Ask Hackaday: SawStop — Bastion of Safety or Patent Troll

At first glance, SawStop seems like a hacker’s dream. A garage tinkerer comes up with a great idea, builds a product around it, and the world becomes a better place. As time has gone on, other companies have introduced similar products. Recently, SawStop successfully stopped Bosch from importing saws equipped with their Reaxx safety system into the USA. This not only impacts sales of new saws, but parts for existing equipment. Who gets screwed here? Unfortunately, it’s the owners of the Bosch saws, who now have a safety feature they might not be able to use in the future. This has earned some bad press for SawStop in forums and on websites like Reddit, where users have gone as far as to call SawStop a patent troll. Is that true or just Internet puffery? Read on and decide for yourself.

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Amazon Gets a Patent For Parachute Labels

Delivery by drone is a reality and Amazon has been pursuing better and faster methods of autonomous package delivery. The US Patent and Trademark Office just issued a patent to Amazon for a shipping label that has an embedded parachute to ensure soft landings for future deliveries.

The patent itself indicates the construction consisting of a set of cords and a harness and the parachute itself is concealed within the label. The label will come in various shapes and sizes depending upon the size of the package and is designed to “enable the workflow process of shipping and handling to remain substantially unchanged”. This means they are designed to look and be used just like a normal printed label.

The objective is to paradrop your next delivery and by the looks of the patent images, they plan to use it for everything from eggs to the kitchen sink. Long packages will employ multiple labels with parachutes which will then be monitored using the camera and other sensors on the drone itself to monitor descent.

The system will reduce the time taken per delivery since the drone will no longer have to land and take off. Coupled with other UAV delivery patents, Amazon may be looking at more advanced delivery techniques. With paradrops, the drone need not be a multi rotor design and the next patent may very well be a mini trajectory correction system for packages.

If they come to fruition we wonder how easy it will be to get your hands on the labels. Materials and manufacture should both be quite cheap — this has already been proven by the model rocket crowd, and to make the system viable for Amazon it would have to be put into widespread use which brings to bear an economy of scale. We want to slap them on the side of beer cans as an upgrade to the catapult fridge.

Fifty Shades of Gray Code

Some years back, a museum asked me to help them with an exhibit a contractor had built for them. It was a wheel like the one on Wheel of Fortune, but smaller and mounted on the wall instead of the floor. You would spin the wheel, it would stop on some item, and a computer would play a short video about the item. Physically and mechanically, it was a beautifully built exhibit. The electronics, though, left something to be desired.

In principle, this is pretty simple computer task. Measure the position of the wheel, and when it stops moving, play a video based on the position. The problem was the folks who created the artistic mechanics didn’t think hard about the electronics behind it. Sometimes–but not often–the wheel would play the wrong video. Sometimes it wouldn’t play at all.

The Prime Suspect

My immediate suspicion turned out to be correct. I took the wheel off its mount to discover copper foil tape on the back of it. Each pie wedge had foil in different areas and there were two brushes in each area. When the wheel stopped, two of the brushes would be shorted together and the rest were open. The way they detected that was bizarre, but that wasn’t the problem. (It involved a cannibalized PS/2 keyboard.)
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Noise Cancelling Speech Recogntion

If you are like us, you’ll read a bit more and smack your forehead. Amazon recently filed a patent. That isn’t really news, per se–they file lots of patents, including ones that cover clicking on a button to order something and taking pictures against white backgrounds (in a very specific way). However, this patent is not only a good idea, but one we were surprised didn’t arise out of the hacker community.

There can’t be an invention without a problem and the problem this one solves is a common one: While wearing noise cancelling headphones, you can’t hear things that you want to hear (like someone coming up behind you). The Amazon solution? Let the headphones monitor for programmable keywords and turn off noise cancellation in response to those words. We wonder if you could have a more sophisticated digital signal processor look for other cues like a car horn, a siren, or a scream.

We’ve talked about fixing commercial noise cancelling headphones before. If you don’t mind going low-tech, there’s always the easy way out, but those aren’t likely to accommodate speech recognition.

The Politest Patent Discussion, OSHW v. Patents

We’ve covered [Vijay] refreshable braille display before. Reader, [zakqwy] pointed us to an interesting event that occured in the discussion of its Hackaday.io project page.

[Vijay] was inspired by the work of [Paul D’souza], who he met at Makerfaire Bangalore. [Paul] came up with a way to make a refreshable braille display using small pager motors. [Vijay] saw the light, and also felt that he could make the vibrating motor display in such a way that anyone could make it for themselves at a low cost.

