DIY Linux Computer and 6LoWPAN Gateway

We toss together our own PCB designs, throwing in a microcontroller here or there. Anything more demanding than that, and we reach for a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone (or an old Linksys router). Why don’t we just whip together a PCB for a small Linux computer? Because we don’t know how…but [Jonas] apparently does. And when we asked him why he did it, he replied “because I can!”

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His Ethernet-to-6LoWPAN gateway project is a small, OpenWRT-capable Linux computer in disguise. Rather than yet another Raspberry Pi project, he designed around an Atmel AT91SAM9G25 400 MHz CPU, and added some memory, Ethernet, and a CC2520 radio chip to handle the wireless side. It’s all done on a four-layer board, and hotplate/skillet reflowed. This seems temptingly like something within our reach. [Jonas] had access to X-ray machines to double-check his reflow work, which probably isn’t necessary, although it looks really cool.

When finished, the project will link together a 6LoWPAN network (probably home automation) and his home wired network. That makes this device a rival to something like Philips’ Hue Bridge, which was the subject of some controversy when they locked out other devices for a few days until they recanted. Indeed, in response to this, there’s been quite a lot of effort at hacking the firmware of the Hue device, just to stay on the safe side in case Philips plays shenanigans again.

Soon, that’s not going to be necessary. [Jonas]’s design is open from the ground up, and coupled with open software running on top of the OpenWRT router operating system, that’s the full stack. And that’s great news for folks who are thinking about investing in a home automation technology, but afraid of what happens then the faceless corporations decide to pull the plug on their devices.

FCC Reaches Agreement With Router Manufacturers

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a rule governing the certification of RF equipment, specifically wireless routers. This proposed rule required router manufacturers to implement security on the radio module inside these routers. Although this rule is fairly limited in scope – the regulation only covers the 5GHz U-NII bands, and only applies to the radio subsystem of a router, the law of unintended consequences reared its ugly head. The simplest way to lock down a radio module is to lock down the entire router, and this is exactly what a few large router manufacturers did. Under this rule, open source, third-party firmwares such as OpenWRT are impossible.

Now, router manufacturer TP-Link has reached an agreement with the FCC to allow third-party firmware. Under the agreement, TP-Link will pay a $200,000 fine for shipping routers that could be configured to run above the permitted power limits.

This agreement is in stark contrast to TP-Link’s earlier policy of shipping routers with signed, locked firmware, in keeping with the FCC’s rule.

This is a huge success for the entire open source movement. Instead of doing the easy thing – locking down a router’s firmware and sending it out the door – TP-Link has chosen to take a hit to their pocketbook. That’s great news for any of the dozens of projects experimenting with mesh networking, amateur radio, or any other wireless networking protocol, and imparts a massive amount of goodwill onto TP-Link.

Thanks [Maave] for the tip.

The Othermill Is Something Else

I’ll admit. When I saw the Othermill for the first time I thought it was just another mill with cheap Chinese hardware inside sold as a premium. I’m ashamed to say that I even trash talked it a little bit. It gave me another chance to relearn that I should always do my research before being a jerk, check my assumptions thoroughly, and even then it’s not recommended. Other Machine Company was kind enough to let me swing by the office in Berkeley California. [Danielle], the CEO, led me through the design of the mill as well as the challenges in running the operation.

The Othermill is a serious machine, and with the recent release of the Othermill Pro, it’s only getting better. The components are not bargain basement. This is something that could be more obvious, but it’s almost entirely made from US sourced parts, including the custom stepper motors. There aren’t any ball bearings that will start to make strange noises in a year. It can now cut 6mil traces in a PCB all day long. To put it into perspective. The Othermill Pro costs a third of the price of an equivalent machine from LPKF and has the same capabilities.

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The Onion Omega2: The Latest Router Dev Board

A few years ago, the best way to put a device or project online was by hacking a router. With an inconspicuous Linksys WRT54G held onto a project with baling wire, anything can connect to the Internet. A lot has changed in a few years, and now those routers are development boards themselves. The latest of these is the Onion Omega2, a follow-up crowdfunding campaign to the very popular original Omega. Now, this tiny dev board is faster, more capable, and now it’s giving the Raspberry Pi Zero a run for its money.

The original Onion Omega was released last year with specs you would expect from an Internet of Things development board designed upon a chip for a cheap router. The original Onion used an Atheros AR9331 SOC running at 400 MHZ, had 64MB of RAM and 16MB of storage – enough to run a lightweight Linux distro – and also included USB, 802.11b/g/n, and a handful of GPIOs and a single UART. The Omega2 is a vast improvement over the original Omega, featuring a CPU that is 45% faster. The upgraded version of the Omega sports twice as much RAM, twice as much storage, and a MicroSD slot. This enables some Linux distros with a little more oomph behind them, and of course the SD card allows for local storage.

