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steppenwolf

A Fully Automated Imaging Observatory - WIP

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A FULLY ROBOTIC IMAGING OBSERVATORY

Introduction

The Chanctonbury Observatory has operated from a 2.1metre diameter, Pulsar glass fibre, domed observatory since July 2005 and this installation has transformed the enjoyment of deep sky imaging. Astro-photographers in the UK are plagued with poor weather conditions and before the installation of the observatory I had numerous sessions cut short by clouds rolling in, sometimes even before I had taken a single image! With set-up times of typically 40 minutes or more, this was a very frustrating experience and having to strip everything back down again with no positive result only added to the misery.
    With the installation of the original Pulsar observatory, set up time for imaging was dramatically reduced to around 10 minutes from disarming the alarm and opening the dome to starting the first image of the sequence. Naturally, an observatory doesn’t stop the clouds forming but when they do, it takes just a couple of minutes to park the mount, close down the software, switch off, lock up and re-arm the security systems!
    This system has served me very well for 10 years and could continue to do so for a long time to come but in the quest for better quality images, longer exposures and more of them are required. This requires more time at the telescope to respond to changes in focus during extended imaging sessions. It also entails carrying out a meridian flip as the norm rather than waiting for objects to pass the meridian before imaging them or starting to image objects as they climb with a view to ending the session at their culmination. The occasional extended imaging session is fun but there is a limit to the number of such sessions that can be run consecutively when all the other things in my busy life have to be taken into account. With a standard observatory dome, as well as the session management, it is also necessary to nudge the dome section around every 20 minutes or so to ensure that the telescope is correctly aligned with the observatory’s aperture slit. None of this is a hardship but it does limit the number of hours that can be devoted to imaging.
    I have often read with envy the reports of long imaging sessions being undertaken while the astro-photographer is asleep – something that open air imagers and owners of roll-off-roof observatories can more easily accomplish providing they are prepared to risk the arrival of rainfall. Personally, I am not prepared to take that risk with my valuable equipment!
    After autoguiding (a must for all long exposure imaging), autofocusing is the next step in automation and I have been late to the party with this. However, having recently installed a SharpSky Pro autofocus system, the subject of remote imaging cropped up and for a brief while I did contemplate renting space from an overseas hosting site and operating my own imaging equipment over the Internet. This would have two benefits; no long nights out in the cold and far better skies than I currently enjoy in the UK. The downside was that in additional to a not inconsiderable initial financial outlay plus an ongoing annual charge, for most of the time my hard-won imaging equipment would be out of my physical reach. I determined that to lose this was too high a price for me to pay as I do get a lot of pleasure from handling and fettling my mount, telescope and cameras.
    Having had that fleeting thought, however, it occurred to me that a robotically controlled observatory closer to home would have all the advantages of the original idea with the exception of better weather (which is not categorically guaranteed by being abroad anyway!). Thus was born this project – a fully robotic imaging observatory based in the UK.
    However, there is a distinction to be drawn between ‘remote’ and ‘unattended’ operation and my main interest here in the UK is unattended operation, although I also intend this project to be a test-bed for a fully remotely operated observatory.

Design Goals

1. A domed observatory with aperture slit rather than a roll-off -roof design.
2. Compatibility with my existing mount, telescopes and cameras.
3. Minimum visual intrusion whilst allowing for manned operation when required.
4. A high degree of intruder protection.

System Requirements

1. Remote set-up of every aspect of an imaging session with the exception of polar alignment as this is a procedure that would only need to be carried out occasionally and most likely after a maintenance visit.
2. Automated detection and response to weather changes both positive and negative with automatic start-up and closedown as required including automatic dome aperture control.
3. Automated session start at a pre-determined time or after a specific celestial event like moonset or an object reaching a certain altitude.
4. Automated closedown, including mount parking, at a pre-determined time or after a specific celestial event like moonrise or an object sinking to a certain altitude.
5. Automated meridian flip with plate-solving to ensure correct registration.
6. Autofocusing at the start of each session, at several points during the course of an imaging session, with temperature change, between filter changes and after a meridian flip.
7. Automated guide star acquisition and calibration.
8. Automated plate solving to ensure extremely accurate telescope placement both at the start of a session following a slew and after a meridian flip or focusing detour.
9. Automated dome rotation at sidereal rate with compensation to shadow the mount movement, allowing for the complex geometry of an equatorial mount but allowing decoupling during meridian flips to avoid unnecessary mount movement.
10. Automated email notification of error situations, task completions and intrusion alerts.
11. Automated dew control for telescope optics during an imaging session and for all equipment following an imaging session using a dehumidifier.

