Automate the Freight: Drones Across the Sea

When you think about which of the many technological advances of the 20th century had the most impact on the global economy, which one would you rank as the most important? Would it be the space program, which gave rise to advances in everything from communications satellites to advanced composite materials? Or would it be the related aerospace industry, which stitched the world together so tightly that you can be almost anywhere on the planet within 24 hours? Or perhaps it’s the Internet, the global platform for buying almost anything from almost anyone.

Those are all important, but for the most economically impactful technology of the 20th century, I’d posit that the lowly shipping container and the containerized cargo industry that grew around it win, hands down.

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Desktop Factory Teaches PLC Programming

How to train young engineers in industrial automation is a thorny issue. Most factories have big things that can do a lot of damage and cost tons of money if the newbie causes a crash. Solution: shrink the factory down to desktop size and let them practice on that.

Luckily for [Vadim], there’s an off-the-shelf solution for miniaturizing factory automation: FischerTechnik industrial training models. The models have motors, conveyors, pneumatic cylinders, and sensors galore, but the controller is not exactly the industry standard programmable logic controller (PLC). [Vadim] set out to remedy this by building an interface between the FischerTechnik models and a Siemens PLC. He went through a couple of revisions of his board, including one using rivets from the sewing store to interface with the FischerTechnic connectors. Eventually, he settled on more robust connectors and came up with a board that lets students delve into PLC programming without killing anyone. The video below shows it going through its paces; we can only imagine where playing with these kits as a kid would have led us.

As great as [Vadim]’s system is for training engineers, we can also see it helpful in getting kids interested in a career in industrial automation. We recently covered a similar effort to show kids big science using LEGO Mindstorms. Both of these can help get STEM kids to see the wider world of technical careers and perhaps steer them into automation. After all, the people who make the robots are probably going to be the last ones obsoleted, right?

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LEGO Liquid Handler and Big Biology

A career as a lab biologist can take many forms, but the general public seems to see it as a lone, lab-coated researcher sitting at a bench, setting up a series of in vitro experiments by hand in small tubes or streaking out a little yeast on an agar plate. That’s not inaccurate at all – all of us lab rats have done time with a manual pipettor while trying to keep track of which tube in the ice bucket gets which solution. It’s tedious stuff.

But because biology experiments generally scale well, and because more data often leads to better conclusions, life science processes can quickly grow beyond what can be handled manually. I’ve seen this time and again in my 25 years in science, from my crude grad school attempts to miniaturize my assays and automate data collection to the multi-million dollar robotic systems I built in my career in the pharmaceutical industry. Biology can get pretty big in a hurry. Continue reading “LEGO Liquid Handler and Big Biology”

WiFi Power Bar!

Ever wanted to access a file or run some program on your computer while away from home, but the darned thing is turned off? Finding themselves occasionally working away from home and not wanting to leave their computer on for extended periods, [robotmaker]’s solution was to hack into existence a WiFi-controlled power bar!

esp8266-powerbar-thumbInside the junction box, an eight-channel relay is connected to an ESP8266 module. The module uses MQTT to communicate with Home Assistant and is powered by a partially dismembered USB AC adapter — wrapped in kapon tape for safe-keeping. The entire bar is wired through a 10A fuse, while also using a fire resistant 4-gang electrical box. Once the outlets were wired in, closing it up finished up the power bar.

[robotmaker] controls the outlets via a cheap smartphone — running HADashboard — mounted to a wall with a 3D printed support. Don’t worry — they’ve set up the system to wait for the PCs to power down before cutting power, and the are also configured to boot up when the relay turns on.

The best part — the power bar only cost $25.

[via /r/homeautomation]

DIY Wire Spooler with Clever Auto-Tensioning System

[Solarbotics] have shared a video of their DIY wire spooler that uses OpenBeam hardware plus some 3D printed parts to flawlessly spool wire regardless of spool size mismatches. Getting wire from one spool to another can be trickier than it sounds, especially when one spool is physically larger than the other. This is because consistently moving wire between different sizes of spools requires that they turn at different rates. On top of that, the ideal rate changes as one spool is emptying and the other gets larger. The wire must be kept taut when moving from one spool to the next; any slack is asking for winding problems. At the same time, the wire shouldn’t be so taut as to put unnecessary stress on it or the motor on the other end.

There aren’t any build details but the video embedded below gives a good overview and understanding of the whole system. In the center is a tension bar with pulleys on both ends though which the wire feeds. This bar pivots at the center and takes up slack while its position is encoded by turning a pot via a 3D printed gear. Both spools are motor driven and the speed of the source spool is controlled by the position of the tension bar. As a result, the bar automatically takes up any slack while dynamically slowing or speeding the feed rate to match whatever is needed.

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Talking Arduino Tells GoPro What To Do

It’s 2017 and even GoPro cameras now come with voice activation. Budding videographers, rest assured, nothing will look more professional than repeatedly yelling at your camera on a big shoot. Hackaday alumnus [Jeremy Cook] heard about this and instead of seeing an annoying gimmick, saw possibilities. Could they automate their GoPro using Arduino-spoken voice commands?

It’s an original way to do automation, for sure. In many ways, it makes sense – rather than mucking around with trying to make your own version of the GoPro mobile app (software written by surfers; horribly buggy) or official WiFi remote, stick with what you know. [Jeremy] decided to pair an Arduino Nano with the ISD1820 voice playback module. This was then combined with a servo-based panning fixture – [Jeremy] wants the GoPro to pan, take a photo, and repeat. The Arduino sets the servo position, then commands the ISD1820 to playback the voice command to take a picture, before rotating again.

[Jeremy] reports that it’s just a prototype at this stage, and works only inconsistently. This could perhaps be an issue of intelligibility of the recorded speech, or perhaps a volume issue. It’s hard to argue that a voice control system will ever be as robust as remote controlling a camera over WiFi, but it just goes to show – there’s never just one way to get the job done. We’ve seen people go deeper into GoPro hacking though – check out this comprehensive guide on how to pwn your GoPro.

Servo-Controlled IoT Light Switches

The Internet of Things is fun to play with; there’s all manner of devices to automate and control remotely. It can be sketchy, though — make a mistake when coding your automatic plant watering system and you could flood your house. Make a mistake with a space heater and you could burn it down. Combine these risks with the fact that many people live in rental properties, and it can be a difficult proposition to bring the Internet of Things to your home.

[Suyash] came up with a way around this by building 3D printed light switch covers that add servo control. It’s a great solution that it doesn’t require the modification of any mains wiring, and interfaces with the standard switches in the normal way. It makes it a lot safer this way — there are municipal wiring codes for a reason. This is a great example of what you can do with a 3D printer, above and beyond printing out Yoda heads and keychains.

The backend of things is handled by the venerable ESP8266, with [Suyash]’s custom IoT library known as conduit doing the heavy lifting. The library is a way to quickly build IoT devices with web interfaces, and [Suyash] claims it’s possible to be blinking an LED from the cloud within 5 minutes using the tool.

For another take on an IoT light switch, check out this Hackaday Prize entry from 2016.