Taming the Beast: Pro-Tips for Designing a Safe Homebrew Laser Cutter

Homebrew laser cutters are nifty devices, but scorching your pals, burning the house down, or smelling up the neighborhood isn’t anyone’s idea of a great time. Lets face it. A 60-watt laser that can cut plastics offers far more trouble than even the crankiest 3D-printers (unless, of course, our 3D printed spaghetti comes to life and decides to terrorize the neighborhood). Sure, a laser’s focused beam is usually pointed in the right direction while cutting, but even an unfocused beam that reflects off a shiny material can start fires. What’s more, since most materials burn, rather than simply melt, a host of awful fumes spew from every cut.

Despite the danger, the temptation to build one is irresistible. With tubes, power supplies, and water coolers now in abundance from overseas re-sellers, the parts are just a PayPal-push away from landing on our doorsteps. We’ve also seen a host of exciting builds come together on the dining room table. Our table could be riddled with laser parts too! After combing through countless laser build logs, I’ve yet to encounter the definitive guide that tells us how to take the proper first steps forward in keeping ourselves safe while building our own laser cutter. Perhaps that knowledge is implicit to the community, scattered on forums; or perhaps it’s learned by each brave designer on their own from one-too-many close calls. Neither of these options seems fair to the laser newb, so I decided to lay down the law here.

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The Minima Is An All-Band HF Transceiver For Under $100

If you have ever browsed an amateur radio magazine you could be forgiven for receiving the impression that it is a pursuit exclusively for the wealthy. Wall-to-wall adverts for very large and shiny transceivers with hefty price tags abound, and every photograph of someone’s shack seems to sport a stack of them.

Of course, this is only part of the story. Amateur radio is and always has been an astonishingly diverse interest, and away from the world of shiny adverts you’ll find a lot of much more interesting devices. A lot of radio amateurs still design and build their own equipment, and the world of homebrew radio is forever producing new ideas.

One such project came to our attention recently, the Minima, an all-band HF SSB transceiver. It’s an interesting device for several reasons, it uses readily available components, it’s an impressively simple design, and it should cost under $100 to build. This might sound a little far-fetched, were it not from the bench of [Ashhar Farhan, VU2ESE], whose similarly minimalist BITX single band SSB transceiver set a new standard for accessible SSB construction a few years ago.

The circuit shares some similarities with the tried-and-tested BITX, using bi-directional amplifier building blocks. The mixers are now FETs rather than diodes, the intermediate frequency has moved from 9MHz to 20MHz, and the local oscillator is now an Arduino-controlled clock generator. The whole thing is designed to be built dead-bug-style if necessary, and two prototypes have been built. We’d expect this design to follow a similar evolution to the BITX, with the global community of radio amateurs contributing performance modifications, and no doubt with some kit suppliers producing PCBs and kits. We think this can only be a good thing, and look forward to covering some of the results.

We’ve featured [Ashhar]’s work here at Hackaday before, when we covered a BITX build. if you’re left wondering what this amateur radio business is all about, we suggest you have a read of [Bill Meara]’s guest post on the subject.

Thanks [Seebach] for the tip.

Hackaday Prize Entry: You Can Do Anything With A Bunch Of NANDs

Every few years, someone on the Internet builds a truly homebrew CPU. Not one built with a 6502, Z80, or a CPU from the 80s, either: one built completely out of 74-series logic chips or discrete transistor. We’re lucky enough to have [Alexander] document his build on Hackaday.io, and even luckier to have him enter it into this year’s Hackaday Prize. It’s an 8-bit computer built completely out of NAND gates.

Computers are just logic, and with enough NAND gates, you can do anything. That’s exactly what [Alex] is doing with this computer. It’s built entirely out of 74F00 chips – a ‘fast’ version of the ubiquitous quad 2-input NAND chip. The architecture of this computer borrows from the best CPUs of the 70s and 80s. The ALU is only four bits, like the Z80, but also uses the 6502 technique where the borrow is an inverted carry. It’s a small instruction set, a 2-stage pipeline, and should be able to compute one million instructions per second.

Designing a CPU is one thing, and thanks to Logisim, this is already done. Constructing a CPU is another matter entirely. For this, [Alex] is going for a module and backplane approach, where the ALU is constructed of a few identical modules tied together into a gigantic motherboard. [Alex] isn’t stopping at a CPU, either: he has a 16-byte ROM that’s programmed by plugging diodes into holes.

