Riddle: What Metal Conducts Electricity, But Not Heat?

If you can’t answer the riddle, don’t feel bad. Metal conductors usually conduct electricity and heat. Usually, that’s true, but researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that vanadium dioxide can conduct electricity without conducting heat.

The Wiedemann-Franz Law states that good conductors of electricity are also good conductors of heat. Vanadium dioxide not only switches from an insulator to a conductor at 67C (152F), but it appears that it also doesn’t conduct as much heat as that law predicts while it is in its electrically conductive phase.

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Autopilots Don’t Kill Drivers, Humans Do

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report on the May 2016 fatal accident in Florida involving a Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode just came out (PDF). The verdict? “the Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) system did not provide any warning or automated braking for the collision event, and the driver took no braking, steering, or other actions to avoid the collision.” The accident was a result of the driver’s misuse of the technology.

quote-not-a-true-targetThis places no blame on Tesla because the system was simply not designed to handle obstacles travelling at 90 degrees to the car. Because the truck that the Tesla plowed into was sideways to the car, “the target image (side of a tractor trailer) … would not be a “true” target in the EyeQ3 vision system dataset.” Other situations that are outside of the scope of the current state of technology include cut-ins, cut-outs, and crossing path collisions. In short, the Tesla helps prevent rear-end collisions with the car in front of it, but has limited side vision. The driver should have known this.

The NHTSA report concludes that “Advanced Driver Assistance Systems … require the continual and full attention of the driver to monitor the traffic environment and be prepared to take action to avoid crashes.” The report also mentions the recent (post-Florida) additions to Tesla’s Autopilot that help make sure that the driver is in the loop.

The takeaway is that humans are still responsible for their own safety, and that “Autopilot” is more like anti-lock brakes than it is like Skynet. Our favorite footnote, in carefully couched legalese: “NHTSA recognizes that other jurisdictions have raised concerns about Tesla’s use of the name “Autopilot”. This issue is outside the scope of this investigation.” (The banner image is from this German YouTube video where a Tesla rep in the back seat tells the reporter that he can take his hands off the wheel. There may be mixed signals here.)

cropped_shot_2017-01-23-181745There are other details that make the report worth reading if, like us, you would like to see some more data about how self-driving cars actually perform on the road. On one hand, Tesla’s Autosteer function seems to have reduced the rate at which their cars got into crashes. On the other, increasing use of the driving assistance functions comes with an increase driver inattention for durations of three seconds or longer.

People simply think that the Autopilot should do more than it actually does. Per the report, this problem of “driver misuse in the context of semi-autonomous vehicles is an emerging issue.” Whether technology will improve fast enough to protect us from ourselves is an open question.

[via Popular Science].

Paper Toy Can Save Lives

Although there is a lot of discussion about health care problems in big countries like the United States, we often don’t realize that this is a “first world” problem. In many places, obtaining health care of any kind can be a major problem. In places where water and electricity are scarce, a lot of modern medical technology is virtually unobtainable. A team from Standford recently developed a cheap, easily made centrifuge using little more than paper, scrap material like wood or PVC pipe, and string.

A centrifuge is a device that spins samples to separate them and–to be effective–they need to spin pretty fast. Go to any medical lab in a developed country and you’ll find at least one. It will be large, heavy, expensive, and it will require electricity. Some have tried using hand-operated centrifuges using mechanisms like an egg beater or a salad spinner, but these don’t really move fast enough to work well. At the least, it takes a very long time to get results with a slow centrifuge.

[M. Saad Bhamla] and his colleagues at Stanford started brainstorming on this problem. They thought about toys that rotate, including a yo-yo. Turns out, those don’t spin all that fast, either. Then they considered a whirligig. We had forgotten what those are, but it is the real name for a toy that has a spinning disk and (usually) a string. When you pull on the string, the disk spins and the more you pull, the faster the disk spins. These actually have an ancient origin appearing in medieval tapestries and almost 2,500 years ago in China.

