Ask Hackaday: The Internet of Things and the Coming Age of Big Data

Samsung has thrown its hat into the Internet of Things ring with its ARTIK platform. Consisting of three boards, each possesses a capability proportional to their size. The smallest comes in at just 12x12mm, but still packs a dual core processor running at 250MHz on top of 5 MB flash with bluetooth.  The largest is 29x39mm and sports a 1.3GHz ARM, 18 gigs of memory and an array of connectivity. The ARTIK platform is advertised to be completely compatible with the Arduino platform.

Each of these little IoT boards is also equipped with Samsung’s Secure Element. Worthy of an article on its own, this crypto hardware appears to be built into the processor, and supports several standards. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find the preliminary datasheet (PDF) to each of these boards. It is this Secure Element thing that separates the ARTIK platform from the numerous other IoT devices that have crossed our memory banks, and brings forth an interesting question. With the age of the Internet of Things upon us, how do we manage all of that data while keeping it secure and private?

What is The Internet of Things?

These kind of terms get thrown around too much. It was just the other day I was watching television and heard someone talk about ‘hacking’ their dinner. Really? Wiki defines the IoT as –

“a network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to enable it to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices.”

Let’s paint a realistic picture of this. Imagine your toaster, shower head, car and TV were equipped with little IoT boards, each of which connects to your personal network. You walk downstairs, put the toast in the toaster, and turn on the TV to catch the morning traffic. A little window pops up and tells you the temperature outside, and asks if you want it to start your car and turn on the air conditioning. You select “yes”, but not before you get a text message saying your toast is ready. Meanwhile, your daughter is complaining the shower stopped working, making you remind her that you’ve programmed it to use only so much water per shower, and that there is a current clean water crisis in the country.

This is the future we all have to look forward to. A future that we will make. Why? Because we can. But this future with its technical advancements does not come without problems. We’ve already seen how malicious hackers can interfere with these IoT devices in not so friendly ways.

Is it possible for our neighbor’s teenage kid to hack into our shower head? Could she turn our toaster on when we’re not home? Or even start our car? Let’s take this even further – could the government monitor the amount of time you spend in the shower? The amount of energy your toaster uses? The amount of time you let your car idle?

Clearly, the coming age of the Internet of Things doesn’t look as nice when we lose the rose colored glasses. The question is how do we shape our future connected lives in a way that is secure and private? If closed source companies like Samsung get their IoT technology into our everyday household items, would you bet a pallet of Raspberry Pi’s that the government will mine them for data?

This, however, does not have to happen. This future is ours. We made it. We know how it works – down to the ones and zeros. There is no fate, except that which we make. Can we make the coming IoT revolution open source? Because if we can, our community will be able to help ensure safety and privacy and keep our personal data out of the government’s hands. If we cannot, and the closed source side of things wins, we’ll have no choice but to dig in and weed out the vulnerabilities the hard way. So keep your soldering irons sharp and your bus pirates calibrated. There’s a war brewing.

Ask Hackaday: Fixing Your Tractor Could Land You Behind Bars

It’s 9AM on any given Sunday. You can be found in your usual spot – knee-deep in wires and circuit boards. The neighbor’s barking dog doesn’t grab your attention as you pry the cover off of a cell phone, but the rustling of leaves by the back door does. Seconds later, several heavily armed SWAT officers bust in and storm your garage. You don’t have time to think as they throw your down on the cold, hard concrete floor. You’re gripped by a sharp stinging pain as one of the officers puts his knee in the square of your back. Seconds later, you’re back on your feet being lead to the back of an awaiting police cruiser. You catch the gaze of one of your neighbors and wonder what they might be thinking as your inner voice squeaks: “What did I do wrong?”

The answer to this question would come soon enough. Your crime – hacking your dad’s tractor.

“That’s like saying locking up books will inspire kids to be innovative writers, because they won’t be tempted to copy passages from a Hemingway novel.”