Software Requirements

1. An executive program to control all aspects of unattended operation. The executive software must address all the features detailed in the system requirements list above.
2. As an established MaxIm DL user it is important that any executive software should be compatible with this software.
3. MaxIm DL ships with PinPoint LE for plate solving so compatibility with the light version of PinPoint would be useful to save the purchase of the full PinPoint product.
4. An existing autofocus solution in the form of SharpSky Pro and FocusMax has just been implemented so any executive software should be compatible with this software/hardware.
5. Existing mount control is centred around the ASCOM platform using Cartes du Ciel and this ideally should be maintained.

There are several popular executive programs available but these five interested me the most:-

CCDAutopilot (CCDAP) ($295.00 - £198.00)

Compatible with MaxIm DL. Supports cloud sensors. Supports ASCOM for mount control. Compatible with FocusMax. The full version of PinPoint is required for plate solving.

An attractive choice, more expensive than most and doesn’t offer anything extra that I need.

Astronomer’s Control Panel (ACP) (from $695.00 - £462.00)

Compatible with MaxIm DL but the full version of PinPoint is required for plate solving. Compatible with FocusMax. Supports ASCOM for mount control. Supports cloud sensors.

For my purposes, ACP is too costly and doesn’t offer anything extra that I need but it does have built in support for web access, resolving one element of the test-bed part of the project.

Sequence Generator Pro (SGP) ($99.00 - £66.00)

Has its own well established focus routine. Supports ASCOM for mount control. The full version of PinPoint is required for plate solving although there are other (free) plate solve options. Does not support MaxIm DL. Does not support cloud sensors. Edited 31/03/15

SGP is very popular and in use by astro-photographers whose opinions I would trust but incompatibility with MaxIm DL is too high a price for me to pay.

Software Bisque Orchestrate (Orchestrate) ($99.00 – £66.00)

Requires The SkyX software for mount control and ASCOM compatibility. CCDSoft CCD Astronomy Software required for camera control. Supports cloud sensors.

Orchestrate would require the extra cost of The SkyX (although Orchestrate is bundled with The SkyX Professional!!) and CCDSoft CCD for all the control that I require.

CCD Commander (CCDC) ($99.00 - £66.00)

Compatible with MaxIm DL and the light version of PinPoint although the full version is recommended. Compatible with FocusMax. Supports ASCOM for mount control but does not directly support Cartes du Ciel. For fully automated focus star selection, The SkyX Professional is required. Supports cloud sensors.

Full integration with MaxIm DL and no additional software costs for all the functions I actually require with the exception of automated focus star selection, makes this a very compelling choice.

Additional software costs involved with the above options where applicable:-

PinPoint (full version)    $149.00 -   £99.00
The SkyX Professional  $329.00 - £219.00
CCDSoft CCD               $199.00 - £132.00
MaxIm DL Pro               $499.00 - £331.00
FocusMax                     FOC

I have, perhaps unsurprisingly, opted for CCD Commander having had several exchanges of emails with Matt Thomas, the software writer, to give me a feel for the quality of software support available should it be required.