[Bhamla] found that how the toy worked was poorly understood (from a scientific standpoint)  and took pictures of one in operation with a high-speed camera. The team was able to create the “paperfuge”, a human-powered centrifuge that would spin at 125,000 RPM, enough to separate plasma from blood in under two minutes and isolate malaria parasites in 15. Some versions of the device could cost as little as twenty cents and don’t require anything more exotic than paper and string. You can see a video about the paperfuge, below.

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A Motherboard Manufacturer’s Take On A Raspberry Pi Competitor

In the almost five years since the launch of the original Raspberry Pi we have seen a huge array of competitors emerge in the inexpensive single board computer market. Many have created their own form factors, but an increasing number have gone straight for the jugular of the fruity board from Cambridge by copying its form factor and interfaces as closely as possible. We’ve seen sterling efforts from the likes of Banana Pi, Odroid, and several others, but none have yet succeeded in toppling it from its pedestal.

The ASUS Tinker specification.
The ASUS Tinker specification.

The latest contender in this arena might just make more of an impact though, because it comes from a major manufacturer, a name you will have heard of. Asus have quietly released their Tinker, board that follows the Pi form factor very closely, and packs a 1.8 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A17 alongside an impressive spec we’ve captured as an image for this article. Though they are reticent about it on their website, there is a SlideShare presentation with some of the details, which we’ve placed below the break.

At £55 (about $68) where this is being written it’s more expensive than the Pi, but Asus go to great lengths to demonstrate that it is significantly faster. We will no doubt verify the accuracy of that claim as the boards find their way into the hands of our community. Still, it features a mostly-Pi-compatible I/O header, and the same display and camera connectors as the Pi. There is no information as to how compatible these last two are though.

Other boards in this arena have boasted impressive hardware, but have fallen down when it comes to the support for their operating systems. When you buy a Raspberry Pi it is not just the hardware you are taking on but the Raspbian operating system and its impressive community support. The Tinker supports Debian, so if Asus is to make a mark they must ensure that its support rivals that of the board it is targeting. If they succeed in that endeavor then the result can only be good news for us.

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Autodesk Moves EAGLE to Subscription Only Pricing

EAGLE user? We hope you like subscription fees.

Autodesk has announced that EAGLE is now only available for purchase as a subscription. Previous, users purchased EAGLE once, and used the software indefinitely (often for years) before deciding to move to a new version with another one-time purchase. Now, they’ll be paying Autodesk on a monthly or yearly basis.

Lets break down the costs. Before Autodesk purchased EAGLE from CadSoft, a Standard license would run you $69, paid once. The next level up was Premium, at $820, paid once. The new pricing tiers from Autodesk are a bit different. Standard will cost $15/month or $100/year, and gives similar functionality to the old Premium level, but with only 2 signal layers. If you need more layers, or more than 160 cm^2 of board space, you’ll need the new Premium level, at $65/month or $500/year.

New Subscription Pricing Table for Eagle
New Pricing Table for EAGLE

This is a bad deal for the pocket book of many users. If you could have made do with the old Standard option, you’re now paying $100/year instead of the one-time $69 payment. If you need more space or layers, you’ll likely be up to $500/year. Autodesk also killed the lower cost options for non-commercial use, what used to be a $169 version that was positioned for hobbyists.

The free version still exists, but for anyone using Eagle for commercial purposes (from Tindie sellers to engineering firms) this is a big change. Even if you agree with the new pricing, a subscription model means you never actually own the software. This model will require licensing software that needs to phone home periodically and can be killed remotely. If you need to look back at a design a few years from now, you better hope that your subscription is valid, that Autodesk is still running the license server, and that you have an active internet connection.

