CES: Self-Flying Drone Cars

CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, is in full swing. Just for a second, let’s take a step back and assess the zeitgeist of the tech literati. Drones – or quadcopters, or UAVs, or UASes, whatever you call them – are huge. Self-driving cars are the next big thing. Flying cars have always been popular. On the technical side of things, batteries are getting really good, and China is slowly figuring out aerospace technologies. What could this possibly mean for CES? Self-flying drone cars.

The Ehang 184 is billed as the first autonomous drone that can carry a human. The idea is a flying version of the self-driving cars that are just over the horizon: hop in a whirring deathtrap, set your destination, and soar through the air above the plebs that just aren’t as special as you.

While the Ehang 184 sounds like a horrendously ill-conceived Indiegogo campaign, the company has released some specs for their self-flying drone car. It’s an octocopter, powered by eight 106kW brushless motors. Flight time is about 23 minutes, with a range of about 10 miles. The empty weight of the aircraft is 200 kg (440 lbs), with a maximum payload of 100 kg (220 lbs). This puts the MTOW of the Ehang 184 at 660 lbs, far below the 1,320 lbs cutoff for light sport aircraft as defined by the FAA, but far more than the definition of an ultralight – 254 lbs empty weight.

In any event, it’s a purely academic matter to consider how such a vehicle would be licensed by the FAA or any other civil aviation administration. It’s already illegal to test in the US, authorities haven’t really caught up to the idea of fixed-wing aircraft powered by batteries, and the idea of a legal autonomous aircraft carrying a passenger is ludicrous.

Is the Ehang 184 a real product? There is no price, and no conceivable way any government would allow an autonomous aircraft fly with someone inside it. It is, however, a perfect embodiment of the insanity of CES.

The 3D Printers of CES

CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, is in full swing. That means the Hackaday tip line is filled to the brim with uninteresting press releases, and notices that companies from the world over will be at CES.

3D printing has fallen off the radar of people who worship shiny new gadgets of late, and this is simply a function of 3D printing falling into the trough of disillusionment. The hype train of 3D printing is stuck on a siding, people are bored, but this is the time that will shape what 3D printing will become for the next ten years. What fascinating news from the 3D printing industry comes to us from CES?

Continue reading “The 3D Printers of CES”

WiFi Alliance Introduces 802.11ah

For the last decade or so, wireless networking has been entirely about short range, high speed communications. The type of networking needed by an Internet of things is fundamentally incompatible with WiFi, and the reason for this is due to the frequencies used by WiFi networking gear. 2.4 and 5 GHz are very fast, but cannot penetrate through walls as easily as lower frequencies.

This week the WiFi alliance introduced IEEE 802.11ah into the WiFi spec. It’s called WiFi HaLow (pronounced like angel’s headwear), and unlike other versions of 802.11, WiFi HaLow uses low frequencies for low bandwidth but a much larger range.

WiFi HaLow uses the 900 MHz ISM band to communicate, divided into 26 channels. The bandwidth is low – a mere 100 kbps, but the range is huge: one kilometer, or about four times the approximate range of 802.11n.

This is not the only WiFi spec aimed at the Internet of Things. In 2014, the WiFi alliance introduced 802.11af, a networking protocol operating in unused TV whitespace spectrum between 54 and 790 MHz. 802.11af has a similar range as 802.11ah – about one kilometer – but products and chips utilizing 802.11af have been rare and hard to find.

Paddy Neumann’s Bounce Per Ounce is Better Than NASA’s

[Paddy Neumann] is an Australian physicist and founder of Neumann Space, a space start-up with a record-breaking ion drive.

The team at Neumann Space built an ion engine that broke the previous specific impulse (bounce per ounce) record. NASA’s HIPEP thruster previously held this record with a specific impulse of ~9600 seconds (+/- 200 seconds). The Neumann Drive’s specific impulse as recorded by the University of Sydney was ~14,690 seconds (+/- 2,000 seconds). This all equates to better efficiency by the Neumann Drive, however its acceleration does not match that of the HIPEP.

Simplified ion engine diagram courtesy of Neumann Space

The Neumann Drive has another unique advantage in its range of usable fuels. In comparison to the HIPEP which uses Xenon gas as fuel the Neumann Drive accepts a variety of metals including: Molybdenum, Magnesium, Aluminum, Carbon, Titanium, Vanadium, Tin, last and also least according to Neumann Space is Bismuth.

Interestingly, Neumann offered his intellectual property (IP) to the University of Sydney, since the research was done at the University but they passed on the offer. This allowed the IP to be returned to Paddy and he subsequently applied for a patent and began the search for funding for continued research.

Here at Hackaday we like space, in fact we’ve offered to send you to space more than once with the Hackaday Prize. We also enjoy amateur rocketry and young rocket scientists.