It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and for entering this project into the 2016 Hackaday Prize, [Alex] already netted himself $1000 and a trip to the final round of competition.

The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by:

Kestrel Computer Project

Many successful large-scale projects don’t start out large: they start with a small working core and grow out from there. Building a completely open-source personal computer is not a weekend project. This is as much a retelling of events as it is background information leading up to a request for help. You’ll discover that quite a lot of hard work has already been put forth towards the creation of a completely open personal computer.

When I noticed the Kestrel Computer Project had been submitted via the Hackaday tips line I quickly tracked down and contacted [Samuel] and asked a swarm of questions with the excitement of a giddy schoolgirl. Throughout our email conversation I discovered that [Samuel] had largely kept the project under the radar because he enjoyed working on it in his down time as a hobby. Now that the project is approaching the need for hardware design, I posed a question to [Samuel]: “Do you want me to write a short article summarizing years of your work on Kestrel Project?” But before he could reply to that question I followed it up with another: “Better yet [Samuel], how about we tell a more thorough history of the Kestrel Project and ask the Hackaday community for some help bringing the project home!?”
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A $5 Graphics Card For Homebrew Computers

While not very popular, building a homebrew computer can be a fun and rewarding process. Most of the time, though, the video capabilities of these computers is as bare bones as it can get – running headless, connected to a terminal. While this is an accurate reproduction of the homebrew computers of the 1970s and 80s, there’s a lot to be said about a DIY computer with an HDMI-out port.

[spencer] built a Z-80-based homebrew computer a few years ago, and while connecting it to a terminal was sufficient, it was a build that could use a little more pizzazz. How did he manage to stuff a terminal in a tiny project box? With everyone’s favorite five dollar computer, the Raspberry Pi Zero.

The computer [spencer] built already had serial inputs, outputs, power, and ground rails – basically, a serial port. The Raspberry Pi also has TX and RX pins available on the 40-pin header, and with a stupidly simple board that [spencer] whipped up in KiCad, he could plug a Pi into the backplane of his homebrew computer. A few setup scripts, and a few seconds after turning this computer on [spencer] could mash a keyboard and wail away on some old school BASIC.

This isn’t a use case that is the sole domain of the Pi Zero. A Parallax Propeller chip makes for a great video terminal with inputs for PS/2 keyboards and mice. A largish AVR, with the requisite NTSC video library, also makes for a great video interface for a homebrew computer. The Pi Zero is only five dollars, though.


The Raspberry Pi Zero contest is presented by Hackaday and Adafruit. Prizes include Raspberry Pi Zeros from Adafruit and gift cards to The Hackaday Store!
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Hacking the Leapfrog TV to Play Doom

In a few hours, millions of fresh-faced children will be tearing open presents like the Leap TV, a Wii for the pre-school crowd that has a number of educational games. And, once they get bored with them, what could be more educational than fighting your way through a horde of demons to save the earth? Yup, [mick] has hacked the Leap TV console to play Doom. After some poking around he discovered that the Leap TV is built around a quad-core nxp4330q arm7-A processor, with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of flash memory, while the controller links to the main console using Bluetooth LE. That’s more than enough to run Doom on (in fact… too much), so he whipped out his handy compiler and got Doom and SDL running with only a few minor code changes.

This isn’t [Mick]s first such hack: he previously hacked the V-Tech InnoTab, a cheap tablet for kids, which persuaded the manufacturers to release the full source code for the tablet. Will Leapfrog follow suit? That remains to be seen, but in the meantime, [Mick]s work gives us some insight into the internals of this device.

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Hacking the Digital and Social System

When you live in a totalitarian, controlled and “happy” society, and you want to be a hacker, you have to hack the social system first. Being just an engineer doesn’t cut it, you have to be a hypocrite, dissident and a smuggler at the same time. That’s the motto of my personal story, which starts in Yugoslavia, and ends in Serbia. No, I didn’t move, I’m still in Belgrade, only the political borders have changed.

Half a century ago, when I was in elementary school, I discovered the magical world of HAM radio. I became a member of two amateur radio clubs, passed all exams and got my licence and callsign, which was YU1OPC. I was delighted, but after five years, the party was over. What happened? Well, one day the police paid a visit to all registered owners of CB Band equipment and simply took that equipment away. No one knows why they did it, but it was probably off the books, as we never got any written confirmation, and no one ever saw their equipment again.

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