Tiniest Control Board Fits Inside an N-Gauge Model Train

[kodera2t] discovered the VL53L0X Time of Flight sensor and thought it would make a great way to control the operation of a model train without touching it. He explains it in his own words in the demo video.

The sensor was small enough for an N-gauge train, which translates to 1:148 scale or about 9mm from rail to rail. His idea was to build a tiny control board that could fit inside the locomotive: 10mm by 40mm. His board consists of the ToF sensor, an ATMega328P-MMH, USB-serial, and a Texas Instruments DRV8830 motor driver. he powers the board via the 6V running through the track.

Right now [kodera2t]’s using the ToF as sort of a gestural controller to get the train to start rolling, but one could imagine the sensor could be incorporated into more advanced programming, like having the train speed up on straightaways and slow down on a curve, based on the height of the bridge over it.

We’ve published a bunch of [kodera2t]’s tiny circuit board projects here on Hackaday, including the smallest basic computer, his minimal frequency counter, and his VFD amplifier.

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LEGO Train Explores a World of Sparkling Light

[bananenbuurman] converted his studio apartment into a glorious four-minute LEGO train course equipped with lights, motorized effects, and creative displays.

The train car sports a 360-degree camera, giving us a minifigure’s view of the whole course: a series of themed “rooms”—one papered in what appear too be Euro notes, while others have laptops, power supplies, motherboards, and other pieces of old hardware. You’re reminded of the train’s small size when it passes by various LEGO-scale elements like minifigures, looming as if they were six feet tall.

There are lights everywhere, from the LED indicators from various pieces of equipment, to holiday lights and an an impressive collection of novelty lighting. It’s almost like a Katamari Damacy level in terms of detail—the gate made of floppy drives is killer.

You can see more of [bananenbuurman]’s projects at Banana Neighbor.

[Thanks, MarkoeZ!]

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Jumper Cables Block Trains

Standing Rock, North Dakota has been the site of a major protest this year against the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Protesters have sought to delay the pipeline’s progress by a wide variety of means, and both sides in the conflict have been accused of a variety of misdeeds.

An anonymous group supporting the protesters has released a video describing how they stop trains without the use of physical barricades. The video begins with police removing automobiles used to block the tracks and escorting trains through level crossings, showing how these traditional methods have been ineffective.

The video then goes on to outline what is described as a “sneaky” way of halting trains. Most railroads use what is known as a track circuit — a current run through the rails of the track detects when a train passes over it by the axles completing an electrical circuit between the two. By using a standard automotive jumper cable to connect the two rails together instead, the circuit is completed and falsely indicates to the railway signalling system that a train is present on the track in question. Due to the safety-critical nature of the railway, no trains can be run on the track until the short circuit is removed, else there is a great risk of collisions between trains on the network.

Intended as a practical guide, strategies to maximize disruption are outlined, such as hiding the cables under snow and painting them in black to evade detection as long as possible. Instructions on how to best make a solid connection to the rails are also shared.

It goes without saying that interfering with major infrastructure is risky, dangerous, and highly illegal. Protesters have already been arrested for physically blocking trains. Perpetrators of this method will surely be arrested if caught, and circumventing the technology could easily result in harsher charges associated with electronic security and safety systems. This is sabotage (deliberately obstructing) and undermines the validity of peaceful protest.

This shows how ingenuity is often spawned by turmoil and frustration. Reflect on human nature, and catch the video below the break.

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Catching A Rogue Train With Data

If you have been a regular traveler on one of the world’s mass transit systems over the last few decades, you will have witnessed something of a technological revolution. Not necessarily in the trains themselves, though they have certainly changed, but in the signalling and system automation. Nineteenth and twentieth century human and electromechanical systems have been replaced by up-to-date computers, and in some cases the trains even operate autonomously without a driver. The position of every train is known exactly at all times, and with far less possibility for human error, the networks are both safer and more efficient.

