Sensing a Magnet with Local Sourcing

I had a small project going on–never mind exactly what–and I needed to detect a magnet. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big problem. I have a huge hoard of components and gear to the point that it is a running joke among my friends that we can be talking about building something and I will have all the parts we need. However, lately a lot of my stuff is in… let’s say storage (again, never mind exactly why) and I didn’t have anything handy that would do the job.


If I had time, there are plenty of options for detecting a magnet. Even if you ignore exotic things like SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) there’s plenty of ways to detect a magnet. One of the oldest and the simplest is to use a reed switch. This is just a switch made with a thin piece of ferrous material. When a magnet is nearby, the thin piece of metal moves and makes or breaks the contact.

These used to be common in alarm systems to detect an open or closed door. However, a trip to Radio Shack revealed that they no longer carry things like that as–apparently–it cuts into floorspace for the cell phones.

I started to think about robbing a sensor from an old computer fan or some other consumer item with a magnetic sensor onboard. I also thought about making some graphene and rolling my own Hall effect sensor, but decided that was too much work.


I was about to give up on Radio Shack, but decided to skim through the two cabinets of parts they still carry just to get an idea of what I could and could not expect to find in the future. Then something caught my eye. They still carry a wide selection of relays. (Well, perhaps wide is too kind of a word, but they had a fair number.) It hit me that a relay is a magnetic device, it just generates its own electromagnetic field to open and close the contacts.

I picked up a small 5 V reed relay. They don’t show it online, but they do have several similar ones, so you can probably pick up something comparable at your local location. I didn’t want to get a very large relay because I figured it would take more external magnetic field to operate the contacts. You have to wonder why they have so many relays, unless they just bought a lot and are still selling out of some warehouse. Not that relays don’t have their use, but there’s plenty of better alternatives for almost any application you can think of.

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Ask Hackaday: How Do You Convert Negative Voltages to Positive?

I have a good background working with high voltage, which for me means over 10,000 volts, but I have many gaps when it comes to the lower voltage realm in which RC control boards and H-bridges live. When working on my first real robot, a BB-8 droid, I stumbled when designing a board to convert varying polarities from an RC receiver board into positive voltages only for an Arduino.

Today’s question is, how do you convert a negative voltage into a positive one?

In the end I came up with something that works, but I’m sure there’s a more elegant solution, and perhaps an obvious one to those more skilled in this low voltage realm. What follows is my journey to come up with this board. What I have works, but it still nibbles at my brain and I’d love to see the Hackaday community’s skill and experience applied to this simple yet perplexing design challenge.

The Problem

RC toy truck and circuit with no common
RC toy truck and circuit with no common

I have an RC receiver that I’ve taken from a toy truck. When it was in the truck, it controlled two DC motors: one for driving backwards and forwards, and the other for steering left and right. That means the motors are told to rotate either clockwise or counterclockwise as needed. To make a DC motor rotate in one direction you connect the two wires one way, and to make it rotate in the other direction you reverse the two wires, or you reverse the polarity. None of the output wires are common inside the RC receiver, something I discovered the hard way as you’ll see below.

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Bamboo Plant Becomes A Stylish Light Switch

If flipping a regular old light switch or pressing buttons isn’t an adequately pleasing way to use your appliances around the house, how about poking at the leaves of a plant to turn on your lamp? [Xkitz] has provided a thorough breakdown of how to turn any conductive object in your living space into a nifty capacitive touch switch that adds a bit of charm to such an everyday action.

Creating an electrostatic field around a conductive medium, the capacitive touch relay constantly monitors this field and will toggle when any minuscule change to the capacitance is detected. [Xkitz] uses a bamboo plant as his trigger. Gently touching any leaf will still act as an adequate trigger — as cool demonstration of how the electrostatic field works.

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Kansas City Maker Faire: Pi-Plates

As soon as he spied the Jolly Wrencher on my shirt, [Jerry Wasinger] beckoned me toward his booth at Kansas City Maker Faire. Honestly, though, I was already drawn in. [Jerry] had set up some interactive displays that demonstrate the virtues of his Pi-Plates—Raspberry Pi expansion boards that follow the HAT spec and are compatible with all flavors of Pi without following the HAT spec. Why not? Because it doesn’t allow for stacking the boards.

[Jerry] has developed three types of Pi-Plates to date. There’s a relay controller with seven slots, a data acquisition and controller combo board, and a motor controller that can handle two steppers or up to four DC motors. The main image shows the data acquisition board controlling a fan and some lights while it gathers distance sensor data and takes the temperature of the Faire.

