Hackaday Prize Entry: A Linear CCD Breakout

Linear CCDs are an exceptionally cool component. They can be used for DIY spectrometers, and if you’re feeling very adventurous, a homemade version of those crappy handheld scanners of the early 90s. Linear CCDs don’t see much use around these parts, though, which makes [esben]’s Hackaday Prize entry very cool. He’s building a breakout to make using these linear CCDs easier.

A linear CCD module looks like an overgrown DIP chip with a glass window right on top of a few thousand pixels laid out in a straight line. The data from these pixels isn’t output as a series of ones and zeros, though: its old school, and the data this CCD produces is analog. This means reading light from one of these modules requires a fast microcontroller with a good ADC.

For this project, [esben] is using a Nucleo F401RE, a development board built around an STM32F4 microcontroller. This processor is fast enough to read the data off its 12 bit ADC, and store all three thousand pixels. Now the problem is getting this data off the microcontroller and onto some storage. With a UART limited to 230kB/s, each ‘frame’ of the CCD takes 300ms to transfer to a computer. [esben] really wishes that could be done a little faster, so he’s trying to hack the DMA controller to do his bidding. It looks like [esben] is on track to make a fast interface for a very common linear CCD, which means more cool tools and toys for all of us.

You May Have a Nixie Tube Clock, but Can Yours Levitate?

Nixie tubes, electromagnets, levitation, and microcontrollers — this project has “Hackaday” written all over it!

Time Flies: Levitating Nixie Clock comes from [Tony Adams], and uses a lot of technology we’ve seen before, but in a new and interesting way. A nixie tube clock is nothing new, but using electromagnets to levitate it above a base certainly paired with inductive coupling to transmit power using no wires make this floating nixie build a real treat.

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Hackaday Links: July 31, 2016

Going to DEF CON this week? Getting into Vegas early? We’re having a meetup on Wednesday, in the middle of the day, in the desert. It’s all going down at the grave of James T. Kirk. Rumor has it, the Metrons will abduct a few of us and make us fight to the death on a planet with impossible geology.

The Hara Arena is closing down. The Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio is the home of Hamvention, the largest gathering of amateur radio enthusiasts in the US. I was there last May, and I can assure you, the Hara Arena has fallen into a state of disrepair. The ARRL reports hamvention will be at a new venue next year. The last scheduled event, after which there will be an auction for venue equipment and furniture, will be on August 27th. It’ll be a comic book and toy show.

Hackaday.io has a log of projects. Some might say it has too many projects. The search is great, but sometimes you just want to look at a random project. That’s the problem [Greg] solved with his Hackaday.io randomizer. It returns a random Hackaday.io project, allowing you to gawk at all the boards and resistors found within.

Primitive Technology is a YouTube channel you should watch. It’s a guy (who doesn’t talk), building everything starting with pre-stone age technology. He built a house with a heated floor, somewhat decent pottery, and this week he entered the iron age. The latest video shows him building a squirrel cage fan out of clay and bark to smelt iron. The ore was actually iron-bearing bacteria, mixed with charcoal and wood ash, and placed into a crude but accurate smelting furnace. The end result is a few bb-sized grains of iron and a lot of melted flux. That’s not much, and is certainly not an accurate portrayal of what was being done 5,000 years ago, but it does mean the Internet’s favorite guy in the woods has entered the iron age while completely skipping over bronze.

Freeside Atlanta says they’re the largest hackerspace on the east coast, and to show off all the cool goings on, they made a walk through video.

Hackaday has a retro edition. It’s a wide selection of Hackaday posts presented in a format without JavaScript, CSS, ads, or any other Web 2.0 cruft. There’s an open challenge for anyone to load the retro site with a 4004 CPU. I know it can be done, but no one has presented evidence of doing it. [Lukas] just sent in his retro submission with a Z80 single board computer displaying some of the page on seven-segment displays. It’s basically a terminal emulator connected to a laptop that does most of the work, but this is the most minimal retro submission we’ve ever received.

Blindingly Fast ADC for Your BeagleBone

[Jason Holt] wrote in to tell about of the release of his PRUDAQ project. It’s a dual-channel 10-bit ADC cape that ties into the BeagleBone’s Programmable Realtime Units (PRUs) to shuttle through up to as much as 20 megasamples per second for each channel. That’s a lot of bandwidth!

The trick is reading the ADC out with the PRUs, which are essentially a little bit of programmable logic that’s built on to the board. With a bit of PRU code, the data can be shuttled out of the ADC and into the BeagleBone’s memory about as fast as you could wish. Indeed, it’s too fast for the demo code that [Jason] wrote, which can’t even access the RAM that fast. Instead, you’ll want to use custom kernel drivers from the BeagleLogic project (that we’ve covered here before).

