Shmoocon 2017: So You Want To Hack RF

Far too much stuff is wireless these days. Home security systems have dozens of radios for door and window sensors, thermostats aren’t just a wire to the furnace anymore, and we are annoyed when we can’t start our cars from across a parking lot. This is a golden era for anyone who wants to hack RF. This year at Shmoocon, [Marc Newlin] and [Matt Knight] of Bastille Networks gave an overview of how to get into hacking RF. These are guys who know a few things about hacking RF; [Marc] is responsible for MouseJack and KeySniffer, and [Matt] reverse engineered the LoRa PHY.

In their talk, [Marc] and [Matt] outlined five steps to reverse engineering any RF signal. First, characterize the channel. Determine the modulation. Determine the symbol rate. Synchronize a receiver against the data. Finally, extract the symbols, or get the ones and zeros out of the analog soup.

From [Marc] and [Matt]’s experience, most of this process doesn’t require a radio, software or otherwise. Open source intelligence or information from regulatory databases can be a treasure trove of information regarding the operating frequency of the device, the modulation, and even the bit rate. The pertinent example from the talk was the FCC ID for a Z-wave module. A simple search revealed the frequency of the device. Since the stated symbol rate was twice the stated data rate, the device obviously used Manchester encoding. These sorts of insights become obvious once you know what you’re looking for.

In their demo, [Marc] and [Matt] went through the entire process of firing up GNU Radio, running a Z-wave decoder and receiving Z-wave frames. All of this was done with a minimum of hardware and required zero understanding of what radio actually is, imaginary numbers, or anything else a ham license will hopefully teach you. It’s a great introduction to RF hacking, and shows anyone how to do it.

Heavy Lift Electromagnet from Microwave Oven Transformers

It’s OK, you can admit it — from the time you first saw those huge electromagnetic cranes in scrap yards you’ve wanted to have one. While it may not fling around a car, parts donated from scrapped microwaves can let you build your own electromagnetic lifting device and make that dream finally come true.

We recently watched [MakeItExtreme] turn a couple of microwave oven transformers into a somewhat ill-advised wall-climbing rig. It looks like that may have been the inspiration for this build, and the finished product appears to be a tad more useful this time. The frames of three MOTs are cut open to remove the secondary coils and leave the cores exposed as poles for the future magnets. A shallow dish is fabricated out of steel and the magnets are welded in place.

With the primaries wired together, the magnets are epoxy potted, the business end is faced off cleanly, and the whole thing put to the test. [MakeItExtreme] doesn’t go into control details in the video below, but the website mentions the magnet being powered off a 24V 15A power supply with battery backup in case of mains failure.

They’ve lifted 200kg so far, and it looks like a pretty cool addition to a shop already packed with other builds, like their MOT spot welder and a propane tank sandblaster.

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Motorized Camera Dolly Rolls With the Changes

Over the last semester, Cornell student [Ope Oladipo] had the chance to combine two of his passions: engineering and photography. He and teammates [Sacheth Hegde] and [Jason Zhang] used their time in [Bruce Land]’s class to build a motorized camera dolly for shooting time-lapse sequences.

The camera, in this case the one from an iPhone 6, is mounted to an off-the-shelf robot chassis that tools around on a pair of DC motors. The camera mount uses a stepper motor to get just the right shot. A PIC32 on board the ‘bot takes Bluetooth commands from an iOS app that the team built. The dolly works two ways: it can be controlled manually in free mode, or it can follow a predetermined path at a set speed for a specified time in programmed mode.

Our favorite part of the build? The camera’s view is fed to a smart watch where [Ope] and his team can take still pictures using the watch-side interface. Check it out after the break, and stick around for a short time-lapse demo. We’ve featured a couple of dolly builds over the years. Here’s a more traditional dolly that rides a pair of malleable tubes.

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Smoothly Modernized Nixie Display

The renaissance of Nixie tube popularity amid the nostalgia surrounding older tech has made them almost prohibitively expensive for individual projects. Seeing an opportunity to modernize the beloved devices, [Connor Nishijima] has unleashed this new, LED edge-lit display that he has dubbed Lixie.