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The Observatory Choice

My first thoughts were to automate my existing Pulsar Observatory as this is in excellent condition and currently suits all my current requirements. I already have a plan for making the mount track at sidereal rate (but not to shadow the movement of the mount). I believe that I could also modify Pulsar Observatories’ ‘Rigel’ mount control system to work with the existing observatory but it would be simpler to install a complete solution from Pulsar so that is what I have decided to do.
    The existing groundwork and pier will not require any modifications to accommodate the updated observatory so all that is entailed is a simple swap-out of the old with the new.
    The original observatory was a constantly evolving project and I never did install a coherent mains electricity system. Although the whole observatory was protected by an RCD (Residual Current Device) in an adjacent outbuilding, the individual components were connected to a series of extension leads on extension leads which is quite at odds with the way in which I normally do things! This was all perfectly safe but not an ideal situation. The new observatory will have its own consumer unit and RCD with a properly structured cabling system within the observatory.

Autofocus

It was autofocus that started this whole project off but the implementation of a SharpSky Pro autofocus system has been very successful as a preliminary step into the world of automation. The support from Dave Trewren, the designer of the system has been exemplary and I could not be more pleased with the quality of the components and the functionality that they bring. The SharpSky Pro system also utilises automatic filter offsets to compensate for filters not being parfocal and has full temperature compensation built in to allow for expansion and contraction of the telescope with changes in temperature.
    CCD Commander interfaces with the autofocus system via the popular FocusMax software. This software has a distinct advantage over similar products in that although it builds a profile for the focuser using ‘V’ curves, the focus position is calculated based on an out-of-focus position. The advantage of this is that a greater degree of focus change can be determined from an out of focus star than from a nearly in focus star making true focus more accurate to find.

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Weather Monitoring

A surprise birthday present in the form of an AAG CloudWatcher system has brought forward plans for full weather monitoring. This comprehensive system will keep an eye on the formation of clouds and the risk and detection of actual rain. In the event of strong winds, rain or cloudy skies, the imaging sequence will be paused and the dome aperture closed automatically. An improvement in the weather will open the aperture and continue the imaging sequence where it left off. Other events like full darkness or the arrival of dawn can also be detected, triggering a suitable response from the system.

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Automated Flat Calibration File Generation

I have designed a combined dust cover/electroluminescent (EL) panel that will automatically cap the telescope, turn on the built in EL panel and take a set of ‘Flats’ between automated filter changes or, if appropriate, when it is cloudy during an imaging session. The system uses a simple servo controller and a digital servo to swing the cap into place and then open it fully afterwards.

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This is as far as I have got so far as I now await the delivery of the Pulsar Observatory.

........TO BE CONTINUED
 

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Great write up Steve, (although you are a bit of a dab hand at this). :smiley:

Somehow I think this will a popular thread, pulling all the info together like this. Took me quite a while to untangle the options & working out if this will work with that when I was researching mine.

I would like to say, that I do think setting up automation for a UK based Obsy has its own challenges with our weather systems. Depending on what level of automation you are happy to achieve. Now this is something I hadn't appreciated until I tried this. If you don't mind me going on a bit I'll explain. I would like to clarify "Fully Automated" as it has different meanings to people. It also helps to explain the wildly differing costs between the software.

 When we think "Automation" there's quite a variation of an individuals expectation of how much user input will be required. When I tested with some of the options listed, it became clear that the fickle nature of our weather (well, up here in Scotland anyway) would cut short the majority of sessions due to a few minutes of bad weather. With all of the software options listed (as far as I could work out) ALL of them will require user intervention to restart the session once they have shut down & made safe the Obsy. So, what do you do if you want to make the most of a totally clear night apart from that 10 minutes of cloud passing over, 5 minutes after you went to bed, that killed the guiding & closed the roof? Well, there are ways you can set an alarm system to wake you. Or you can just get up & check at periods through the night. I'm sure our other halfs wouldn't mind being woken up :eek: life's too short for sleep anyway. Well, I know mine would be even shorter if I woke her up!

As far as I could tell there's only two "off the shelf" products that can handle the repeated stop & starts of the good 'ol British weather. That's  CCDAutopilot or ACP Scheduler (Note. It's the Scheduler add on in conjunction with ACP. NOT the standard ACP as mentioned). I never got around to trying CCDAutopilot because I tried ACP first & it did what I wanted.

