Retrotectacular: The Science of Derailing Trains

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Look closely above and you’ll see there’s a section of track missing. There are actually two, a section from each side has been plucked out with a pair of eight-ounce plastic explosive charges — and yet the train keeps barreling onward. The World War II era reel is demonstrating some military testing of the effect of damaged tracks on a train. The amount of missing track the train can stand up to came as quite a surprise for us!

The test setup itself is neat. An old derelict locomotive is used. It, as well as a number of trailing cars, is pushed by a functioning engine from behind. Once up to about 26 MPH the pusher stops and the rest keep going. There are many tests, starting with just a few inches of track missing from one side. This gap is increased, then gaps are added both sides, then the two sides are offset. Even a 5-foot gap is crossed easily by the locomotive. The weak link turns out to be the empty cars. We suppose their mass is small enough that they can’t rely on inertia to keep them on the straight path.

If you don’t appreciate the destructive nature of this Retrotechtacular installment, you can still get your train fix. There is another offering which shows off the modernization of a signaling system.

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[Balint]‘s GNU Radio Tutorials

Waterfall

[Balint] has a bit of history in dealing with software defined radios and cheap USB TV tuners turned into what would have been very expensive hardware a few years ago. Now [Balint] is finally posting a few really great GNU Radio tutorials, aimed at getting software defined radio beginners up and running with some of the coolest hardware around today.

[Balint] is well-known around these parts for being the first person to create a GNU Radio source block for the implausibly inexpensive USB TV tuners, allowing anyone with $20 and enough patience to wait for a package from China to listen in on everything from 22 to 2200 MHz. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in that band, including the ACARS messages between airliners and traffic control, something that allowed [Balint] to play air traffic controller with a minimal amount of hardware.

Right now the tutorials are geared towards the absolute beginner, starting at the beginning with getting GNU Radio up and running. From there the tutorials continue to receiving FM radio, and with a small hardware investment, even transmitting over multiple frequencies.

It’s not much of an understatement to say software defined radio is one of the most versatile and fun projects out there. [Balint] even demonstrated triggering restaurant pagers with a simple SDR project, a fun project that is sure to annoy his coworkers.

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Self-Learning Helicopter Uses Neural Network

model helicopter attached to boom

Though this project uses an RC helicopter, it’s merely a vessel to demonstrate a fascinating machine learning algorithm developed by two Cornell students – [Akshay] and [Sergio]. The learning environment is set up with the helicopter at its center, attached to a boom. The boom restricts the helicopter’s movement down to one degree of motion, so that it can only move up from the ground (not side to side or front to back).

The goal is for the helicopter to teach itself how to get to a specific height in the quickest amount of time. A handful of IR sensors are used to tell the Atmega644 how high the helicopter is. The genius of this though, is in the firmware. [Akshay] and [Sergio] are using an evolutionary algorithm adopted from Floreano et al, a noted author on biological inspired artificial intelligences. The idea is for the helicopter to create random “runs” and then check the data. The runs that are closer to the goal get refined while the others are eliminated, thus mimicking evolutions’ natural selection.

We’ve seen neural networks before, but nothing like this. Stay with us after the break, as we take this awesome project and narrow it down so that you too can implement this type of algorithm in your next project.

 

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Aluminum LED Matrix Looks Professionally Made

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[David Donley] has wanted to make a LED matrix for a while now, and has decided to finally pull the trigger — after all, that many LEDs certainly aren’t cheap!

He’s using a set of 16 Adafruit 8×8 NeoPixel LED Matrices (almost $600 worth of LEDs) and a BeagleBone Black to control them. To mount the LED matrices he bought a sheet of 6061-T6 aluminum for two purposes — one to act as a giant heatsink, and two, to look cool. All he had to do was drill some holes in the sheet for the connectors, and then use 3M 300LSE double-sided adhesive to stick the NeoPixels to the surface. The result is a border-less display that looks clean and professional.

To power the array he’s using a 5V 90A power supply — at full brightness these LEDs can consume around 325W, or 65A at 5V!  Taking notes from the opensource LEDscape code on GitHub he’s made his own software to control the display — stick around after the break to see it in action.

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Final Transmission

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Building a Final Key

Final Key

Remembering passwords is a pain, and there’s a number of devices out there to make it easier. If you’re looking to roll your own, this guide to building a Final Key will walk you through the process.

We talked about the Final Key before. It’s a one button password manager that encrypts and stores your password. It acts as a virtual serial port for configuration. When you hit the button, it becomes a keyboard and types in the correct password.

The creator has no intentions of making this a commercial project for a number of reasons. Instead, easy build instructions are provided based on the Arduino Pro Micro. The 24LC512 EEPROM can be soldered directly to the Arduino by bending out the DIP legs. A few resistors, a button, and an LED finish off the project. The last step is to fill it with hot glue to prevent tampering.

The Final Key firmware is available on Github, and the case can be ordered from Shapeways. If you’re interested in hardware password management, you can also check out the Mooltipass which is being developed on Hackaday.

[Thanks to Lars for the tip!]

Sci-Fi Contest Roundup: The Valve Universe

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While most of the entries to our Sci-Fi contest come from movies and TV shows, a select few are based on the Valve universe, including a few builds based on Portal and Team Fortress 2.

Deadly neurotoxinGLADOS

Who wouldn’t want a gigantic articulated sociopathic robot hanging around? Two groups are building a clone of GLaDOs from the Portal series. and already the builds look really great.

[AmarOk], developed an open-source personal assistant called RORI that intends to be a more helpful version of GLaDOs, without all the testing and killing. He, along with [Peterb0y] and [n0m1s] are turning this personal assistant software into a GLaDOs replica.

Taking a slightly different tack, [Eric] and [jjyacovelli] built a GLaDOs-like robot with a camera in the ‘face’. This camera connects to a Google Glass and tracks the user’s head movements. There’s also a Nerf gun attached to the end of the robot body, triggered by double winking. Yep, it’s a heads-up display GLaDOs, perfect for punishing your test subjects.

Heavy load comin’ through!

Sentry

Not to be out done by a malevolent, hyper-intelligent artificial intelligence, [Tyler] and [Ryan] are building the cutest gat’ dern weapon in all of west Texas. It’s the level one sentry from Team Fortress 2, and the guys are turning one into a paintball sentry.

The TF2 sentry is a cute little bugger capable of motion tracking and perimeter defense, filling enemies with lead should they ever come too close.

While the end result probably won’t be as large or as heavy as the “official” real-life turret, a smaller table-top sized model is probably a little more practical. Even if it doesn’t live up to expectations, upgrading the sentry is simply a matter of whacking it with a wrench a few times.

 

There’s still time for you to cobble together an awesome Sci-Fi project and have a chance to win some awesome prizes.