Wimshurst Machines: High Voltage from the Gods

Wimshurst machine demo
Wimshurst machine demo

The Wimshurst machine is one of the oldest and best known electrostatic machines, consisting of its iconic two counter rotating disks and two Leyden jars. Most often you see someone hand cranking it, producing sparks, though we’ve seen it used for much more, including for powering a smoke precipitator for cleaning up smoke and even for powering a laser.

It works through an interesting sequence of events. Most explanations attempt to cram it all into one picture, requiring some major mental gymnastics to visualize. This often means people give up, resigned to assume these work through some mythical mechanics that defy a mortal’s ability to understand.

So instead, let’s do a step-by-step explanation.

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Origin of Wireless Security: the Marconi Radio Hack of 1903

The place is the historic lecture theater of the Royal Institution in London. The date is the 4th of June 1903, and the inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, is about to demonstrate his new wireless system, which he claims can securely send messages over a long distance, without interference by tuning the signal.

The inventor himself was over 300 miles away in Cornwall, preparing to send the messages to his colleague Professor Fleming in the theater. Towards the end of Professor Flemings lecture, the receiver sparks into life, and the morse code printer started printing out one word repeatedly: “Rats”. It then spelled out an insulting limerick: “There was a young man from Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily”. Marconi’s supposedly secure system had been hacked.

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Where Are the Autonomous Lawnmowers?

It’s impossible to know when society began to manicure its front lawns. Truth be told — cutting the grass was, and still is a necessity. But keeping the weeds at bay, trimming, edging and so forth is not. Having a nice lawn has become a status symbol of modern suburbia all across the globe. When the aliens arrive, one of the first things they will surely notice is how nice our front lawns are. This feature of our civilization could have only been made possible with the advent of specialized grass-cutting machines.

reel mower
Reel Mower [Public Domain]
It could be argued that the very first lawnmowers were live stock. The problem was they were quite high maintenance devices and tended to provide a very uneven cut, which did not bode well for families striving for the nicest front lawn on the dirt road. Coupled with the foul odor of their byproducts, the animals became quite unpopular and were gradually moved out of site into the back yards. Other solutions were sought to maintain the prestigious front yard.

The first mechanical lawnmower was invented in 1830 by a man named Edwin Budding, no doubt in an effort to one-up his neighbor, who still employed a Scythe. Budding’s mower looked much like today’s classic reel mowers, where a rotating cylinder houses the blades and rotates as the mower is pushed forward. Budding was granted a patent for his device by England, much to the dismay of his fellow neighbors — most of whom were forced to buy Budding’s mower due to the fact that everyone else in the neighborhood bought one, even though they weren’t actually needed.

By the early 1930’s, the cold war started by Budding and his neighbor had spread to almost every front yard on earth, with no end in sight. Fast forward to the modern era and the lawn and garden market did 10 billion in sales in 2014 alone. Technological advances have given rise to highly advanced grass-munching machines. For smaller yards, most use push mowers powered by a single cylinder IC engine. Many come with cloth bags to collect the clippings, even though everyone secretly hates using them because they gradually fill and make the mower heavier and therefore more difficult to push. But our neighbors use them, so we have to too.  Larger yards require expensive riding mowers, many of which boast hydrostatic transmissions, which owners eagerly brag about at neighborhood get-togethers, even though they haven’t the slightest clue of what it actually is.

Us hackers are no different. We have front lawns just like everyone else. But unlike everyone else (including our neighbors) we have soldering irons. And we know how to use them. I propose we take a shot-across-the-bow and disrupt the neighborhood lawn war the same way Budding did 85 years ago. So break out your favorite microcontroller and let’s get to work!

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$10 Raspberry Pi Zero W Adds WiFi and Bluetooth

The Raspberry Pi was born on February 29th which means we’re only three years away from its second birthday, and a new hardware release from the Pi Foundation is becoming somewhat of a tradition. This year is no different: a new Raspberry Pi has been announced. The Raspberry Pi Zero W is the latest iteration of the Pi foundation’s tiny and extremely inexpensive single board computer. It’s a Raspberry Pi Zero with WiFi and Bluetooth.

The specs of the new Pi Zero W are nearly identical to the previous incarnation of the non-W Zero. It sports a 1GHz single-core processor, 512 MB of RAM, features Mini HDMI and USB OTG ports, uses a micro USB port for power, features the now-standard 40-pin header with four additional pins for composite video and a reset button. This board, like the second hardware revision of the Pi Zero, also features a CSI camera connector.

Of course, the big feature is the addition of WiFi and Bluetooth. The Pi Zero W adds the wireless functionality from the Raspberry Pi 3B. That’s 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.0.

The Pi Zero’s claim to fame was, of course, the price. The original Pi Zero was at first a bit of hardware glued to the cover of the MagPi magazine, later to sell for just $5 USD. The Raspberry Pi Zero W is priced at just $10.

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The AI is Always Watching

My phone can now understand me but it’s still an idiot when it comes to understanding what I want. We have both the hardware capacity and the software capacity to solve this right now. What we lack is the social capacity.

We are currently in a dumb state of personal automation. I have Google Now enabled on my phone. Every single month Google Now reminds me of bills coming due that I have already paid. It doesn’t see me pay them, it just sees the email I received and the due date. A creature of habit, I pay my bills on the last day of the month even though that may be weeks early. This is the easiest thing in the world for a computer to learn. But it’s an open loop system and so no learning can happen.

Earlier this month [Cameron Coward] wrote an outstanding pair or articles on AI research that helped shed some light on this problem. The correct term for this level of personal automation is “weak AI”. What I want is Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) on a personal level. But that’s not going to happen, and I am the problem. Here’s why.

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What Does a Hacker Do With A Photocopier?

The year is 2016. Driving home from a day’s work in the engineering office, I am greeted with a sight familiar to any suburban dwelling Australian — hard rubbish. It’s a time when local councils arrange a pickup service for anything large you don’t want anymore — think sofas, old computers, televisions, and the like. It’s a great way to make any residential area temporarily look like a garbage dump, but there are often diamonds in the rough. That day, I found mine: the Ricoh Aficio 2027 photocopier.

It had spent its days in a local primary school, and had survived fairly well. It looked largely intact with no obvious major damage, and still had its plug attached. Now I needed to get it home. This is where the problems began.

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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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