Sorry to go on a bit, I felt it important to get this over as I invested time (a year or so) & money going about things the wrong way to maximise sky time (triple shooter) in my opinion. I hope it's useful to others. I do believe Automation is the way to go for any serious imager with an Obsy.

Incidentally, talking of weather. The AAG_CloudWatcher is a great bit of kit. Having run mine for about a year now I think perhaps the British climate requires it needs a bit of tweaking to get right, especially noticeable as the seasons change.

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Compelling reading and much food for thought here. I will follow with closely!

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I would like to clarify "Fully Automated" as it has different meanings to people. It also helps to explain the wildly differing costs between the software.

Sp@ce_d, thank you for your comprehensive response and on the subject of thanks, to my embarrassment, although I had their names on 'notepad' ready for insertion, I forgot to paste the following: I'd like to thank the following SGL members for their contributions to my project so far DMahon, Libraryman, Martin-Devon, mhard26339, Mick J, nigelg, Russel HQ and Sp@ce_d. My apologies if I have missed anyone but I have been mulling this whole thing over for a while now .......

You are, of course, quite right that 'automation' means different things to different people and I allude to the distinction between 'remote' and 'unattended' operation in my piece above but there are further levels to be considered.

I'm particularly interested in your comments about re-starting a session as to the best of my knowledge, CCD Commander will do this as I require but, I need all the help I can get with this project so I'm listening! I will look into this in more detail later and draft a more complete response. Currently I have this all working in simulator mode with the AAG CloudWatcher closing the simulator dome but with the unit indoors, I am unable to simulate a 'clear sky' to make it re-open the dome and restarting the imaging session. Although CCD Commander *should* be able to make it happen there could well be some nuance that I have missed. I will be making full use of the 45 day trial period before I finally commit to the software.

If I may, I'd also like to explore the settings for the AAG unit for the UK (I believe that they arrive here with typical settings for Spain?) although you and I couldn't be farther apart as I am only 10 miles from the south coast of England!

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Just a quick reply for now as supposed to be working [emoji4]

When I evaluated CCDComander it was against SGPro & at the time I was more interested in getting the multi imager setup working. With the promise of dual dither support in a future release of SGPro I went down that route. So you may be right. I'll need to have another look although I don't recall it being obvious.. Maybe some scripting required?

You can simulate any weather conditions by going into the "unsafe" tab in the AAG software & clicking/selecting what u want to open/close the relay. You can unselect all if you need to. All you are doing is setting what conditions open & close the relay. Happy to share & help with settings.

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk

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Just a quick reply for now as supposed to be working emoji4.png

Me too, hence my brief reply earlier  - thanks for your continued input.

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Sp@ce_d, thank you for your comprehensive response and on the subject of thanks, to my embarrassment, although I had their names on 'notepad' ready for insertion, I forgot to paste the following: I'd like to thank the following SGL members for their contributions to my project so far DMahon, Libraryman, Martin-Devon, mhard26339, Mick J, nigelg, Russel HQ and Sp@ce_d. My apologies if I have missed anyone but I have been mulling this whole thing over for a while now .......

You are, of course, quite right that 'automation' means different things to different people and I allude to the distinction between 'remote' and 'unattended' operation in my piece above but there are further levels to be considered.

I'm particularly interested in your comments about re-starting a session as to the best of my knowledge, CCD Commander will do this as I require but, I need all the help I can get with this project so I'm listening! I will look into this in more detail later and draft a more complete response. Currently I have this all working in simulator mode with the AAG CloudWatcher closing the simulator dome but with the unit indoors, I am unable to simulate a 'clear sky' to make it re-open the dome and restarting the imaging session. Although CCD Commander *should* be able to make it happen there could well be some nuance that I have missed. I will be making full use of the 45 day trial period before I finally commit to the software.

If I may, I'd also like to explore the settings for the AAG unit for the UK (I believe that they arrive here with typical settings for Spain?) although you and I couldn't be farther apart as I am only 10 miles from the south coast of England!

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the mention in the "credits", a pleaseure, I will follow your project with great interest!