Of course, [Paul], had patented his work, and in this case rightly so. As jaded as we have become with insane patent trolls, our expectation on receiving the tip was that [Paul] had sued [Vijay] out of house and home and kicked his dog while he was at it. A short google search shows that [Paul] is no patent troll, and is a leader in his field. He has done a lot to help the visually impaired with his research and inventions.

Instead we were greeted by a completely different conversation. [Paul] politely mentioned that his lawyer informed him that in order to protect his IP he needed to let [Vijay] know exactly how the information could be used. No cease and desist, in fact he encouraged [Vijay] to continue his open research as long as he made it clear that the methods described could not be used to make a marketable product without infringing on [Paul]’s patents. They’d need to get in touch with [Paul] and work something out before doing such.

[Vijay] responded very well to this information. His original goal was to produce a cheap braille display that could be made and sold by anyone. However, he did use [Paul]’s work as a basis for his variation. Since [Paul]’s commercial interests relied on his patent, there was a clear conflict, and it became obvious to [Vijay] that if he wanted to meet his goal he’d have to pick a new direction. So, he released his old designs as Creative Commons, since the CERN license he was using was invalidated by [Paul]’s patent. He made it very clear that anyone basing their work off those designs would have to get in touch with [Paul]. Undaunted by this, and still passionate about the project, [Vijay] has decided to start from scratch and see if he can invent an entirely new, unprotected mechanism.

Yes, the patent system is actually encouraging innovation by documenting prior work while protecting commercial and time investments of beneficial inventors. Well. That’s unexpected.

Kudos to [Paul] for encouraging the exploration of home hackers rather than playing the part of the evil patent owner we’ve all come to expect from these stories. Also [Vijay], for acting maturely to [Paul]’s polite request and not ceasing his work.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Cloning Open-Source Hardware

We’re great proponents (and beneficiaries) of open-source hardware here at Hackaday. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the free sharing of ideas has had on the hacker hardware scene. Plus, if you folks didn’t write up the cool projects that you’re making, we wouldn’t have nearly as much to write about.

We also love doing it ourselves. Whether this means actually etching the PCB or just designing it ourselves and sending it off to the fab, we’re not the types to pick up our electronics at the Buy More (except when we’re planning to tear them apart). And when we don’t DIY, we like our electrons artisanal because we like to support the little guy or girl out there doing cool design work.

So it’s with a moderately heavy heart that we’ll admit that when it comes to pre-built microcontroller and sensor boards, I buy a lot of cheap clones. Some of this is price sensitivity, to be sure. If I’m making many different one-off goofy projects, it just doesn’t make sense to pay the original-manufacturer premium over and over again for each one. A $2 microcontroller board just begs to be permanently incorporated into give-away projects in a way that a $20 board doesn’t. But I’m also positively impressed by some of the innovation coming out of some of the clone firms, to the point that I’m not sure that the “clone” moniker is fair any more.

This article is an attempt to come to grips with innovation, open source hardware, and the clones. I’m going to look at these issues from three different perspectives: the firm producing the hardware, the hacker hobbyist purchasing the hardware, and the innovative hobbyist who just wants to get a cool project out to as many people as possible. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but can cloning go too far? To some extent, it depends on where you’re sitting.

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Smarter-than-wood Saw Blade Makes Perfect Foldable Joints

[Andrew Klein] knows the pain of building drawers from plywood. It can be a pain to get all of the pieces measured and cut just right. Then you have to line them up, glue them together, and clamp them perfectly. It’s time-consuming and frustrating. Then one day it hit him that he might be able to make the whole process much easier using a custom saw blade.

The the video below, [Andrew] does a great job explaining how the concept works using a piece of paper. The trick is that the plywood must be cut in a very specific shape. This shape results in the plywood just barely being held together, almost as if it’s hinged. The resulting groove can then be filled with wood glue, and the plywood is folded over on itself. This folding process leaves no gaps in the wood and results in a strong joint. Luckily this special shape can be cut with a specialized saw blade.

This new process removes the requirement of having five separate pieces for a drawer. Instead, only four cuts are needed on a single piece of square plywood. The corners are then removed with a razor blade and all four sides are folded up and into place. [Andrew] shows that his prototype blade needs a little bit of work, but he’s so hopeful that this new invention will be useful to others. Continue reading “Smarter-than-wood Saw Blade Makes Perfect Foldable Joints”