Whiteboard Clock Draws the Time

[Maurice] recently built a clock that draws the time (Google Doc) on a white board. We’ve seen plenty of clock hacks in the past, and even a very similar one. It’s always fun to see the different creative solutions people can come up with to solve the same problem.

This device runs on a PIC16F1454 microcontroller. The code for the project is available on GitHub. The micro is also connected to a 433MHz receiver. This allows a PC to keep track of the time, instead of having to include a real-time clock in the circuit. The USB connector is only used for power. All of the mounting pieces were designed in OpenSCAD and printed on a 3D printer. Two servos control the drawing arms. A third servo can raise and lower the marker to the whiteboard. This also has the added benefit of being able to place the marker tip inside of an eraser head. That way the same two servos can also erase the writing.

The communication protocol for this systems is interesting. The transmitter shows up on [Maurice’s] PC as a modem. All he needs to do to update the time is “echo 12:00 > /dev/whiteboard”. In this case, the command is run by a cron job every 5 minutes. This makes it easy to tweak the rate at which the time updates on the whiteboard. All communication is done one-way. The drawing circuit will verify the checksum each time it receives a message. If the check fails, the circuit simply waits for another message. The computer transmits the message multiple times, just in case there is a problem during transmission.

Converting Morse Code to Text with Arduino

Morse code used to be widely used around the globe. Before voice transmissions were possible over radio, Morse code was all the rage. Nowadays, it’s been replaced with more sophisticated technologies that allow us to transmit voice, or data much faster and more efficiently. You don’t even need to know Morse code to get an amateur radio license any more. That doesn’t mean that Morse code is dead, though. There are still plenty of hobbyists out there practicing for the fun of it.

[Dan] decided to take a shortcut and use some modern technology to make it easier to translate Morse code back into readable text. His project log is a good example of the natural progression we all make when we are learning something new. He started out with an Arduino and a simple microphone. He wrote a basic sketch to read the input from the microphone and output the perceived volume over a Serial monitor as a series of asterisks. The more asterisks, the louder the signal. He calibrated the system so that a quiet room would read zero.

He found that while this worked, the Arduino was so fast that it detected very short pulses that the human ear could not detect. This would throw off his readings and needed to be smoothed out. If you are familiar with button debouncing then you get the idea. He ended up just averaging a few samples at a time, which worked out nicely.

The next iteration of the software added the ability to detect each legitimate beep from the Morse code signal. He cleared away anything too short. The result was a series of long and short chains of asterisks, representing long or short beeps. The third iteration translated these chains into dots and dashes. This version could also detect longer pauses between words to make things more readable.

Finally, [Dan] added a sort of lookup table to translate the dots and dashes back into ASCII characters. Now he can rest easy while the Arduino does all of the hard work. If you’re wondering why anyone would want to learn Morse code these days, it’s still a very simple way for humans to communicate long distances without the aid of a computer.

Turning an Ordinary Pen into a Covert Radio Receiver

[Ben Krasnow’s] latest project will be good for anyone who wants a complicated way to cheat on a test. He’s managed to squeeze a tiny FM radio receiver into a ballpoint pen. He also built his own bone conduction microphone to make covert listening possible. The FM radio receiver is nothing too special. It’s just an off the shelf receiver that is small enough to fit into a fatter pen. The real trick is to figure out a way to listen to the radio in a way that others won’t notice. That’s where the bone conduction microphone comes in.

A normal speaker will vibrate, changing the air pressure around us. When those changes reach our ear drums, we hear sound. A bone conduction mic takes another approach. This type of microphone must be pressed up against a bone in your skull, in this case the teeth. The speaker then vibrates against the jaw and radiates up to the cochlea in the ear. The result is a speaker that is extremely quiet unless it is pressed against your face.

Building the bone conduction mic was pretty simple. [Ben] started with a typical disk-shaped piezoelectric transducer. These devices expand and contract when an alternating current is passed through them at a high enough voltage. He cut the disk into a rectangular shape so that it would fit inside of the clicker on the ballpoint pen. He then encased it in a cylinder of epoxy.

The transducer requires a much higher voltage audio signal than the litter radio normally puts out. To remedy this problem, [Ben] wired up a small impedance matching transformer to increase the voltage. With everything in place, all [Ben] has to do to listen to the radio is chew on the end of his pen. While this technology might help a cheater pass an exam, [Ben] also notes that a less nefarious use of this technology might be to place the speaker inside of the mouthpiece of a CamelBak. This would allow a hiker to listen to music without blocking out the surrounding noise. Continue reading “Turning an Ordinary Pen into a Covert Radio Receiver”

Simple Directional WiFi Antenna

Back in 2007, [Stathack] rented an apartment in Thailand. This particular apartment didn’t include any Internet access. It turned out that getting a good connection would cost upwards of $100 per month, and also required a Thai identification card. Not wanting to be locked into a 12-month contract, [Stathack] decided to build himself a directional WiFi antenna to get free WiFi from a shop down the street.

The three main components of this build are a USB WiFi dongle, a baby bottle, and a parabolic Asian mesh wire spoon. The spoon is used as a reflector. The parabolic shape means that it will reflect radio signals to a specific focal point. The goal is to get the USB dongle as close to the focal point as possible. [Stathack] did a little bit of math and used a Cartesian equation to figure out the optimal location.

