Bring Your Palm VII To ShmooCon This Weekend

We’re not even halfway through January, and already the conference season is upon us. This weekend, Hackaday will be attending Shmoocon at the Hilton in Washington, DC. I’ll be there getting the full report on Russian hackers, reverse engineering, and what the beltway looks like with an ice storm during morning rush hour.

What’s in store for Shmoocon attendees? The schedule looks really cool with talks on something like inline assembly in Python, tools for RF reverse engineering, manufacturing and selling a U2F token, emulating ARM firmware, and so much more. Want to attend Shmoocon? Too bad! Tickets sold out in less than 10 seconds, and we’re totally not going to talk about the BOTS Act at all. If you’re clever you can still pick up a barcode on Craigslist for $300-400, but I wouldn’t recommend that.

As we did last year, Hackaday is going to have a lobbycon with Dunkin Saturday morning at 08:30, although which lobby is still up in the air. Check out the Hackaday Twitter for a few real-time updates. This is a bring-a-hack event, and I’ll be showing off how to add 18dBi of gain to a standard ESP8266 module. Show off what you’re working on and get a donut.

Fail of the Week: NASA Edition

There’s a reason we often use the phrase “It ain’t Rocket Science”. Because real rocket science IS difficult. It is dangerous and complicated, and a lot of things can and do go wrong, often with disastrous consequences. It is imperative that the lessons learned from past failures must be documented and disseminated to prevent future mishaps. This is much easier said than done. There’s a large number of agencies and laboratories working on multiple projects over long periods of time. Which is why NASA has set up NASA Lessons Learned — a central, online database of issues documented by contributors from within NASA as well as other organizations.

The system is managed by a steering committee consisting of members from all NASA centers. Public access is limited to a summary of the original driving event, lessons learned and recommendations. But even this information can be quite useful for common folks. For example, this lesson on Guidance for NASA Selection & Application of DC-DC Converters contains several bits of useful wisdom. Or this one about IC’s being damaged due to capacitor residual discharge during assembly. If you ever need to add a conformal coating to your hardware, check how Glass Cased Components Fractured as a Result of Shrinkage in Coating/Bonding Materials Applied in Excessive Amounts. Finally, something we have all experienced when working with polarized components — Reverse Polarity Concerns With Tantalum Capacitors. Here is a more specific Technical Note on polarized capacitors (pdf): Preventing Incorrect Installation of Polarized Capacitors.

Unfortunately, all of this body of past knowledge is sometimes still not enough to prevent problems. Case in point is a recently discovered issue on the ISS — a completely avoidable power supply mistake. Science payloads attach to the ISS via holders called the ExPRESS logistics carriers. These provide mechanical anchoring, electrical power and data links. Inside the carriers, the power supply meant to supply 28V to the payloads was found to have a few capacitors mounted the other way around. This has forced the payloads to use the 120V supply instead, requiring them to have an additional 120V to 28V converter retrofit. This means modifying the existing hardware and factoring in additional weight, volume, heat, cost and other issues when adding the extra converter. If you’d like to dig into the details, check out this article about NASA’s power supply fail.

Thanks to [Jarek] for tipping us about this.

Encoders Spin Us Right Round

Rotary encoders are great devices. Monitoring just a few pins you can easily and quickly read in rotation and direction of a user input (as well as many other applications). But as with anything, there are caveats. I recently had the chance to dive into some of the benefits and drawbacks of rotary encoders and how to work with them.

I often work with students on different levels of electronic projects. One student project needed a rotary encoder. These come in mechanical and optical variants. In a way, they are very simple devices. In another way, they have some complex nuances. The target board was an ST Nucleo. This particular board has a small ARM processor and can use mbed environment for development and programming. The board itself can take Arduino daughter boards and have additional pins for ST morpho boards (whatever those are).

The mbed system is the ARM’s answer to Arduino. A web-based IDE lets you write C++ code with tons of support libraries. The board looks like a USB drive, so you download the program to this ersatz drive, and the board is programmed. I posted an intro to mbed awhile back with a similar board, so if you want a refresher on that, you might like to read that first.

Reading the Encoder

The encoder we had was on a little PCB that you get when you buy one of those Chinese Arduino 37 sensor kits. (By the way, if you are looking for documentation on those kinds of boards, look here.; in particular, this was a KY-040 module.) The board has power and ground pins, along with three pins. One of the pins is a switch closure to ground when you depress the shaft of the encoder. The other two encode the direction and speed of the shaft rotation. There are three pull-up resistors, one for each output.