Regards

Mike

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Good stuff. Hope it all gets going nicely! I still watch in bemused wonder as the Per/Yves/Grinde/Jeff/Woodsie shed suddenly springs to life in our back field. On occasion it scares the life out of me when I have my back to it (I don't know exactly what a wild boar contemplating a charge really sounds like at close quarters...)

Olly

Edited by ollypenrice
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Steve

You may want to also consider something like http://www.scorptec.com.au/product/Networking_-_Wired/IP_Power/38561-9258HP for the remote management of power.. (sorry to add to your cost base!)

Also, a good thread here which may have some other nuggets... http://www.iceinspace.com.au/forum/archive/index.php/t-108878.html

And I have just acquired the cloud watcher so will be interested in findings from you and others...

HTH

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Thanks for the mention in the "credits", a pleaseure, I will follow your project with great interest!

Your answers to my questions were much appreciated - thanks!

(I don't know exactly what a wild boar contemplating a charge really sounds like at close quarters...)

You can never be too careful up in the hills at night, Olly .....

You may want to also consider something like http://www.scorptec....er/38561-9258HP for the remote management of power.. (sorry to add to your cost base!)

Thanks for that, Daz as you are the second person to recommend one, I must take note! I have experimented in the past with one of these much cheaper units and it was very handy in tests BUT the first one arrived rattling with broken lugs within and the replacement had an intermittent USB connection to I returned it, lesson learned - an IP controlled power switch at greater cost seems like a much better idea. Daz, now that you have met Jane, perhaps you should tell her about this additional 'must have'? :grin: :grin:

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ADDITIONAL NOTE 1 - Additional information regarding AAG CloudWatcher and CCD Commander for those interested in this project:-

AAG CloudWatcher issue with the latest version of CCD Commander (v 1.7.4)

Although previous version of CCD Commander (CCD Com) have been completely compatible with the AAG CloudWatcher software, something changed in CCD C v1.7.4 that caused connection issues. There is, however, a very stable workaround comprising a two part solution.

Part 1

1. Install AAG CloudWatcher from the company's download site as normal

2. Download the following AAG CloudWatcher executable file: http://lunatico.es/aagcw/AAG_CloudWatcher.exe

3. Replace the current exe file in Program Files\AAG_CloudWatcher with the new downloaded exe file. Launch the CloudWatcher software, go to the Setup/Network tab and select a new folder (e.g. C:\AAG CloudWatcher) for the CCDAutoPilot4 data file (the original installation folder is now protected in recent Windows versions).

4. Run CCD Com, select ‘AAG CW Remote’ and point it to the AAG_CCDAP4.dat file in the new folder.

Part 2

It is important to note that AAG CloudWatcher must be loaded and logging data before loading CCD Com. The following VBScript called ‘autostart_CloudWatcher.vbs’ will run the software and start the logging procedure:-

Dim oCW
set oCW = CreateObject("AAG_CloudWatcher.CloudWatcher")
oCW.Device_Start()
oCW.RecordStart False
Set oCW=nothing

A second VBscript called ‘autoclose_CloudWatcher.vbs’ can be used to cancel AAG CloudWatcher logging prior to closing down:-

Dim oCW
set oCW = CreateObject("AAG_CloudWatcher.CloudWatcher")
oCW.Device_Stop()
Set oCW=nothing

I wrote two batch files that work in tandem to start and end a CCD Com session:-

( a ) start_CCDcommander_and_AAG.bat This batch file should be set to ‘Run Minimised’ using the properties dialogue. The batch file will also wait for CCD Commander to close and will then turn off AAGCloudWatcher logging and close AAGCloudWatcher down.

: Start AAG_CloudWatcher executable
cd\AAG CloudWatcher
autostart_CloudWatcher.vbs
: Start CCD Commander and wait for it to close
start /wait "" "C:\ccd commander\CCDCommander.exe
: Run AAG_CloudWatcher batch file to close down after CCD Commander has closed
close_AAG_CloudWatcher.bat
:Exit this batch file
exit

( b ) close_AAG_CloudWatcher.bat

:Stop AAG CloudWatcher logging
autoclose_CloudWatcher.vbs
:Close AAG CloudWatcher
tskill AAG_CloudWatcher
 

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With all of the software options listed (as far as I could work out) ALL of them will require user intervention to restart the session once they have shut down & made safe the Obsy. So, what do you do if you want to make the most of a totally clear night apart from that 10 minutes of cloud passing over, 5 minutes after you went to bed, that killed the guiding & closed the roof?