But even then, if you don’t want to process the data onboard, you’ve got to get it out somehow. 100 mbit Ethernet gets you 11.2 megabytes per second, and a cherry-picked flash drive can save something like 14-18 megabytes per second. But the two 10-bit ADCs, running full-bore at 20 megasamples per second each, produces something like 50-80 megabytes per second. Point is, PRUDAQ is producing a ton of data.

So what is this cape useful for? It’s limited to the two-volt input range of the ADCs — you’ll need to precondition signals for use as a general-purpose oscilloscope. You can also multiplex the ADCs, allowing for eight inputs, but of course not at exactly the same time. But two channels at high bandwidth would make a great backend for a custom SDR setup, for instance. Getting this much ADC bandwidth into a single-board computer is an awesome trick that used to cost thousands of dollars.

We asked [Jason] why he built it, and he said he can’t tell us. It’s a Google Research project, so let the wild conjecture-fest begin!

Escalating To CNC Through Proxxon’s Tool Line

Proxxon is a mostly German maker of above average micro tools. They do sell a tiny milling machine in various flavors, from manual to full CNC. [Goran Mahovlić] did not buy that. He did, however, combine their rotary tool accessory catalog into a CNC mill.

Owning tools is dangerous. Once you start, there’s really no way to stop. This is clearly seen with Goran’s CNC machine. At first happiness for him was a small high speed rotary tool. He used it to drill holes in PCBs.

In a predictable turn of events, he discovered drilling tiny holes in PCBs by hand is tedious and ultimately boring. So he purchased the drill press accessory for his rotary tool.

Life was good for a while. He had all the tools he needed, but… wouldn’t it be better if he could position the holes more quickly. He presumably leafed through a now battered and earmarked Proxxon catalog and ordered the XY table.

A realization struck. Pulling a lever and turning knobs! Why! This is work for a robot, not a man! So he pestered his colleague for help and they soon had the contraption under CNC control.

We’d like to say that was the end of it, and that [Goran] was finally happy, but he recently converted his frankenmill to a 3D printer. We’ve seen this before. It won’t be long before he’s cleaning out his garage to begin the restoration and ultimate CNC conversion of an old knee mill. Videos after the break.

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The Tiny Radio Telescope

Radio telescopes are one of the more high-profile pieces of scientific apparatus. There is an excitement to stories of radio astronomers of old probing the mysteries of the Universe on winter nights in frigid cabins atop massive parabolas, even if nowadays their somewhat more fortunate successors do the same work from the comfort of their labs using telescopes that may be on the other side of the world.

You might think if you look at the Arecibo Observatory, Lovell Telescope, or other famous pieces of apparatus, that this is Big Science, out of reach for mere mortals such as yourself without billion-dollar research programs. Maybe [Paul Scott] and [Allen Versfeld]’s Tiny Radio Telescope project will change that view.

The NRAO published a radio telescope design a few years ago for use mainly as an educational tool, the Itty Bitty Telescope. It used a satellite TV dish and LNB feeding a signal meter as a simple telescope to detect the Sun, and black body radiation from the surrounding objects. It’s a simple design for kids to get their heads around, and [Scott] and [Allen] have set out to turn it into something more useful with an RTL-SDR instead of a signal meter and a motorised mount for automated observations.

This is one of those projects on Hackaday.io that moves slowly but you know will eventually deliver on its promise. With a 1m dish and a consumer LNB it’s never going to make a discovery that will rock the world, but that’s not the point. It may be science that the astrophysicists moved on from decades ago, but it’s still quite an achievement that the radio sky can be imaged using such mundane equipment.

We’ve featured backyard radio astronomy before a few times, from this UHF school science project to another satellite TV based telescope. Keep them coming!

A thank you to Southgate ARC for the prod.

Taking the Converted PC PSU Bench Supply a Step Further

A quality bench power supply is essential for electronics work. Nobody wants to go through the trouble of digging through their electronics bin just to find a wall wart with the right output. And, even if you were so inclined, it would be folly to assume that its output would actually be clean.

You could, of course, purchase a purpose-built bench power supply. But, this is Hackaday, and I’m sure many of you would rather build one yourself from an inexpensive PC power supply. Normally, you’d do this by separating out the different voltage lines into useful groups, such as 12V, 5V, and 3.3V. [Supercap2f] wanted to take this a step further, both to get a more useful unit and to practice his PCB-making.

His design uses a custom circuit design to fuse the circuits, and to provide some basic logic. Using the LCD display, you can see which lines are powered on. There is even a simple 3D printed cover to keep everything neat and tidy. [Supercap2f] has posted all of the design files, so you can build one of these yourself. We’ve seen similar builds in the past, but this is another nice one that anyone with the ability to etch PCBs can build.