Hackaday Prize Entry: MiniSam-Zero

Thanks to the Arduino, Atmel’s SAM line of ARM microcontrollers are seeing a lot of use as 32-bit learning tools. For his Hackaday Prize project, [Jeremey] is using one of these chips without all the Arduino drama. He’s built a tiny Atmel SAM dev board that’s cheap, simple, and interestingly for a 32-bit ARM board, easy to program.

For this board, [Jeremy] is using Atmel’s SAM D09, the smallest member of the family that also includes the chip on the new Arduino Zero and the Arduino M0 (built by the other Arduino). The MiniSam-Zero uses a slightly smaller chip with 8 kB of on-chip Flash. Eagle-eyed complainers will notice the SAM D09 does not have internal EEPROM, so an EEPROM is added on-board. Also on board is a temperature sensor and a Silicon Labs CP2102 for serial communications.

That last chip – the Serial USART – allows for a rather interesting build if the firmware is done right. Instead of futzing about with ARM SWD while programming the device, a serial bootloader would allow anyone to plug a USB cable into this board and upload code straight from an IDE. This is perhaps the coolest feature of the MiniSam-Zero, and something [Jeremy] has worked tirelessly to get right. He can upload directly from Atmel Studio, and after a bit more work, [Jeremy] will be able to program this board directly from the Arduino IDE. That’s great work, and although this board isn’t as capable as other ARM microcontroller offerings, it’s still a fantastically useful device.

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TritiLED Lights Up The Night, Doesn’t Make You Glow

Tritium, or 3H is an isotope of hydrogen which has been used as everything from radiolabel in analytical chemistry to a booster to kickstart the chain reaction of nuclear weapons. Lately tritium’s most common use has been in key chains and jewelry. A small amount of tritium is stored in a phosphor coated glass tube. The beta decay of the tritium causes the phosphor to glow. The entire device is called a Gaseous Tritium Light Source (GTLS).

In the USA, GTLS devices are only allowed to be used in specific cases such as watches, compasses, and gun sights (MURICA!). Key chains and jewelry are considered frivolous uses and are prohibited by the nuclear regulatory commission. Of course, you can still order them from overseas websites.

The safety of GLTS devices have been hotly debated on the internet for years. They’re generally safe, unless you break the glass. That said, we’re happy getting our radiation exposure through cool hacks, rather than carrying a low-level source around in our pockets.

Enter [Ted Yapo], an amateur astronomer. After tripping over his telescope tripod one time too many, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He’s designing TritiLED, a dim LED light source which can last for years. [Ted] is using a  Luxeon Z LED, driven with PWM by a PIC 12F508 8 bit microcontroller. Running at 26.3 μA, he estimates about a year of run time on a CR2032 watch battery, or a whopping 15 years on a pair of lithium AA cells. Sure he could have done it with a 555 timer, but using a micro means more features are just a few lines of code away. [Ted] took advantage of this by adding a high brightness mode, blink modes, and an exponential decay mode, which emulates the decay of GLTSs.

Best of all it’s all open source. [Ted] is publishing under the (CC-BY-SA) license on Hackaday.io.

Avoiding Exercise with an ESP8266 and Blynk

[Mike Diamond] was tired of climbing down (and back up) 40 stairs to check his mailbox. He decided to create a mailbox alert using the ESP8266 to connect to his WiFi. The idea was simple: have the ESP8266 monitor when the mailbox flap opened using a magnet and a reed switch. As always, though, the devil is in the details. [Mike] got things working with a little help and shares not only the finished design but how he got there.

To handle the sending of e-mail, [Mike] used the Blynk app. You often think of Blynk as a way to build user interfaces on an Android or iOS device that can control an Arduino. In this case, though, [Mike] used the library with the ESP8266 and had it send e-mail on his behalf.

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Cracking The Sega Saturn After 20 Years

When it was released 20 years ago, the Sega Saturn was by far the most powerful video game console available. It was a revolutionary device, had incredible (for the time) graphics, and a huge library of IP Sega could draw from. The Saturn was quickly overshadowed by the Sony Playstation, and soon these devices found themselves unused, unloved, and fetching high prices on the collectors market.