I expected to explain how the device worked, and then assist in writing some code with a good example of having to debounce, use pin change interrupts, and obviously throw in some other arcane lore. Turns out that was wholly unnecessary. Well… sort of.

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What Makes the Perfect Hardware Badge

There are only a handful of people who can say they’ve built several successful electronic badges for conferences. Voja Antonic is not just on that list, he’s among the leaders in the field. There are a lot of pressures in this type of design challenge: aesthetics, functionality, and of course manufacturability. If you want to know how to make an exposed-PCB product that will be loved by the user, you need to study Voja’s work on the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference Badge. The badge is completely open, with all the design files, firmware, and a manual on the badge project page.

Between travelling from Belgrade to Pasadena and guiding production of 300 badges across the finish line before the conference deadline Voja took ill. He made it to the conference but without a voice he asked me to give his badge design talk for him. You can check that talk out below but let’s touch briefly on why Voja’s design is so spectacular.

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The 3D printers of CES

CES is over, and now we can take a step back, distance ourselves from the trade show booths, and figure out where 3D printing will be going over the next year.

The Hype Cycle is a great way to explain trends in fads and technological advances. VR and autonomous cars are very early on the Hype Cycle right now. Smartphones are on the plateau of productivity. 3D printing is head-down in the trough of disillusionment.

For this year’s CES, 3D printing is not even a product category. In fact, the official documentation I found at Prusa’s booth listed their company in the ‘Assistive Technologies’ category. These are dark days for the public perception of 3D printing. The source of this perception can be brilliantly presented in a pair of graphs:


The perception of 3D printing has been tied inexorably to Makerbot. Makerbot presented the only 3D printer on The Colbert Report. Only Makerbot had their 3D printing storefronts featured on CNN. It’s been like this for half a decade, and hopefully things will get better.

This doesn’t mean 3D printing isn’t improving. In fact, it’s the best it’s ever been. CES had the most innovative printers I’ve seen in years. I caught a glimpse of this year’s top-selling printer (and it launches in April). Resin machines are going to be very popular soon. What did CES have to offer? Check it out below.

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David Krum: The Revolution in Virtual Reality

[David Krum] is associate lab director at the Mixed Reality Lab at the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC. That puts him at the intersection of science and engineering: building cool virtual reality (VR) devices, and using science to figure out what works and what doesn’t. He’s been doing VR since 1998, so he’s seen many cool ideas come and go. His lab was at the center of the modern virtual reality explosion. Come watch his talk and see why!

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Hackaday Links: January 8, 2017

What do you get when mindless automatons with no capacity for reason or logic converse? While you discuss that in the comments, here are two chatbots on Twitch. The highlights? A few hours ago they were doing the cutesy couple, “‘I love you more!’, ‘No, I love you more!'” thing. This was ended by, “Error, cannot connect to server.” Even robot love is not eternal.

3D printer nozzles wear out. Put a few hundred hours on a brass nozzle, and you’re not going to get the same print quality as when you started. This has led to stainless and silly-con carbide nozzles. Now there’s a ruby nozzle. It’s designed by [Anders Olsson], the same guy who’s using an Ultimaker to print neutron shielding. This guy is a nuclear engineer, and he knows his stuff. This is a nozzle designed to not grind contaminants into extruded plastic, and it looks cool, too.

This is the eighth day of the year, but the guild of independent badge makers of DEF CON are already hard at work. AND!XOR is working on the DC25 badge, that promises to be bigger, badder, and more Bender. I’m loving the Hunter S. Bender theme.

Anyone can design a PCB, but how do you panelize multiple PCBs? There’s a lot to consider – routing, mouse bites, and traces for programming the board while still panelized. This is the best solution we’ve seen. It’s a GUI that allows you to organize Gerbers on a panel, rotate them, add routes and cutouts, and generally do everything a board house does. It’s all Open Source and everything is available on GitHub.

[ducksauz] found a very old ‘computer trainer’ on eBay. It’s a DEC H-500, built to explain the basics of digital electronics and semiconductors to a room full of engineering students. It is an exceptionally beautiful piece of equipment with lovely hand-drawn traces and ‘surface mounted’ 7400 chips mounted on the back side.