-Kyle Wiens

John Deere is trying to convince the Copyright Office that farmers don’t really own the tractors they buy from them. They argue that the computer code that runs the systems is not for sale, and that purchasers of the hardware are simply receiving “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

In order to modify or “hack” any type of software, you have to copy it first. Companies don’t like the copying thing, so many put locks in place to prevent this. But because hackers are hackers, we can easily get past their childish attempts to keep code and information out of our hands. So now they want to make it illegal. John Deere is arguing that if it is legal for hackers to copy and modify their software, that it could lead to farmers listening to pirated music while plowing a corn field. No I am not making this up — dig into this 25-page facepalm-fest (PDF) written by John Deere and you’ll be just as outraged.

Trying to keep hackers out using the DMCA act is not new. Many companies argue that locking hackers out helps to spur innovation. When in fact the opposite is true. What about 3D printers, drones, VR headsets…all from us! The Copyright Office, after holding a hearing and reading comments, will make a decision in July on whether John Deere’s argument has any merit.

Let us know what you think about all this. Can hackers and the free market learn to live in harmony? We just want to fix our tractor!

Thanks to [Malachi] for the tip!

Ask Hackaday: Is Amazon Echo the Future of Home Automation?

Unless you’ve been living under a case of 1 farad capacitors, you’ve heard of the Amazon Echo. Roughly the size of two cans of beans, the Echo packs quite a punch for such a small package. It’s powered by a Texas Instrument DM3725 processor riding on 256 megs of RAM and 4 gigs of SanDisk iNAND ultra flash memory. Qualcomm Atheros takes care of the WiFi and Bluetooth, and various TI chips take care of the audio codecs and amplifiers.

What’s unique about Echo is its amazing voice recognition. While the “brains” of the Echo exist somewhere on the Internets, the hardware for this circuitry is straight forward. Seven, yes seven microphones are positioned around the top of the device. They feed into four Texas Instrument 92dB SNR low-power stereo ADCs. The hardware and software make for a very capable voice recognition that works from anywhere in the room. For the output sound, two speakers are utilized – a woofer and a tweeter. They’re both powered via a TI 15 watts class D amplifier. Check out this full tear down for more details of the hardware.

circuit board

Now that we have a good idea of the hardware, we have to accept the bad news that this is a closed source device. While we’ve seen other hacks where people poll the to-do list through the unofficial API, it still leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, the wake word, or the word which signals the Echo to start listening to commands, is either “Alexa” or “Amazon”. There is no other way to change this, even though it should be easily doable in the software. It should be obvious that people will want to call it “Computer” or “Jarvis”. But do not fret my hacker friends, for I have good news!

It appears that Amazon sees (or had seen all along) that home automation is the future of the Echo. They now officially support Philips Hue and Belkin WeMo gadgets. The Belkin WeMo, which is no stranger to the hacker’s workbench, has a good handle on home automation already, making the ability to control things in your house with the Echo tantalizingly close. See the video below where I test it out. Now, if you’re not excited yet, you haven’t heard of the WeMo Maker, a device which they claim will let you “Control nearly any low-voltage electronics device“. While the WeMo Maker is not supported as of yet, it surely will be in the near future.

We know it sucks that all of this is closed source. But it sure is cool! So here’s the question: Is the Echo the future of home automation? Sure, it has its obvious flaws, and one would think home automation is not exactly Amazon’s most direct business model (they just want you to buy stuff). However, it works very well as a home automation core. Possibility better than anything out there right now – both closed and open source.

Do you think Amazon would ever open the door to letting the Echo run open source modules which allow the community to add control of just about any wireless devices? Do you think that doing so would crown Amazon the king of home automation in the years to come?

Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: Is Amazon Echo the Future of Home Automation?”

Ask Hackaday: Quadcopter in Near Space?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to send a quadcopter to near space and return it safely to the Earth. Getting it there is not that difficult. In fact, you can get pretty much anything you want to near space with a high altitude weather balloon. Getting it back on the ground in one piece is a whole other ballgame.

