Hacklet 74 – Well Balanced Projects

Balance: we humans take it for granted. Without the sense of balance provided by our inner ears, we would have a hard time standing or walking around. What’s easy for us can be very hard for machines though. Projects that balance things have long been a challenge for engineers, makers and hackers. And rightly so, as building a machine to keep an object in balance often requires some novel electronic and mechanical solutions. This week’s Hacklet is all about projects that keep an object – or themselves – in balance.

wheelWe start with [Manuel Kasten] and Balance Wheel. Inspired by a project at Chaos Communication Congress, [Manuel] created a hack that looks timeless. A stainless steel ball is balanced on top of a wooden wheel. The system detects the ball’s position using a solar cell. More light on the cell means the ball is slipping off the wheel. The system counteracts this by spinning the wheel to oppose the falling ball. In the old days this would have been an analog system. [Manuel] made things a bit more modern by using an ATmega644p processor. The video shows the wheel spinning a bit fast, as the system was tuned for a ping pong ball rather than a heavy steel roller.

sidewayNext up is [Jason Dorie] with Sideway. Sideway is a two-wheeled skateboard that self-balances. One of the best parts of this project is that most of the mechanical components are from electric scooters, which means they are easy to source. The frame is even easier: A solid piece of plywood supports the rider and all the electronics. Two scooter motors are driven by a Sabertooth 2x32A motor controller. A Parallax Propeller performs the balancing act, obtaining IMU data from an ITG3200 digital gyro and an ADXL345 accelerometer. Speed is controlled by leaning forward and back, like a Segway. Steering is controlled by a Wiimote nunchuck. Sideway is powered by 3 cell LiPo batteries. [Jason] says this ride gets a lot of attention every time he takes it out.


balance-robot[Dominic Robillard] developed his Stair-climbing self-balancing robot as part of his masters degree at the University of Ottawa. We don’t know what grade his advisors gave him, but we give this project an A+. The robot is a 4WD off-road monster. Two heavy-duty drive motors give it tank style steering. The most impressive part of the robot are the two arms which allow it to roll its entire chassis up and over obstacles which would stop much larger robots. [Dominic’s] robot isn’t just statically balanced though – it can rear up and ride on two wheels Segway style. If it does tip over, the arms will lift it right back up!


terrabalanceFinally, we have [Paul Bristow] with Terabalance. [Paul] got his hands on an early copy of the TeraRanger One, a Time of Flight (ToF) sensor developed at CERN. He decided to test it out by using it to balance a ping pong ball on a wooden bar. The sensor had to be slowed down quite a bit in this application, data is only read about 1000 times a second and averaged. An Arduino reads the distance data from the sensor and uses that data to drive a hobby servo. No PID loops here, in fact, Terabalance is a great example of how a proportional only system will hunt forever. That said, it is good enough to keep the ball on the balance bar.

There are a plenty of balancing projects on Hackaday.io. If you want to see more, check out the new well balanced project list! Did I miss your project? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Scanning Electron Microscope Images and Animations Pulled By Impressive Teensy LC Setup

When you’ve got a scanning electron microscope sitting around, you’re going to find ways to push the awesome envelope. [Ben Krasnow] is upping his SEM game with a new rig to improve image capture (video link) and more easily create animated GIFs and videos.

The color scheme of the SEM housing gives away its 80s vintage, and the height of image capture technology back then was a Polaroid camera mounted over the instrument’s CRT. No other video output was provided, so [Ben] dug into the blueprints and probed around till he found the high-resolution slow scan signal.

To make his Teensy-LC happy, he used a few op-amps to condition the analog signal for the greatest resolution and split out the digital sync signals, which he fed into the analog and digital ports respectively. [Ben] then goes into a great deal of useful detail on how he got the video data encoded and sent over USB for frame capture and GIF generation. Reading the ADC quickly without jitter and balancing data collection with transmission were tricky, but he has established a rock-solid system for it.

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The Kraakdoos — Musical Abuser of an Ancient OpAmp

A friend from the newly founded Yeovil Hackerspace introduced me to a device known as “The Kraakdoos” or cracklebox.

The cracklebox is an early electronic instrument produced by STEIM in the 1970s. The instrument consists of a single PCB with a number of copper pads exposed on one side. The player touches the pads and the instrument emits… sounds which can perhaps best be described as squeeze and squeals.

While the cracklebox was original sold as a complete instrument, the device has been reverse engineered, and the schematic documented. What lies inside is quite fascinating.

The heart of the cracklebox is an ancient opamp, the LM709. The LM709 is the predecessor to the famous LM741. Unlike the 741 the 709 had no internal frequency compensation. Frequency compensation is used to intentionally limit the bandwidth of an opamp. As input frequency increases, the phase shift of the opamp also increases. This can result in undesirable oscillation, as the feedback network forms an unintentional phase-shift oscillator.

