Powerwheels Racing Series in Detroit

[Transistor-Man] and the gang finally got around to documenting their experience at the Detroit Makerfaire 2014 and the Powerwheels racing series. They weren’t planning on entering, but in a last-minute decision they decided to see if they could whip up an entry just over one week before the competition! They did — and it’s awesome. They call it the Chibi-Atomic-Jeep.

As the competition name implies, they had to base the vehicle off of a Powerwheels frame. Bunch of steel tubing, some TIG welding and a nice paint job, and they had the base frame of their vehicle. At the heart of it? An alternator from a van — surprisingly powerful and easy to control. They used cheap 8″ wheels from Harbor Freight Tools — they worked great, just didn’t last very long… By the time the races were over, they went through NINE of these tires. Good thing they’re cheap!

The most impressive part of the build is the gears. They made them using a water-jet cutter at the local hobby shop and a Bridgeport mill with an indexing head — not an easy task to complete!

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Interactive Software to Solve Crosstalk Problems

A link to this video demonstrating PCB cross-talk ended up in my mailbox the other day as I tend to stay on the mailing lists of the some of the high end CAD companies. There are some really interesting and powerful “mega-tools” that do things like plot noise density for decoupling analysis and extremely high speed timing analysis, though the costs of these tools are commensurate with their capabilities. This one is part of the Mentor Graphics PCB Simulation software.

The tool shown does the math needed to predict the induced voltage noise (cross-talk) generated by the proximity of noise sources to the noise susceptible elements, and the tool does so interactively. This is remarkable… in the past we would calculate some examples of trace width, spacing, and the type of signals involved, and then generate some rules of thumb that we tried to apply during the layout process. It was an educated guess that was sometimes not as close as we would have liked.

Virtual Scope Showing Predicted Crosstalk
Virtual Scope Showing Predicted Cross-talk


The cool part of this software is the interactive nature. One can learn the effects of placement on cross-talk in real time, which helps build an intuitive understanding.

I will add the standard disclaimer that a tool is exactly that, a tool, and it only represents an approximation of real life at best. It’s tempting to design to the tool itself, and many engineers have learned the limitation of a tool the hard way. Instead think of the tool as another opinion, or as mentioned, a learning aid to gather an intuitive feel for the effects of placement on circuit performance.

Driving A Brushless DC Motor Sloooooooowly

Driving a brushless DC (gimbal) motor can be a pain in the transistors. [Ignas] has written up a nice article not only explaining how to do just this with an Arduino, but also explaining a little bit on how the process works. He uses a L6234 Three Phase Motor Driver, but points out that there are other ways to interface the BLDC motor with the Arduino.

warningA warning is warranted – this is not for the faint of heart. You can easily destroy your microcontroller if you’re not careful. [Ignas] added several current limiting resistors and capacitors as advised in the application note (PDF warning) to keep things safe.

Everything worked well at high speeds, but for slower speeds the motor was choppy. [Ingus] solved this riddle by changing over to a sine wave to drive the motor. Instead of making the Arduino calculate the wave, he used a look up table.

Be sure to check out his blog for full source and schematics. There is also a video demonstrating just how slow he can make the motor move below.

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VCF East X: The World’s Largest USB Thumb Drive

The Vintage Computer Festival last weekend featured racks and racks of old minicomputers, enough terminals for an entire lab, and enough ancient storage devices to save a YouTube video. These storage devices – hard disks, tape readers, and 8″ disk drives – were only connected to vintage hardware, with one exception: a DEC RL02 drive connected to a modern laptop via USB.

The DEC RL02 drive is the closest you’re going to get to a modern mechanical hard drive with these old machines. It’s a huge rack unit with removable platters that can hold 10 Megabytes of storage. [Chris] found one of these old drives and because he wanted to get into FPGA development, decided to create a USB adapter for this huge, old drive.

The hardware isn’t too terribly complex, with a microcontroller and an FPGA that exposes the contents of the drive over USB mass storage. For anyone trying to bootstrap a PDP-11 or -8 system, [Chris] could download disk images from the Internet, write them to the disk, and load up the contents of the drive from the minicomputer. Now, he’s using it with SimH to have a physical drive for an emulated system, but the controller really doesn’t care about what format the disk pack is in. If [Chris] formatted a disk pack with a FAT file system, he would have the world’s largest and heaviest USB thumb drive in the world.

