DIY Oscilloscope with a Scanning Laser

If you’ve ever used an old-school analog oscilloscope (an experience everyone should have!) you probably noticed that the trace is simply drawn by a beam that scans across the CRT at a constant rate, creating a straight line when there’s no signal. The input signal simply affects the y-component of the beam, deflecting it into the shape of your waveform. [Steve] wrote in to let us know about his home-built “oscilloscope” that works a lot like a simple analog oscilloscope, albeit with a laser instead of  a CRT.

[Steve]’s scope is built out of a hodgepodge of parts including Lego, an Erector set, LittleBits, and a Kano Computer (based on a Raspberry Pi). The Pi generates a PWM signal that controls the speed of a LittleBits motor. The motor is hooked up to a spinning mirror that sweeps the laser across some graph paper, creating a straight laser line.

After he got his sweep working, [Steve] took a small speaker and mounted a mirror to its cone. Next he mounted the speaker so the laser’s beam hits the mirror on the speaker, the spinning sweep mirror, and finally the graph paper display. The scope’s input signal (in this case, audio from a phone) is fed into the speaker which deflects the laser beam up and down as it is swept across the paper, forming a nice oscilloscope-like trace.

While [Steve]’s scope might not be incredibly usable in most cases, it’s still a great proof of concept and a good way to learn how old oscilloscopes work. Check out the video after the break to see the laser scope in action.

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How Cheap Is Cheap?

The Nordic Semiconductor nRF24L01 is the older sibling of the nRF24L01+ and is not recommended for new designs anymore. Sometimes, if you’re looking for a cheaper bargain, the older chip may the way to go. [necromant] recently got hold of a bunch of cheap nrf24l01 modules. How cheap ? Does $0.55 sound cheap enough?

Someone back east worked out how to cost-optimize cheap modules and make them even cheaper. At that price, the modules would have severe performance limitations, if they worked at all. [necromant] decided to take a look under the hood. First off, there’s no QFN package on the modules. Instead they contain a COB (chip on board) embedded in black epoxy. [necromant] guesses it’s most likely one of those fake ASICs under the epoxy with more power consumption and less sensitivity. But there’s a step further you can go in making it cheaper. He compared the modules to the reference schematics, and found several key components missing. A critical current set resistor is missing (unless it’s hiding under the epoxy). And many of the components on the transmit side are missing – which means signal power would be nowhere near close to the original modules.

The big question is if they work or not ? In one test, the radio did not work at all. In a different setup, it worked, albeit with very low signal quality. If you are in Moscow, and have access to 2.4Ghz RF analysis tools, [necromant] would like to hear from you, so he can look at the guts of these modules.

Thanks to [Andrew] for sending in this tip.

Killer USB Drive is Designed to Fry Laptops

[Dark Purple] recently heard a story about how someone stole a flash drive from a passenger on the subway. The thief plugged the flash drive into his computer and discovered that instead of containing any valuable data, it completely fried his computer. The fake flash drive apparently contained circuitry designed to break whatever computer it was plugged into. Since the concept sounded pretty amazing, [Dark Purple] set out to make his own computer-frying USB drive.

While any electrical port on a computer is a great entry point for potentially hazardous signals, USB is pretty well protected. If you short power and ground together, the port simply shuts off. Pass through a few kV of static electricity and TVS diodes safely shunt the power. Feed in an RF signal and the inline filtering beads dissipate most of the energy.

To get around or break through these protections, [Dark Purple]’s design uses an inverting DC-DC converter. The converter takes power from the USB port to charge a capacitor bank up to -110VDC. After the caps are charged, the converter shuts down and a transistor shunts the capacitor voltage to the data pins of the port. Once the caps are discharged, the supply fires back up and the cycle repeats until the computer is fried (typically as long as bus voltage is present). The combination of high voltage and high current is enough to defeat the small TVS diodes on the bus lines and successfully fry some sensitive components—and often the CPU. USB is typically integrated with the CPU in most modern laptops, which makes this attack very effective.

Thanks for the tip, [Pinner].

Design in Package Flexibility into Your Next PCB

To err is human.  And to order the wrong component foot print is just part of engineering. It happens to us all; You’re working hard to finish a design, you have PCBs on the way and you’re putting in your order into your favorite parts supplier. It’s late, and you’re tired. You hit submit, and breathe a sigh of relief. Little do you know that in about a week when everything arrives, that you’ll have ordered the wrong component package for your design.

