Counting Laps and Testing Products with OpenCV

It’s been about a year and a half since the Batteroo, formally known as Batteriser, was announced as a crowdfunding project. The premise is a small sleeve that goes around AA and AAA batteries, boosting the voltage to extract more life out of them. [Dave Jones] at EEVblog was one of many people to question the product, which claimed to boost battery life by 800%.

Batteroo did manage to do something many crowdfunding projects can’t: deliver a product. Now that the sleeves are arriving to backers, people are starting to test them in the wild. In fact, there’s an entire thread of tests happening over on EEVblog.

One test being run is a battery powered train, running around a track until the battery dies completely. [Frank Buss] wanted to run this test, but didn’t want to manually count the laps the train made. He whipped up a script in Python and OpenCV to automate the counting.

The script measures laps by setting two zones on the track. When the train enters the first zone, the counter is armed. When it passes through the second zone, the lap is recorded. Each lap time is kept, ensuring good data for comparing the Batteroo against a normal battery.

The script gives a good example for people wanting to play with computer vision. The source is available on Github. As for the Batteroo, we’ll await further test results before passing judgement, but we’re not holding our breath. After all, the train ran half as long when using a Batteroo.

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.

HiFive1: RISC-V In An Arduino Form Factor

The RISC-V ISA has seen an uptick in popularity as of late — almost as if there’s a conference going on right now — thanks to the fact that this instruction set is big-O Open. This openness allows anyone to build their own software and hardware. Of course, getting your hands on a RISC-V chip has until now, been a bit difficult. You could always go over to opencores, grab some VHDL, and run a RISC-V chip on an FPGA. Last week, OnChip released the RISC-V Open-V in real, tangible silicon.

Choice is always a good thing, and now SiFive, a fabless semiconductor company, has released the HiFive1 as a crowdfunding campaign on CrowdSupply. It’s a RISC-V microcontroller, completely open source, and packaged in the ever so convenient Arduino form factor.

The heart of the HiFive1 is SiFive’s FE310 SoC, a 32-bit RISC-V core running at 320+ MHz. As far as peripherals go, the HiFive1 features 19 digital IO pins, one SPI controller, 9 PWM pins, an external 128Megabit Flash, and five volt IO. Performance-wise, the HiFive1 is significantly faster than the Intel Curie-powered Arduino 101, or the ARM Cortex M0+ powered Arduino Zero. According to the crowdfunding campaign, support for the Arduino IDE is included. A single HiFive1 is available for $59 USD.

Since this is an Open Source chip, you would expect everything about it to be available. SiFive has everything from the SDK to the RTL available on GitHub. This is an impressive development in the ecosystem of Open Hardware, and something we’re going to take a look at when these chips make it out into the world.

Open-V, The First Open Source RISC-V Microcontroller

Open Source software has been around for decades. Over these decades, Open Source software has been the driving force behind most of the Internet, and all of the top-500 supercomputers. The product of the Open Source software movement is perhaps more important than Gutenberg’s press. But hardware has not yet fully embraced this super-charging effect of openness. Being able to simply buy an open source CPU, free of all proprietary bits and NDAs is impossible.

Now, this is finally changing. OnChip, a startup from a group of doctoral students at the Universidad Industrial de Santander in Colombia, have been working on mRISC-V, an open 32-bit microcontroller based on the RISC-V instruction set. It’s now a crowdfunding campaign, and yes, you can simply buy an open source chip.

We’ve taken a look at onchip’s Open microcontroller project before. The team has made significant progress of moving from something that can run on an FPGA to the tapeout of a real, physical chip. The onchip twitter timeline is a flurry of activity, with real silicon and a prediction that 50% of low-end microcontrollers will be running RISC-V in a decade.

A render of the Open-V dev board

If you want to get your hands on one of these open microcontrollers, the Crowd Supply campaign is actually fairly reasonable, considering this is custom silicon. $49 USD gets you a first-run mRISC-V in a QFN-32 package. $99 gets you the mRISC-V dev board with an SD card slot, USB, regulators, and of course the micro itself.

This chip’s capabilities are almost on par with a low-power ARM Cortex M0. The chip itself runs at 160MHz, has SPI, I2C, SDIO, and JTAG, as well as a 10-bit 10MS/s ADC and a 12-bit DAC. There are 16 GPIO pins on mRISC-V. You won’t be able to build a smartphone or laptop with this chip, but you will be able to build an Internet of Things gizmo.

While OnChip’s efforts won’t result in a completely open source smartphone, there are other projects in the works that will bring an Open Source core to more powerful devices. lowRISC is a project to bring a Linux-capable System on Chip to production, and various people smarter than us have brought GCC, LLVM, and QEMU to the architecture.

Most of the efforts to bring the RISC-V architecture, and indeed most Open Source processors, have focused on the big chips — full CPUs and SoCs. Onchip’s mRISC-V goes the other direction to create a small, open microcontroller. If you’re looking to create an ecosystem of Open processors, this makes a lot of sense; there are more Honda Civics on the road than Lamborghinis, and Microchip and TI ship far more microcontrollers every year than Intel ships CPUs.

Crowdfunding: Oh Great, Now Anyone Can Invest In An Indiegogo Campaign

Crowdfunding site Indiegogo has partnered with equity crowdfunding startup Microventures to allow anyone to invest in startups.