Video below.

Update: As promised, [Chris] put all the code in a git

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Hackaday Los Angeles Event: Develop your Hacking Superpowers

When we get together we like to build stuff, and that’s what has been motivating us as we work toward Hackaday Prize Worldwide: Pasadena. This two-day event held May 9th and 10th in the Los Angeles area is not to be missed. We are presenting a workshop, speakers, hacking, and socializing. Drop what you’re doing and get a ticket for the low-low price of being an awesome person.

On Saturday the ninth, Hackaday opens our doors for the workshop: “Zero to Product”. [Matt Berggren] leads the workshop. He is well known for running the Hardware Developer’s Didactic Galactic up in San Francisco (a meetup that we love to attend). [Matt] comes from a hardware design background and has done it all. He’s been involved in building schematic and PCB tools, been run through the startup gauntlet, and has a ton of hardware experience including everything from FPGA layout to getting that product out the door.

The workshop covers the things you need to consider when producing production-quality, professional-level circuit boards. Don’t be afraid of this, the discussion is approachable for the newcomer as well as the experienced hacker. Of course a PCB does not a product make so the conversation will also move through component selection, enclosures, best practices, and much more.

You Can’t Miss these Talks


judge-thumb-White[Elecia White]

[Elecia] is an embedded systems expert and a Hackaday Prize judge in both 2014 and 2015. Elecia will be demonstrating a gadget designed to familiarize engineers with the capabilities of inertial various sensors like accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers.

[Samy Kamkar]

[Samy] is a privacy and security researcher, has had a number of projects featured on Hackaday. The most notable in our minds is the wireless keyboard sniffer he built into a cellphone charger. He’ll be discussing that build as well as some other projects like his drone army.

We do have a few other speakers and lighting talks lined up but we don’t want to announce until we have final confirmation from those presenters. Please check on the event page for updates.

Show Off Your Hacks and Build More On-Site


The robot build at Hackady’s 10th Anniversary last October

We have the space, we have the people, add some food and beverage and now you’re talking. On Saturday evening we’ll warp up the talks and workshops, throw on some tunes, and pull out the projects we’ve been working in our spare time.

This casual hang-out is a great time to find answers and advice for that one problem that’s been tripping you up. We’ll make sure there’s something to fill your belly and keep you happy while you think about what you want to hack on the following day.

Sunday is Open Hack Day. Want to work on the concepts you picked up from Saturday’s workshop? Great, we can help with that! We’ll also have hardware development boards on-hand from our Hackaday Prize Sponsors, other random hackable stuff, and of course you may bring your own equipment and get down to business. Anything is fair game but we’re especially excited to see what people are building as their 2015 Hackaday Prize entries!

In case you missed the ticket link, please RSVP now. We’ll see you in May!

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Hackaday Tours Northrop: Space Telescopes and Jet Planes

I was invited to tour the Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems campus in Los Angeles this spring and it was fantastic! The Northrop Grumman lists themselves as “a leading global security company” but the project that stole my heart is their work on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for NASA. On the one hand, I don’t see how it could possibly be pulled off as the telescope seems to cram every hard engineering challenge you can think of into one project. On the other hand, Northrop (plus NASA and all of their subcontractors) has been doing tough stuff for a very long time.

How Do You Tour Northrop Grumman?

This opportunity fell in my lap since [Tony Long] is a Hackaday reader and an engineer at Northrop. He’s the founder of their FabLab (which I’ll talk about a bit later) and was so bold as to send an email asking if one of the crew would like to stop by. Yes Please!

I was already headed out to the Supplyframe offices (Hackaday’s parent company) in Pasadena. [Tony] offered to pick me up at LAX and away we went to Redondo Beach, California for an afternoon adventure.

James Webb Space Telescope: Everything Hard About Engineering

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

I had heard of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) but had never looked closely at the particulars of the project. Above you can see a scale model which Northrop built. I didn’t actually see this on my tour. It travels to different places, taking two semi trucks, with a dozen people spending four days to set it up each time. And that’s a not-real, relegated to the surface of the planet, item. What is it going to take to put the real one into space?

