Tearing an old laptop apart to build a ground control station

Being tired of assembling and disassembling parts/cables every time he went outside to fly his plane, [Elad] figured that he’d be better off building his own ground control station.

The core of the station is based on an old laptop with a broken screen he had laying around and (luckily) an older laptop screen he had found. As the latter only accepted LVDS, an adapter that could generate theses signals from the standard laptop’s VGA output was needed. [Elad] therefore disassembled his laptop and fit all the parts in a Pelican case he bought, as well as a lead-acid battery, a 12V to 19V stepup converter (to power the laptop), temperature/voltage/current sensors with their displays, 40mm fans, an AC/DC converter to charge the battery and finally a pico-UPS to allow uninterrupted use of the station when switching between power sources.

Because [Elad] didn’t have access to any machinery, PVC foam was used to maintain all the parts in place. Autonomy of his station is around 2.5hours on a single 12V 7Ah battery.


  1. Most laptops use ~20V to reduce current but would work with the battery 13V+ or so. The step-up is probably not needed.

    • cybergibbons says:

      Laptops I have used (Dell, Lenovo, HP) all drop out at about 15V.

      • Sven says:

        Since the internal voltages are usually 5 and lower, many laptops can work around 12V, but since the charging circuit is a pure step-down it won’t charge the 13-18V (peak) batteries at those voltages.

        Some manufacturers with 3S batteries would of course shut down the whole unit if the voltage goes below possible charging voltage (15V sounds about right) but others allow the computer to keep running down to something like 10V (i really should test this out on some old craptops i have lying around)

  2. Pedro says:

    nothing to see here. just a pico psu pc with batteries and a case. how is this a hack?

    • Addidis says:

      I think it is awesome, what did you build that is cool?

      • Pedro says:

        I made the same thing just made myself a box instead of using a pelican one. I moulded a carbon fibre one to a tablet format. I also used a mini itx motherboard instead of a pico psu.
        My idea was to have a tablet with real high end notebook performance without spending much and to have an external pci-e connection for the gpu. I just unsoldered the motherboard I/O and used a pci-e extender to place it somewhere else to make it fit better and make things thinner.

        LVDS connection? it’s plug and play with cheap kits on ebay. same for the digitalizer.

        The tricky part was connecting the batteries to the psu etc but nothing really breakthrough.
        it’s similar to a car pc. it just has batteries, you could easily built it using an ups I used lifepo4 instead.
        I also had to take care of the cooling so I adapted a notebook cooler with heatpipes.

        pc + batteries + case what is the innovation here?
        I’ve seen all kind of modding in desktop cases. far more elaborated them just placing everything in a case. nothing to see here really.
        sensors LED etc and everything? since when making holes in foam is considered a hack?

      • supershwa says:

        Looks like Pedro burned ya. ;)

        • qwerty says:

          It seems over here that if you didn’t build anything cool you don’t have any rights to criticize others. Besides the clear lack of comprehension of basic freedom of expression concepts, I wonder what the world would have become if the first hacker ever couldn’t receive any criticism because of this nonsense.

    • BillP says:

      When did craftsmanship and ingenuity stop being appreciated on this site? This rocks Elad. Thanks for sharing.

      • Z00111111 says:

        I’m with you. Sure it could have been better, but what couldn’t be improved? I come to this site for inspiration, and this project, for me, definitely got my thought juices flowing.

        That and the guy hacked two dead laptops together with some other parts to make something cooler. Isn’t that pretty much the definition of “hack” from the title of this website

    • Hirudinea says:

      Pedro, vote for love!

    • Greenaum says:

      Did you not see all the other stuff in there? The sensors, the LED displays, and presumably the aerials are spliced in to allow computer control of his plane. Cooler than most laptops or radio controls.

  3. Smeeg says:

    Have fun travelling in the States with that.

    • Kompost says:

      LOL, that’s right :)
      I thought about doing something like this, only without sacrificing a laptop, since I use a capture card for FPV (and therefore need a reasonably fast one).

      My Thinkpad won’t work with 13V though, I think step-up is needed.

    • F says:

      Certainly you must be speaking of the Martian States or the various states of Delusion; I’ve been freely travelling in the United States for 50+ years carrying similar equipment with no problems whatsoever.

    • Sven says:

      Traveling IN the US wouldn’t be a problem, try traveling INTO the US with one of these though…

    • Analog says:

      I’ve walked through many airports in black jeans, black shirt, black trench, with a black fedora, carrying two duffel bags filled entirely with various electronics- not been stopped questioned or even given a sideways glance by security more than once- and the ONLY time i was stopped and questioned wasn’t because of the massive amount of hardware i was carrying or my appearance- it was by a reporter because my flight had an issue getting it’s landing gear up and wound up circling the airport it departed from for an hour and a half before landing again and disembarking. Questions were along the lines of ‘were you scared?’ ‘what did you think when you realized there was a problem with the plane’ etc. To be honest- from personal experience- i don’t think you’ll have much in the way of problems traveling.

      That all said, even though I’ve done similar builds- I still think this is a good post and I’d like to see more of it’s kind here on HaD. To paraphrase what another poster said before me: Since when does every post have to be something completely new? Craftsmanship and cool builds are also worth my time reading about- even if it’s something that isn’t entirely uncommon.

