dell laptop runs Linux and has separate microphone and head set plugs, with microphones taped to computer and headset speakers. The laptop in the middle runs OBS and acts as the hub for all the video streams, including broadcasting to Meet and Youtube Live. The laptop on the right was the control for the Youtube Live stream.

This was another step towards restarting operations at Silicon Valley Lines. Operations sessions as we know them will not be possible for a while. Some remote participation component will be needed for the time being.

The club Internet connection has 24 MBit/s downlink and 5 MBit/s uplink. We found that throughput on the uplink was very variable, and stopped the Youtube Live stream halfway through the session after downgrading quality multiple times to free up more bandwidth for Google Meet. That definitely resulted in improved video and audio quality with less artifacts.

IP Webcam did not work reliably on some phones, while it worked just fine on another phone.

Finally, we need to build a more compelling remote engineer experience. While the camera setup we used allows for an ok overview of the layout room, it very much has a security camera feel to it. We will try to make it more reliable, but even then it’s at best nice as a novelty.

What we really want to do is to put the remote engineer in the middle of the action. If you can’t be there, maybe with technology we can provide an experience that is not possible when standing in the layout room.

Stay tuned.