It’s not just going into space. It’s going to the second Lagrangian point. This is past the moon, about 1.5 million kilometers from the earth. If this thing breaks we can’t go out there and fix it. There’s a lot of pressure for success.

The main problem facing this satellite is heat. It will use a mirror array to harvest infrared radiation from very distant astronomical bodies. For this to happen it needs to have a very good optical array to gather infrared light and focus it on a collector, and it must be isolated from the heat of the sun, earth, and moon.

There is an array of 18 hexagonal mirrors which reflect the infrared onto a collecting mirror and in turn to the sensors. These mirrors are not made by Northrop, but they did have a prototype on display and it was incredible! Each mirror is made by Ball Aerospace out of beryllium. The concave surface is coated in gold for reflectivity and an actuator mounted on the back of each mirror can flex the surface to adjust the concavity and thereby the focal length. This is in addition to the ability to adjust the roll and pitch of each segment.

In the Northrop high bay they were working on the mounting system for these mirrors. It showed much more progress than the two images seen above. This is the central mount structure for the optics. The width of this structure is dictated by the size of the rocket which will launch it into space. When I saw it, folding wings had been added to either side of this main structure to host a dual-row of mirrors which are folded back into the telescopes during its storage position. The black material itself is a composite manufactured by Northrop. The cross-section they showed as an example was not much thicker than your fingernail but obviously quite rigid in the cast pipe shape.

You can see an animation of the unfolding process which was playing in the high-bay viewing room during the tour. Note the five-layer heat shield that needs to automatically unfold without snagging. This reminds me of [Ed van Cise’s] recollection of solar panel unfolding issues on the ISS. It’s a tough problem and it looks like much time has been spend making sure this design learns from past issues. That animation doesn’t show too many details about the mirror mechanics. I found video demonstrating how the mechanical part of the mirrors work to be quite interesting.

Learning more about what goes into the James Webb Space Telescope project is worth a lot of your time. I’m not joking about this including everything hard about engineering. The challenges involved in meeting the specification of this telescope are jaw-dropping and I’m certain the people working on the project across many different companies will make this happen.

Hackerspace Driving Corporate Culture


It was nice that [Tony] and his colleague [Adam] came right out and told me they reached out to Hackaday because they want to get the message out that Northrop is rejuvenating their corporate culture. They’re in the process of hiring thousands of engineers and part of this process is making the job fit with the lifestyle that these engineers want.

One big move in this direction is the formation of their FabLab. [Tony] is an engineer but 50% of his workload is tending to the FabLab. This is basically a hackerspace open to any of the roughly 20k employees at this particular location. Northrop fabricates amazing things, and when equipment is no longer used, the FabLab gets dibs on it. Imagine the possibilities!

unexploded-armament-removalPart of this initiative is to get more engineers learning about the fabrication process. [Tony] used the example of researching by fabricating a simple proof-of-concept in the FabLab. This is an avenue to that buzzword: fail-fast. Before getting your department on board with what might be a costly and time-consuming project you can test out some of the parts which are a little hazy in your mind.

The device seen here is the product of a challenge that one of the groups participated in last year. They had about six months to develop a robot which can clear unexploded armaments. It was hanging out in one part of the hackerspace and is a great build. You can just make out a blue sphere hiding in the underbody. That’s a huge jamming gripper powered by the black and yellow shop-vac perched atop the chassis. The robot is remote controlled, with wireless GoPro cameras mounted all around and underneath. Of course the thing wouldn’t be complete without a giant silver air-horn. Safety first!

It will be interesting to see if the FabLab can build the kind of grass-roots community often associated with standalone hackerspaces. You can get a glimpse at the grand opening of the space in this video. We don’t quite remember seeing a hackerspace marketed in this manner. But if that’s what it takes to get the company on board it’s well worth it. A huge space, amazing tools, and no monthly membership fee make for a sweet deal. Oh, and the name FabLab apparently came from their mascot, the Fabulous Labrador, who can be seen in the clip wearing a string of pearls.

