Nascent Project: Open Source Scanning Electron Microscope

I used to have access to some pretty nice Scanning Electron Microscopes (a SEM) at my day job. While they are a bit more complex than a 3D printer, they are awfully handy when you need them. [Adam Guilmet] acquired a scrapped unit and started trying to figure out how to breathe life into it. His realization was that a SEM isn’t all that complicated by today’s standards. So he has set out to take what he has learned and build one from scrap.

In all fairness, he has a long way to go and is looking for help. He currently says, “[T]his is being powered by fairy dust, unicorn farts, and a budget that would make the poorest of students look like Donald Trump.” Still, he’s collected a lot of interesting data and we hope he can build a team that can succeed.

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Biologically Inspired Sensors Turned Into Silicon

For the last three and a half Billion years, evolution has built sensors. The nerves on your fingertips are just as good as any electronic touch sensor, a retina is able to detect a single photon, and the human ear is more finely tuned than the best microphones.

At the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference, Dr. Christal Gordon, educator and engineer, talked about the hardware behind our wetware. While AI researchers are still wondering if they have to define consciousness, there’s still a lot that medicine, psychology, and neuroscience can teach us about building better hardware with simple tools, just like nature has been doing for Billions of years.

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Blynk with Joy

Last time, I talked about how my storage situation and my cheap nature led me to build an RC joystick controller with a cell phone app and an ESP8266. The key to making this easy was to use the GUI builder called Blynk to make a user interface for an Android or Apple phone. Blynk can communicate with the ESP8266 and makes the project relatively simple.

ESP8266 and Arduino IDE

The ESP8266 Blynk code is straightforward. You do need to set up the Arduino IDE to build for the ESP8266. That can vary by board, but here’s the instructions for the board I was using (from Adafruit; see below).


Depending on the type of ESP8266 device you are using, you may need a 3.3 V serial cable or some other means of getting the firmware into the device. For the Adafruit device I had, it has a 5 V-tolerant serial connection so a standard USB to serial dongle plugs right in. There’s also two switches on my device. To get into bootload mode, you have to push the one button down, hold it, and then press the reset button. Once you release the reset button you can release the other button. The red LED half-glows and the device is then waiting for a download.
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Abacus Drive is a Speed-to-Torque Game-Changer

Apart from the harmonic drive, the engineering community hasn’t really come up with any clever mechanisms for speed-to-torque conversion in the last few decades. However, recently a few folks at SRI have given us one more transmission to drool over: the Abacus Drive.

The Abacus Drive takes the standard concepts of a cycloidal drive, but takes the eccentric gear tooth pattern that we’re familiar with and converts it to two grooves in which an array of rolling spacers will ride. The benefit with this design is two-fold: it’s both constructed from entirely rigid components (unlike the harmonic drive), and it has a low-backdriving torque, enabling the application to more easily detect changes in load.

Achieving an affordable low-speed, high-torque transmission has been a holy grail among roboticists, where every motor-driven manipulator joint becomes an engineering design headache where the designers fight their application’s backlash, torque, and price constraints to get a functional robot arm. This problem stems from the fact that motors just don’t perform efficiently at low-speeds, where the near-stall conditions cause them to draw vastly larger amounts of torque compared to their full-speed conditions. While the Abacus Drive isn’t hitting the market anytime soon, we’ll let this idea stew in the community and hope to see some budget variants pop up in the near future.

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Get To Know Voltage Regulators with a 723

“Chapter 5; Horowitz and Hill”. University students of all subjects will each have their standard texts of which everyone will own a copy. It will be so familiar to them as to be referred to by its author as a shorthand, and depending on the subject and the tome in question it will be either universally loathed or held onto and treasured as a lifetime work of reference.

For electronic engineers the work that most exemplifies this is [Paul Horowitz] and [Winfield Hill]’s The Art Of Electronics. It definitely falls into the latter category of course books, being both a mine of information and presented in an extremely accessible style. It’s now available in its third edition, but the copy in front of me is a first edition printed some time in the mid 1980s.

The Art of Electronics, on regulators.
The Art of Electronics, on regulators.

