Casing up the Teensy SDR

[Rich, VE3MKC] has made a lot of progress on his Software Defined Radio (SDR) which is based on a Teensy. His latest update shows off the hardware in an enclosure and a few new features.

When we looked at this in April of last year it was pretty much a proof-of-concept with components hanging loose from jumper wires. The new case mounts everything securely in a plastic Hammond enclosure with copper clad for the front and rear panels. The SoftRock SDR unit was yanked from its case and retrofitted with connectors to make it swappable for other units.

A little help goes a long way and [Rich] thanks his friend [Loftur, VE2LJX] for contributing numerous code improvements and feature additions which can be viewed in the repository. Check out the video below where these features are shown off.

In its present state the radio draws 80 mA at 12V in receive mode. It doesn’t transmit yet but we’ll keep our eyes open for another update on that. [Rich] plans to populate the input circuitry and write the transmit code next.

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Reverse Engineer then Drive LCD with FPGA

Fans of [Ben Heck] know that he has a soft spot for pinball machines and his projects that revolve around that topic tend to be pretty epic. This is a good example. At a trade show he saw an extra-wide format LCD screen which he thought would be perfect on a pinball build. He found out it’s a special module made for attaching to your car’s sun visor. The problem is that it only takes composite-in and he wanted higher quality video than that offers. The solution: reverse engineer the LCD protocol and implement it in an FPGA.

This project is a soup to nuts demonstration of replacing electronics drivers; the skill is certainly not limited to LCD modules. He starts by disassembling the hardware to find what look like differential signaling lines. With that in mind he hit the Internet looking for common video protocols which will help him figure out what he’s looking for. A four-channel oscilloscope sniffs the signal as the unit shows a blue screen with red words “NO SIGNAL”. That pattern is easy to spot since the pixels are mostly repeated except when red letters need to be displayed. Turns out the protocol is much like VGA with front porch, blanking, etc.

With copious notes about the timings [Ben] switches over to working with a Cyclone III FPGA to replace the screen’s stock controller. The product claims 800×234 resolution but when driving it using those parameters it doesn’t fill the entire screen. A bit more tweaking and he discovers the display actually has 1024×310 pixels. Bonus!

It’s going to take us a bit more study to figure out exactly how he boiled down the sniffed data to his single color-coded protocol sheet. But that’s half the fun! If you need a few more resources to understand how those signals work, check out one of our other favorite FPGA-LCD hacks.

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Parts.io Aims at Better Component Discovery

Online parts search and ordering is a godsend compared to the paper-catalog days of yore. This is fact, there is no argument otherwise (despite [Dave Jones’] assertion that sourcing connectors is so much simpler if you have pages full of images). Just being able to search was a game changer. But how far do you think the concept has come since the transition online? [Chris Gammell] plans to spark a leap forward with Parts.io, an electronic component info delivery system that spans both manufacturers and distributors.

So what’s wrong with what we’re doing now? Nothing… unless you hate wasting time. Sourcing parts is time consuming. Certainly the parametric search on distributors’ sites like Mouser and Digikey have improved. Plus we’ve seen hacks that do things like automatically pull in stock data to a spreadsheet. But the real issue isn’t figuring out how to buy stuff, it’s figuring out what to use in a design. Surely there is opportunity for improvement.

Parts.io has its sights set on a better path to part discovery. Yes, this is parametric search but it will return data for all parts from all manufacturers. The distinction may not be completely obvious, but for example if you are searching on Element14 you’re only getting data on the parts that Element14 carries. Once you have drilled down to a reasonably manageable pool of components you get what you would expect: one-click datasheets and a roundup of pricing and availability from worldwide distributors. The presentation of the parts is grouped into families that differ in trailing parts designators, and I must say I am impressed at the interface’s ability to roll with you. It feels easier to find alternative parts after the drilldown where in my past searches I would have started completely over again.

The service started in private alpha in October but is now available for public use. You can search for a part without logging in, but a few features have been held back for those that sign up for a free account. Most notably this includes the ability to upload your BOM, add parts as favorites, and access their forums.

Is this a game changer? That’s for you to decide. You can give it a try yourself or watch [Chris’] feature walkthrough video found after the break.

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Sonar Built from Piezo and Microphone

[Jason] has continued to plug along with his sonar build and recently showed up a monostatic active sonar using a piezo element and microphone. Regular readers will remember [Jason’s] experiments from a Fail of the Week post which focused on his water-proofing woes from a much earlier prototype.

We find this offering far more engaging. He has ditched the ultrasonic module seen in those experiments. The new rig drives the piezo element using a 27V source. After each ping is sent out, the microphone input is immediately captured to detect the return of the audible sound. [Jason] mentions that the TI Launchpad he’s using for the project is fast enough for these experiments but he may switch to a Teensy 3.1 in order to double the RAM and thereby increase the sample size he is able to record.