      • MRE says:

        How much of that was modded? I once went home (I live abroad) and while there the power socket on my laptop broke. I didn’t trust just soldering it back on (had already done so twice. The stresses kept breaking the solder joints). I replaced it with two thick wires terminating in a molex connector, and put the mate on my PSU.
        On my way OUT of the US I got stopped by TSA and interrogated for more than half an hour. During which I met two supervisors. My laptop was sent through the x ray three times and swabbed for explosives twice. I had to explain that the flux and cleanup residue on my fingers had likely transferred to the case.

        Eventually admitted they never had evidence of any sort of IED but were concerned about two wires hanging out of it.

        Had to send it to checked luggage (rushed to the airport store to buy a bag and lock).

        My plane was delayed 30 minutes. When you walk onto an 8 hour flight, having being the reason it was held. EVERYone looks at you.
        They went through every card and note in my wallet, eventually requesting a translator for Japanese stuff since I couldn’t be trusted.

        So your experience does not equal any but your own.

  4. _bobby_Tables_ says:

    Why didn’t he just use a series of 555s?

  5. Selden Vos VIII says:

    Sweet pretty Awesome Idea! No sloppy work!

  6. feuerrot says:

    Lipo would be lighter than the lead battery and requires only little more electronics. But otherwise this is a suitable hack for the use case.

    • F says:

      I think the whole idea of a “hack” is that you use the stuff in your garage, if you make a careful plan and purchase the “correct” parts then it’s not a “hack” any more.

      • Garbz says:

        No the idea of a hack is to make something using something else. Just because you buy a LiPo battery doesn’t make this any less of an awesome little command centre. By your definition half the stuff on this site wouldn’t be a hack because someone took a trip to the hardware store.

        • ColdTurkey says:

          I always thought a ‘good’ definition of “hack” was ‘Something that is modified to perform a function or have a use other than it was intended for”. Granted that also doesn’t cover half the stuff here but ‘builds’ are good too!

    • cybergibbons says:

      Much more expensive though – if the goal is cost or simplicity, lead acid wins.

      • Z00111111 says:

        That and a small lead acid doesn’t weigh that much. Even if this build came in at 15-20kg, lugging it from the car to the flight area isn’t going to be difficult. I can’t imagine he’d need to carry it more than a couple hundred metres at a time.

  7. cde says:

    By not looking into the laptop’s onboard regulation, they are wasting atleast 10~20% of their energy in stepping up the 12v to 19v just for it to be stepped back down.

  8. Brandon says:

    Ironically, this is one project that seems to be a practical application for a Raspberry Pi, unlike the rest of what they are used for on Hack A Day. A laptop seems like overkill for this application (although I doubt the software they are using is available or more unlikely, readily compiled for ARM-based GNU/Linux).

  9. Leif says:

    I’ve been thinking about building something like this with a breadboard, and buspirate built in. Instead of for flying planes it would be for prototyping. I could carry it between home and the hackerspace easily.

  10. Chris C. says:

    Slick and useful. I like it.

  11. F says:

    The keyboard in the picture is one of the best keyboards ever made. It’s one of the very very few with a built-in trackpad and THREE, THREE, yes THREE mouse buttons. I was very very sad when I found that IBM/Lenovo does not make them any more. The rubber springs in the mouse buttons wear out over time. I’ve worn out a whole pile of these keyboards and I can’t find any more.

    My comment to the lucky owner is to take good care of that keyboard.

    • ColdTurkey says:

      I love my SL510 keyboard (almost identical to picture) and I am too saddened to hear they don’t make them anymore. Not just the keyboard, the whole thing is rock solid! If I ever had to revive it from the dead in some way, this seems as good a way as any.

    • Leif says:

      Could those springs be replaced with sugaru?

    • Greenaum says:

      Shame that “taking care” involves not using it. I remember my old Thinkpad tho, brilliant machine, you could swap the CD / floppy with a second battery if you wanted. And the mouse-nipple is the greatest mouse-replacement ever, it’s possibly even better than a mouse. You can buy desktop keyboards with one included but they’re not cheap.

    • Sven says:

      At least the X220 and X230 has a touchpad, trackpoint and 3 buttons above the touchpad. (i have disabled the touchpad and am using only the trackpoint and 3 buttons, best solution ever for a laptop)

  12. truthspew says:

    I have an older laptop – I just keep repairing it when stuff eventually breaks. For example, the lamp finally died on the display after seven years. The screen still works but It was kind of critical so I bought a new screen/lamp/inverter and installed it. Pretty easy to do.

    • Hitek146 says:

      Is there a specific reason that you didn’t just replace the bad CFL bulb in the LCD?

      • truthspew says:

        Less of a hassle to just replace the whole thing. Extracting the bulb is somewhat destructive to the screen itself. Besides, I have the old LCD panel. I can tear it up and maybe throw some white LED’s in there, or maybe even get a big enough EL panel and put that behind it.

        • Hitek146 says:

          That’s true, it is a pain in the ass, but I have replaced dozens and only damaged one LCD.

          I, also, have a specific monitor I have been holding onto that needs a new CFL lamp, but am waiting to replace the backlight with an LED system. I’m still trying to figure out why the manufacturers didn’t start using white LEDs earlier, since they have been around for quite some time….

          • truthspew says:

            Yeah – LED’s have a longer life than CFL. I have also repaired my Element TV – the power supply went. I did the math and figured out the expense of all new caps versus plus labor and it came out more than just ordering a new power supply board.

  13. surfingthetubes says:

    Best laptop mod ever.

  14. LK says:

    If you like those builds, check out diydrones.com. I saw that GC station there some months ago

  15. nicholas says:

    this looks like it came directly out of a movie!

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