Federico Musto of Arduino SRL Shows Us New Products and New Directions

Recently, we sat down with [Federico Musto], CEO of Arduino SRL, for a chat about how the Italian Arduino firm was doing, what new products and projects they’ve got in the hopper, and what they’ve been up to for the last six months or so. It was high time!


The big story from our meeting, that [Federico] actually hinted at before, is the release of the Uno WiFi. How many projects have you seen on Hackaday that are based on an Arduino Uno with an ESP8266 WiFi module plugged into it? A bazillion. The Uno and ESP8266 are like the peanut butter and jelly of the last few years’ hacker zeitgeist.

Uno WiFi

arduino-uno-wifiThe Uno WiFi, then, is the Goober Grape (not an endorsement, you consume this stuff at your own risk). Less poetically put, Arduino has soldered the ESP8266 onto the Arduino Uno for you: no fiddling around with modules and pin-headers necessary. It’s not a ground-breaking innovation, but this is the kind of smart, community-led development that we like to see. You wanted cheap and easy WiFi on your Arduino? You got it.

Indeed, since the Arduino Yun came out, a lot of hackers were using it as a simple way to get their Arduino onto a wireless network: IoT and all that. When the ESP8266 hit the scene, many thought that the Yun looked dead in the water: with the ESP chip, you could get WiFi on your Arduino for half the price. But some folks need the extra power, or would rather just program in Python. Think of all the simple IoT projects based on the Raspberry Pi, for instance.

With the addition of the Uno WiFi, both the simple IoT devices and the more demanding applications can stay within the Arduino family. Go with the Uno WiFi if you want something networked but simple that the standard AVR ATmega328 processor can handle easily. If you actually need the extra computational power and flexibility of an embedded Linux distribution in addition to the ATmega, go for the Yun. If the ATmega isn’t cutting it, or if you need more power or peripherals from the microcontroller side, the new Tian board with its ARM Cortex-M0+ will fit the bill. It’s actually a compelling range of products even if they are superficially similar.


DSCF8150Which brings us to the Tian. The Arduino Tian is a neat new board, in our opinion. It’s got an integrated MIPS processor with 2.4 and 5GHz WiFi on board, as well as being able to do Bluetooth and Bluetooth LE. It runs faster than the Yun by a bit, and it’s got 4 GB of eMMC memory on-board so you don’t have to fool around with an external SD card as you do with the Yun or fruit-pastry Linux single-board computers.

We can’t decide if the Tian (or the Yun, for that matter) is a microcontroller with a Linux computer tacked on, or a Linux computer with a microcontroller to handle GPIO. Most of the applications that we’ve seen fit in with the former. We’d like to see more development on the Linux side, à la Raspberry Pi. In that light, we’re glad to see Arduino SRL continuing work on their Ciao library to help streamline communication between the microcontroller and the Linux box.

DSCF8151One of the cool tricks that [Federico] showed with the Tian was the ability to control the Linux computer from the Cortex M0+ microcontroller. As you can see in this prototype, only a few green wires (and some hot glue) were needed to make it work. The production version of the Tian should have this functionality built in.

As a demonstration, we SSH’ed into the Linux side of the Tian and pressed a button connected to the M0+ microcontroller.

The Linux side shut down gracefully, and we later booted it back up again. This is a particularly cool trick because the Linux side, with its fast processor and WiFi, is a power hog. The M0+ and its associated circuitry, on the other hand, run on very little power and can be throttled back into sleep mode when not crunching numbers. Although the boot-up time for the Linux side means that you wouldn’t be turning it on an off every few minutes, the ability to get the combined system into a low-power state for longer periods of time vastly increases the scope of projects where the Tian would be useful. Cute hack.

The Tian has only been available for about a month now. Have any of you tried one out?

Other Boards

DSCF8149[Federico] also showed us the Lei, which is a China-only Arduino board that combines the Tian’s Linux side with the Atmel ATmega part from the Yun, and has no onboard memory. It’s a cheaper hybrid between the two boards that [Federico] said wasn’t worth getting FCC certified for the US and the rest of the world. With the Yun and the Tian being so broadly similar already, we think that he’s probably right.

What the newest revision of the Yun, the Tian, and even the Lei have in common is that the microcontroller’s USB pins have been broken out to headers so that it could more easily be used as a standalone USB device. This gives even the cheapest boards in the family three ways to connect to USB — device mode through the microcontroller, and both host mode and USB OTG mode also through the Linux side. And it also enables shields, like this GSM shield below, to connect up to the microcontroller over USB. (Although the headers weren’t populated in this photo.)

