Drop-in Controller for eBay K40 Laser Engraver Gets Results

[Paul de Groot] wrote in to let us know about a drop-in controller replacement he designed for those economical K40 laser engravers that are everywhere on eBay. With the replacement controller, greatly improved engraving results are possible along with a simplified toolchain. Trade in the proprietary software and that clunky security dongle for Inkscape and a couple of plugins! [Paul] felt that the work he accomplished was too good to keep to himself, and is considering a small production run.

Laser engravers are in many ways not particularly complex devices; a motion controller moves the head in x and y, and the laser is turned on or off when needed. But of course, the devil is in the details and there can be a surprising amount of stuff between having a design on your screen and getting it cut or engraved in the machine. Designing in Inkscape, exporting to DXF, importing the DXF to proprietary software (which requires a USB security dongle to run), cleaning up any DXF import glitches, then finally cutting the job isn’t unusual. And engraving an image with varying shades and complex dithering? The hardware may be capable, but the stock software and controller? Not so much. It’s easy to see why projects to replace the proprietary controllers and software with open-source solutions have grown.

Cheap laser engravers may come with proprietary controllers and software, but they don’t need to stay that way. Other efforts we have seen in this area include LaserWeb, which provides a browser-based interface to a variety of open-source motion controllers like Grbl or Smoothieware. And if you’re considering a laser engraver, take a few minutes to learn from the mistakes of other people.

Balancing Robot Needs Innovative Controller and Motor

A self-balancing robot is a great way to get introduced to control theory and robotics in general. The ability for a robot to sense its position and its current set of circumstances and then to make a proportional response to accomplish its goal is key to all robotics. While hobby robots might use cheap servos or brushed motors, for any more advanced balancing robot you might want to reach for a brushless DC motor and a new fully open-source controller.

The main problem with brushless DC motors is that they don’t perform very well at low velocities. To combat this downside, there are a large number of specialized controllers on the market that can help mitigate their behavior. Until now, all of these controllers have been locked down and proprietary. SmoothControl is looking to create a fully open source design for these motors, and they look like they have a pretty good start. The controller is designed to run on the ubiquitous ATmega32U4 with an open source 3-phase driver board. They are currently using these boards with two specific motors but plan to also support more motors as the project grows.

We’ve seen projects before that detail why brushless motors are difficult to deal with, so an open source driver for brushless DC motors that does the work for us seems appealing. There are lots of applications for brushless DC motors outside of robots where a controller like this could be useful as well, such as driving an airplane’s propeller.

Generator Monitor Gives the Phone Company the Boot

Part of the problem with having an alarm system is its reliance on land line telephone service. Some of them are getting away from this practice, but there are still many legacy systems out there that require a check to be sent in to Ma Bell every month in addition to the alarm system fees. Like these antiquated systems, [jgyates] was having a similar problem with the generator at his home which could only be monitored with a link to a cell network. Now that there’s a Raspberry Pi in every house, however, [jgyates] has a generator monitor that isn’t beholden to the phone company.

The hardware setup is little more than connecting the communications lines from the generator’s controller (in this case, a Generac Evolution controller) to the serial communications pins on a Raspberry Pi 3. [jgyates] did most of the work in Python, and his code is able to monitor almost every aspect of this generator and report it over WiFi or Ethernet, as well as control the generator settings from anywhere that has an Internet connection.

Even if you don’t have a generator with this particular controller, it will be a good guide for converting a monitor of any type into one that doesn’t require a land line or cell network connection. To that end, there have been lots of projects that convert even simple, old, analog household devices to report data over the LAN.

Hackaday Prize Entry: [Nardax] Shoots Fireballs

If you’re looking for a high entertainment value per byte of code, [Nardax] has you covered with his wearable spellcasting controller. With not much effort, he has built a very fun looking device, proving what we’ve always known: a little interaction can go a long way.

[Nardax] originally intended his glorified elbow-mount potentiometer to be a fireworks controller. Ironically, he’s now using it to throw virtual fireballs instead. Depending on the angle at which he holds his elbow before releasing it, he can cast different spells in the game World of Warcraft. We’re not at all sure that it helps his gameplay, but we’re absolutely sure that it’s more fun that simply mashing different keys.

