New Part Day: The ESP8266 Killer

Around this time last year we first heard of the ESP8266 WiFi module. It’s still a great little module, providing WiFi connectivity for all those Internet of Things things at a price point of just $5. It’s an attractive price for a great module with a huge community pumping out a lot of projects for the platform.

Now there’s a new kid on the block. It’s called the EMW3165, and like the ESP it provides WiFi connectivity for a bunch of wireless projects. It’s much, much more capable with an STM32F4 ARM Coretex M4 microcontroller, a ‘self hosted’ networking library, more RAM, more Flash, and more GPIOs. How much, you’re probably asking yourself. It’s a dollar more than the ESP8266.

The datasheet for the module goes over all the gritty details. While this chip has 3.6V I/Os, there are some 5V tolerant pins – a boon for the Arduino crowd. It’s also surprisingly low power for something that connects to an 802.11n network. The real bonus here is the STM32F4 core – that’s a very, very powerful microcontroller, and if you want a 2-component WiFi webcam build, this is the part you should use. There will be a lot of interesting builds using this part. It’s also passed FCC certification. Very cool.

3D Printering: The Makerbot Class Action Suit

Since the 5th generation of Makerbot 3D printers were released at CES in 2014, there has been an avalanche of complaints about the smart extruder in these printers. Clogs were common, and the recommended fix was to simply replace the extruder. The smart extruder is a $175 part, and the mean time before failure is somewhere between 200 and 500 hours. With these smart extruders, you’re looking at a new extruder every dozen prints or so. Combine this with Makerbot’s abdication of open source values, and it’s easy to see why no one in the know would buy a Makerbot.

The performance of the 5th gen Makerbots is also reflected in the Stratasys stock price. The stock has tanked, from a high of $130.83 in early 2014 to a low of $31.88 a few days ago. This has investors calling for blood, and now there’s a class action suit claiming Stratasys violated securities laws. The court docs found by the folks at Adafruit allege Stratasys rushed the 5th gen Makerbots into production resulting in an avalanche of negative feedback, warranty claims, returns, and misled investors until the stock collapsed when the market was made aware of these issues.

The court documents allege Stratasys and Makerbot touted the incredible ease of use and ‘unmatched’ quality of the 5th generation of Makerbots, while former Makerbot employees confirmed known issues with the smart extruder. The 5th gen Makerbots were rushed into production without proper testing for performance and reliability and no standardized testing and validation program. In short, Makerbot itself didn’t know how bad the smart extruder was, but shipped the product anyway. This in turn hurt sales, with one sales executive leaving the company as he “did not want to sell the 5th generation printers after learning about the defect issues because he has a ‘conscience’.”

Despite this, those in charge at Makerbot and Stratasys continued to make misleading  positive claims about the reliability of their printers and how the printers were received by the market. This is the crux of the lawsuit, and something that points to an artificially inflated stock value.

The plaintiffs for this lawsuit are limited to Stratasys stock holders, and anyone out there who only owns a 5th gen Makerbot will sadly be ignored in this lawsuit. Still, if the claims of this lawsuit are true, Stratasys and Makerbot are in for a world of hurt; this is an alleged violation of federal securities laws. demanding a jury trial. Popcorn abounds, and as always, [Zach] and [Adam] came out ahead.

Hackaday Prize Entry: OpenBionics

For the last few years now, the 3D printing community has been searching for a groundbreaking application for out little boxes of plastic squirting goodness. On of the most interesting applications the community has stumbled upon is prosthetics.

There have been a lot of people warming up their 3D printers and laser cutters to make prosthetic limbs in recent years. For [OpenBionics]’ entry for The Hackaday Prize, they’re building a prosthetic hand that costs less than $200, weighs less than 300 grams, and can be easily fabricated with 3D printers and laser cutters.

The human hand is the most complex end-effector on the planet, and emulating its range of motion is a difficult task. Still, the [OpenBionics] team is working hard to properly emulate a thumb with three degrees of freedom, putting 144 different grasps on the hand, and making their hand useful with soft fingertips.

Even with all this capability, [OpenBionic]’s robotic hand – motors and all – is about the same size as a normal human hand. That’s incredible, especially when you consider the motors for your hand – muscles – are all in your arm.

The team has put together a video demoing the capabilities of their hand. It’s somewhat remarkable, and able to do everything from lift a coffee cup to holding a pen. You can check that video out below.


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Prof Gershenfeld Speaks on Fab Labs and all-things Digital

Fab Labs have developed hand-in-hand with the all-too-familiar hackerspaces that we see today. If you’re curious to discover more about their past and future, [Prof Gershenfeld], founder of the Fab Lab, and director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms brings us a fresh perspective on both these fab labs and the digital world we live in.

In a casual one-hour chat on Edge, [Prof Gershenfeld] dives deeply into the concept of digital in our world. We might consider digital to be a binarized signal, an analog waveform discretized into a 0 and 1 from which all of computer architecture is built upon today. Digital doesn’t just exist in the computing sense, however; it’s a concept that has been applied to communication, computation, and, these days: personal fabrication.

