Cool new hardware spectacular

press release

It should come as no surprise the Hackaday tip line is regularly flooded with press releases. Everything from an infographic comparing Call of Duty 3 to Battlefield 3 (yes, totally serious), announcements that a company we’ve never heard of is getting a new CFO, to the business proposals from hat box manufacturers that wind up in our inbox on a nearly weekly basis.

With the Hackaday crew sifting though hundreds of these emails a month, you’d figure the PR people would hit gold once in a while, right? Apparently not. The coolest stuff we get in our email is usually from an engineer working on a project and doing a PR rep’s job for them. We thank them for that, so here’s two really cool pieces of hardware that showed up in the tip line recently.

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iOS terminal debugging tool

This is a simple iOS debugging tool that will take no time to solder together. There’s even a chance that you already have everything you need on hand. The hack simply connects an RS232-to-USB converter to a breakout board for an iPod connector.

The hardware is aimed not at stock iOS systems, but as an aid to those who wish to run alternative operating systems on them. When the OpeniBoot package is run on an iPod Touch or iPhone it enables a serial terminal on pins 12 and 13. The FTDI breakout board takes these as RX and TX and makes them available to your terminal program of choice via USB. Speaking of USB, you may already have noticed the black cable leaving the right side of the image. Using the terminal doesn’t limit your ability to use the device’s USB functions.

Turning a 12 year old mill into a modern workhorse

Even though the Roland MDX-20 CNC mill fetched a pretty penny when it was first made available 12 years ago, there were a few features that made any builder lucky enough to own one scratch their head. The only way for a computer to communicate with this mill was through an RS-232 connection, and instead of a normal control protocol such as GCode, the Roland mill uses a very proprietary software package.

[Johan] fixed these problems and at the same time turned this wonderful machine into a tool for the 21st century. Now, instead of running a very long serial cable to his mill with a serial to USB converter at the end, he can just plug a USB cable into his mill with the addition of an FTDI USB to serial chip wired directly to the mill’s circuit board.

Stock, the Roland mill used a very strange proprietary communications protocol. [Johan] was able to reverse engineer this protocol by tracing out a few simple shapes and curves and taking a highlighter to the printout of the resulting file. Instead of the outdated software package that shipped with his mill, [Johan] can now export tool paths directly from his CAD program and send them over a USB cable.

It really is a shame such a nice machine like [Johan]’s mill suffered from the glaring shortsightedness of Roland executives 12 years ago, but at least now [Johan] has a machine that should easily last another decade.

Hackaday Links: July 13, 2012

Testing LEDs

Over at the Albuquerque, NM hackerspace Quelab, [Alfred] needed to test a bunch of surface mount LEDs. He ended up building a pair of 3D printed tweezers with a pair of needles attached to the end and a space for a coin cell battery. It works and Quelab got a new tool.

Woo Raspberry Pi

[tech2077] added an FTDI chip to his Raspberry Pi to do a little single cable development. We’ve seen a few similar builds, but surprisingly nothing related to the on board display serial interface. This wiki page suggests it’s possible to connect an iPhone 3G or iPhone 4 display directly to the Raspi. Does anyone want to try that out?  Nevermind, but it would be cool to get a picture from a display plugged into that display port on the Raspi.

I like to ride my bicycle, I like to ride my bike

Over at the 23b hackerspace a few people were having trouble finding a good bike cargo rack that wasn’t overpriced. They built their own with $30 in materials and a salvaged milk crate. It looks great and is most likely a lot more durable than the Walmart model.

If that cargo rack fell off, it would look like this

Apparently you can get ‘spark cartridges’ to attach to the underside of a skateboard. [Jim] saw these would look really cool attached to his bike so he did the next best thing. He attached them to his sandals. It does look cool…

Less heat, less noise

[YO2LDK] picked up a TV tuner dongle for software radio and found it overheated and stopped working after about 15 minutes (Romanian, Google Translate). He hacked up a heat sink from an old video card to solve this problem. Bonus: the noise was reduced by a few tenths of a dB.

USB connectivity that is so very very small

Using FTDI chips as a USB to Serial solution is nothing new, but this MicroFTX board takes the footprint to a new low. If you’re space limited this should have no problem fitting into your project. But if you plan to use it for prototyping we predict it’ll be lost in the parts bin forever as soon as you take your eyes off of it.

The USB Mini-B connector is becoming quite popular with hobby electronics these days. But here [Jim Paris] chose to use its little brother, the USB micro connector. Want to put this together by hand? How are you with 0402 footprints and QFN chips? In fact, there’s a ground pad on the bottom of that IC which means you really need to use a reflow oven to do the job right.

Aside from the diy-unfriendly fabrication size, we do like the design. There are four output pins (voltage, ground, TX, and RX) with a set of four solder jumpers to configure them. It can be powered from the USB port or an external connection, with the option for 5V or 3.3V output.

[Thanks John]

Build your own USB to Serial dongle

[Johan von Konow] found that he was using an FTDI USB-to-Serial chip in a lot of his projects and wanted to have an easy prototyping component on hand to facilitate this. What he came up with is the extremely small USB to serial dongle seen above. The copper fingers are designed to plug into your USB port. And if you’ve got an unused thumb drive (we’ve got a 128mb version that’s been collecting dust for years) it would make a perfect enclosure for the device.

He’s using an FT232BL chip in a LQFP-32 package. That’s got 0.8mm pitch so make sure you’ve got a steady hand, a fine tipped soldering iron, and some solder wick on hand. The 0603 passives might also give you a bit of a run-around during soldering, but all-in-all we think everyone will be able to successfully assemble this with a little bit of practice. The chip is the most expensive component at just under $6. But the good news is that the board is single sided and only needs one jumper wire making for very little drilling and easy home fabrication.

If you’re putting in a parts order, we’d recommend getting doubling the amount of resistors and capacitors. Chances are you’ll drop a few and nary will they be seen again. We also highly recommend looking into [Gerrit’s] surface mount component clamp.

FT-2232 bridges Python and I2C/SPI

You might already have the hardware on hand to easily interface I2C and SPI devices with Python scripts on your computer. The board seen above is an FT-2232 breakout board. These chips are often used to facilitate JTAG programming via USB, but they have other features that might be useful to you as well. The chip has a Multi-Protocol Synchronous Serial Engine (MPSSE) which can speak the I2C and SPI protocols, you just need to know how to active them in your code.

[Craig] makes this easy with his MPSSE Python wrapper. Simply install his module, and you’ll be able to import all the commands you need. He demonstrates reading the data out of a 1 MB SPI flash memory chip. This could be used for a lot more, including debugging peripherals à la the Bus Pirate, or reprogramming chips to add to your projects (we’re thinking font arrays and sprites for displays, or look-up tables).

If you’re not aware, these FTDI chips were the go-to for USB support for a long time. We’ve got a guide for bit-banging using this hardware. Lately more chips have become available with USB hardware built-in. They’re quite useful and cost-effective, especially with the availability of open-source stacks like the LUFA project.