I collected the following information from the CCD Commander website which would seem to indicate that the requirement for re-opening the dome and re-starting the imaging session without user intervention is met with this software. I will need to run another simulation and will use the method you suggested for changing the simulation conditions - so thanks for that! Here's the article and a screenshot of the Weather Monitoring set-up:-

When the Cloud Sensor is coupled to CCD Commander, the Cloud Monitor starts automatically in the background when you push the Start Action button. As soon as CCD Commander detects one of the non-clear conditions selected it will pause your Action List - parking the mount if desired. In addition you can select independantly the conditions under which CCD Commander should close your dome to protect your equipment.

After the skies clear for the specified period of time, CCD Commander will automatically open the dome (if it was closed), unpark the mount and bring it back to the original target (if it was parked) and resume the action list at the next action in the list!

This functionality is perfect for survey work and to prevent taking images of Earth-based clouds!

post-1029-0-68956800-1427749881.png

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Steve,

I'll distract Jane with Hog Roast and wine, while you mumble about a needed IP-thingy that Daz says you need... I have broad shoulders :)

Do I assume that the definitions of 'clear' or 'dark' are set within the AAG application?

(I have yet to install & play with mine...)

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Do I assume that the definitions of 'clear' or 'dark' are set within the AAG application?

(I have yet to install & play with mine...)

Yes they are.

I don't know if Steve also supplied the driver software but the latest version is v7.2.100 and was released in Feb 2013.

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SGP does support cloudsensors :)

Can you point me to where in their documentation this is noted as I couldn't find any reference to it but I might easily have missed it!

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Steve

It's in the latest version...

Tools -> Equipment Profile Manager -> Other

There is now an option for weather station...

I don't have ASCOM or the AAG installed on this machine, so can't help with any other settings at the moment...

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OK, whizzed down ASCOM and installed...

Once you have set up the equipment profile, go to your sequence.

On the right hand side is the equipment to connect - Camera, Filter, Focuser and Telescope. Underneath is a thin button with an arrow. Click this and an additional panel opens to allow you to select other equipment:

Flat Box, Rotator, Observatory, Weather Station.

You then click the spanner to set the parameters - I don't have the driver for the AAG installed, so can't see these.

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Excellent, Daz thank you for the additional information. I'll update my original post to reflect this new-found knowledge! For my purposes, it doesn't make a difference though as unless they have made another change, MaxIm DL is still not supported - it is, however, a very powerful package and I can see why many people use it.

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Indeed.

I shall be upgrading my version at home in the next few days and then start testing with my AAG. It will be sometime before I get to automate the roof, but something like a loud hailer going off will be just fine for now

:D :D :D

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but something like a loud hailer going off will be just fine for now

The built in relay will do that nicely for you :grin: :grin:

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Can you point me to where in their documentation this is noted as I couldn't find any reference to it but I might easily have missed it!

ER..... yeah.... i read on it on the forum, its to do with the weatherstation and the file the aag can generate and telling sgp via the right ascom divice to read that file. (sorry its vague i cant recall where i looked)

I select from the menu "Weather stn:"Ascom Boltwood OK to Open

However if all your interested in is emergancy shut the aag will do this in a standalone way.

Where i woudl ultimalty like it to be is....

Able to check the weather in real time and image if its doable from a predefined set of targets, for which i belive ACP is the way to go. I do belive this is ultimatly the right piece of software. (Personal Expert as you need to schedual)

http://acp.dc3.com/stvideo.html

Edited by Earl

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Steve Im really keen to see how you get on with doing this, I have had nothing but trouble with all the automation, and equipment, a sane person would of chucked the towel in ages ago however ill be damned if i give in now !!!

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