Of course this is intended for underwater ROVs so his next iteration will involve a DIY hydrophone. We can’t wait to see that one as the process of converting this test rig into one that works underwater evades us. If you have some tips on that topic please let us know in the comments.

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LVBots CES Open House: Tabletop Challenge and Clothes Bot

LVBots, a club for robot building enthusiasts in Las Vegas, held an open house the week of CES. This was the only trip [Sophi] and I took away from the conference halls of The Strip and it was a blast! The group holds meetings twice a month in a space provided by Pololu — a well-known robotics and electronics manufacturer headquartered just south of McCarran International Airport.

Before the formal part of the gathering started there were several builds being shown off. [Claire] and [Brian] recently participated in an AT&T sponsored hackathon. Their creation is a robotic closet. The system involves moving racks of clothing which are tracked by a smartphone app. Interesting features discussed for the software include monitoring when each garment was last worn, last washed, and if it is appropriate for current weather conditions. Dig into the code in their repo.

In other parts of the room a pair of line-following robots did their thing, and a couple of sumo-bots competed to push each other out of the ring. A large group was gathered around the projector watching videos of robots of all types, brainstorming about the difficult parts, how they were overcome, and how these methods may be applied to their own build. I can attest that hanging with a group of people who are trying to cue up the most amazing robot demonstrations makes for amazing viewing!

As the organized part of the meeting began I was delighted to hear about a standing challenge from the LVbots group. The Tabletop challenge has multiple phases that serve to encourage builders to start modestly and then iterate to achieve new goals:

Phase 0: bring a robot to LVBots
Phase 1: travel back and forth without falling off
Phase 2: find an object and push it off
Phase 3: push object into a goal

[Nathan Bryant] was one of the two robot builders trying out the challenge on this night. He built this hexapod from balsa wood and three servo motors and was testing Phase 1. The bot includes a sensor dangling out in front of the robot to detect then the table surface is no long below. At that point it backs up a few steps, turns in place, and proceeds in the opposite direction. [Nathan] mentions that he worked out all the movements in a spreadsheet and that future firmware upgrades will dramatically increase the speed at which the bot moves. We love the audible cadence of the bot which is easily observed in the video above. At one point a leg dangles over the edge and it looks like [Nathan] pushed the bot back but I don’t remember him actually touching it so I’m calling this a trick of camera angle.

One phase further in the Tabletop Challenge is [Joe Carson]. He exhibited a wheeled robot he’s been working on that includes a gripper arm on the front. The robot looks around the table for a predefined color, in this case provided by a highlighting marker. When found the bot approaches, grips, and then proceeds to move the marker over the void where it is dropped out of existence; at least from the robot’s point of view.

Sigzig data loggers ditch the noise while pimping the case

We ran into [Paul Allen] at CES. He was showing off Sigzig, a super-low noise data logger which his company is just rolling out.

IMG_20150107_174520A couple of years ago he worked on a standalone chemical sensor and had a few extra boards sitting around after the project was done. As any resourceful hacker will do, he reached for them as the closest and easiest solution when needing to log data as a quick test. It wasn’t for quite some time that he went back to try out commercially available loggers and found a problem in doing so.

The performance of off-the-shelf data loggers wasn’t doing it for [Paul’s] team. They kept having issues with the noise level found in the samples. Since he had been patching into the chemical sensor PCBs and getting better results, the impetus for a new product appeared.

The flagship 24-bit 8-channel Sigzig samples 0-5v with less than 1uV of noise. A less expensive 4-channel differential unit offers 18-bit with 10-12 uV of noise. They are targeting $199 and $399 price points for the two units. We asked about the sample rate in the video below. The smaller version shown here captures up to 240 samples per second. The big guy has the hardware potential to sample 30,000 times per second but since the data is continuously streaming over USB that rate is currently limited to much less.

Update: It has been pointed out in the comments that USB may not be the choke point for sample rate.

 

Hackaday.io Land Rush: Vanity URLs

Hurry! Carve out your Hackaday.io homestead with a vanity URL. You can see I’ve already secured hackaday.io/mike, but get in before the rest of Hackaday finds out and you can you have ‘/tom’, ‘/jane’, or ‘/zerocool’. (Don’t do it… you can be more creative than zerocool!)

Whether you already have an account, or if you want to create one right now, the next time you log into Hackaday.io the interface will give you the opportunity to choose your vanity address. Like the Oklahoma land rush, we’re sure there will be a swell of folks looking to squat on the most pristine land. So if your first name is already taken, now is the perfect time to re-invent your perfect username.

For those that need a jump start picking their slug, we want to hear your favorite screen name/handle/user alias of all time in the comments. At the risk of embarassing [Jeff Keyzer], I have to say his alias (and company name) Mighty Ohm is pretty spectacular. Can anyone beat it?