Diodes: The Switch You Never Knew You Had

Vishay's take on the 1N4148 data sheet (PDF), describing it as a switching diode.
Vishay’s take on the 1N4148 data sheet (PDF), describing it as a switching diode.

When looking across the discrete components in your electronic armory, it is easy to overlook the humble diode. After all, one can be forgiven for the conclusion that the everyday version of this component doesn’t do much. They have none of the special skills you’d find in tunnel, Gunn, varicap, Zener, and avalanche diodes, or even LEDs, instead they are simply a one-way valve for electrical current. Connect them one way round and current flows, the other and it doesn’t. They rectify AC to DC, power supplies are full of them. Perhaps you’ve also used them to generate a stable voltage drop because they have a pretty constant voltage across them when current is flowing, but that’s it. Diodes: the shortest Hackaday article ever.

Not so fast with dismissing the diode though. There is another trick they have hiding up their sleeves, they can also act as a switch. It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, after all a quick look at many datasheets for general purpose diodes should reveal their description as switching diodes.

So how does a diode switch work? The key lies in that one-way valve we mentioned earlier. When the diode is forward biased and conducting electricity it will pass through any variations in the voltage being put into them, but when it is reverse biased and not conducting any electricity it will not. Thus a signal can be switched on by passing it through a diode in forward bias, and then turned off by putting the diode into reverse bias.

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Hacking Your Way Through NASA

The 2016 Hackaday SuperConference took place last month in sunny Pasadena, California. Also calling Pasadena home is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the place where Mars rovers are built, where probes are guided around the solar system, and where awesome space stuff happens.

JPL had a large contingent at the SuperCon and two of them teamed up to present their talk: Charles Dandino and Lucy Du. Lucy is a mechatronics engineer at JPL and already has a little bit of fame from fielding a Battlebot in the last two seasons of ABC’s series. Charles is also in mechatronics, with experience with Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover, and the (hopefully) upcoming asteroid redirect mission.

In their talk, Charles and Lucy uncovered some of the hacks happening in the background at JPL. There’s a lot of them, and their impact goes much further than you would expect. Everything from remote control cars to keeping spacecraft alive on the other side of the solar system.

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Measuring High Voltage in Millimeters (and Other HV Probe Tricks)

I work a lot with high voltages and others frequently replicate my projects, so I often get asked “What voltage is needed?”. That means I need to be able to measure high voltages. Here’s how I do it using a Fluke high voltage probe as well as my own homemade probe. And what if you don’t have a probe? I have a solution for that too.

How Long Is Your Spark?

The simplest way to measure high voltage is by spark length. If your circuit has a spark gap then when a spark occurs, that’s a short-circuit, dumping all your built up charge. When your spark gap is at the maximum distance at which you get a spark then just before the spark happens is when you have your maximum voltage. During the spark the voltage rapidly goes to zero and depending on your circuit it may start building up again. The voltage before the spark occurred is related to the spark length, which is also the spark gap width.

The oscilloscope photo below shows this changing voltage. This method is good for a rough estimate. I’ll talk about doing more precise measurements when I talk about high voltage probes further down.

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Akiba: Shenzhen in 30 Minutes

Multi-talented hacker extraordinaire and electrical engineer [Akiba] is based in Japan, and this makes it just a hop, skip, and a jump over to Shenzhen, China, the hardware capital of the world. He’s led a number of manufacturing tours aimed at acquainting hackers with the resources there, and now he’s giving you the benefit of his experience in a 30-minute video. It’s great.

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You Can Have My LM386s When You Pry Them From My Cold Dead Hands

Everyone has a chip-of-shame: it’s the part that you know is suboptimal but you keep using it anyway because it just works well enough. Maybe it’s not what you would put into a design that you’re building more than a couple of, but for a quick and dirty lashup, it’s just the ticket. For Hackaday’s [Adam Fabio], that chip is the TIP120 transistor. Truth be told, we have more than one chip of shame, but for audio amplification purposes, it’s the LM386.

The LM386 is an old design, and requires a few supporting passive components to get its best performance, but it’s fundamentally solid. It’s not noise-free and doesn’t run on 3.3 V, but if you can fit a 9 V battery into your project and you need to push a moderate amount of sound out of a speaker, we’ll show you how to get the job done with an LM386.

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The Demise of Pebble as a Platform

Despite owning five, including the original Pebble, I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about smart watches. Even so, the leaked news that Fitbit is buying Pebble for “a small amount” has me sort of depressed about the state of the wearables market. Because Pebble could have been a contender, although perhaps not for the reason you might guess.

Pebble is a pioneer of the wearables market, and launched its first smartwatch back in 2012, two years before the Apple Watch was announced. But after turning down an offer of $740 million by Citizen back in 2015, and despite cash injections from financing rounds and a recent $12.8 million Kickstarter, the company has struggled financially.

An offer of just $70 million earlier this year by Intel reflected Pebble’s reduced prospects, and the rumoured $30 to $40 million price being paid by Fitbit must be a disappointing outcome for a company that was riding high such a short time ago.

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Self-Driving Cars Are Not (Yet) Safe

Three things have happened in the last month that have made me think about the safety of self-driving cars a lot more. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued its guidance on the safety of semi-autonomous and autonomous cars. At the same time, [Geohot]’s hacker self-driving car company bailed out of the business, citing regulatory hassles. And finally, Tesla’s Autopilot has killed its second passenger, this time in China.

At a time when [Elon Musk], [President Obama], and Google are all touting self-driving cars to be the solution to human error behind the wheel, it’s more than a little bold to be arguing the opposite case in public, but the numbers just don’t add up. Self-driving cars are probably not as safe as a good sober driver yet, but there just isn’t the required amount of data available to say this with much confidence. However, one certainly cannot say that they’re demonstrably safer.

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