[Prof Gershenfeld’s] talk may highlight coming changes in the future, but changes are already happening today. These days, fab labs and hackerspaces serve their communities in a very special way. They take “experts-of-the-field” away from universities and isolated labs, and they scatter them all over the world. With this shift, anyone can walk through their doors and build a solid foundation in fields like embedded programming and computer aided manufacturing by striking a conversation with these local experts. In a nutshell, both spaces found a culture for development of expertise far more accessible to the world community than their university counterparts.

If you can spare the hour, put on some headphones, tune in, and resume your CAD work, PCB layout, or that Arduino library. You may discover that your work is built on a number of digital principles, and that your contributions push the rest farther along the development chain towards building something awesome.

Finally, if you’re interested in taking notes on building your own fab lab, have a look at the inventorylayout, and guidelines at the CBA website.

Intel Buys Altera For $16.7 Billion

Intel, CPU manufacturer we all know and love, will buy Altera, makers of fine FPGAs, for $16.7 Billion.

While most of the news about this deal focuses on the future of FPGAs in the datacenter, getting Altera IP into Intel fab houses is equally interesting. Intel is the current king of putting transistors on a piece of silicon, and Intel’s ability to put a massive amount of transistors on a chip means FPGAs will become even more capable – more gates, more blocks, and more memory. The most capable Altera FPGAs are being made with a 28nm process; Intel could theoretically double the number of gates with the 14nm process used on the new Broadwell CPUs. There is most likely someone at Xilinx tearing their hair out right now, chain-smoking next to a pot of coffee.

News of this buy out comes about a week after Avago bought Broadcom in the biggest semiconductor deal ever, and a few months after NXP and Freescale merged. Cash Rules Everything Around Semiconductors, it seems.

Ducted Fan Drone Uses 1 Rotor for VTOL

Multi-rotor fixed-pitch aircraft – quad, hexa, octa copters – are the current flavor of the season with hobby and amateur flight enthusiasts. The serious aero-modeling folks prefer their variable-pitch, single rotor heli’s. Defense and military folks, on the other hand, opt for a fixed wing UAV design that needs a launch mechanism to get airborne. A different approach to flight is the ducted fan, vertical take-off and landing UAV. [Armin Strobel] has been working on just such a design since 2001. However, it wasn’t until recent advances in rapid-prototyping such as 3D printing and availability of small, powerful and cheap flight controllers that allowed him to make some progress. His Ducted Fan VTOL UAV uses just such recent technologies.

Ducted fan designs can use either swivelling tilt rotors that allow the craft to transition from vertical flight to horizontal, or movable control surfaces to control thrust. The advantage is that a single propeller can be used if the model is not too big. This, in turn, allows the use of internal combustion engines which cannot be used in multi-rotor craft (well, they’ve proven difficult to use thus far).

[Armin] started this project in 2001 in a configuration where the centre of gravity is located beneath trust vectoring, giving the advantage of stability. Since there were no hobby autopilots available at the time, it was only equipped with one gyroscope and a mechanical mixer to control the vehicle around the vertical axis. Unfortunately, the craft was destroyed during the first flight, after having managed a short flight, and he stopped further work on it – until now. To start with, he built his own 3D printer – a delta design with a big build volume of 400mm3. 3D printing allowed him to build a structure which already included all the necessary mount points and supports needed to fix servos and other components. The in-fill feature allowed him to make his structure stiff and lightweight too.

Intending to build his own auto-pilot, he experimented with a BeagleBone Black connected to a micro controller to interface with the sensors and actuators. But he wasn’t too happy with initial results, and instead opted to use the PixHawk PX4 auto-pilot system. The UAV is powered by one 3-cell 3500mAh LiPo. The outside diameter of the duct is 30cm (12”), the height is 55cm (22”) and the take-off weight is about 1.2kg (2.6 pound). It has not yet been flown, since he is still waiting for the electronics to arrive, but some bench tests have been conducted with satisfactory results. In the meantime, he is looking to team up with people who share similar interests, so do get in touch with him if this is something up your alley.

If you want to look at other interesting designs, check this UAV that can autonomously transition from quadcopter flight to that of a fixed-wing aircraft or this VTOL airplane / quadcopter mashup.

Avago Buys Broadcom For $37 Billion

The economy is doing well, and that means companies are spending money. Companies in the chip business are in fact businesses, and spending money to them means acquisitions and mergers. The latest such deal is Avago Technologies buying Broadcom for $37 Billion USD – the largest deal ever made in the semiconductor industry.

The products made by these two companies aren’t usually found in stock at Adafruit, Sparkfun, or in the BOMs on Hackaday.io, but that doesn’t mean these chips aren’t extremely popular in the industry. Avago has a huge catalog of RF goodies and a surprising number of LED products. Broadcom, outside of the SoC found in the Raspberry Pi, likewise isn’t seen very often on workbenches, but their chips are found in everything from set-top boxes to Ethernet and broadband equipment.

Just a few months ago, a merger between NXP and Freescale struck a little bit closer to our hearts, but there is an opportunity for this acquisition to be much more interesting. The company that emerges from the NXP and Freescale merger will be saddled with hundreds of chip lines that all compete with each other – a cornucopia of ARMs, 8051s, Kinetis,  iMX.6, and ColdFires, and that’s just microcontrollers. Avago and Broadcom don’t have a catalog that overlaps nearly as much, and it will be very interesting to see what they can come up with.