DSCF8145This photo also shows a cute touch in the physical design of all of the Arduino SRL boards. All of the pinouts are labelled on the side of the female headers. Although we’re sure that you diehard Arduino fans out there can tell your A0 from your A5 in your sleep, we think it’s great not to have to go running back to the datasheet to double-check.

And finally, [Federico] showed me some of the new development they’ve been making on the Industrial and the Industrial 101 demonstration board. The Industrial is essentially the same Linux side as in the Yun, just in a smaller stand-alone package. Pairing this up with the Industrial 101 board, with its ATmega32u4 gives you essentially a Yun, but with a few more pinouts. We’re not yet sure what to make of the module-style packages that we’ve seen from many firms of late — we think that they’re too fidgety for hobbyists, and easy enough to DIY for a firm that’s producing tens of thousands of units. We could easily be wrong.

Anyway, the fun part about the Industrial 101 board was showing off all of the special shields that Arduino SRL has designed to go along with them. Here’s an OLED screen and joystick combo, for instance.

Free Stuff

If you’re interested in the Uno WiFi, you should probably check out the Arduino Christmas Challenge that’s going on through January 31st. If you enter a project on GitHub and register with Arduino, you stand a decent chance of winning a free Uno WiFi in January. (For what it’s worth, Arduino LLC and Microsoft are doing something similar. We’re not picking sides, just pointing out how to get free boards.)

IDE Developments

dl38We’d seen the new(ish) Arduino Studio development environment before, but it only just now made sense to us. Sure, it’s great to have a better editor than the old Java-based one. We’ve all been whining about the lack of code completion and so forth. The new editor environment, based on Adobe’s open-source Brackets editor is a huge step forward. But we’ve got a further direction that we’d like to see Arduino SRL take this, and the fact that the new editor is written in client-side Javascript is a big help.

The Yun, the Tian, and the China-only Lei boards all feature an OpenWRT-based Linux distribution onboard as well as WiFi connectivity. They also managed to get the entire GCC compilation chain compiling natively on the MIPS cores. It shouldn’t be too much more work to get a cross-compiler for the microcontroller up and running on the Arduino’s Linux side. Once that happens, you could compile and flash code onto the microcontroller entirely from within the Yun or Tian. Add in a nice, browser-based graphical editor, and you have a recipe for a self-contained development environment.

os.jsAnd [Federico] demoed some more tricks that point obliquely toward this future of Arduino-hosted Arduino development: we connected over the public Internet to an Arduino Yun in their R&D labs in Sicily that was serving an Arduino-branded version of OS.js, an “operating system” written in Javascript that runs in the client’s browser. Coupling something like OS.js to their Javascript-based Studio, running a cross-compiler on the Arduino’s Linux side would put the last pieces together to enable you to write, debug, and flash microcontroller projects completely on the Yun or Tian, without installing anything on your laptop other than a browser. The Arduino could become its own self-contained toolchain. How neat would that be? We hope we’re right.

Foundation and Stores

After months of legal work and lining up partners, Arduino SRL recently announced the formation of the Arduino Foundation. The Foundation is a non-profit that aims to give out Arduino boards and materials to schools and communities that might not have the resources to do so themselves, and also simply to give back to the Arduino community. In fact, the Uno WiFi Christmas challenge we mentioned above is sponsored by the Foundation.

manifestinoWe’d like to see the Foundation figure out how to reward the people who wrote popular Arduino libraries. In our mind, the success of Arduino is largely due to the enthusiastic and talented pool of coders who’ve written diverse libraries that support every kind of hardware peripheral known to man. There’s a million projects out there that simply use a Dallas one-wire temperature sensor or an RFM12B radio, and every one of them owes the coders who wrote the initial libraries a big debt. It’d be neat if the Arduino Foundation could find a way to pay some of this debt back. And from talking with [Federico], paying the community back is one of their main goals.

Arduino SRL has also thought about how to connect up better with the people making hardware that goes along with their boards — the shield-makers out there. [Federico] said that they’d open up their first brick-and-mortar Arduino store in Berlin any day now. The plan is to have a section of the store dedicated to community projects, giving the people who make shields and other add-ons a place to have their wares seen and sold. It’s also a clever way for the Arduino company to connect closer with the people who are doing the most innovative work in the Arduino ecosystem, so we think it’s a win all around.

And finally, we couldn’t talk Arduino without asking about the legal situation. Although everyone’s lawyers have been busy, [Federico] told me that there’s not much news on the trademark court cases since the last time we talked.

In Italy, and presumably the rest of the world outside of the USA, it’s all over but the shouting. It looks very likely that the court will rule for Arduino SRL, because Italy and Europe has a very straightforward trademark law — the company to file first essentially gets the trademark. And that was Arduino SRL.