Why does someone need to do this? Well, it appears the ESA’s StarTiger team is taking a card out of NASA’s book and wants to use a Sky Crane to soft land a rover on Mars. But instead of using rockets to hold the crane steady in the Martian sky, they want to use…you guessed it, a quadcopter. They’re calling it the Dropter.

quadcopter on mars

At first glance, there seems to be a lot wrong with this approach. The atmosphere on Mars is about 100 times less dense than the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. How do props operate in these conditions? Testing would need to be done of course, and the Earth’s upper atmosphere is the perfect place to carry out such testing. At 100,000 feet, the density of the stratosphere is about the same as that of the Martian surface atmosphere. AND 100,000 feet is prime high altitude balloon territory.  Not to mention the gravity on Mars is about 38% of Earth’s gravity, meaning a 5.5 pound model on Earth could accurately represent a 15 pound model on Mars.

With all of these facts taken into consideration, one can conclude that realistic testing of a scale model Martian quadcopter is within the grasp of the hacker community. We’ve seen some work on high altitude drones before, but never a quadcopter.

Now it’s your turn to do something no one has ever done before. Think you got what it takes to pull such a project off? Let us know what your approach to the challenge would be in the comments.

Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: Quadcopter in Near Space?”

Ask Hackaday: The Latest Advances In Perfboard

It’s no secret the Hackaday tip line gets a lot of email from Kickstarter campaigns and PR firms managing Kickstarter campaigns. Most of these are terrible products. Want a five-pound battery that can’t be recharged? Yeah, stuff like that.

Every once in a while, we come across a tip that’s a completely original idea. There’s a balance between ingenuity and practicality with these ideas, and I can’t figure out where this one sits. It’s a Kickstarter for perfboard, yes, but not like any perfboard you’ve ever seen.

Busboard, or solderable breadboard
Busboard, or solderable breadboard

Before we dig into this, let’s get some definitions straight. Perfboard is a sheet with holes drilled on a 0.1″ grid. The holes are plated on both sides, and each hole is an individual electrical node. Veroboard, or stripboard is a bunch of holes on a 0.1″ grid. These holes are also plated, but all the holes in a column are a single electrical node. You can cut the tracks between holes, but the basic idea here is to reduce the number of wires needed to connect components. Busboard, seen left, is a continuation of Veroboard, and is laid out like a solderless breadboard.

And so we come to the new invention, Perf+, the perfboard reinvented. This perfboard again is a series of plated holes on a 0.1″ grid. Alongside these holes is a plated bus. This bus does not connect to any hole; instead, a little bit of solder is used to connect it to holes on the same row or column. “Selective Veroboard,” you could call it.

Now for the real trick: on one side of the board, the plated busses run vertically. On the other side of the board, the plated busses run horizontally. This means any two holes on the protoboard can be connected as one electrical node simply with a bit of solder.

If ever there was an idea you could point to and simultaneously say, “that’s clever” and “I have no idea how to use this,” there you go. I’m pretty sure this idea isn’t better than a piece of stripboard, but it is different. If you have any idea of how to used this new, strange, and otherworldly protoboard for something useful, put a note in the comments.

Ask Hackaday: The Many Uses of Microwaves

When most think of a microwave, they think of that little magic box that you can heat food in really fast. An entire industry of frozen foods has sprung up from the invention of the household microwave oven, and it would be difficult to find a household without one. You might be surprised that microwave ovens, or reactors to be more accurate, can also be found in chemistry labs and industrial complexes throughout the world. They are used in organic synthesis – many equipped with devices to monitor the pressure and temperature while heating. Most people probably don’t know that most food production facilities use microwave-based moisture solids analyzers. And there’s even an industry that uses microwaves with acids to dissolve or digest samples quickly. In this article, we’re going to look beyond the typical magnetron / HV power supply / electronics and instead focus on some other peculiarities of microwave reactors than you might not know.

Single vs Multimode

The typical microwave oven in the millions of households across the world is known as multimode type. In these, the microwaves will take on typical wavelike behavior like we learned about in physics 101. They will develop constructive and destructive interference patterns, causing ‘hot spots’ in the cavity. A reader tipped us off to this example, where [Lenore] uses a popular Indian snack food to observe radiation distribution in a multimode microwave cavity. Because of this, you need some type of turntable to move the food around the cavity to help even out the cooking. You can avoid the use of a turn table with what is known as a mode stirrer. This is basically a metal ‘fan’ that helps to spread the microwaves throughout the cavity. They can often be found in industrial microwaves. Next time you’re in the 7-11, take a look in the top of the cavity, and you will likely see one.

