Adding an External Antenna to the Raspberry Pi Zero W

Putting a complete WiFi subsystems on a single-board computer is no mean feat, and on as compact a board as the Zero W, it’s quite an achievement. The antenna is the tricky part, since there’s only so much you can do with copper traces.

The new Raspberry Pi Zero W’s antenna is pretty innovative, but sometimes you need an external antenna to reach out and touch someone. Luckily, adding an external antenna to the Zero W isn’t that tough at all, as [Brian Dorey] shows us. The Pi Zero W’s designers thoughtfully included solder pads for an ultra-miniature surface-mount UHF jack. The jack pads are placed very close to the long, curving trace that acts as a feedline to the onboard antenna. There’s even a zero ohm SMT resistor that could be repositioned slightly to feed RF to the UHF jack. A little work with a soldering iron and [Brian]’s Pi was connected to an external antenna.

[Brian] includes test data, but aside from a few outliers, the external antenna doesn’t seem to offer a huge advantage, at least under his test conditions. This speaks to the innovative design of the antenna, which [Roger Thornton] from the Raspberry Pi Foundation discussed during last week’s last week’s Hack Chat. Check out the archive for that and more.

Thanks to [theEngineer] for the tip.

Nvidia Announces Jetson TX2 High Performance Embedded Module

The last year has been great for Nvidia hardware. Nvidia released a graphics card using the Pascal architecture, 1080s are heating up server rooms the world over, and now Nvidia is making yet another move at high-performance, low-power computing. Today, Nvidia announced the Jetson TX2, a credit-card sized module that brings deep learning to the embedded world.

The Jetson TX2 is the follow up to the Jetson TX1. We took a look at it when it was released at the end of 2015, and the feelings were positive with a few caveats. The TX1 is still a very fast, very capable, very low power ARM device that runs Linux. It’s low power, too. The case Nvidia was trying to make for the TX1 wasn’t well communicated, though. This is ultimately a device you attach several cameras to and run OpenCV. This is a machine learning module. Now it appears Nvidia has the sales pitch for their embedded platform down.

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VGA Without A Microcontroller

One of the most challenging projects you could ever do with an 8-bit microcontroller is generating VGA signals. Sending pixels to a screen requires a lot of bandwidth, and despite thousands of hackers working for decades, generating VGA on an 8-bit microcontroller is rarely as good as a low-end video card from twenty years ago.

Instead of futzing around with microcontrollers, [Marcel] had a better idea: why not skip the microcontroller entirely? He’s generating VGA frames from standard logic chips and big ‘ol EEPROMs. It works, and it looks good, too.

VGA signals are just lines and frames, with RGB pixel values stuffed in between horizontal sync pulses, and frames stuffed between vertical sync pulses. If you already know what you want to display, all you have to do is pump the right bits out through a VGA connector fast enough. [Marcel] is doing this by saving images on two parallel EEPROMs, sending the output through a buffer, through a simple resistor DAC, and out through a VGA connector. The timing is handled by a few 74-series four-bit counters, and the clock is a standard 25.175 MHz crystal.

There’s not much to this build, and the entire circuit was assembled on a breadboard. Still, with the clever application of Python to generate the contents of the ROM, [Marcel] was able to build something that displays eight separate images without using a microcontroller.

 

Open Source Firmware For A Cheap Programmable Power Supply

A few months ago, someone clued us in on a neat little programmable power supply from the usual Chinese retailers. The DPS5005 is a programmable power supply that takes power from a big AC to DC wall wart and turns it into a tiny bench-top power supply. You can pick one of these things up for about thirty bucks, so if you already have a sufficiently large AC to DC converter you can build a nice 250 Watt power supply on the cheap.

[Johan] picked up one of these tiny programmable power supplies. His overall impression was positive, but like so many cheap products on AliExpress, there wasn’t a whole lot of polish to the interface. Additionally, the DPS5005 lacked the ability to be controlled over a serial port or WiFi.

This programmable power supply is built around an STM32, with the programming pads exposed and labeled on the PCB. The changes [Johan] wanted to make were all in software, leading him to develop OpenDPS, a firmware replacement for the DPS5005. Continue reading “Open Source Firmware For A Cheap Programmable Power Supply”

Better Linux Through Coloring

Cyber security is on everyone’s minds these days. Embedded devices like cameras have been used by bad guys to launch attacks on the Internet. People worry about data leaking from voice command devices or home automation systems. And this goes for the roll-your-own systems we build and deploy.

Many network-aware systems use Linux somewhere — one big example is pretty much every Raspberry Pi based project. How much do you think about security when you deploy a Pi? There is a superior security system available for Linux (including most versions you’d use on the Pi) called SELinux. The added letters on the front are for “Security-Enhanced” and this project was originally started by the NSA and RedHat. RedHat actually has — no kidding — a coloring book that helps explain some of the basic concepts.

We aren’t so sure the coloring book format is really the right approach here, but it is a light and informative read (we didn’t stay in the lines very well, though). Our one complaint is that it doesn’t really show you anything in practice, it just explains the ideas behind the different kind of protections available in SELinux. If you want to actually set it up on Pi, there’s a page on the Pi site that will help. If you have an hour, you can get a good overview of using SELinux in the video below.

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Punching it Down: Insulation Displacement Connectors

In my misspent youth I found myself doing clinical rotations at a local hospital. My fellow students and I were the lowest of the low on the hospital pecking order, being the ones doing the bulk of the work in the department and paying for the privilege to do so. As such, our locker facilities were somewhat subpar: a corner of a closet behind a door labeled “COMMS”.

In the room was a broken chair and a couple of hooks on the wall for our coats, along with an intriguing (to me) electrical panel. It had a series of rectangular blocks with pins projecting from it. Each block had a thick cable with many pairs of thin, colorful wires fanned out and neatly connected to the left side, and a rats nest of blue and white wires along the right side. We were told not to touch the board. I touched it nonetheless.

I would later learn that these were Type 66 punchdown blocks for the department’s phone system, and I’d end up using quite a few of them over my hacking life. Punchdown connectors were a staple of both private and public telco physical plants for decades, and belong to a class of electrical connections called insulation displacement connections, or IDC. We’ve recently looked at how crimp connections work, and what exactly is going on inside a solder joint. I thought it might be nice to round things out with a little bit about the workings of IDC.

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Innovating A Better Printing Platform

Just because you have a fancy new 3D printer doesn’t mean that innovation should stop there. Almost everyone has had a print go foul if the first layer doesn’t properly adhere to the printing platform — to say nothing of difficulty in dislodging the piece once it’s finished. Facing mixed results with some established tricks meant to combat these issues, [D. Scott Williamson] — a regular at Chicago’s Workshop 88 makerspace — has documented his trials to find a better printer platform.3D Printer Steel Print Plate 1

For what he had (a printer without a heated plate), painter’s tape and hairspray wasn’t cutting it, especially when it came time to remove the print as the tape wouldn’t completely come off the part. How then, to kill two birds with one stone? Eureka! A flexible metal covering for the printing plate.

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