Chapter 5 probably made most of an impression on the late-teenage me, because it explains voltage regulation and power supplies both linear and switching. Though there is nothing spectacularly challenging about a power supply from the perspective of experience, having them explained as a nineteen-year-old by a book that made sense because it told you all the stuff you needed to know rather than just what a school exam syllabus demanded you should know was a revelation.

On the first page of my Art of Electronics chapter 5, they dive straight in to the μA723 linear voltage regulator. This is pretty old; a design from the legendary [Bob Widlar], master of analogue integrated circuits, which first made it to market in 1967. [Horowitz] and [Hill] say “Although you might not choose it for a new design nowadays, it is worth looking at in some detail, since more recent regulators work on the same principles“. It was 13 years old when they wrote that sentence and now it is nearly 50 years old, yet judging by the fact that Texas Instruments still lists it as an active product without any of those ominous warnings about end-of-life it seems plenty of designers have not heeded those words.

So why is a 50-year-old regulator chip still an active product? There is a huge range of better regulators, probably cheaper and more efficient regulators that make its 14-pin DIP seem very dated indeed. The answer is that it’s an incredibly useful part because it does not present you with a regulator as such, instead it’s a kit of all the parts required to make a regulator of almost any description. Thus it is both an astonishingly versatile device for a designer and the ideal platform for anyone wanting to learn about or experiment with a regulator.
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7 Segment Display Using Neopixel Rings

There’s something about clocks — sooner or later, every hacker wants to build one. And we end up seeing all kinds of display techniques being used to show time. For the simplest of builds, 7-segment display modules usually get dug up from the parts bin. If you have a bunch of “smart” LED’s (WS2812’s, APA102’s), then building your own custom 7-segment modules isn’t too difficult either. [rhoalt] had neither, but he did have several 8 LED Neopixel rings lying around. So he thought of experimenting with those, and built a ‘Binoctular’ LED clock which uses the Neopixel rings as 7 segment displays.

figure-eight-segment-displaysEach digit is made using one pair of Neopixel rings, stacked to form a figure of eight. All the digits are composed of arcs, so readability isn’t the best but it’s not hard either. [rhoalt] does mention that the display is easier to read via blurred camera images rather than visually, which isn’t surprising. We’re long used to seeing numbers composed of straight line segments, so arc segmented digits do look weird. But we wouldn’t have known this if [rhoalt] hadn’t shown us, right ? Maybe a thicker diffuser with separator baffles may improve the readability.

The rest of the build is pretty plain vanilla — an Arduino Nano clone, a DS3231 RTC, a Lithium battery, and some buttons, all housed together in a laser cut enclosure which follows the figure of eight design brief. And as usual, once you’ve built one, it’s time to improve and make a better version.

Black Magic Probe: The Best ARM JTAG Debugger?

We don’t always JTAG, but when we do, we use a Black Magic Probe. It’s a completely open ARM-chip debugging powerhouse. If you program the small ARM chips and you don’t have a BMP, you need a BMP. Right now, one of the main producers of these little gems is running a Kickstarter where you can get your hands on a nicely made one and/or a 1Bitsy STM32F415-based development board.

Why is the BMP so great? First off, it’s got a JTAG and a UART serial port in one device. You can flash the target, run your code, use the serial port for printf debugging like you know you want to, and then fall back on full-fledged JTAG-plus-GDB when you need to, all in one dongle. It’s just very convenient.

But the BMP’s killer feature is that it runs a GDB server on the probe. It opens up a virtual serial port that you can connect to directly through GDB on your host computer. No need to hassle around with OpenOCD configurations, or to open up a second window to run [texane]’s marvelous st-util. Just run GDB, target extended-remote /dev/ttyACM0 and you’re debugging. As the links above demonstrate, there are many hardware/software pairs that’ll get you up and debugging. But by combining the debug server with the JTAG hardware, the BMP is by far the slickest.

Full disclosure: we use a BMP that we built ourselves, which is to say that we compiled and flashed the firmware into a $4 STLink clone programmer that we had on hand. Breaking the required signals out required a bit of ugly, fiddly soldering, but we enjoy that sort of thing. If you don’t, the early-bird Kickstarter (with cables) looks like a good deal to us.