Multimode microwaves also require an isolator to protect the magnetron from reflected energy. These work like a diode, and do not let any microwaves bounce back and hit the magnetron. It absorbs the reflected energy and turns it into heat. It’s important to note that all microwave energy must be absorbed in a multimode cavity. What is not absorbed by the food will be absorbed by the isolator. Eventually, all isolators will fail from the heat stress. Think about that next time you’re nuking a small amount of food with a thousand watts!

Single Mode microwaves are what you will find in chemistry and research labs. In these, the cavity is tuned to the frequency of the magnetron – 2.45GHz. This allows for a uniform microwave field. There is no interference, and therefore no hot or cold spots. The microwave field is completely homogenous. Because of this, there is no reflected energy, and no need for an isolator. These traits allow single mode microwaves to be much smaller than multimode, and usually of a much lower power as there is a 100% transfer of energy into the sample.  While most multimode microwaves are 1000+ watts, the typical single mode will be around 300 watts.

single vs multimode cavity

Power Measurement

Most microwave ovens only produce one power level. Power is measured and delivered by the amount of time the magnetron stays on. So if you were running something at 50% power for 1 minute, the magnetron would be on for a total of 30 seconds. You can measure the output power of any microwave by heating 1 liter of water at 100% power for 2 minutes. Multiply the difference in temperature by 35, and that is your power in watts.

There are other types of microwaves that control power by adjusting the current through the magnetron. This type of control is often utilized by moisture solids analyzers, where are more precise control is needed to keep samples from burning.

Have you used a microwave and an arduino for something other than cooking food? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to [konnigito] for the tip!

Who’s Watching the Kids?

It wasn’t long ago that we saw the Echo bloom into existence as a standalone product from its conceptual roots as a smartphone utility. These little black columns have hardly collected their first film of dust on our coffee tables and we’re already seeing similar technology debut on the toy market, which causes me to raise an eye-brow.

There seems to be some appeal towards making toys smarter, with the intent being that they may help a child learn while they play. Fair enough. It was recently announced that a WiFi enabled, “Hello Barbie” doll will be released sometime this Fall. This new doll will not only be capable of responding to a child’s statements and questions by accessing the Internet at large, it will also log the likes and dislikes of its new BFF on a cloud database so that it can reference the information for later conversations. Neat, right? Because it’s totally safe to trust the Internet with information innocently surrendered by your child.

Similarly there is a Kickstarter going on right now for a re-skinned box-o-internet for kids in the shape of a dinosaur. The “GreenDino”, is the first in a new line called, CogniToys, from a company touted by IBM which has its supercomputer, Watson, working as a backbone to answer all of the questions a child might ask. In addition to acting as an informational steward, the GreenDino will also toss out questions, and upon receiving a correct answer, respond with praise.

Advancements in technology are stellar. Though I can see where a child version of myself would love having an infinitely smart robot dinosaur to bombard with questions, in the case of WiFi and cloud connectivity, the novelty doesn’t outweigh the potential hazards the technology is vulnerable to. Like what, you ask?

Whether on Facebook or some other platform, adults accept the unknown risks involved when we put personal information out on the Internet. Say for instance I allow some mega-corporation to store on their cloud that my favorite color is yellow. By doing so, I accept the potential outcome that I will be thrown into a demographic and advertised to… or in ten years be dragged to an internment camp by a corrupt yellow-hating government who subpoenaed information about me from the corporation I consensually surrendered it to.

The fact is that I understand those types of risks… no matter how extreme and silly they might seem. The child playing with the Barbie does not.

All worst case scenarios of personal data leakage and misuse aside, what happens when Barbie starts wanting accessories? Or says to their new BFF something like, “Wouldn’t we have so much more fun if I had a hot pink convertible?”