A Simple, DIY GPS Tracker

Today, there are dozens of off-the-shelf solutions for a GPS tracking device. Most of them use GSM, some of them use satellites, and all of them are astonishingly inexpensive. If you want to track a car, dog, or your luggage, you’ve never had more options.

[Emilio] wanted to track his own car, and the original solution for this was a smartphone. This smartphone was also a good choice, as it’s a programmable GPS device connected to a cell network, but there had to be a simpler solution. It came in the form of an eight euro GPS module and a three euro GSM module (Google Translatrix right here). The rest of the hardware is an ATMega48V [Emilio] had sitting around and a 2500 mAh lithium cell. It’s a cellular tracker make out of eleven euro’s worth of hardware and some junk in a drawer.

There are only a few caveats to this hardware. First, the ATmega48V only has one UART. This is connected to the GPS module at 9600, 8N1. The connection to the GSM M-590 module is only 2400 bps, and slow enough for a bitbanged UART. This hardware is soldered to a piece of perfboard, thus ending the hardware part of this build.

The software is a little more complex, but not by very much. The GPS part of the firmware records the current latitude and longitude. If the GSM module receives a call, it replies with an SMS of the current GPS coordinates and a few GPS coordinates seen earlier. Of course, a pre-paid SIM is required for this build, but those are cheap enough.

Not even ten years ago, a simple, DIY GPS tracker would have cost a small fortune. Now that we have cheap GPS modules, GSM modules, and more magical electronics from the East, builds like this are easy and cheap. What a magical time to be alive.

A DIY NES Advantage Controller For The NES Classic

If you were a child of the ’80s, there is a good chance that you had a Nintendo console in your youth, the classic 8-bit NES. And if you were one of those NES owners, it’s therefore probably that the peripheral you lusted after was Nintendo’s arcade-inspired Advantage controller. This replaced the game pad with a full-size arcade joystick and buttons, and has become an expensive and sought-after accessory in the years since.

[Bbtinkerer] has a NES Classic, and having gone through more than one joystick that just wasn’t up to the pressures of intensive gaming, decided to have a go at building one himself. The Advantage was the obvious model to copy, and thanks to the Wii Retropad Adapter project, he was able to do so.

Faithful to the original in its layout, the new Advantage clone features a Turbo mode for rapid fire, though rather than the buttons you’d have had in the ’80s this model features a toggle switch. The joystick mechanism used was a Sanwa JLF, and the buttons were Sanwa OBSF-30s. He’s posted a video showing the finished item being put through its paces.

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Sense All the Things with a Synthetic Sensor

What will it take to make your house smarter than you? Judging from the price of smart appliances we see in the home centers these days, it’ll take buckets of cash. But what if you could make your home smarter — or at least more observant — with a few cheap, general purpose “supersensors” that watch your every move?

Sounds creepy, right? That’s what [Gierad Laput] and his team at the Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute thought when they designed their broadband “synthetic sensor,” and it’s why they purposely omitted a camera from their design. But just about every other sensor under the sun is on the tiny board: an IR array, visible light sensors, a magnetometer, temperature, humidity, and pressure sensors, a microphone, PIR, and even an EMI detector. Of course there’s also a WiFi module, but it appears that it’s only for connectivity and not used for sensing, although it clearly could be. All the raw data is synthesized into a total picture of the goings on in within the platform’s range using a combination of machine learning and user training.

The video after the break shows the sensor detecting typical household events from a central location. It’s a powerful idea and we look forward to seeing how it moves from prototype to product. And if the astute reader recognizes [Gierad]’s name, it might be from his past appearance on these pages for 3D-printed hair.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Customizable Linear Actuators

The current state of robotics, 3D printers, and CNC machines means any shade tree roboticist has the means to make anything move. Do you want a robotic arm? There are a dozen designs already available. Need an inverted powered pendulum? There are a hundred senior projects on that every semester. There is, however, one type of actuator that is vastly underutilized. Linear actuators aren’t ‘maker’ friendly, and building a customized linear actuator is an exercise in pain.

A die for aluminum extrusion

For their Hackaday Prize entry, the folks at Deezmaker are changing the state of linear actuators. They’ve created ‘Maker Muscle’, a linear actuator that’s fully customizable to nearly any length, power, speed, motor, or any other spec you could think of.