F/18 Assembly Plant


We wrapped up the day by touring the F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet assembly line. This is a huge plant. I don’t know how to better describe the sheer size of the assembly line than saying it took no less than twenty minutes to walk back to the parking lot at the end of this tour.

00036301Northrop Grumman serves as the principal subcontractor for Boeing on this project, so the end of the line isn’t quite a fully assembled airplane. But the fuselage — less cockpit, nose, wings, and engines — is still a formidable sight. I’ve never been this close to a fighter jet before and the size is impressive. Equally impressive is the building housing the line, which was build in 1942 and is still wood-framed to this day. They have huge engineered columns which have since been reinforced with steel. But that fact makes it no-less impressive.

The top concern during assembly is FOD, or Foreign Object Detection. These vehicles are exposed to huge forces and vibrations that will shake anything that’s not supposed to be there loose, and that can mean horrible damage to an expensive machine or much worse. Some of the things I found really interesting were the systems in place to make sure no part goes missing. All components come in cases that have an individual cutout area for each. Tools are scanned to each employee, if broken or worn out there are vending machines throughout the plant keeping track of them through a computerized system.

As part of the tour we walked through the composites plant next door. There are massive autoclaves for curing the resins. These are like a pipe sitting on its side with hemispherical doors on each end. I’m a poor judge of time and distance but I’d estimate these to be 18 feet in diameter and at least 35 feet long. Traditional composite fabrication — a worker laying down sheets of carbon-fiber on a mold — were under way. But the room next door housed a robot that looked like it was born in The Matrix. The spider-like head works next to a turning mandrel fitted with the form of the piece being fabricated. It lays out about seven strands of carbon fiber, building up a part that has no seams whatsoever. After curing the resin the mold is removed manually, piece by piece, from the inside of the part. To me the parts being built looked like air intake channels approximately 15 feet long and maybe 5 feet in diameter, although they were winding and not exactly cylindrical in shape. I wasn’t able to get very many details about them, but I was told these parts are for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This is another subcontract Northrop Grumman has for Lockheed Martin.


Thank you to [Tony Long] and [Adam Gross] for spending to give Hackaday this tour. I had the impression that I was living an episode of one of my favorite programs How It’s Made, and that was awesome! Northrop Grumman has an educational outreach program so if you’re associated with a school in the area set up a tour of the JWST!

[Tony] ducked out with me for dinner; some excellent tacos — a quest I’ve been on during each visit to LA. He joined me afterward on a trip to Null Space Labs for their open night. They had moved since the last time I was there and if you’re in town you should check it out.


One thing I should mention is that I was not able to take any photographs on the premises. My story above is original but all the photos are stock or provided by Northrop at my request.

Main Post Image via JWST Flickr

Front Mirror via YouTube thumb.

Extended Reflection Mirror via YouTube video.

VCF East: [Bil Herd] And System Architecture

Last Friday the Vintage Computer Festival was filled up with more than a dozen talks, too many for any one person to attend. We did, however, check out [Bil Herd]’s talk on system architecture, or as he likes to call it, the art and science of performance through balance. That’s an hour and fifteen minute talk there; coffee and popcorn protocols apply.

The main focus of this talk is how to design a system from the ground up, without any assumed hardware, or any specific peripherals. It all starts out with a CPU, some memory (it doesn’t matter which type), and some I/O. That’s all you need, whether you’re designing a microwave oven or a supercomputer.

The CPU for a system can be anything from a 6502 for something simple, a vector processor for doing loads of math, or have a RISC, streaming, pipelined, SIMD architecture. This choice will influence the decision of what kind of memory to use, whether it’s static or dynamic, and whether it’s big or little endian. Yes, even [Bil] is still trying to wrap his head around endianness.

MMUs, I/O chips, teletypes, character displays like the 6845, and the ANTIC, VIC, and GTIA make the cut before [Bil] mentions putting the entire system together. It’s not just a matter of connecting address and data pins and seeing the entire system run. There’s interrupts, RTCs, bus arbitration, DTACK, RAS, and CAS to take care of that. That will take several more talks to cover, but you can see the one last Friday below.

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