The best part about these boards is that you can stack them and use up to eight of any one type. For the motor controller, that’s 16 steppers or 32 DC motors. But wait, there’s more: you can still stack up to eight each of the other two kinds of boards and put them in any order you want. That means you could run all those motors and simultaneously control several voltages or gather a lot of data points with a single Pi.

The Pi-Plates are available from [Jerry]’s site, both singly and in kits that include an acrylic base plate, a proto plate, and all the hardware and standoffs needed to stack everything together.

Fail of the Week: Arachno∙fail∙ia

Going down the list (FCC, CE, UL, etc.) we can’t think of a regulating body that will test for this failure mode. Reportedly, a $1M irrigation system was taken down by a spider. And an itsy-bitsy spider at that.

This fail turned up as a quick image post over on /r/mildlyinteresting but I wasn’t the only electronics person attracted like a moth to a flame. Our friend [Sprite_TM] popped in to answer a question about conformal coating. Seems this board was sealed in a waterproof enclosure but was obviously not conformally coated.

fotw-spider-short-relay-diagram[Sprite_TM] also helped out with some armchair-engineering to guess at what happened. It’s not hard to tell that the footprint on the board looks like a set of mechanical relays all in a line. He looked up the most likely pinout for the relay.

We’ve superimposed that pinout on the board to help illustrate the failure. High voltage comes in on the pin shown with the red trace leading away from it. On either side of that pin are the connections for the low voltage coil which switches from normally closed (the pin in the upper right that is not connected to anything) to the normally open pin (which has the wide trace leading away from it).

So there sat the high voltage pin in between the coil pins when, along came a spider. It shorted the pins and presumably all the way back to the power supply for the low voltage rail. [Fugly_Turnip] (the OP) share some additional detail about the system and this failure; in addition to this card it fried the control module as well.

Another comment on the same thread shares a different story of two boards mounted next to each other with a bug shorting a 1/4″ air gap between two boards and causing similar carnage. Have you encountered Arachno-fail-ia of your own? Let us know below.

2013-09-05-Hackaday-Fail-tips-tileFail of the Week is a Hackaday column which celebrates failure as a learning tool. Help keep the fun rolling by writing about your own failures and sending us a link to the story — or sending in links to fail write ups you find in your Internet travels.

Punch Cards

Before the Commodore 64, the IBM PC, and even the Apple I, most computers took input data from a type of non-magnetic storage medium that is rarely used today: the punched card. These pieces of cardstock held programs, data, and pretty much everything used to run computers in the before-time. But with all of that paper floating around, how did a programmer or user keep up with everything? Enter the punch card sorter and [Ken Shirriff[‘s eloquent explanation of how these machines operate.

Card sorters work by reading information on the punched card and shuffling the cards into a series of stacks. As [Ken] explains, the cards can be run through the machine multiple times if they need to be sorted into more groups than the machine can manage during one run, using a radix sort algorithm.

The card reader that [Ken] examines in detail uses vacuum tubes and relays to handle the logical operation to handle memory and logic operations. This particular specimen is more than half a century old, rather robust, and a perfect piece for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

It’s always interesting to go back and examine (mostly) obsolete technology. There are often some things that get lost in the shuffle (so to speak). Even today, punched cards live on in the automation world, where it’s still an efficient way of programming various robots and other equipment. Another place that it lives on is in voting machines in jurisdictions where physical votes must be cast. Hanging chads, anyone?

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Controlling Mains Power Rube Goldberg Style

[g3gg0] has some nice radio equipment including an AOR AR-5000 receiver and a HiQ SDR. They are so nice that it appears they lack an on/off switch. [g3gg0] grew tired of unplugging the things, and decided to nerdify his desk with a switch that would turn his setup on and off for him. He decided to accomplish this task by emulating the Scroll, Number and Caps Lock LEDs on his keyboard via a Digispark board. He uses the LEDs to issue commands to the Digispark allowing him to control a 5V relay, which sits between it and the AC.

Starting off with some USB keyboard emulation code on the Digispark, he tweaked it so he could use the Scroll Lock LED as sort of a Chip Select. Once this is pressed, he can use the Caps Lock and the Number Lock LED to issue commands to the Digispark.

It’s programmed to only stay on for a total of 5 hours in case he forgets to turn it off. Let us know what you think about this interesting approach.