The original Onion Omega was funded through a crowdfunding campaign, with a single Onion Omega and dock available for a pledge of $19. Taking a lesson from the C.H.I.P. and the Pi Zero, the team at Onion have slashed the price. The Omega2 is only five dollars. If you want more RAM, storage, and an SD card socket, that price goes up to $9 USD. That’s amazing, and just goes to show how far hardware designed to service the Internet of Things has come in just a few short years.

A CNC You Could Pop-Rivet Together

You have to be careful with CNC; it’s a slippery slope. You start off one day just trying out a 3D printer, and it’s not six months before you’re elbow deep in a discarded Xerox looking for stepper motors and precision rods. This is evident from [Dan] and his brother’s angle aluminum CNC build.

Five or six years ago they teamed up to build one of those MDF CNC routers. It was okay, but really only cut foam. So they moved on to a Rostock 3D printer. This worked much better, and for a few years it sated them. However, recently, they just weren’t getting what they needed from it. The 3D printer had taught them a lot of new things, 3D modeling, the ins of running a CNC, and a whole slew of making skills. They decided to tackle the CNC again.

The new design is simple and cheap. The frame is angle aluminum held together with screws. The motion components are all 3D printed. The spindle is just an import rotary tool. It’s a simple design, and it should serve them well for light, low precision cuts. We suspect that it’s not the last machine the pair will build. You can see it in action in the video after the break.

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Virtualizing Around The FCC’s Firmware Modification Rules

Last year, the FCC introduced new regulations requiring router manufacturers to implement software security to limit the power output in specific 5GHz bands. Government regulations follow the laws of unintended consequences, and the immediate fear surrounding this new directive from the FCC was that WiFi router manufacturers would make the easiest engineering decision. These fears came true early this year when it was revealed a large router manufacturer was not following the FCC regulations to the letter by limiting the output of the radio module itself, but instead locking down the entire router.

The FCC’s rules regarding the power output of 5GHz routers was never a serious concern; the FCC is, after all, directed to keep the spectrum clean, and can force manufacturers to limit the power output of the wireless devices. The problem comes from how manufacturers implement this regulation – the easiest solution to prevent users from modifying the output of the radio module will always be preventing users from modifying the entire router. Developers don’t like it, the smart users are horrified, and even the FCC is a little flustered with the unintended consequences of its regulation.

While the easiest solution to preventing the modification of a radio module is to prevent modification to the entire router, there is another way. The folks at Imagination Technologies have come up with a virtualization scheme that allows router manufacturers to lock down the radio module per the FCC directive while still allowing the use of Open Source router firmware like OpenWrt.

A demonstration of the capabilities of this next-generation router comes from the prpl Security Working Group and uses MIPS Warrior CPUs to create multiple trusted environments. The control of the router can be handled by one secure environment, while the rest of the router firmware – OpenWrt included – can be run in an environment more conducive to Open Source firmware.

The demo of a compartmentalized, virtualized router uses a dev kit consisting of a dual-core MIPS P5600 CPU running at 1GHz, and a Realtek RTL8192 WiFi adapter plugged into the USB port. The driver for the WiFi adapter runs under a secure hypervisor, making it secure enough to pass the FCC’s muster.

This build wouldn’t be possible without hardware virtualization in microprocessors and microcontrollers. Imagination Technologies has been working on this for a while, and only a few years ago demonstrated a PIC32 with baked in virtualization.

In the video below, Imagination Technologies demonstrates a MIPS board running three virtual machines. The first machine is running OpenWrt, the second is running a WiFi driver, and the third is running third-party applications. Crashing one machine doesn’t bring down the others, and the WiFi driver is locked away in a secure environment in accordance with the FCC regulations.

While it’s hard to imagine a router based on a MIPS board that would be cheaper than the already inexpensive router SoCs found in today’s routers, this method of secure virtualization is the best way to give consumers what they deserve: an open source option for all their devices.

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Shaper Tools Will Blow Your Mind

Have you ever wanted to own a full-sized ShopBot? What if some geniuses somewhere made a tool the size of a coffee maker that had the same capabilities? Does an augmented reality, real-time feedback, interactive, handheld CNC router that can make objects ranging in size from a pillbox to an entire conference room table sound like a thing that even exists? It didn’t to me at first, but then I visited the Shaper Tools office in San Francisco and they blew my mind with their flagship tool, Shaper Origin.

This table and the spool holder sitting on it was made with a machine the size of a coffee maker.
This table and the spool holder sitting on it was made with a machine the size of a coffee maker.

It’s impossible for me not to sound like a fan boy. Using Shaper Origin was one of those experiences where you just don’t know what to say afterwards. This is what the future looks like.

I’ve used a lot of CNC tools in my life, from my first home-built CNC conversion, to 1980s monstrosities that ran off the floppy kind of floppy disks, and all the way over to brand new state-of-the-art vertical machining centers. I had to shake a lot of that knowledge off when they demoed the device to me.

Origin is a CNC router built into the form factor of a normal wood router. The router knows where it is on the work piece. You tell it where on the piece you would like to cut out a shape, drill a hole, or make a pocket. It tells you where to go, but as you move it keeps the cutting bit precisely on the path with its three axes of control.

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