Suddenly, Wireless Power Transmission Is Everywhere

Wireless power transfer exists right now, but it’s not as cool as Tesla’s Wardenclyffe tower and it’s not as stupid as an OSHA-unapproved ultrasonic power transfer system. Wireless power transfer today is a Qi charger for your phone. It’s low power – just a few amps — and very short range. This makes sense; after all, we’re dealing with the inverse square law here, and wireless power transfer isn’t very efficient.

Now, suddenly, we can transfer nearly two kilowatts wirelessly to electronic baubles scattered all over a room. It’s a project from Disney Research, it’s coming out of Columbia University, it’s just been published in PLOS one, and inexplicably it’s also an Indiegogo campaign. Somehow or another, the stars have aligned and 2017 is the year of wirelessly powering your laptop.

disney-research-quasistatic-cavity-roomThe first instance of wireless power transfer that’s more than just charging a phone comes from Disney Research. This paper describes quasistatic cavity resonance (QSCR) to transfer up to 1900 Watts to a coil across a room. In an experimental demonstration, this QSCR can power small receivers scattered around a 50 square meter room with efficiencies ranging from 40% to 95%. In short, the abstract for this paper promises a safe, efficient wireless power transfer that completely removes the need for wall outlets.

In practice, the QSCR from Disney Research takes the form of a copper pole situated in the center of a room with the walls, ceiling, and floor clad in aluminum. This copper pole isn’t continuous from floor to ceiling – it’s made of two segments, connected by capacitors. When enough RF energy is dumped into this pole, power can be extracted from a coil of wire. The video below does a good job of walking you through the setup.

As with all wireless power transmission schemes, there is the question of safety. Using finite element analysis, the Disney team found this room was safe, even for people with pacemakers and other implanted electronics. The team successfully installed lamps, fans, and a remote-controlled car in this room, all powered wirelessly with three coils oriented orthogonally to each other. The discussion goes on to mention this setup can be used to charge mobile phones, although we’re not sure if charging a phone in a Faraday cage makes sense.

motherbox-charging-phone-squareIf the project from Disney research isn’t enough, here’s the MotherBox, a completely unrelated Indiegogo campaign that was launched this week. This isn’t just any crowdfunding campaign; this work comes straight out of Columbia University and has been certified by Arrow Electronics. This is, by all accounts, a legitimate thing.

The MotherBox crowdfunding campaign promises true wireless charging. They’re not going for a lot of power here – the campaign only promises enough to charge your phone – but it does it at a distance of up to twenty inches.

At the heart of the MotherBox is a set of three coils oriented perpendicular to each other. The argument, or sales pitch, says current wireless chargers only work because the magnetic fields are oriented to each other. The coil in the phone case is parallel to the coil in the charging mat, for instance. With three coils arranged perpendicular to each other, the MotherBox allows for ‘three-dimensional charging’.

Does the MotherBox work? Well, if you dump enough energy into a coil, something is going to happen. The data for the expected charging ranges versus power delivered is reasonably linear, although that doesn’t quite make sense in a three-dimensional universe.

Is it finally time to get rid of all those clumsy wall outlets? No, not quite yet. The system from Disney Research works, but you have to charge your phone in a Faraday cage. It would be a great environment to test autonomous quadcopters, though. For MotherBox, Ivy League engineers started a crowdfunding campaign instead of writing a paper or selling the idea to an established company. It may not be time to buy a phone case so you can charge your phone wirelessly at Starbucks, but at least people are working on the problem. This time around, some of the tech actually works.

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First Look: Macchina M2

In the past few years, we’ve seen a growth in car hacking. Newer tools are being released, which makes it faster and cheaper to get into automotive tinkering. Today we’re taking a first look at the M2, a new device from the folks at Macchina.

The Macchina M1 was the first release of a hacker friendly automotive device from the company. This was an Arduino compatible board, which kept the Arduino form factor but added interface hardware for the protocols most commonly found in cars. This allowed for anyone familiar with Arduino to start tinkering with cars in a familiar fashion. The form factor was convenient for adding standard shields, but was a bit large for using as a device connected to the industry standard OBD-II connector under the dash.

The Macchina M2 is a redesign that crams the M1’s feature set into a smaller form factor, modularizes the design, and adds some new features. With their Kickstarter launching today, they sent us a developer kit to review. Here’s our first look at the device.

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This Vacuum Former Sucks

Vacuum formers are useful tools to have around the shop and also an incredibly simple technology. All you need is a plastic sheet, a heater of some kind, a table with a bunch of holes in it, and a vacuum. The simplicity and usefulness of a vacuum former mean they’re perfect for a homebrew build. That said, we haven’t seen many DIY vacuum formers around the Interwebs. Now, there’s a Kickstarter that brings vacuum forming to the desktop. If nothing else, it’s an inspiration to build your own vacuum forming machine.

The Vaquform is pretty much what you would expect from a desktop vacuum forming machine. A 9 x 12 inch forming area is equipped with ceramic heaters to soften the plastic sheet, and interestingly, an infrared probe (think a non-contact digital thermometer) to ensure you’re pulling molds when the plastic is ready, not before.

You can’t push a Kickstarter without some new and novel technology, and the highlight of this product pitch is the Vaquform hybrid system vacuum pump. This vacuum pump, “combines high airflow and high vacuum” and looks like someone slapped a brushless motor on a turbo.

This is a Kickstarter campaign, and so far it appears Vaquform, the company behind this vacuum former, appears to only have prototypes. There’s a big difference between building one of something and building a hundred. As with all Kickstarter campaigns, ‘caveat emptor’ doesn’t apply because ēmptor means ‘buyer’. If you contribute to this Kickstarter campaign, you are not buying anything.

Even though this is a Kickstarter campaign, it is an interesting tool to have around the workshop. Of course, there’s not much to a vacuum former, and we’d be very interested in seeing what kind of vacuum former builds the Hackaday community has already made. Send those in on the tip line.

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.