Most modern opamps have internal frequency compensation, but the 709 doesn’t. Let’s see how this is used in the cracklebox:

krackdoos_schRather than using the frequency compensation pins as intended the cracklebox just routes them out to pads. In fact the cracklebox routes almost all the pins on the opamp out to pads, including the inverting and non-inverting inputs. A single 1MOhm feedback resistor is used in a non-inverting configuration. However reports suggest the instrument can work without a feedback resistor at all!

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Core Memory for the Hard Core

[Brek] needed to store 64 bits of data from his GPS to serve as a last-known-position function. This memory must be non-volatile, sticking around when the GPS and power are off. Solutions like using a backup battery or employing a $0.25 EEPROM chip were obviously too pedestrian. [Brek] wanted to store his 64 bits in style and that means hand-wired core memory.

OK, we’re pretty sure that the solution came first, and then [Brek] found a fitting problem that could be solved, but you gotta give him props for a project well executed and well documented.

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Before Arduino There was Basic Stamp: A Classic Teardown

Microcontrollers existed before the Arduino, and a device that anyone could program and blink an LED existed before the first Maker Faire. This might come as a surprise to some, but for others PICs and 68HC11s will remain as the first popular microcontrollers, found in everything from toys to microwave ovens.

Arduino can’t even claim its prominence as the first user-friendly microcontroller development board. This title goes to the humble Basic Stamp, a four-component board that was introduced in the early 1990s. I recently managed to get my hands on an original Basic Stamp kit. This is the teardown and introduction to the first user friendly microcontroller development boards. Consider it a walk down memory lane, showing us how far the hobbyist electronics market has come in the past twenty year, and also an insight in how far we have left to go.

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Turning A Typewriter Into A Mechanical Keyboard

Is your keyboard too quiet? Is your Cherry MX Blue board not driving your coworkers crazy enough? If the machine gun fire of a buckling spring keyboard isn’t enough for you, there’s only one solution: [Russell]’s typewriter turned into a mechanical keyboard.

Converting typewriters into keyboards has been done for a very long time; teletypes, the first computer keyboards, were basically typewriters, and the 1970s saw a number of IBM Selectrics converted into a keyboard with serial output. Even in recent years, typewriters have been converted into keyboards with the help of some switches and an ATMega. [Russell]’s mechanical keyboard improves on all of these builds by making the electronic interface dead simple, and a project that can be done by anyone.

Instead of installing switches underneath every key or futzing about with the weird mechanics of a Selectric typewriter, [Russell] is only installing a touch-sensitive position sensor into the frame of the typewriter. When a key is pressed, it strikes a crossbar in the frame of the typewriter. With a single ADC chip and a Raspberry Pi, [Russell] can determine which key was pressed and use that information to output a character to a terminal.

It’s a very simple solution for an electrical interface to a mechanical device, and the project seems to work well enough. [Russell] is using his new keyboard with Vim, even, something you can check out in the video below.

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You Can Have my TIPs When You Pry them from my Cold, Dead Hands

We’ve seen a growing number of posts and recommendations around the net regarding components, specifically transistors. “Don’t use old parts” they cry,  “Go with newer components.”  You can often find these recommendations on Arduino forums. This all came to a head with a page called “Do Not TIP,” which was linked in the Arduino subreddit.  This page belongs to [Tom Jennings], creator of Fidonet, and one of the early authors of what would become Phoenix BIOS. [Tom] and a few others have been calling for everyone to send their old parts to the landfill – not use them, nor gift them to new experimenters. Get them out of the food chain. No offense to [Tom], but we have to disagree. These parts are still perfectly usable for experienced designers, and have a lot to offer new hardware hackers.

TIP is the part number prefix for a series of power transistors created by Texas Instruments.  In fact, “TIP” stands for Texas Instruments Power. The series was originally released in 1969. Yes, that’s right, 1969. Why are we still using parts designed when man first walked on the moon? The same reason people are still using the 555 timer: they’re simple, they’re easily available, they’re robust, and most of all, they get the job done. The TIP series has been used in thousands of classes, tutorials both online and off, and millions of projects over the years. Much of that documentation is already out there on the internet. The TIP series is also out in the distribution channel – they’ve been used for 40 years. Any retail shop that stocks a few electronics parts will have at least one of the TIP series.

The TIP series aren’t always the best transistors for the job. However, for most hobbyist-designed circuits, we don’t need the best performance, nor the best price – we’re going to use the parts we have on hand. There is always room to improve once you get the basic circuit working.

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