Flying The Infinite Improbability Drive

Not since the cold fusion confusion of 1989 has the pop science media industry had a story like the EmDrive. The EmDrive is a propellantless thruster – a device that turns RF energy into force. If it works, it will revolutionize any technology that moves. Unlike rocket motors that use chemicals, cold gas, ions, or plasma, a spacecraft equipped with an EmDrive can cruise around the solar system using only solar panels. If it works, it will violate the known laws of physics.

After being tested in several laboratories around the world, including Eagleworks, NASA’s Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory, the concept of a device that produces thrust from only electricity is still not disproven, ridiculed, and ignored. For a device that violates the law of conservation of momentum, this is remarkable. Peer review of several experiments are ongoing, but [Paul] has a much more sensational idea: he’s building an EmDrive that will propel a cubesat.

Make no mistake, our current understanding of the universe is completely incompatible with the EmDrive. The idea of an engine that dumps microwave energy into a metal cone and somehow produce thrust is on the fringes of science. No sane academic physicist would pursue this line of research, and the mere supposition that the EmDrive might work is irresponsible. Until further peer-reviewed experiments are published, the EmDrive is the fanciful dream of a madman. That said, if it does work, we get helicarriers. Four EmDrives mounted to a Tesla Roadster would make a hovercar. Your grandchildren would only see Earth’s sun as a tiny speck in the night sky.

This isn’t [Paul]’s first attempt to create a working propellantless thruster. For last year’s Hackaday Prize, [Paul] built a baby EmDrive. Unlike every other EmDrive experiment that used 2.4GHz microwaves, [Paul] designed his engine to operate on 22 to 26 GHz. This means [Paul]’s is significantly smaller and can easily fit into a cubesat. If it works, this cubesat will be able to maintain its orbit indefinitely, fly to the moon and back, or go anywhere in the solar system provided the solar panels get enough light.

While [Paul]’s motivations in creating a citizen science version of the EmDrive are laudable,’s own baby EmDrive does not display the requisite scientific rigor for a project of this magnitude. Experimental setups are ill-defined, graph axes are unlabeled, and there is not enough information to properly critique [Paul]’s baby EmDrive experiments.

That said, we can’t blame a guy for trying, and the EmDrive is still an active area of research with several papers under peer review. [Paul]’s plan of putting an EmDrive into orbit is putting the cart several miles ahead of the horse, but it is still a very cool project for this year’s Hackaday Prize.

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Strandmaus, Small R/C Strandbeest

[Jeremy Cook] has been playing around with strandbeests for a while, but never had one that walked until he put a motor on it and made it R/C controlled.

These remote controlled strandbeests can’t be too heavy or they have trouble moving. He didn’t want to get too complicated, either. [Jeremy] decided his first idea – hacking a cheap R/C car – wouldn’t work. The motors and AA batteries in these cars are just too heavy. Then he realized he had a broken quadcopter lying around. The motors were all burnt out, but the battery, controller, and driver board still works. On a hunch, he hooked up beefier motors to the front and left rotor control, and found that it worked just fine.

The rest of the work was just coupling it to the mechanism. The mechanism is made of wood and metal tubes. [Jeremy] found that the strandmaus had a tendency to fall down. He figures that’s why the original strandbeests had so many legs.

For his next iteration he wants to try to make it more stable, but for now he’s just having fun seeing his little legged contraption scoot around the floor. Video after the break.

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Audio Out Over UART

There’s a reason that the bog-standard serial port will never die. It’s just so robust and simple. When you need a console that will absolutely work with minimal software and hardware, UART is the way to go. Because of this, UART hacks abound. Here’s a new one to us, and a challenge to our readers.

[Tiziano Bacocco] decided to use UART signals as a type of PWM to create audio. That’s right, he’s plugging the serial TX line straight into a speaker. This gives you eight possible PWM output voltage levels. The trick is using some Python code (using the awesome pyserial module) to down-quantize the audio data to fit these eight possible values and then push them out at the correct sampling rate. ffmpeg is used to pre-process the files.

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A $1000 Tiny Personal Satellite

If you ever read any old magazines, you might be surprised at how inexpensive things used to be. A U.S. postage stamp was six cents, a gallon of gas was $0.34, and the same amount of milk was $1.07. Everything is relative, though. The average household income back then was under $8,000 a year (compared to over $53,000 a year in 2014). So as a percentage of income, that milk actually cost about seven bucks.