Once the location was determined, [Stathack] cut a hole in the mesh just big enough for the nipple of the small baby bottle. The USB dongle is housed inside of the bottle for weatherproofing. A hole is cut in the nipple for a USB cable. Everything is held together with electrical tape as needed.

[Stathack] leaves this antenna on his balcony aiming down the street. He was glad to find that he is easily able to pick up the WiFi signal from the shop down the street. He was also surprised to see that he can pick up signals from a high-rise building over 1km away. Not bad for an antenna made from a spoon and a baby bottle; plus it looks less threatening than some of the cantenna builds we’ve seen.

Vacuum Tube Repair After a Spectacular Failure

[Eric] has an Atwater Kent 55C AM radio from the early 1900’s. He’s been trying to restore the radio to proper working condition. His most recent pain has been with the rectifier tube. The tube is supposed to have a complete vacuum inside, but that’s not the case here. When the tube is powered up, it glows a beautiful violet color. It may look pretty, but that’s indicative that gas has leaked into the tube. It needed to be replaced.

[Eric] had a tube that would serve as a good replacement, but it’s plug didn’t fit the socket properly. He was going to have to use this old broken tube to make an adapter. Rather than just tearing the old tube apart, he decided to have some fun with it first. He hooked it up to a variac, an ammeter, and a volt meter. Then he slowly increased the voltage to see what would happen. The result was visually stunning.

The tube starts out with the same violet/blue glowing [Eric] experienced previously. As the voltage increases, it gets more and more intense. Eventually we start to see some green colors mixing in with the violets. [Eric’s] reaction to this unexpected result is priceless. As the tube gets increasingly hot, the anode starts glowing an orange-red color. Finally, the filament starts to crackle like a sparkler before the tube just gives up and completely fails.

After the light show, [Eric] moves on to replacing the tube. He begins by tapping on the old tube’s socket with the end of a screwdriver. After much tapping, the glass starts to come lose from the socket. After a bit of wiggling and twisting the tube finally came free from the socket. [Eric] luckily had an unused octal socket that fit perfectly inside of the old socket. All he needed to do to build his adapter was to connect the four pins from the old adapter to the proper pins on the octal socket. Piece of cake.

…Or so [Eric] thought. After testing some new tubes with a tube tester, he realized he had soldered all four pins incorrectly. On top of that, he had super glued the adapter together. He eventually got the two pieces apart. This time he removed all of the unused pins from the octal socket so he wouldn’t get it wrong. Another run on the tube tester confirmed that everything looked good. After plugging the tube into the radio, it worked just as expected

If you need fabrication rather than repair, we’ve got you covered there as well. Check out [Charles Alexanian’s] process for making new vacuum tubes in his garage. Now if you just have too darn many of them around, you can always decorate your pad with ’em.

Continue reading “Vacuum Tube Repair After a Spectacular Failure”

Using librtlsdr Over TCP

[Texane] built a low-cost software defined radio rig which could be remotely controlled. This allows the hardware to be placed outside for better reception, while being controlled from any PC that can connect over TCP. To do this, he created a fork of librtlsdr, the library used to turn cheap TV tuners into software defined radios.

The official release of rtl-sdr includes the rtl_tcp utility, which is meant for this purpose. Unfortunately, not all of the SDR tools for Linux support this. By modifying the library itself, remote devices interact with software in the same way as local devices. This means that any software that supports librtlsdr should work.

The outdoor rig contains a BeagleBone Black and the SDR hardware, sealed up in a weather-resistant box. This connects to [Texane]’s home network over ethernet, and allows SDR utilities to be run elsewhere.

This feature is quite experimental, but the source for the fork is provided for those who want to build the code and try it out.

Demodulating BPSK31 With OpAmps and 555s

BPSK31 is an extremely popular mode for amateur radio operators; it’s efficient and has a narrow bandwidth and can be implemented with a computer sound card or an Arduino. Just like it says on the tin, it’s phase shift keying, and a proper implementation uses a phase detection circuit or something similar. [Craig] thought it would be fun to build an analog BPSK31 demodulator and hit upon the idea of doing this with amplitude demodulation. No, this isn’t the way you’re supposed to do it, but it works.

Data is transmitted via BPSK31 with a phase shift of 180 degrees being a binary 0, and no phase shift being a binary 1. [Craig]’s circuit uses an op-amp and a pair of diodes to do a full wave rectification of the signal, which basically makes a binary 1 logic high, and binary 0 logic low.

This rectified signal is then fed into a comparator, making the output go high when the signal is above 2V, and low when the signal is below 1V. That’s all you need to do to get bits out of the signal, all [Craig] had to do after that was figure out a way to sample it.

A 555 set up in astable mode running at 31.25 Hz provides the clock, synchronized with the signal by connecting the comparator’s output to the 555 trigger input. The timer clock ends up being slightly slower, but thanks to the varicode character set, the maximum number of binary ones the circuit will see is nine; every time the trigger sees a zero, the timer’s trigger is reset, re-synchronizing the receiver’s clock.

Yes, it’s a hack, and no, this isn’t how you’re supposed to receive PSK. It does, however, work, and you can thank [Craig] for that.

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