Taming A Variac With A Thermistor

The folks at TOG, Dublin Hackerspace, have a large variac. A variac is a useful device for testing some fault conditions with AC mains powered equipment, it allows an operator to dial in any AC output voltage between zero, and in the case of TOG’s variac, 250V.

Their problem was with such a magnificent device capable of handling nearly 3KW, it presented an inductive load with a huge inrush current at power-on that would always take out the circuit breakers. Breakers come with different surge current handling capabilities, evidently their building is fitted with the domestic rather than the industrial variants.

Their solution was a simple one, they fitted an NTC surge limiter in series with the variac input. This is a thermistor whose resistance falls with temperature. Thus on start-up it presented an extra 12 ohm load which was enough to keep the breaker happy, but soon dropped to a resistance which left the variac with enough juice.

This is a simple fix to a problem that has faced more than one hackerspace whose imperfect lodgings are wired to domestic-grade spec. In a way it ties in neatly with our recent feature on mains safety; making the transformer no longer a pain to use means that it is more likely to be used when it is needed.

Via: TOG, Dublin Hackerspace.

Running a Hackerspace is Hard: Egypt Edition

It’s no secret that it’s difficult to run a hackerspace. Different personalities, different material requirements, and often constrained spaces can require continual negotiation. But if you think that having the metalworking types getting their shavings on your electronics bench is a problem, try having your entire hackerspace demolished on short notice.

The situation in Cairo is far from normal at the moment. The building that Cairo Hackerspace had recently moved to was raided, closed for two months, and then re-opened under strict surveillance in February.

All was well until a part of the building unexpectedly collapsed. Then they got a demolition order, followed by postponement, followed by armed police entering anyway and breaking stuff, followed by a further declaration of the building as safe, and now a heritage site. And all of this over a week’s time. While some of the art studios in the Townhouse were saved, the Cairo Hackerspace’s space is gone.

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The good news? Nobody got hurt in all of this, and the Cairo Hackerspace crew were able to get their gear out after the initial demolition notice. They’ve been working on a mobile hackerspace-in-a-van approach lately, so hopefully they’ll be able to keep on hacking.

So when you’re bickering over who didn’t clean up the hackspace’s coffee machine, or the proper location of your favorite soldering iron, think kindly about the Cairo crew and get back to doing what you do best — projects.

How about you? What hackerspace tales do you have? Contact us through the tips line — we’d love to hear.

Workshops For Timid Solderers

As a hackspace member, it’s easy to fall into the belief that your own everyday skills are universal. Soldering for example. You’ve handled an iron since you were a youngster, the solder bends to your will as a matter of course, and since you see your fellow makers doing the same thing you might imagine that it’s a universal hackspace skill. Everyone can do it, can’t they?

Of course, they can’t. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a parent who tolerated your occasional propensity for acquiring burns on your fingers then you probably won’t have that innate experience with an iron. This extends to people you might expect to have those skills, indeed as an electronic engineering student a couple of decades ago your scribe was surprised to find that the ability to solder was her hotly tradeable skill, amazingly even a lot of EE students couldn’t solder.

So the ability to solder is not as universal as we might expect, and your hackspace will attract plenty of people for whom it is an as-yet-unknown art. What do you do about it? If you are Vancouver Hackspace, you run a workshop whose participants are introduced to soldering through building a simple AM radio. The kit itself is not too special, it looks like one of the Elenco educational kits, but it is what the workshop represents that is important. A hackspace lives or dies by how it shares its skills, and Vancouver’s workshop is a fantastic piece of community engagement. We’d like to see more spaces doing this kind of thing.

So, perhaps it’s time to put our money where our mouth is. How difficult would it be to run a hackspace soldering workshop for the uninitiated? Assuming your space is used to the mechanics of running events, the challenge is to find for each participant a soldering iron, some solder, and a radio or other kit without breaking the bank. An ideal budget from where this is being written in the UK would be £20 (about $29), into which a Chinese kit from AliBaba or similar and a cheap iron kit could be fitted. Some work to decipher the Chinese instructions with the help of an overseas student member and to write an English manual, and we’d be ready to go. If this comes together we’ll report back on whether the non-solderers of our hackspace successfully learned the craft.

We recently featured a similar educational initiative, a course at Swansea Hackspace teaching robotics through an Arduino robot. We would like to encourage this kind of thing, what is your hackspace doing in this line?

Supplyframe Design Lab Residency Applications Now Open

The Supplyframe Design Lab in Pasadena, CA is opening soon. This space is dedicated to making great ideas reality. It is packed with state of the art tools, with plenty of room for classes and collaboration.

