Google Contest Builds More Efficient Inverters

A few summers ago, Google and IEEE announced a one million dollar prize to build the most efficient and compact DC to AC inverter. It was called the Little Box Challenge, with the goal of a 2kW inverter with a power density greater than 50 Watts per cubic inch.

To put this goal into perspective, the DC inverter that would plug into a cigarette lighter in your car has a power density of about 1 or 2 Watts per cubic inch. Very expensive inverters meant for solar installations have a power density of about 5 Watts per cubic inch. This competition aimed to build an inverter with ten times the power density of what is available today.

Now, the results are in, and the results are extremely surprising. The best entry didn’t just meet the goal of 50 W/in³, it blew the goal out of the water.

The winning entry (PDF) comes from CE+T Power, and comes in a package with a volume of 13.77 in³. That’s a power density of 143 W/in³ for a unit you can hold in the palm of your hand. The biggest innovations come from the use of GaN transistors and an incredible thermal management solution.

Other finalists for this competition include Schneider Electric Team from France that managed a 100 W/in³ and a Virginia Tech team that managed a power density of 61.2 W/in³.

Thanks [wvdv2002] for the tip.

Wood Stove Runs on Arduino Power

Ahh, sweet scope creep! Usually it’s the death of a nice, simple little hack. But once in a hundred times, a small hack doesn’t get buried under the extra features, but instead absorbs them in stride and blossoms into a beautiful system. [rockfishon]’s Arduino-powered wood stove controller is one of these beautiful exceptions. (OK, we’d admit that it could use a fancier faceplate.)

He started off simply enough, wanting to connect a thermocouple to an Arduino, read out the value, and issue an alarm when the temperature got too high. But who could stop there? Just one air-baffle servo away from a closed-loop heating control system? So [rockfishon] added a display and a few more buttons and has a system that will keep his wood-burning stove running at exactly the right temperature, even overnight when nobody’s around to tend it. As a bonus, everything is logged for later analysis.

The code is relatively straightforward, and can be found in this Gist. If you’d like to build your own, you’ll need an Arduino Mega and can then get the control board made for you at OSHPark. Judging from the comments on the project page, a couple people have already tried this out. We’ve seen other wood-stove monitoring hacks before, but this is the first we’ve seen that closes the control loop. Very cool.

Hackaday Links: March 6, 2016

There’s the R2 Builders Club, hundreds of people are building BB-8, but there are a few robots that don’t get enough love from the amateur propsmiths. [Kenneth] just finished up his build of Crow from MST3K. He built Tom Servo a year or so ago and K-9 from Doctor Who. The beautiful thing about building MST3K robots and Doctor Who props is that you’re probably working with a larger budget than the prop department had.

Heathkit’s new website is up. The two products we know about so far – an AM radio kit and a slim jim antenna – can only be described as, ‘meh.’ Still, there are a few upgrades for old kits available and the requisite amount of nostalgia.

On today’s issue of, ‘should not be attempted by anyone, ever, under any circumstance’ here’s how to build a table saw at home. Yes, it’s a table saw built from a piece of aluminum, styrofoam, hot glue, and a shoe box. The guy really botched it by not going for the zero clearance insert here, but at least the fence is only a few dozen degrees off parallel with the blade.

[Mathieu] is working on a Mooltipass Mini. It’s tiny and the scroll wheel thingy makes things fun.

March 18th through March 20th is the Midwest RepRap Festival in Goshen, Indiana. This is, by far, the best conference, meetup, or festival we go to year after year. We’ll have a few members of the Hackaday crew at the event, and rumor has it the Internet has made it to Indiana this year.

Adafruit got a writeup in the New Yorker. The article is technically about the art of PCB design, but as with most general interest pieces on electronics it is awash in non sequiturs and simply defining the terminology.

[Oscar] built a miniature replica of a blinkenlight computer last year for the Hackaday Prize. This was the PiDP-8/I. While it looks awesome, the PDP-8/I is inherently limited. [Oscar] has his design methodology down, and now he’s working on a miniature replica of the king of the PDPs. It’s the PiDP-11/27. It’s just a prototype and render now, but the finished project will have custom switches, a handsome bezel, and will be much more capable.

MAME is now FOSS. That’s great news, but think about the amount of work that went into making this happen. MAME is 19 years old, and  that means everyone who has contributed to the project over the years needed to sign off on this initiative.