We featured his prototype a few years ago. That design used dots to make up each character but this upgrade smooths that out with sleek lines and a look one would almost expect from a professional device — or at the very least something you’d see in a cyberpunk near-future. The color-changing Neopixel LEDs — moderated by a cleverly designed filter — allow for customization to your heart’s content, and the laser-cut acrylic panes allow for larger displays to be produced with relative ease.

The image above (and the video below) show two revisions of the most recent Lixie prototypes. There is a huge improvement on the right, as the digits are now outlines instead of single strokes and engraved instead of cut completely through the acrylic. The difference if phenomenal, and in our opinion move the “back to the drawing board” effect to “ready for primetime”. [Connor] and his team are working on just that, with a Tindie preorder in place for the first production-ready digits to roll off their line.

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Vintage IBM Daisywheel Prints Again after Reverse Engineering

Just before the dawn of the PC era, IBM typewriters reached their technical zenith with the Wheelwriter line. A daisy-wheel printer with interchangeable print heads, memory features, and the beginnings of word processing capabilities, the Wheelwriters never got much time to shine before they were eclipsed by PCs. Wheelwriters are available dirt cheap now, and like many IBM products are very hackable, as shown by this simple Arduino interface to make a Wheelwriter into a printer.

[Chris Gregg] likes playing with typewriters – he even got an old Smith Corona to play [Leroy Anderson]’s The Typewriter – and he’s gotten pretty good with these largely obsolete but lovable electromechanical relics. Interfacing a PC to the Wheelwriter could have been as simple as scrounging up an original interface card for the machine, but those are like hen’s teeth, and besides, where’s the sport in that? So [Chris] hooked a logic analyzer to the well-labeled port that would have connected to the interface card and reverse engineered the somewhat odd serial protocol by banging on keys. The interface he came up with for the Wheelwriter is pretty simple – just a Light Blue Bean Plus and a MOSFET to drive the bus high and low for the correct amount of time. The result is what amounts to an alphanumeric printer, but with a little extra code some dot-matrix graphics are possible too.

Having spent a lot of time reverse engineering serial comms, we can appreciate the amount of work this took to accomplish. Looking to do something similar but don’t have the dough for a logic analyzer? Maybe you can free up $22 and get cracking on a similarly impressive hack.

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High-Power LED + 3D Printer = Mega Flashlight

If you remember old computer magazines (or browse them today), you’ll see that back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you weren’t always sure what you were going to do with a computer. Games were a staple, but they weren’t very exciting. Visionaries talked about storing recipes, writing Christmas letters (to send via snail mail), and keeping home inventories. You probably don’t do any of those things with your computer today, unless you count e-mailing instead of sending Christmas cards. We think sometimes 3D printers fall into that category today. Sure, you want one. But what are you really going to do with it? Print keychains?

That’s why we always like seeing practical designs for 3D printed items. Like this 100W flashlight. The electronics part of the build is simple enough: a 100W LED module, an off-the-shelf driver board, plus an old PC cooler and some batteries. But the 3D printed parts makes it all come together and it looks great!

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Foldable Dymaxion Globe

Some time back, we posted about [Gavin]’s laser-cut/3D printed Dymaxion Globe — if you haven’t read about it yet, you should check it out. [noniq] loved the idea, and like a true hacker, built and shared an improved Foldable Dymaxion Globe. It can snap together to form an icosahedron globe, or it can be laid flat to form a map.

Duct tape, stoppers and magnet holders
Duct tape, stoppers and magnet holders

Like the original, [noniq]’s version is laser cut and engraved, and uses some 3D printed parts. But it does away with the fasteners (that’s 60 pairs of nuts and bolts), and instead uses neodymium magnets to make all the triangle pieces snap together to form the icosahedron globe. The hinges are simply some pieces of gaffer-tape.

This design improvement creates a cleaner globe and also addresses some of the concerns posted in the comments of the earlier build. The design files are available for download on [noniq]’s blog — you need to 3D print some magnet holders and stopper plates, and laser cut the 20 triangle tiles. The stopper plates help ensure that the angle between tiles when it is put together is limited to 138 degrees, making it easier to assemble the globe.

Check out the video after the break to hear the satisfying “thunk” of neodymium magnets snapping together.

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