Your Arm Is The Ideal Controller

With interest and accessibility to both wearable tech and virtual reality approaching an all-time high, three students from Cornell University — [Daryl Sew, Emma Wang, and Zachary Zimmerman] — seek to turn your body into the perfect controller.

That is the end goal, at least. Their prototype consists of three Kionix tri-axis accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer sensors (at the hand, elbow, and shoulder) to trace the arm’s movement. Relying on a PC to do most of the computational heavy lifting, a PIC32 in a t-shirt canister — hey, it’s a prototype! — receives data from the three joint positions, transmitting them to said PC via serial, which renders a useable 3D model in a virtual environment. After a brief calibration, the setup tracks the arm movement with only a little drift in readings over a few minutes.

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Ikea Desk Lamp That Will Defend Your Lungs

While some people may enjoy the occasional whiff of noxious smells — gasoline, axe body spray, etc — prolonged exposure to fumes is not good for your health. This goes for soldering too, isn’t it about time you added some abatement to your bench tools?

Inspired by some of the fume hoods we’ve featured before — take note, ye who art lacking projects — [Georg Sluyterman] put together his own Ikea lamp fume extractor.

The most striking feature is that it’s mounted on an Ikea desk lamp making for convenient positioning and minimal clutter. A NeoPixels strip lights up your soldering space while the PIR sensor activates the fan when it detects movement. A WeMos D1 Mini is included for WiFi connectivity but that feature still down the road a little bit. The functionality that is in place is still quite impressive; more on that after the break.

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Slow Dance Appears to Make Time Run In Slow Motion

Rendering something in slow-motion is an often-used technique that attempts to add some ‘wow’ or ‘cool’ factor. Seeing something out in the world move in slow motion is marginally rarer — rarer still if it’s in your own home. But do it right and that kind of novelty turns a lot of heads. Enough to go 8x on a Kickstarter goal.

Slow Dance, a picture frame ringed with strobe lights, generates the surreal effect of turning small, everyday objects into languid kinetic sculptures. It’s an intriguing example of kinetic art done in a novel way.

[Jeff Lieberman], a veteran of high-speed photography, takes advantage of ‘persistence of vision’ by synchronizing the vibrations of an object — say, a feather — with a strobe light blinking 80 times per second. An electromagnet inside the frame is used to vibrate the objects, while the strobe lights are housed inside the thick frame.

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Multi Sensor Security Camera Has You Covered

Security in the home — especially a new home — is a primary concern for many. There are many options for security systems on the market, but for those will the skills, taking matters into your own hands can add peace of mind when protected by a system of one’s own design. [Armagan C.] has created  their near-ideal multi-sensor security module to keep a watchful eye out for would-be burglars.

Upgrading from their previous Arduino + Ethernet camera — which loved to trigger false alarms — [Armagan] opted for a used Raspberry Pi model B+ camera module and WiFi connection this time around. They also upgraded the unit with a thermal sensor, LPG & CO2 gas sensor, and a motion tracking alarm. [Armagan] has also set up a live streaming  feature that records video in 1hr segments — deleting them daily — and circumvented an issue with file descriptor leak by using a crashed drone’s flight controller to route the sensor data via serial port. It is also proving superior to conventional alarms because the custom software negates the need to disarm security zones during midnight trips to the washroom.

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Esoteric Actuators

Motors are everywhere; DC motors, AC motors, steppers, and a host of others. In this article, I’m going to look beyond these common devices and search out more esoteric and unusual electronic actuators that might just find a place in one of your projects. In any case, their mechanisms are interesting in their own right! Join me after the break for a survey of piezo, magnetostrictive, magnetorheological, voice coils, galvonometers, and other devices. I’d love to hear about your favorite actuators and motors too, so please comment below!

Piezo actuators and motors

The flexing of a piezo buzzer from arcbotics

Piezoelectric materials sometimes seem magic. Apply a voltage to a piezoelectric material and it will move, as simple as that. The catch of course is that it doesn’t move very much. The piezoelectric device you’re probably most familiar with is the humble buzzer. You’d usually drive these with less than 10 volts. While a buzzer will produce a clearly audible sound you can’t really see it flexing (as it does shown above).

To gauge the motion of a buzzer I recently attempted to drive one with a 150 volt piezo driver, this resulted in a total deflection of around 0.1mm. Not very much by normal standards!

The PiezoMotor LEGS actuator “walks” along a rod, pushing it as it goes.

For some applications however resolution is of primary interest rather than range of travel. It is here that piezo actuators really shine. The poster-boy application of piezo actuators is perhaps the scanning probe microscope. These often require sub-nanometer accuracy (less than 1000th of 1000th of 1 millimeter) in order to visualize individual atoms. Piezo stacks are ideal here (though hackers have also used cheap buzzers!).

Sometimes though you need high precision over a larger range of travel. There are a number of piezo configurations that allow this. Notably Inchworm, “LEGS”, and slip-stick actuators.

The PiezoMotor LEGS actuator is shown to the above. As noted, Piezos only produce small (generally sub-millimeter) motion. Rather than using this motion directly, LEGS uses this motion to “walk” along a rod, pushing it back and forth. The rod is therefore moved, in tiny nanometer steps. However, piezos can move quickly (flexing thousands of times a second). And the LEGS (and similar Inchworm actuator) allows relatively quick, high force, and high resolution motion.


The tablecloth trick (yes this one’s fake, the kid is ok don’t worry. :))

Another type of long travel piezo actuator uses the “stick-slip phenomenon”. This is much like the tablecloth magic trick shown above. If you pull the cloth slowly there will be significant friction between the cloth and this crockery and they will be dragged along with the cloth. Pull it quickly and there will be less friction and the crockery will remain in place.