The same is true of getting into orbit. Typical costs today just to get something into orbit has gone from–no pun intended–astronomical, to pretty reasonable. Lifting a pound of mass on the Space Shuttle cost about $10,000. On an Atlas V, it costs about $6,000. A Falcon Heavy (when it launches) will drop the cost to around $1,000 or so. Of course, that’s just the launch costs. You still have to pay for whatever you want to put up there. Developing a satellite can be expensive. Very expensive.

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Hack The Pentagon, Legally

The United States Department of Defense just launched the world’s first government-funded bug bounty program named HackThePentagon. Following the example of Facebook, Google, and other big US companies, the DoD finally provides “a legal avenue for the responsible disclosure of security vulnerabilities”.

However, breaking into the Pentagon’s weapon programs will still get you in trouble. This pilot program has a very limited scope of the Pentagon’s cafeteria menu some non-critical systems and is open only between April 18 and May 12 this year. In total, about $150,000 of bounties may be rewarded to responsible hackers.

Anyone can take part in the program, but to receive financial rewards, you need to fulfill a list of criteria. Your profile will undergo a criminal background check and certain restrictions based on your country of residence may apply. Also, to hack into the government’s computer system and get a tax return, you must be a US taxpayer in the first place.

Even though this framework turns the initiative more into one-month hacking contest than a permanently installed bug bounty program, it is certainly a good start. The program itself is hosted on HackerOne, a platform that aims to streamline the process of distributing bug bounties.

iPhone Microscopy and Other Adventures

CMOS imaging chips have been steadily improving, their cost and performance being driven by the highly competitive smartphone industry. As CMOS sensors get better and cheaper, they get more interesting for hacker lab projects. In this post I’m going to demonstrate a few applications of the high-resolution sensor that you’ve already got in your pocket — or wherever you store your cell phone.


First lets quickly review image sensors. You’ve probably head of CMOS and CCD sensors, but what’s the difference exactly?

CCD and CMOS imaging sensors: from this excellent page at CERN.

As the figure above shows, CCD and CMOS sensors are both basically photodiode arrays. Photons that hit regions on the chip are converted into a charge by a photodiode. The difference is in how this charge in shoved around. CCD sensors are analogue devices, the charge is shifted through the chip and out to a single amplifier. CMOS sensors have amplifiers embedded in each cell and also generally include on-chip analogue to digital conversion allowing complete “camera-on-a-chip” solutions.

Because CMOS sensors amplify and move the signal into the digital domain sooner, they can use cheaper manufacturing processes allowing lower-cost imaging chips to be developed. Traditionally they’ve also had a number of disadvantages however, because more circuitry is included in each cell, less space is left to collect light. And because multiple amplifiers are used, it’s harder to get consistent images due to slight fabrication differences between the amplifiers in each cell. Until recently CMOS sensors were considered a low-end option. While CCD sensors (and usually large cooled CCD sensors) are still often preferred for scientific applications with big budgets, CMOS sensors have now however gained in-roads in high performance DSLRs.

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Fourier Machine Mimics Michelson Original in Plywood

It’s funny how creation and understanding interact. Sometimes the urge to create something comes from a new-found deep understanding of a concept, and sometimes the act of creation leads to that understanding. And sometimes creation and understanding are linked together in such a way as to lead in an entirely new direction, which is the story behind this plywood recreation of the Michelson Fourier analysis machine.

For those not familiar with this piece of computing history, it’s worth watching the videos in our article covering [Bill “The Engineer Guy” Hammack]’s discussion of this amazing early 20th-century analog computer. Those videos were shown to [nopvelthuizen] in a math class he took at the outset of degree work in physics education. The beauty of the sinusoids being created by the cam-operated rocker arms and summed to display the output waveforms captured his imagination and lead to an eight-channel copy of the 20-channel original.

Working with plywood and a CNC router, [nopvelthuizen]’s creation is faithful to the original if a bit limited by the smaller number of sinusoids that can be summed. A laser cutter or 3D printer would have allowed for a longer gear train, but we think the replica is great the way it is. What’s more, the real winners are [nopvelthuizen]’s eventual physics students, who will probably look with some awe at their teacher’s skills and enthusiasm.

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