Only in the USA is the situation more complicated, both because Arduino LLC filed first, and because it’s possible that Arduino SRL will demonstrate that they were producing boards with the Arduino name on them before Arduino LLC was even incorporated. We’re not lawyers, but this case certainly looks like it could go either way to us. And the US case is not likely to be settled until the summer of 2016, though, so don’t hold your breath.


Maybe 2015 will be remembered as the year of the dueling Arduinos, but we’re hopeful that instead it will be remembered as a year in which a bunch of new and improved Arduino hardware got released. From Arduino LLC, we’ve seen further collaborations with Intel. Arduino SRL has stayed true to their Linux and WiFi roots, coming out with the Tian, Industrial, and the Uno WiFi and continuing work on their operating system and the microcontroller interfacing. All in all, it’s been a good year for Arduino.

We’ve already hinted at some of what we’d like to see on the Arduino scene next year. What do you want to see for 2016?

Reverse Engineering The iPhone’s Ancestor

By all accounts, the ARM architecture should be a forgotten footnote in the history of computing. What began as a custom coprocessor for a computer developed for the BBC could have easily found the same fate as National Semiconductor’s NS32000 series, HP’s PA-RISC series, or Intel’s iAPX series of microprocessors. Despite these humble beginnings, the first ARM processor has found its way into nearly every cell phone on the planet, as well as tablets, set-top boxes, and routers. What made the first ARM processor special? [Ken Shirriff] potsed a bit on the ancestor to the iPhone.

The first ARM processor was inspired by a few research papers at Berkeley and Stanford on Reduced Instruction Set Computing, or RISC. Unlike the Intel 80386 that came out the same year as the ARM1, the ARM would only have a tenth of the number of transistors, used one-twentieth of the power, and only use a handful of instructions. The idea was using a smaller number of instructions would lead to a faster overall processor.

This doesn’t mean that there still isn’t interesting hardware on the first ARM processor; for that you only need to look at this ARM visualization. In terms of silicon area, the largest parts of the ARM1 are the register file and the barrel shifter, each of which have two very important functions in this CPU.

The first ARM chip makes heavy use of registers – all 25 of them, holding 32 bits each. Each bit in a single register consists of two read transistors, one write transistor, and two inverters. This memory cell is repeated 32 times vertically and 25 times horizontally.

The next-largest component of the ARM1 is the barrel shifter. This is just a device that allows binary arguments to be shifted to the left and right, or rotated any amount, up to 31 bits. This barrel shifter is constructed from a 32 by 32 grid of transistors. The gates of these transistors are connected by diagonal control lines, and by activating the right transistor, any argument can be shifted or rotated.

In modern terms, the ARM1 is a fantastically simple chip. For one reason or another, though, this chip would become the grandparent of billions of devices manufactured this year.

7th Period of the Periodic Table Complete

For the last fifty or so years, the periodic table has been incomplete. Elements after uranium on the periodic table have been synthesized for the past few decades, but there were always a few missing blocks in the periodic table. These elements, with atomic numbers of 113, 115, 117, and 118 comprise the missing parts of period 7 – the lowest row – of the periodic table. Now, IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, has announced the verification of the discoveries of the last four elements of the seventh period of the periodic table.

With the announcement of the verification of discovery for these elements, they will get a name. Currently elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 are known as Ununtrium, Ununpentium, Ununseptium, and Ununoctium, respectively. What these elements will be named depends on the proposals by the discoverers of these elements.

Element 113 was discovered by researchers at the RIKEN laboratory in Japan, and these researchers will be able to propose a name and atomic symbol for their discovery. Elements 115, 117, and 118 were discovered through a partnership between the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Researchers at these three laboratories will propose names and atomic symbols for these three elements.

It should be noted that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna each have their own element named after them: Lawrencium and Dubnium, with atomic numbers 103 and 105, respectively. Having element 113, 115, and 118 named after Oak Ridge National Laboratory wouldn’t be a bad proposal, and would be rather fitting given the laboratory’s influence on the last half-century of physics.

Of particular interest is the naming of element 118. Because element 118 falls within group 18 of the periodic table, it is a noble gas, with a particular naming pattern. each of the elements in group 18 end with the suffix ~on, instead of the suffix for the rest of the periodic table, ~ium (helium is the exception to this rule due to historical precedent). Whether element 118 will use the ~on or ~ium suffix is up to debate; current IUPAC rules say all new elements should end with ~ium, but recommendations have been published to name all group 18 elements with the ~on suffix.

This is not the end of the periodic table by any means. It is possible that elements with higher atomic numbers can be synthesized. However, experiments to synthesize element 119 have so far come up short, and the predicted properties of element 119 put it at the limits of what current technology is able to detect.