This difference between static and dynamic friction is exploited in stick-slip actuators. The basic mechanism is shown in the figure below.

Motion caused by a stick-slip motor

When extending slowing a jaw rotates a screw, but if the piezo stack is compressed quickly the screw will not return. The screw can therefore be made to rotate. By inverting the process (extending quickly, then compressing slowly) the process is reversed and the screw is turned in the opposite direction. The neat thing about this configuration is that it retains much of the piezo’s original precision. Picomotors have resolutions of around 30 nanometer over a huge range of travel, typically 25mm, they’re typically used for optical focusing and alignment and can be picked up on eBay for 100 dollars or so. Oh and they can also be used to make music. Favorites include Stairway to Heaven, and not 1 but 2 versions of Still Alive (from Portal). Obligatory Imperial March demonstration is embedded here:

There are numerous other piezo configurations, but typically they are used to provide high force, high precision motion. I document a few more over on my blog.

Magnetostrictive actuators

Magnetostriction is the tendency of a material to change shape under a magnetic field. We’ve been talking about magnetostriction quite a lot lately. However much like piezos it can also be used for high precision motion. Unlike piezos they require relatively low voltages for operation and have found niche applications.

Magnetorheological motion

Magnetorheological (MR) fluids are pretty awesome! Much like ferrofluids, MR fluids respond to changes in magnetic field strength. However, unlike ferrofluids it’s their viscosity that changes.

MRfluidThis novel characteristic has found applications in a number of areas. In particularly the finishing of precise mirrors and lens used in semiconductor and astronomical applications. This method uses an electromagnet to change the viscosity of the slurry used to polish mirrors, removing imperfections. The Hubble telescope’s highly accurate mirrors were apparently finished using this technique (though hopefully not that mirror). You can purchase MR fluid in small quantities for a few hundred dollars.

Electrostatic motors

While magnetic motors operate through the attraction and repulsion of magnetic fields, electrostatic motors exploit the attraction and repulsion of electric change to produce motion. Electrostatic forces are orders or magnitude smaller that magnetic ones. However they do have niche applications. One such application is MEMS motors, tiny (often less than 0.01mm) sized nanofabricated motors. At these scales electromagnetic coils would be too large and specific power (power per unit volume) is more important than the magnitude of the overall force.

Voice coils and Galvanometers

The voice coil is your basic electromagnet. They’re commonly used in speakers, where an electromagnet in the cone reacts against a fixed magnet to produce motion. However voice coil like configurations are used for precise motion control elsewhere (for example to focus the lens of an optical drive, or position the read head of a hard disc drive). One of the cooler applications however is the mirror galvanometer. As the name implies the device was originally used to measure small currents. A current through a coil moved a rod to which a mirror was attached. A beam of light reflect off the mirror and on to a wall effectively created a very long pointer, amplifying the signal.

These days ammeters are far more sensitive of course, but the mirror galvanometer has found more entertaining applications:

High speed laser “galvos” are used to position a laser beam producing awesome light shows. Modern systems can position a laser beam at kilohertz speeds, rendering startling images. These systems are effectively high speed vector graphic like line drawing systems, resulting in a number of interesting algorithmic challenges. Marcan’s OpenLase framework provides a host of tools for solving these challenges effectively, and is well worth checking out.

In this article I’ve tried to highlight some interesting and lesser known techniques for creating motion in electronic systems. Most of these have niche scientific, industrial or artistic applications. But I hope they also also offer inspiration as you work on your own hacks! If you have a favorite, lesser known actuator or motor please comment below!

Lighting The Great Indoors With A Solar Security Light

Look at any list of things to do to make your house less attractive to the criminal element and you’ll likely find “add motion sensing lights” among the pro tips. But what if you don’t want to light up the night? What if you want to use a motion sensor to provide a little light for navigating inside a dark garage? And what if the fixture you’ve chosen is a solar fixture that won’t quite cooperate? If you’re like [r1ckatkinson], you do a teardown and hack the fixture to do your bidding.

[r1ckatkinson]’s fixture was an inexpensive Maplin solar unit with PIR motion sensing, with the solar panel able to be mounted remotely. This was perfect for the application, since the panel could go outside to power the unit, with the lamp and PIR sensor inside. Unfortunately, the solar cell is also the photosensor that tells the unit not to turn on during the day. Armed with scratch pad and pencil, [r1ckatkinson] traced the circuit and located the offending part – a pull-down resistor. A simple resistor-ectomy later and he’s got a solar-powered light working just the way he likes it.

A simple hack, but effective. Seeing off-the-shelf gear modified is always a treat. Of course there’s something to be said for the more home-brew approach to security lighting, too.

Another Garage Door Opener, This Time With Security

We’ve been seeing a lot of garage door opener hacks, whether it’s because one person inspired everyone else to build their own Internet-connected GDO or because there’s something in the water that’s caused the simultaneous building of one specific type of project, we’re not sure. However, the latest one we’ve seen adds a little something extra: motion-based security.

[DeckerEgo] really went all out with this one, too. The core of the project is a Raspberry Pi hardwired to a universal garage door remote. The Pi also handles a small webcam and runs a program called motion, which is a Linux program that allows for all kinds of webcam fun including motion detection. While the other builds we see usually use a button or limit switch to tell whether the door is open or closed, this one just watches the door with the webcam so [DeckerEgo] can actually see what’s going on in the garage. As a bonus, the motion software can be configured to alert him if anything suspicious is going on in the garage.

The build is full-featured as well, with an interesting user interface overlaid on the live picture of the garage door. According to [DeckerEgo] the camera is a necessity because he wouldn’t trust a simple status indicator, but if you wanted to try one of those before breaking out the Raspberry Pi, we’ve featured one recently that you can check out.