How often do you see problems that need fixing? How often do you design your own solutions to them — even if they won’t be implemented at scale? Seeing that many of the municipal parking lots in his native Sri Lanka use a paper ticketing system which is prone to failure, [Shazin Sadakath] whipped up his own solution: an efficient RFID tag logging system.
Group entry hacks are a favorite for hacker social groups. Why use old fashioned keys when you can use newfangled electronic keys? If you are looking to build a simple RFID-based security system to secure your important stuff, this project from Resin.io is a good place to start. In it, [Joe Roberts] outlines the process of building a simple RFID-triggered mechanism for their office door.
It’s a pretty simple setup that is composed of an RFID reader, a Rasperry Pi and a Neopixel ring. When someone places an RFID card against the reader hidden behind a poster by their front door, the reader grabs the code and the Pi compares it with a list of authorized users. If the card is on the list, the Pi triggers the door lock using a signal line originally designed to work with an intercom system. If the user isn’t on the list, a laser is triggered that vaporizes the interloper… well, that’s perhaps in the next version, along with an API that will allow someone to open the door from the company chat application.
At the moment, this is a clean, simple build that uses only a few cheap components, but which could be the basis for a more sophisticated security system in the future.
Anyone who has worked in an office with a vending machine knows this problem well: someone wants a snack or a drink from the vending machine, but doesn’t have any small change. So, they proceed to walk around the office trying to find someone to make some change for them. It’s a hassle, and a surprisingly common one. Sure, a lot of vending machines now accept credit cards, but they’re still in the minority.
This was the problem facing Belgium-based automation company November Five. As automation and IoT specialists, their first thought was to hack the vending machine itself. But, unfortunately, they didn’t own it; as many of you know, vending machines are generally owned by the distributor. So, they needed a solution that allowed their employees access to the vending machine, without actually modifying the vending machine itself.
The solution they came up with was to attach an RFID-activated coin dispenser to the vending machine. Everyone at the company already has an RFID badge for opening doors and such, so the system wouldn’t add any burden to the employees. And keeping track of how many coins each employee used was a simple task of logging requests.
A mass participation sporting event such as a road race presents a significant problem for its record keepers. It would be impossible to have ten thousand timekeepers hovering over stopwatches at the finish line, so how do they record each runner’s time? The answer lies in an RFID chip attached to the inside of the bib each runner wears, which is read as the runner crosses the line to ensure that their time is recorded among the hundreds of other participants.
Stripping away the foam covering of the RFID assembly revealed a foil antenna for the 860-960MHz UHF band with the tiny RFID chip at its centre. The antenna is interesting, it’s a rather simple wideband dipole folded over with what looks like a matching stub arrangement and an arrow device incorporated into the fold that is probably for aesthetic rather than practical purposes. He identified the chip as an Impinj Monza 4, whose data sheet contains reference designs for antennas we’d expect to deliver a better performance.
After some trial-by-fire epoxy removal the tiny chip was revealed and photographed. It’s a device of three parts, the power scavenging and analog radio section, the non-volatile memory that carries the payload, and a finite-state logic machine to do the work. This isn’t a proper processor, instead it contains only the logic required to do the one task of returning the payload.
He finishes off with a comparison photograph of the chip — which is about the size of a grain of salt — atop a 1980s 8051-series microcontroller to show both its tiny size and the density advancements achieved over those intervening decades.
Since RFID devices are becoming a ubiquitous part of everyday life it is interesting to learn more about them through teardowns like this one. The chip here is a bit different to those you’ll find in more mundane applications in that it uses a much higher frequency, we’d be interested to know the RF field strength required at the finish line to activate it. It would also be interesting to know how the system handles collisions, with many runners passing the reader at once there must be a lot of RFID chatter on the airwaves.
RFID was supposed to revolutionize asset tracking, replacing the barcode everywhere. Or at least that was the prediction once tags got under five cents apiece. They still cost seven to fifteen cents, even in bulk, and the barcode is still sitting pretty. [Chouchang (Jack) Yang] and [Alanson Sample] of Disney Research hope to change that.
Instead of tagging every electronic device, they use whatever electromagnetic emissions the device currently produces when it’s powered up. What’s surprising is not that they can tell an iPhone from a toy lightsaber, but that they can tell the toy lightsabers apart. But apparently there’s enough manufacturing and tolerance differences from piece to piece that they appear unique most of the time.
The paper (PDF) goes through the details and procedure. The coolest bit? The sensor they use is an RTL-SDR unit with the radio-mixer front end removed and replaced with a simple transformer. This lets them feed baseband (tuning from 0 to 28.8 MHz) straight into the DAC ADC and on to the computer which does the heavy math. Sawing off the frontend of a TV tuner is a hack, for those of you out there with empty bingo cards.
If you like statistics, you’ll want to read the paper for details about how they exactly do the classification of objects, but the overview is that they first start by figuring out what type of device they’re “hearing” and then focusing on which particular one it is. The measure that they use ends up being essentially a normalized correlation.
While we’re not sure how well this will scale to thousands of devices, they get remarkably good results (around 95%) for picking one device out of five. The method won’t be robust to overclocking or underclocking of the device’s CPU, so we’re concerned about temperature and battery-voltage effects. But it’s a novel idea, and one that’s ripe for the hacker-rebuild. And for the price of an RTL-SDR, and with no additional per-tag outlay as with an RFID system, it’s pretty neat.
It seems these days all the electronics projects are wireless in some form. Whether you choose WiFi, Bluetooth Classic, Bluetooth Low Energy, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread, NFC, RFID, Cell, IR, or even semaphore or carrier pigeon depends a lot on the constraints of your project. There are a lot of variables to consider, so here is a guide to help you navigate the choices and come to a conclusion about which to use in your project.
We can really quickly reduce options down to the appropriate tech with just a few questions.
One of the problems with the Internet of Things, or any embedded device, is how to get power. Batteries are better than ever and circuits are low power. But you still have to eventually replace or recharge a battery. Not everything can plug into a wall, and fuel cells need consumables.
University of Washington researchers are turning to a harvesting approach. Their open source WISP board has a sensor and a CPU that draws power from an RFID reader. To save power during communication, the device backscatters incoming radio waves, which means it doesn’t consume a lot of its own power during transmissions.
The big news is that TU Delft has contributed code to allow WISP to reprogram wirelessly. You can see a video about the innovation below. The source code is on GitHub. Previously, a WISP had to connect to a PC to receive a new software load.