As you might expect, the city-state of Singapore has a metro with every technological advance possible, recently built and with new equipment. It was thus rather unfortunate for the Singaporean metro operators that trains on their Circle Line started to experience disruption. Without warning, trains would lose their electronic signalling, and their safety systems would then apply the brakes and bring them to a halt. Engineers had laid the blame on electrical interference, but despite their best efforts no culprit could be found.

Eventually the problem found its way to the Singaporean government’s data team, and their story of how they identified the source of the interference makes for a fascinating read. It’s a minor departure from Hackaday’s usual  hardware and open source fare, but there is still plenty to be learned from their techniques.

They started with the raw train incident data, and working in a Jupyter notebook imported, cleaned, and consolidated it before producing analyses for time, location, and train IDs. None of these graphs showed any pointers, as the incidents happened regardless of location, time, or train.

They then plotted each train on a Marey chart, a graph in which the vertical axis represents time  and the horizontal axis represents stations along a line (Incidentally Étienne-Jules Marey’s Wikipedia entry is a fascinating read in itself). Since it represents the positions of multiple trains simultaneously they were able to see that the incidents happened when two trains were passing, hence their lack of correlation with location or time. The prospect of a rogue train as the source of the interference was raised, and analyzing video recordings from metro stations to spot the passing train’s number they were able to identify the unit in question. We hope that the repairs included a look at the susceptibility of the signalling system to interference as well as the faulty parts on one train.

We’ve been known to cover a few stories here with a railway flavor over the years. Mostly though they’ve been older ones, such as this film of a steam locomotive’s construction, or this tale of narrow gauge preservation.

[via Hacker News]

[Main image source: Singapore MRT Circle line trains image: 9V-SKA [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Weaponizing Elementary Science Experiments

[austiwawa] was playing around with one of those simple linear motors people build as friendly little science experiments. There’s an AA battery in the middle of a set of magnets. When you put it inside of a spring it zips around inside until you run out of spring or magic pixies in the battery.

Of course, the natural question arose, “How do I make it go fast!? Like fast!” After making explosion and woosh noises for a bit (like any good hacker would) he settled down and asked a more specific question. If I made the coil the barrel of an air gun, and then shot the battery out… would it go faster?

So, he built an air cannon. It took some ingenuity and duct tape, but he managed to line the barrel with a copper coil. After that he built an experimental set-up, because making something dangerous is only okay if it’s science. That’s the difference between sensible adults and children.

He shot three “dead” rounds through the cannon, and got a baseline result. These dead rounds were made so by placing the magnets at the improper polarity to forego the motion-boosting properties. Then he shot three live ones through. It went measurably faster! Neat!

What’s the silliest thing you’ve ever seen properly characterized? Let us know in the comments below.

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Train Time Ticker Will Save Your Morning Commute

The fatal combination of not being a early riser and commuting to work using public transit can easily result in missed buses or trains. Frustrated with missing train after train while fumbling with a complicated transit schedule app, [Fergal Carroll] created a Train Time Ticker to help his morning routine run right on time.

A Particle Photon hooked up to a 2.2″ TFT screen — both mounted on a breadboard with a button — fit the purpose tidily. Weekday mornings, the Ticker pulls — from a server he set up — the departure times for the specific station and platform along [Carroll]’s commute every three minutes; at all other times, the Ticker can be manually refreshed for any impending trips.

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Electric Train Demonstrator

If you ever want to pique a kid’s interest in technology, it is best to bring out something simple, yet cool. There was a time that showing a kid how a crystal radio could pull in a radio station from all the way across town fit the bill. Now, that’s a yawner as the kid probably carries a high-tech cell phone with a formidable radio already. Your latest FPGA project is probably too complicated to grasp, and your Arduino capacitance meter is–no offense–too boring to meet the cool factor criterion.

There’s an old school project usually called an “electromagnetic train” that works well (Ohio State has a good write up about it as a PDF file). You coil some bare copper wire around a tubular form to make a tunnel. Then a AAA battery with some magnets make the train. When you put the train in the tunnel, the magnetic forces propel the train through the tunnel. Well, either that or it shoots it out. If that happens, turn the train around and try again. There’s a few of these in Internet videos and you can see one of them (from [BeardedScienceGuy]) below.

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