Broken Android Tablet Mini-MAME Cabinet

Everyone’s got an unused or even quasi-broken tablet lying around these days. [sairuk] has three kids, and somehow ended up with three broken tablets in short order. We’re not saying that correlation implies causality…

The digitizers were shattered, and since they were relatively cheap tablets to begin with, [sairuk] started thinking what could be done with a tablet that doesn’t have touch sensing anymore. He tried making an e-book reader for his kids, but somehow the idea of a MAME “cablet” (get it?) won out in the end. We’re not surprised: simple woodworking, gaming, and electronic hacking. What’s not to love?

This writeup goes into a lot more detail, so check that out too. He and his sons built up cardboard prototypes first (we love cardboard!) and then transferred their plans over to wood for the final “rough cut”. A PS1 controller reads out the joystick and buttons, and a PS1 -> USB adapter plus a USB-OTG cable connects that to the tablet. They also removed the batteries and built in a permanent power supply. Everything is simple and cheap, but the results are still impressive. Although they claim their build isn’t finished to the utmost, it looks pretty darn good to us.

We’re all frackers, so it’s satisfying to see a “junk” tablet put to good use. We’re wondering what [sairuk] is going to do with his other two tablets — we’ve got a suggestion for what he should do if he had twenty kids.

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Arduino RF Network Analyzer

What do you get when you combine a direct digital synthesis (DDS) chip, a power detector, and an Arduino? [Brett Killion] did make that combination and wound up with a practical network analyzer.

The project uses an Analog Devices AD9851 DDS chip clocked at 180 MHz which will output a sine wave at any frequency from 0 Hz and 72 MHz. A Butterworth low pass filter processes the DDS signal and then feeds a two-transistor amplifier. The circuit will output about 0dBm into 50 ohms. The power detector is an Analog Devices AD8307 along with a 50-ohm input load. There is no filtering on the power detector so it can measure from very low frequencies to 500MHz.

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RF Hacking: How-To Bypass Rolling Codes

The RF signal transmitted from a modern key fob and received by the associated vehicle is only used once. If the vehicle sees the same code again it rejects the command, however there is a loophole in those carefully chosen words. The code must be received by the vehicle’s computer before it can be added to the list of spent codes. [AndrewMohawk] goes through the process of intercepting a code sent from a key fob transmitter and preventing the vehicle from receiving it in a thorough post to his blog. You can see this attack working in his studio quality reenactment video after the break.

[Andrew] uses the YARD Stick One (YS1) which is a sub-GHz wireless tool that is controlled from a computer. The YS1 uses RfCat firmware, which is an interactive python shell that acts as the controller for the wireless transceiver.

This system is not without its problems: different frequencies are often used for different commands, [Andrew]’s scripts are designed to work with On-Off keying (OOK) leaving it useless when attacking a system that uses Frequency-Shift Keying (FSK). There is also the issue of rendering a target key fob non-functional but you’ll have to pop over to [Andrew]’s blog to read more about that.

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Fail of the Week: Battery Pack Jack Wired Backwards

Last Saturday I had a team of teenage hackers over to build Arduino line-following robots from a kit. Everything went well with the mechanical assembly and putting all the wires on the correct pins. The first test was to check that the motors were moving in the proper direction. I’d written an Arduino program to test this. The first boy’s robot worked fine except for swapping one set of motor leads. That was anticipated because you cannot be totally sure ahead of time which way the motors are going to run.

The motor’s on the second robot didn’t turn at all. As I checked the wiring I smelled the dreaded hot electronics smell but I didn’t see any smoke. I quickly pulled the battery jack from the Arduino and – WOW! – the wires were hot. That didn’t bode well. I checked and the batteries were in the right way. A comparison with another pack showed the wires going into the pack were positioned properly. I plugged in another pack but the motors still didn’t run.

I got my multimeter, checked the voltage on the jack, and it was -5.97 V from center connector to the barrel. The other pack read 6.2 V. I had a spare board and pack so swapped those and the robot worked fine. Clearly the reverse polarity had zapped the motor control ICs. After that everyone had a good time running the robots on a course I’d laid out and went home pleased with their robots.

After they left I used the ohmmeter to check the battery pack and found the wiring was backwards, as you can see in the feature photo. A close inspection showed the wire with a white line, typically indicating positive, indeed went to the positive battery terminal. I shaved the barrel connector down to the wires and the white line wire was connected to the outside of the barrel. FAIL!

This is a particularly bad fail on the part of the battery pack supplier because how hard is it to mess up two wires? You can’t really fault the robot kit vendor because who would expect a battery pack to be bad? The vendor is sending me a new battery pack and board so I’m satisfied. Why did I have an extra board and pack, actually an entire kit? For this exact reason; something was bound to go wrong. Although what I had imagined was for one of the students to break a mechanical part or change wiring and zap something. Instead, we were faced with a self-destructing kit. Prudence paid off.