The comment sections of crowdfunding sites are almost as bad as YouTube. For every crowdfunding campaign that ships on time, you’ll find dozens that don’t. Thousands of people are angry their Bluetooth-enabled Kitten Mittens won’t be delivered before Christmas. Deep in the comments for these ill-conceived projects, you’ll find a common thread. The backers of these projects invested, and they demand a return. This, of course, is idiotic. Backing a project on Indiegogo or Kickstarter isn’t an investment. It is effectively burning money with the hope Kitten Mittens will eventually show up in your mailbox. Until now.

For an actual investment, there are regulations that must be met. The groundwork for this appeared last year when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) introduced rules for equity crowdfunding. These rules include limitations on how much an individual may invest per year (a maximum of $2,000 or 5% of income, whichever is greater, for individuals with an income less than $100,000 per year), how much money these companies can raise ($1M in a 12-month period), and how an individual can invest in these companies.

Right now, the startups shown on Indiegogo and Microventures include an MMORPG, a distillery and cocktail bar in Washington, DC, a ‘social marketplace for music collaboration’, and a Bluetooth-enabled supercapacitor-powered “Gameball™”. All of these projects actually have documentation, and while the legitimacy of each crowdfunding project is highly dependent on the individual investor, there is a lot more data here than your traditional Indiegogo campaign.

This isn’t fire and brimstone and physics-defying electronic baubles raining down on the common investor, as you would expect from a traditional crowdfunding site tapping into the SEC rules on equity crowdfunding. This is, after all, only a partnership between Indiegogo and Microventures, one of the investment ‘funding portals’ that grew out of the equity crowdfunding regulations. In short, putting an investment opportunity up on Indiegogo will require more effort than a project that is just a few renders of a feature-packed smartphone or a video game with stolen assets.

If anything, this is just the continuation of what we’ve had for the past year. Since the SEC released the final regulations for equity crowdfunding, there have been a number of startups wanting to get in on the action. This partnership between Microventures and Indiegogo was perhaps inevitable, and we can only wonder who Kickstarter is about to team up with.

New Part Day: Smoothie For RAMPS

When it comes to 3D printer controllers, there are two main schools of thought. The first group is RAMPS or RAMBo which are respectively a 3D printer controller ‘shield’ for the Arduino Mega and a stand-alone controller board. These boards have been the standard for DIY 3D printers for a very long time, and are the brains for quite a few printers from the biggest manufacturers. The other school of thought trundles down the path of ARM, with the most popular boards running the Smoothie firmware. There are advantages to running a printer with an ARM microcontroller, and the SmoothieBoard is fantastic.

Re-ARM for RAMPS — a Kickstarter that went live this week — is the middle ground between these two schools of thought. It’s a motherboard for RAMPS, but brings the power of a 32-bit LPC1768 ARM processor for all that smooth acceleration, fine control, and expansion abilities the SmoothieBoard brings.

Continue reading “New Part Day: Smoothie For RAMPS”

Maker Faire NY: Chipsetter, The Pick And Place For Your Production

This weekend at Maker Faire, Chipsetter showed off their pick and place machine. It is, in my opinion, the first pick and place machine designed for hackerspaces, design labs, engineering departments, and prototypers in mind. It’s not designed to do everything, but it is designed to everything these places would need, and is much more affordable than the standard, low-end Chinese pick and place machine.

Inexpensive and DIY pick and place machines are familiar territory for us. A few years ago, we saw the Carbide Labs pick and place machine, a machine that allows you to put a board anywhere, pull chips out of tape, and place them on pasted pads. The Retro Populator is a pick and place machine that retrofits onto a 3d printer. The Firepick Delta, another Hackaday Prize project, takes a mini-factory to its logical conclusion and is capable of 3D printing, populating boards, dispensing paste, and creating its own circuit boards. All of these machines have one peculiarity: they are entirely unlike normal, standard, industrial pick and place machines.

The Chipmaker feeder. Production versions of this feeder will be injection-molded plastic. This one is SLA nylon.
The Chipmaker feeder. Production versions of this feeder will be injection-molded plastic. This one is SLA nylon.

The idea of any startup is to build a minimum product, and the idea behind Chipsetter is to build a minimally viable tool. For their market, that means being able to place 0402 components (although it can do 0201, the team says the reliability of very small packages isn’t up to their standards), it means being able to shoot 1250 components per hour, and it must have inexpensive feeders to accept standard tape.

This is a complete departure from the spec sheet of a machine from Manncorp. For the ‘professional’ machines, a single feeder can cost hundreds of dollars. According to Chipsetter founder Alan Sawula, the feeders for this machine will hopefully, eventually cost about $50. That’s almost cheap enough to keep your parts on the feeder. A pro machine can handle 01005 components, but 0402 is good enough for most projects and products.

This is the closest I’ve seen to a pick and place machine designed to bridge the gap between contract manufacturers and hackerspaces. Most of the audience of Hackaday – at least as far as we’re aware – doesn’t have the funds to outsource all their manufacturing to a contract manufacturer. Most of the audience of Hackaday, though, or any hackerspace, could conceivably buy a Chipsetter. The Chipsetter isn’t designed to be the best, but when it comes to placing parts on paste, the best is overkill by a large margin.

The Chipsetter has a Kickstarter going right now. They’re about halfway funded, with a little more than three weeks to go. Right now, if you’re looking at pick and place machines, I’d highly suggest checking out the Chipsetter. It works, and with forty feeders it’s cheaper and more capable than the lowest priced ‘pro’ machines.