Professional level tools and an available workshop are just one piece of the puzzle. To be truly successful, great people need to bring the space to life with inspiring builds and forward thinking adventures. If you want to be part of this community, and have been contemplating an idea for your next product or project, consider applying for a funded residency.

Art, Product, and Technology projects will all be considered. Those selected will be funded up to $2,000 per month. We want to see ambitious projects realized at the Design Lab so don’t be afraid to think big. To help in curating the best projects to fund we’d like to see some of your previous work. If you haven’t already, please share some of your builds on Hackaday.io. The first round of funded projects can be under way as early as June 1st.

Save a Spaceship with Spacehack!

York Hackspace needed a demonstration piece to grace their stand at Maker Faires and similar events. Their solution was Spacehack, a multi-player control console based starship emergency simulator game. Each Spacehack player has console with a selection of displays, switches, dials, and levers. Players must operate their controls in response to a series of sometimes confusing commands the game supplies them from their fellow crew members. Each wrong move brings the disaster-prone ship closer to destruction, and the aim is to keep it spaceworthy for as long as possible. The result is an engaging and addictive draw for the hackspace.

Behind the brilliantly designed consoles, silver ducting and pyramidal hub box the game relies on a Raspberry Pi acting as a server and a Beaglebone Black for each player. All resources can be found on York Hackspace’s GitHub repository. The hackspace has a selection of videos on the Spacehack website, the one below the break shows the game as well as a montage of its construction. Continue reading “Save a Spaceship with Spacehack!”

CarontePass: Open Access Control For Your Hackerspace

A problem faced by all collaborative working spaces as they grow is that of access control. How can you give your membership secure access to the space without the cost and inconvenience of having a keyholder on site at all times.

[Torehc] is working on solving this problem with his CarontePass RFID access system, at the Kreitek Makerspace (Spanish, Google Translate link) in Tenerife, Canary Islands.

Each door has a client with RFID readers, either a Raspberry Pi or an ESP8266, which  connects via WiFi to a Raspberry Pi 2 server running a Django-based REST API. This server has access to a database of paid-up members and their RFID keys, so can issue the command to the client to unlock the door. The system also supports the Telegram messaging service, and so can be queried as to whether the space is open and how many members are in at a particular time.

All the project’s resources are available on its GitHub repository, and there is a project blog (Spanish, Google Translate link) with more details.

This is a project that is still in active development, and [Torehc] admits that its security needs more work so is busy implementing HTTPS and better access security. As far as we can see through the fog of machine translation at the moment it relies on the security of its own encrypted WiFi network, so we’d be inclined to agree with him.

This isn’t the first hackerspace access system we’ve featured here. The MakerBarn in Texas has one using the Particle Photon, while the Lansing Makers Network in Michigan have an ingenious mechanism for their door, and the Nesit hackerspace in Connecticut has a very fancy system with video feedback. How does your space solve this problem?

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A Partwork As A Hackspace Course

If you watch a lot of TV just after Christmas, you will be familiar with partworks. Or at least, you will if you live in the part of the world this is being written from, and if you aren’t you should count yourself lucky. The premise is simple: buy this magazine once a month, and in each issue you will receive a fresh component which you can assemble over time into a beautiful model of a galleon, a Lancaster bomber, or a patchwork quilt.

The value for money offered by such publications is highly suspect, the quality of the finished item is questionable, and though the slick TV adverts make them sound alluring you’re much better off buying the Airfix model kit or just cutting your own patches.

There’s a partwork that caught our eye which may be worth a second look. It’s probably unfair on reflection to call it a partwork though as it doesn’t deserve to be associated with the scammier end of the publishing business. Swansea Hackspace are currently running a six-week all-inclusive course designed to introduce the participant to robotics through a step-by-step assembly of an Arduino based robot. Tickets were £60 ($85) to hackspace members, and all parts were included in that price.

At first sight it might seem a little odd to feature a course. It’s not a hack, you’ll say. And though the little Arduino robot is a neat piece of kit, you’d be right. It’s hardly ground-breaking. But the value here doesn’t lie in the robot itself, but in the course as an exercise in community engagement. If you are involved in the running of a hackspace perhaps you’ll understand, it can sometimes be very difficult to persuade timid visitors to come along more than once, or to join the space. Hackspaces can be intimidating places, after all.

The Swansea course holds the promise of addressing that issue, to say to an interested but non-expert newcomer that they needn’t worry; if they have an interest in robotics then here’s a way to learn. This community engagement and spreading of knowledge reveals an aspect of the hackspace movement that sometimes remains hidden, and it’s something we’d like to see more of in other spaces.