LTSpice for Radio Amateurs (and Others)

We don’t think [VK4FFAB] did himself a favor by calling his seven-part LTSpice tutorial LTSpice for Radio Amateurs. Sure, the posts do focus on radio frequency analysis, but these days lots of people are involved in radio work that aren’t necessarily hams.

Either way, if you are interested in simulating RF amplifiers and filters, you ought to check these posts out. Of course, the first few cover simple things like voltage dividers just to get your feet wet. The final part even covers a double-balanced mixer with some transformers, so there’s quite a range of material.

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Building a Replica of an Ultraluxury Watch

In the world of late-stage capitalism, unchecked redistribution of wealth to the upper classes has led to the development of so-called ultraluxury watches. Free from any reasonable constraints on material or R&D cost, manufacturers are free to explore the outer limits of the horological art. [Karel] is an aspiring engineer and watch enthusiast, and has a taste for the creations of Urwerk. They decided to see if they could create a replica of the UR202 watch with nothing more than the marketing materials as a guide.

[Karel]’s first job was to create a model of the watch in CAD. For a regular watch this might be simple enough, but the UR202 is no run-of-the-mill timepiece. It features a highly irregular mechanism, full of things like a turbine regulated winding mechanism, telescoping rods instead of minute hands, and tumbling rotors to indicate the hours. The official product sheet bears some of these features out. Through careful analysis of photos and watching videos frame-by-frame, they managed to recreate what they believe to be a functioning mechanical model within their CAD software.

It was then time to try and build the timepiece for real. It was then that [Karel] started hitting some serious stumbling blocks. As a humble engineering student, it’s not often possible to purchase an entire machine shop capable of turning out the tiny, precision parts necessary to make even a basic watch mechanism. Your basic 3D printer squirting hot plastic isn’t going to cut it here. Farming out machining wasn’t an option as the cost would be astronomical. [Karel] instead decided on combining a Miyota movement with a machined aluminum base plate and parts 3D printed using a process known as “Multijet Modelling” which essentially is an inkjet printhead spitting out UV curable polymer.

In the end, [Karel] was able to get just the tumbling hour indicator working. The telescoping minute hand, compressed air turbine winding system, and other features didn’t make it into the build. However, the process of simulating these features within a CAD package, as well as manufacturing a semi-functional replica of the watch, was clearly a powerful learning experience. [Karel] used their passion to pursue a project that ended up giving them a strong grasp of some valuable skills, and that is something that is incredibly rewarding.

We’ve seen others trying to fabricate parts of a wristwatch at home. Keep your horological tips coming in!

[Thanks to Str Alorman for the tip!]

ENIAC: The Way We Were

When I first got interested in computers, it was all but impossible for an individual to own a computer outright. Even a “small” machine cost a fortune not to mention requiring specialized power, cooling, and maintenance. Then there started to be some rumblings of home computers (like the Mark 8 we recently saw a replica of) and the Altair 8800 burst on the scene. By today’s standards, these are hardly computers. Even an 8-bit Arduino can outperform these old machines.

As much disparity as there is between an Altair 8800 and a modern personal computer, looking even further back is fascinating. The differences between the original computers from the 1940s and anything even remotely “modern” like an Altair or a PC are astounding. If you are interested in that kind of history, you should read a paper entitled “Electronic Computing Circuits of the ENIAC” by [Arthur W. Burks].

These mid-century designers used tubes and were blazing new ground. Part of what makes the ENIAC so different is that it had a different design principle than a modern computer. It was less a general purpose stored-program computer and more of a collection of logic circuits that could be configured to solve problems — sort of a giant vacuum tube FPGA, if you will. It used some internal representations that proved to be suboptimal which also makes it seem strange. The EDSAC — a later device — was closer to what we think of as a computer. Yet the ENIAC was a major step in the direction of a practical digital computer.

Cost and Size

eniac
Programming the ENIAC in 1951 (±4 years)
[Image Source: Public Domain]
The size of ENIAC is hard to imagine. The device had about 18,000 tubes, 7,000 diodes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 6,000 switches. There were 5 million hand-soldered joints! ([Thomas Haigh] tells us that while this is widely reported, the real number was about 500,000.) Physically, it stood 10 feet tall, 3 feet deep, and 100 feet long. The tube filaments alone required 80 kW of power. Even the cooling system consumed 20 kW. In total, it took 150 kW to run the beast.

The cost of the machine was about $487,000. Almost a half-million dollars in 1946 is plenty. But that’s nearly seven million dollars in today’s money. What was worth that kind of expenditure? The military built firing tables for shell trajectories. From the [Burks] paper:

“A skilled computer with a desk machine can compute a 60-second trajectory in about twenty hours…”

Keep in mind that in 1946, a computer was a person. [Burks] goes on to say that a differential analyzer can do the same job in 15 minutes. ENIAC, on the other hand, could do it in 30 seconds and with a greater precision than the differential analyzer.

