Hackaday Prize Entry: Internets Of Energy

More and more, the power grid is distributed. Houses have solar panels on their roofs, and where possible, that excess power is sold back to the grid. The current trend is towards smart meters that record consumption for an entire household and relay it back to the power plant every day or so. The future is decentralized, through, and a meter that is smart once a day simply won’t do. A team on Hackaday.io has put together the ultimate in decentralized energy modernization. It’s the InternetS of Energy, and it removes the need for power companies completely.

The team has identified a few key features of the current power grid that don’t make sense in the age of the Internet. The power company doesn’t have extremely granular data, and sending power over long distances is either inefficient or expensive. The solution for this is to have distributed power plants, all connected together into a truly intelligent power grid.

This InternetS of Energy uses open-source energy monitoring systems running the Ethereum client to push power-usage data onto the blockchain. This makes the grid secure and pseudonymous, and if the banking industry is any indication, something like this is the future of economic transactions.

While it may not be the best solution for mature power grids, it is an extremely interesting avenue of research for developing nations. Wherever local resources allow it, electricity can be generated and sent to where it’s needed. It’s exactly what the power grid would be if it were re-designed today from scratch, and an excellent candidate for the 2016 Hackaday Prize.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Harmonicas, Candy, And Van Halen

Watch enough How It’s Made, and you’ll soon become very enthusiastic about computer vision and compressed air. In factories all around the world, production lines automatically sort the wheat from the chaff by running a product underneath a camera and blowing defective product off the line.

For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Fabien] is attempting this same task. He’s building a machine that will rapidly sort candy with computer vision and precisely controlled jets of air. He’s also planning for the Van Halen reunion and building a CNC harmonica.

Right now, the design has a hopper full of M&Ms dropping through a channel where a camera looks at each individual piece of candy. A Raspberry Pi, camera, and OpenMV detect all the red, yellow, brown, and blue M&Ms, and send that information to a computer controlling a suite of pneumatic valves. When these valves open, candy of different colors is shuffled off into it’s own bin. It’s the perfect device for someone responsible for reading Van Halen’s rider.

In an interesting little side project, [Fabien] needed a way to test the pneumatic valves before building the color sensor and candy chute. He had a harmonica lying around, and built something we’re surprised we’ve never seen before. It’s a CNC harmonica, capable of belting out a few tunes. You can check out that testing video after the break.

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Reinventing VHDL Badly

A few years ago, Philip Peter started a little pet project. He wanted to build his own processor. This really isn’t out of the ordinary – every few months you’ll find someone with a new project to build a CPU out of relays, logic chips, or bare transistors. Philip is a software developer, though, and while the techniques and theory of building hardware haven’t changed much in decades, software development has made leaps and bounds in just the past few years. He’s on a quest to build a CPU out of discrete components.

Search the Internet for some tips and tricks for schematic capture programs like KiCad and Eagle, and you’ll find some terrible design choices. If you want more than one copy of a very specific circuit on your board, you have to copy and paste. Circuit simulation is completely separate from schematic capture and PCB design, and unit testing – making sure the circuit you designed does what it’s supposed to do – is a completely foreign concept. Schematic capture and EDA suites are decades behind the curve compared to even the most minimal software IDE. That’s where Philip comes in. By his own admission, he reinvented VHDL badly, but he does have a few ideas that are worth listening to.

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A Dis-Integrated 6502

The 6502 is the classic CPU. This chip is found in the original Apple, Apple II, PET, Commodore 64, BBC Micro, Atari 2600, and 800, the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Tamagotchis, and Bender Bending Rodriguez. This was the chip that started the microcomputer revolution, and holds a special place in the heart of every nerd and technophile. The 6502 is also possibly the most studied processor, with die shots of polysilicon and metal found in VLSI textbooks and numerous simulators available online.

The only thing we haven’t seen, until now, is a version of the 6502 built out of discrete transistors. That’s what [Eric Schlaepfer] has been working on over the past year. It’s huge – 12 inches by 15 inches – has over four thousand individual components, and so far, this thing works. It’s not completely tested, but the preliminary results look good.

The MOnSter 6502 began as a thought experiment between [Eric] and [Windell Oskay], the guy behind Evil Mad Scientist and creator of the discrete 555 and dis-integrated 741 kits. After realizing that a few thousand transistors could fit on a single panel, [Eric] grabbed the netlist of the 6502 from Visual6502.org. With the help of several scripts, and placing 4,304 components into a board design, the 6502 was made dis-integrated. If you’re building a CPU made out of discrete components, it only makes sense to add a bunch of LEDs, so [Eric] threw a few of these on the data and address lines.

This is the NMOS version of the 6502, not the later, improved CMOS version. As such, this version of the 6502 doesn’t have all the instructions some programs would expect. The NMOS version is slower, more prone to noise, and is not a static CPU.

So far, the CPU is not completely tested and [eric] doesn’t expect it to run faster than a few hundred kilohertz, anyway. That means this gigantic CPU can’t be dropped into an Apple II or commodore; these computers need a CPU to run at a specific speed. It will, however, work in a custom development board.

Will the gigantic 6502 ever be for sale? That’s undetermined, but given the interest this project will receive it’s a foregone conclusion.

Correction: [Eric] designed the 555 and 741 kits

Hackaday Prize Entry: A Cute Synthesizer

For electronics aficionados, there are few devices cooler than music synthesizers. The first synths were baroque confabulations of opamps and ladder filters. In the 70s and 80s, synths began their inexorable march toward digitization. There were wavetable synths that stored samples on 27-series EPROMs. Synths on a chip, like the MOS 6581 “SID chip”, are still venerated today. For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Tim] is building his own synthesizer from scratch. It isn’t a copy of an old synth, instead it’s a completely modern synthesizer with a classic sound.