There’s a lot of room for expansion here, but the question is how far you push it. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. It looks like [Nardax] is enjoying his product-testing research, though, so we’ll keep our eyes out for the next iterations of this project.

We’ve seen a number of high-tech competitors to the good old power glove, and although some are a lot more sophisticated than a potentiometer strapped to the elbow, this project made us smile. Sometimes, it’s not just how much tech you’ve got, but how you use it. After all, a DDS pad is just a collection of switches under a rug.

A Command-Line Stepper Library with All the Frills

When you already know exactly where and how you’d like your motor to behave, a code-compile-flash-run-debug cycle can work just fine. But if you want to play around with a stepper motor, there’s nothing like a live interface. [BrendaEM]’s RDL is a generic stepper motor driver environment that you can flash into an Arduino. RDL talks to your computer or cell phone over serial, and can command a stepper-driver IC to move the motor in three modes: rotary, divisions of a circle, and linear. (Hence the acronumical name.) Best of all, the entire system is interactive. Have a peek at the video below.

The software has quite a range of capabilities. Typing “?” gets you a list of commands, typing “@” tells you where the motor thinks it is, and “h” moves the motor back to its home position. Rotating by turns, degrees, or to a particular position are simple. It can also read from an analog joystick, which will control the rotation speed forward and backward in real time.

Division mode carves the pie up into a number of slices, and the motor spins to these particular locations. Twelve, or sixty, divisions gives you a clock, for instance. Acceleration and deceleration profiles are built in, but tweakable. You can change microstepping on the fly, and tweak many parameters of the drive, and then save all of the results to EEPROM. If you’re playing around with a new motor, and don’t know how quickly it can accelerate, or what speeds it’s capable of, nothing beats playing around with it interactively.

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Portable RetroPie Suitcase For Multiplayer On The Go!

Portable gaming — and gaming in general —  has come a long way since the days of the original Game Boy. With a mind towards portable multiplayer games, Redditor [dagcon] has assembled a RetroPie inside a suitcase — screen and all!

This portable console has almost everything you could need. Four controllers are nestled beside two speakers. Much of the power cabling is separated and contained by  foam inserts. The screen fits snugly into the lid with a sheet of rubber foam to protect it during transport.

Tucked behind the monitor rests the brains of this suitcase console: a Raspberry Pi and the associated boards. [Dagcon] resorted to using a dedicated sound card for the speakers, diverting the output from the HDMI port. An LCD screen controller was also necessary as the screen had been re-purposed from its previous life as a laptop screen. [Dagcon] offers some tips on how to go about accomplishing this yourself and a helpful Instructables link.

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Heat Pump Gets Brain Transplant; Such is Life in Latvia

If you buy a used heat pump that was made in China and try to use it in Northern Europe, there are bound to be issues. If said heat pump ends up encased in a block of ice that renders it ineffective, you’ve got two choices: give up and buy a proper heater, or hack a new ice-busting brain board into the heat pump and get back to life.

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A little too icy.

[Evalds] chose the latter course, obviously, and in the process he gives us a pretty good look at how heat pumps work and how to overcome their deficiencies. In [Evalds]’ Latvia, winters can be both cold and humid, which can worsen an inherent problem with air-coupled heat pumps: they tend to ice up. As the outside coil is cooled to pick up as much heat as possible from the outside air, water vapor condenses out on the coils and freezes. Most heat pumps account for this by occasionally running in reverse, heating the outdoor coils to clear the ice buildup. [Evalds]’  had nothing more than a simple timer to kick off the defrost cycle, and it wasn’t keeping up with the Latvian winter. An Arduino replaced the OEM controller, and wired up to temperature sensors and an IR sensor that watches for ice buildup on the lower part of the coil, the heat pump is now much better behaved.

Of course it wasn’t as smooth as all that — [Evalds] has some hoops to jump through, including EMI problems and a dodgy Arduino clone. But he stuck with it and brought the heat pump back online, likely at far less expense than HVAC techs would charge for a service call.

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