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Op Amps Combine Into Virtual Ball In A Box

What happens when you throw a ball into a box? In the real world, the answer is simple – the ball bounces between the walls and the floor until it eventually loses energy and comes to rest. What happens when you throw a virtual ball into a virtual box? Sounds like something you might need a program running on a digital computer to answer. But an analog computer built with a handful of op amps can model a ball in a box pretty handily too.

OK, it takes quite a large handful of op amps and considerable cleverness to model everything in this simple system, as [Glen Kleinschmidt] discovered when he undertook to recreate a four-decade-old demonstration project from AEG-Telefunken. Plotting the position of an object bouncing around inside the virtual box is the job of two separate circuits, one to determine the Y-coordinate and bouncing off the floor, and one to calculate the X-coordinate relative to the walls. Those circuits are superimposed by a high-frequency sine-cosine pair generator that creates the ball, and everything is mixed together into separate outputs for an X-Y oscilloscope to display. The resulting simulation is pretty convincing, with the added bonus of the slowly decaying clicks of the relay used to change the X direction each time a wall is hit.

There’s not much practical use, but it’s instructional for sure, and an impressive display of what’s possible with op amps. For more on using op amps as analog computers, check out [Bil Herd]’s “Computing with Analog” article.

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Drone Vs. Airplane? Who Will Win? Science Knows.

Ignore the article, watch the video at the top of the page. The article is about some idiot, likely not even a hacker, who bought a drone somewhere and nearly rammed it into a plane. He managed this with concentrated idiocy, intention was not involved. While these idiots are working hard to get our cool toys taken away, researchers elsewhere are answering the question of exactly how much threat a drone poses to an airplane.

droneexplode_thumbAirplanes are apparently armored to withstand a strike from an 8lb bird. However, even if in a similar weight class, a drone is not constructed of the same stuff. To understand if this mattered, step one was to exactly model a DJI Phantom and then digitally launch it at various sections of a very expensive airplane.

The next step, apparently, was to put a drone into an air cannon and launch it at an aluminum sheet. The drone explodes quite dramatically. Some people have the best jobs.

The study is still ongoing, but from the little clips seen; the drone loses. Along with the rest of us.

Perhaps the larger problem to think about right now is how to establish if a “drone” has actually been involved in an incident with a passenger aircraft. It seems there are a lot of instances where that claim is dubious.

Are Today’s Engineers Worse?

Today’s engineers are just as good as the ones that came before, but that should not be the case and there is massive room for improvement. Improvement that can be realized by looking for the best of the world to come and the one we left behind.

Hey kids! Let's learn why the CE certifications exist!
Hey kids! Let’s learn why the CE certifications exist!

Survivorship bias is real. When we look at the accomplishments of the engineers that came before us we are forced to only look at the best examples. It first really occurred to me that this was real when I saw what I still consider to be the most atrocious piece of consumer oriented engineering the world has yet seen: the Campbell’s soup warmer.

This soup warmer is a poor combination of aluminum and Bakelite forged into the lowest tier of value engineering during its age. Yet it comes from the same time that put us on the moon: we still remember and celebrate Apollo. It’s possible that the soup warmer is forgotten because those who owned it perished from home fires, electrocution, or a diet of Campbell’s soup, but it’s likely that it just wasn’t worth remembering. It was bad engineering.

In fact, there’s mountains of objects. Coffee pots whose handles fell off. Switches that burned or shocked us. Cars that were ugly and barely worked. Literal mountains of pure refuse that never should have seen the light of day. Now we are here.

The world of engineering has changed. My girlfriend and I once snuck into an old factory in Louisville, Kentucky. The place was a foundry and the only building that survived the fire that ended the business. It happened to be where they stored their professional correspondence and sand casting patterns. It was moldy, dangerous, and a little frightening but I saw something amazing when we cracked open one of the file cabinets. It was folders and folders of all the communication that went into a single product. It was an old enough factory that some of it was before the widespread adoption of telephony and all documents had to be mailed from place to place.

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Simulate Your Robot Before You Build It

[Nurgak] shows how one can use some of the great robotic tools out there to simulate a robot before you even build it. To drive this point home he builds the tutorial off of the easily 3D printable and buildable Robopoly platform.

The robot runs on Robot Operating System at its core. ROS is interesting because of its decentralized and input/output agnostic messaging system. For example, if you leave everything alone but swap out the motor output from actual motors to a simulator, you can see how the robot would respond to any arbitrary input.

[Nurgak] uses another piece of software called V-REP to demonstrate this. V-REP is a simulation suite for robotics and has a few ROS nodes built in. So in order to make a simulated line-following robot, [Nurgak] tells V-REP to send a simulated camera image to the decision making node of the robot in ROS. It then sends the movement messages back to V-REP which drives the pretend robot around.

He runs through a few more examples, proving that it’s entirely possible to become if not a roboticist, at least a really good AI programmer without ever dropping the big money on parts to build a robot.