There were a few design goals for Maker Muscle. It must be modular, customizable, low-cost, and must allow for a lot of mounting options for use with t-slot aluminum extrusion. The answer to this is a completely custom aluminum extrusion. Basically, the motor mounts at one end, the actuator itself pokes out the other, and you can mount this device via the t-slot tracks around the edge of the extrusion. Think of it as the linear actuator version of MakerSlide, except instead of using this extrusion in CNC machines, it’s designed for moving shafts back and forth.

Already, Deezmaker has a working prototype and they’ve already moved onto a Kickstarter campaign for Maker Muscle. It’s a great idea, and we can’t wait to see what this neat product will be used for. You can check out a short demo video of Maker Muscle in action below.

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Alexa, Sudo Read My Resistor! A Challenge for Hackers

Nothing makes us feel more like we’re on Star Trek then saying “Computer, turn on desk light,” and watching the light turn on. Of course, normal people would have left the wake up word as “Alexa,” but we like “Computer” even if it does make it hard to watch Star Trek episodes without the home automation going crazy.

There’s a lot of hype right now about how voice recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming everything. We’ve even seen a few high-profile types warning that AI is going to come alive and put us in the matrix or something. That gets a lot of press, but we’re not sure we are even close to that, yet. Alexa and Google’s similar offerings are cool, there’s no doubt about it. The speech recognition is pretty good, although far from perfect. But the AI is really far off still.

Today’s devices utilize two rather rudimentary parts to provide an interaction with users. The first is how the devices pattern match language; it isn’t all that sophisticated. The other is the trivial nature of many of the apps, or — as Alexa calls them — skills. There are some good ones to be sure, but for every one useful application of the technology, there’s a dozen that are just text-to-speech of an RSS feed. Looking through the skills available we were amused at how many different offerings convert resistor color codes back and forth to values.

There was a time when building electronics meant learning the resistor color code. With today’s emphasis on surface mount components, though, it is less useful than it used to be. Still, like flossing, you really ought to do it. However, if you have an Amazon Alexa, it can learn the color code for you thanks to [Dennis Mantz].

Don’t have an Alexa? You can still try it in your browser, as we will show you shortly. There are at least eight similar skills out there like this one from [Steve Jernigan] or [Andrew Bergstrom’s] Resistor Reader.

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Doubling The Capacity of Power Tool Batteries

YouTube User [Vuaeco] has come up with a novel idea, combining power tool battery packs to double the capacity.

Starting off with two slimline 2.0Ah compact battery packs, [Vuaeco] wanted a larger 4.0Ah rebuilt drill battery pack. These battery packs are different in size so it wasn’t just a case of adding in more cells in empty slots, instead he goes on to show us how to connect the batteries in parallel using some thin nickel strips. Once completed he modifies the battery casing so it fits another stack of batteries. He does this by bolting the top and bottom together with long screws, and insulating the otherwise exposed battery terminals with insulating tape. The final product isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as a real battery pack, but it looks good enough.

There are a few things we might have done differently, for instance providing some hard plastic around the insulation so should the battery get knocked in an awkward position it would still have a hard shell protecting it. Also, instead of combining the batteries together fully charged as the video suggests, we might have done the opposite approach and fully drained them, avoiding unnecessary risks. If you try this, how about giving it a 3D printed case?

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Handheld Network Analyzer Peek Inside

[Shahriar] recently posted a review of a 6.8 GHz network analyzer. You can see the full video — over fifty minutes worth — below the break. The device can act as a network analyzer, a spectrum analyzer, a field strength meter, and a signal generator. It can tune in 1 Hz steps down to 9 kHz. Before you rush out to buy one, however, be warned. The cost is just under $2,000.

That sounds like a lot, but test gear in this frequency range isn’t cheap. If you really need it, you’d probably have to pay at least as much for something equivalent.

[Shahriar] had a few issues to report, but overall he seemed to like the device. For example, setting the step size too broad can cause the spectrum analyzer to miss narrow signals.

If your needs are more modest, we’ve covered a much simpler (and less expensive) unit that goes to 6 GHz. If you need even less, an Arduino can do the job with a good bit of help. The Analog Discovery 2 also has a network analyzer feature, along with other tools at a more affordable cost, too. Of course, that’s only good to 10 MHz.

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