On the flip side of the coin, we can assume that Eagle was sold partly because the existing pricing model wasn’t doing all it should. Autodesk is justifying these changes with a promise of more frequent updates and features which will be included in all subscriptions. But sadly, Autodesk couldn’t admit that the new pricing has downsides for users:

“We know it’s not easy paying a lump sum for software updates every few years. It can be hard on your budget, and you never know when you need to have funds ready for the next upgrade.”

In their press release, they claim the move is only good for customers. Their marketing speak even makes the cliche comparison to the price of a coffee every day. Seriously.

[Garrett Mace] summarized his view on this nicely on Twitter: “previously paid $1591.21 for 88 months == $18.08/mo. Moving to $65/mo? KICAD looks better.”

We agree [Garrett]. KiCad has been improving steadily in the past years, and now is definitely a good time for EAGLE users to consider it before signing on to the Autodesk Subscription Plan™.

The ARRL Raises A Stink About Illegal FPV Transmitters

We have all been beneficiaries of the boom in availability of cheap imported electronics over the last decade. It is difficult to convey to someone under a certain age the step change in availability of parts and modules that has come about as a result of both the growth of Chinese manufacturing and Internet sales that allow us direct access to sellers we would once only have found through a lengthy flight and an intractable language barrier.

So being able to buy an ESP8266 module or an OLED display for relative pennies is good news, but there is a downside to this free-for-all. Not all the products on offer are manufactured to legal standards wherever in the world we as customers might be, and not all of them are safe to use. We’ve all seen teardowns of lethal iPhone charger knock-offs, but this week the ARRL has highlighted an illegal import that could take being dangerous to a whole new level as well as bring an already beleaguered section of our community to a new low.

The products the radio amateurs are concerned about are video transmitters that work in the 1.2GHz band. These are sold for use with FPV cameras on multirotors, popularly referred to as drones, and are also being described as amateur radio products though their amateur radio application is minimal. The ARRL go into detail in their official complaint (PDF) about how these devices’ channels sit squarely over the frequencies used by GLONASS positioning systems, and most seriously, the frequencies used by the aircraft transponders on which the safety of our air traffic control system relies.

The multirotor community is the unfortunate recipient of a lot of bad press, most of which is arguably undeserved and the result of ignorant mass media reporting. We’ve written on this subject in the past, and reported on some of the proposals from governments which do not sound good for the enthusiast. It is thus a huge concern that products like those the ARRL is highlighting could result in interference with air traffic, this is exactly not the association that multirotor fliers need in a hostile environment.

The ARRL complaint highlights a particular model with a 5W output, which is easily high enough to cause significant interference. It is however just one of many similar products, which a very straightforward search on the likes of AliExpress or eBay will find on sale for prices well under $100. So if you are concerned with multirotors we’d urge you to ensure that the FPV transmitters you or your friends use are within the legal frequencies and power levels. We’re sure none of you would want an incident involving a manned aircraft on your conscience, nor would you relish the prospect of the encounter with law enforcement that would inevitably follow.

In the past we’ve taken a look at some of the fuss surrounding reported drone incidents, and brought you news of an Australian sausage lover in hot water for drone-based filming. It’s a hostile world out there, fly safe!

Raspberry Pi Launches Compute Module 3

The forgotten child of the Raspberry Pi family finally has an update. The Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3 has been launched.

The Pi 3 Compute Module was teased all the way back in July, and what we knew then is just about what we know now. The new Compute Module is based on the BCM2837 processor – the same as found in the Raspberry Pi 3 – running at 1.2 GHz with 1 gigabyte of RAM. The basic form factor SODIMM form factor remains the same between the old and new Compute Modules, although the new version is 1 mm taller.

The Compute Module 3 comes with four gigabytes of eMMC Flash and sells for $30 on element14 and RS Components. There’s also a cost-reduced version called the Compute Module 3 Light that forgoes the eMMC Flash and instead breaks out those pins to the connector, allowing platform integrators to put an SD card or Flash chip on a daughter (mother?) board. The CM3 Lite version sells for $25. Continue reading “Raspberry Pi Launches Compute Module 3”