[Tim] is a former game developer and has already released a synthesizer of sorts. Rhythm Core Alpha 2 for the Nintendo DSi and 3DS is a fully functional synthesizer, but the limitations of the Nintendo hardware made [Tim] want to build his own synth from scratch.

The specs for the synth are more of a wish list, but already [Tim] has a few design features nailed down. This is a virtual analog synth, where everything is digital and handled by DSP algorithms. It’s polyphonic and MIDI capable, with buttons and dials for almost every parameter. For the few things you can’t do with a knob, [Tim] is including a touch screen display.

[Tim] already has the synthesis model working, and from the videos he’s put together, the whole thing sounds pretty good. The next step is turning a bunch of wires, breadboards, and components into  something that looks like an instrument. We can’t wait to see how this one turns out!

You can check out a few of [Tim]’s synth videos below.

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Hackaday Links: May 15, 2016

The Hackaday Overlords (or Hackaday family) are running a series of AMAs on SupplyFX. What is SupplyFX? It’s a social network for EEs. Who’s in the first AMA? [Brady Forrest], the guy who runs Highway1, a Bay Area hardware accelerator. They’re the accelerator responsible for the lustworthy Keyboardio, and the startup that is purely mechanical and has shipped zero lines of code, CoolChip. If you want to talk about hardware startups, [Brady] is your man. The AMA is tomorrow, May 16th, at 13:00 Pacific.

Makerbot is dead, or at least they will be soon. Whatever. Nothing of value was lost. Lulzbot, on the other hand, is going gangbusters. They saw eight hundred percent growth over the last two years. and $15M in revenue in 2015. They did this all with open source hardware and software, and using 3D printing in a manufacturing context. They’re the jewel of the Open Hardware movement, and a shining example of what Free Software can do.

The current generation of software defined radios started with the ubiquitous TV tuner dongles, and quickly graduated to the HackRF. You can only get so much bandwidth out of a USB 2.0 socket, and the newest and bestest SDR is the LimeSDR. They’re about halfway through their crowdfunding campaign (and halfway funded), and have finally changed out the USB A connector to a USB micro B connector. Good choice.

The ESP8266 is quickly becoming the go-to device for when you want a cheap way to put a sensor on the Internet. The only problem is programming it. No problem – here’s a bunch of Lua scripts that do 90% of everything. Need to read a PIR sensor? Light up a few LEDs? Put the data from a temperature and humidity on the Internet? There you have it.

The Vintage Computer Festival West is back on this year. We’ve gone to VCF East in New Jersey for a few years now, and had a few occasional outings to the southeast and midwest Vintage Computer Festivals over the years. This is the first time the west coast has had a Vintage Computer Festival in several years. It’s in Mountain View, on August 6th and 7th. Yes, that’s the same weekend as DEF CON.

E3D, makers of fine hot ends and 3D printer paraphernalia, have released a new kind of filament. It’s called Edge, it’s based on PET, and it prints as easily as PLA, with better mechanical properties than ABS. A few sample prints made from Edge were at this year’s Midwest RepRap Festival, and the Edge’s bridging ability is crazy. You need a heated bed for Edge and it’s sensitive to moisture, but it has some very interesting properties that can be cleverly exploited.

In other filament news, Colorfabb released a filament to print clear parts. Yes, that’s very weird. Clear parts require 100% infill, meaning it will use a lot of filament. It’s still very advanced wizardry, and I’m very interested in seeing the first print of a sanded and polished convex lens.

Holy Crap it’s the 3D printing edition of the links post. [Prusa] just released the latest version of the i3. It’s now bigger: 250x210x200mm build volume. The heated bed – [Prusa] was one of the first to experiment with PCB heated beds – is now vastly improved when looking at it through a FLIR. The Mk. 42 heated bed doesn’t have a hot center or cool corners. PEI sheet removes the need for blue painters tape, glass, aqua net, or glue sticks. The printer has self-test capabilities. The mechanics of the printer, especially the Z axis, are improved. [Prusa] will be selling this as a kit for ~19000 Czech Crowns or $699 USD, but he’s RepRap to the core. Buy a spool and start printing your next printer.


Hackaday Prize Entry: DIY Ceramic PCBs

We’ve seen hundreds of ways to create your own PCBs at home. If you have a laser printer, you can put traces on a piece of copper clad board. If you have some hydrogen peroxide and acid, you can etch those traces. Don’t have either? Build a tiny mill and cut through the copper with a Dremel. Making your own PCBs at home is easy, provided your boards are made out of FR4 and copper sheets.

Printed circuit boards can be so much cooler than a piece of FR4, though. Ceramic PCBs are the height of board fabrication technology, producing a very hard board with near perfect electrical properties, high thermal conductivity, and a dielectric strength similar to mineral transformer oil. Ceramic PCBs are for electronics going to space or inside nuclear reactors.

For his entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize, [Chuck] is building these space grade PCBs. Not only is he tackling the hardest challenge PCB fabrication has to offer, he’s building a machine to automate the process.

The basic process of building ceramic PCBs is to create a sheet of alumina, glass powder, and binder. This sheet is first drilled out, then silver ink is printed on top. Layers of these sheets are stacked on top of each other, and the whole stack is rammed together in a press and fired in a furnace.

Instead of making his own unfired ceramic sheets, he’s just buying it off the shelf. It costs about a dollar per square inch. This material is held down on a laser cutter/inkjet combo machine with a vacuum table. It’s just a beginning, but [Chuck] has everything he needs to start his experiments in creating truly space grade PCBs.

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