Well, fear not. [David Cook] has a solution that could save your bacon. He shows you how to design multiple footprints into your board to avoid the most common mistakes such as voltage regulators with different pin-outs than expected. Other uses for the trick include, common trim pots with different pin spacing and a layout for decoupling caps that will fit both a 0.1″ and 0.2″ footprints.

We’ll file this under the “Why Didn’t I Think of That” category. It’s a super simple hack, but that’s what we love about it. We could see this being very handy for people who often scavenge parts. Also, for makers that sell just a bare PCBs (without parts) to those that want just a board. No, it won’t save you if your need an SMD and you mistakenly ordered a dip, but at the end of the day, it’s a nice trick to keep up your sleeve.  You might never know when you’ll need it.

Penny and Paper Clip Heat Sinks

A bunch of audio heads over at the Head-Fi forum were discussing handy and quick heat sinking methods, leading to much speculation and conjecture. This finally prompted [tangentsoft] to take matters in his own hands and run some tests on DIY Heat Sinks.

The question that sparked this debate was if a paper clip is a good enough heat sink to be used for a TO220 package. Some folks suggested copper pennies (old ones minted 1981 and earlier – the new ones are zinc with copper plating and won’t help much). [tangentsoft] built a jig to test six LM317 regulators in constant current mode set to 0.125A and 2w dissipation. The six configurations were a paper clip, a single penny bolted to the regulator, a regular Aavid TO220 heat sink, a set of 4 pennies bolted, a single penny epoxy glued and finally a single penny soldered directly to the regulator.

The results were pretty interesting. The paper clip scored better than any of the single pennies! The quad-penny and the Aavid heat sink fared above all the other configurations, and almost at par with each other. [tangentsoft] posts his review of each configurations performance and also provides details of his test method, in case someone else wants to replicate his tests to corroborate the results. He tested each configuration independently for one hour, gathering just over 10000 readings for each setup. Other nearby heat sources were turned off, and he placed strategic barriers around the test circuit to isolate it from the effects of other cooling / heating sources. He even removed himself from the test area and monitored his data logging remotely from another room. When he noticed a couple of suspect deviations, he restarted the test.

[tangentsoft] put all the data through Mathematica and plotted his results for analysis, available at this link [pdf, 2.8MB]. So the next time you want to heat sink a regulator for cheap, just hunt for Clippy in your box of office supplies. Do remember that these methods will work for only a couple of watts dissipation. If you would like to cast and build your own heat sinks out of aluminum, check out this post about DIY Aluminum heat sink casting. And if you need help calculating heat sink parameters, jump to 12:00 minutes in this video from [Dave]’s EEVBlog episode on Dummy loads and heat sinks.

Thanks to [Greg] for sending in this tip.

Looking inside the KR580VM80A Soviet i8080 clone

The folks at Zeptobars are on a roll, sometimes looking deep inside historic chips and at others exposing fake devices for our benefit. Behind all of those amazing die shots are hundreds of hours of hard work. [Mikhail] from Zeptobars recently tipped us off on the phenomenal work done by engineer [Vslav] who spent over 1000 hours reverse engineering the Soviet KR580VM80A – one of the most popular micro-controllers of the era and a direct clone of the i8080.

But before [Vslav] could get down to creating the schematic and Verilog model, the chip needed to be de-capped and etched. As they etched down, they created a series of high resolution images of the die. At the end of that process, they were able to determine that the chip had exactly 4758 transistors (contrary to rumors of 6000 or 4500). With the images done, they were able to annotate the various parts of the die, create a Verilog model and the schematic. A tough compatibility test confirmed the veracity of their Verilog model. All of the source data is available via a (CC-BY-3.0) license from their website. If this looks interesting, do check out some of their work that we have featured earlier like comparing real and fake Nordic dies and amazing descriptions of how they figure out the workings of these decapped chips. If this is too deep for you check out the slightly simpler but equally awesome process of delayering PCBs.

Design & Build Part 2: Multi-Band, Phasing SSB, and SDR


Amateur radio is the ultimate hacker’s hobby. You can design, build, and put on the air your own high power transceivers. And with this homemade gear you are able to reach out directly, not relying on any infrastructure whatsoever, to connect with people all over the world. It is a thrilling experience to communicate with that long distance station using equipment you created, where you know at that instant what every single transistor is doing as you key down the mic.

In a previous post I described how SSB radio equipment worked and provided an example of a single-band 20m SSB transceiver. In this post I will discuss a multi-band SSB transceiver, an entire homemade amateur station including amplifiers, and conclude with software defined radio (SDR) that you can make in one weekend.

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