After finding a Sega Saturn on a trip to Japan, [jhl] decided he would like to write some code for this machine. Unlike earlier consoles, where Flash cartridges are readily available, or later consoles, where writing directly to the on-board storage is easy, bringing up a development environment for the Saturn isn’t easy. The best method is installing a mod chip and working off of burned CDs. Instead of writing a game or two for the Saturn, [jhl] got distracted for a few years and developed an optical drive emulator.

cracking-the-sega-saturn-thumbAccording to [jhl], the design of the Sega Saturn is tremendously complicated. There’s an entire chip dedicated to controlling the CD drive, and after some serious reverse engineering work, [jhl] had it pretty much figured out. The question then was how to load data onto the Saturn. For that. [jhl] turned to the internal expansion port on the Saturn. This internal expansion port was designed to accept an MPEG decoder card for playing video CDs on the Saturn, but the connector presents the entire bus. By attaching a Game Boy Flash cartridge, [jhl] was able to dump the ROM on the CD controller.

With a little bit of work, a fast ARM microcontroller, and a CPLD for all the logic glue, [jhl] was built an adapter to push CD data to the Saturn through this internal expansion port. Not only is this a boon for homebrew Saturn development, but this build also completely replaces the CD drive in the Saturn – a common failure point in this 20-year-old machine.

The formal release for this ultimate Saturn crack isn’t out yet, but it’s coming shortly, allowing anyone who still has a Saturn to enjoy all those very blocky games and develop their own games. You can check out a short, amateur documentary made on [jhl]’s efforts below.

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Micropython Binaries for the ESP8266 to be Released

MicroPython is a Kickstarted project that brings Python to small, embeddable devices. As part of the terms of the Kickstarter, supporters were to get exclusive access to binary builds, with a few exceptions. Now it looks like the ESP8266-version is going to be added to the binary list. This is awesome news for anyone who enjoys playing around with the popular WiFi chip.

But even more heartwarming is the overwhelming response of the Kickstarter’s backers for making the binary builds public. Basically everyone was in favor of opening the binaries up to the general public, and many wrote that they wanted public binaries all along. People can be so giving.

But there’s also something in it for them! The more people get behind MicroPython, the more (free and paid) development support it will warrant, and the more bug reports it will garner. Wins all around. So keep clicking refresh on the binary list until you see it live. Or better yet, if you’re interested, head over to the forum. (Or just wait for us to cover it here. You know we will.)

Not Quite 101 Uses For An Analog UHF TV Tuner

Young electronics hackers today are very fortunate to grow up in an era with both a plethora of capable devices to stimulate their imagination, and cheap and ready access to them. Less than the price of a hamburger meal can secure you a Linux computing platform such as the Raspberry Pi Zero, and a huge choice of sensors and peripherals are only an overnight postage envelope away.

Casing back a few decades to the 1980s, things were a little different for electronically inclined youth. We had the first generation of 8-bit microcomputers but they were expensive, and unless you had well-heeled parents prepared to buy you a top-end model they could be challenging to interface to. Other electronic parts were far more expensive, and mail order could take weeks to deliver the goods.

For some of us, this was not a problem. We simply cast around for other sources of parts, and one of the most convenient was the scrap CRT TV you’d find in nearly every dumpster in those days before electronic recycling. If you could make it from 1970s-era consumer-grade discrete components, we probably did so having carefully pored over a heap of large PCBs to seek out the right component values. Good training, you certainly end up knowing resistor colour codes by sight that way.

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Challenge Accepted: Automation

Today marks the beginning of the Automation Challenge round for the 2016 Hackaday Prize. We want to see what you can create that automates life. It’s a terrifically fun jumping off point for a project, and done just right, it can score you some amazing prizes.

Technology can make life better and automation is one place that is about to see huge expansion. This is a chance to put your mark on the future by envisioning, prototyping, and explaining your ideas. The animated image at the top of this post is a perfect example of how fun automation builds can be. It’s the part of the Sunday Morning Breakfast Machine which steeps the tea. We covered this Rube-Goldberg like device a few weeks ago. About 1,000 hours went into building a completely automated breakfast machine.

Building something whimsical is fine for entering this round — a lot of discovery happens when having fun with interesting ideas. But there is plenty of room for serious builds as well. Technological development has always included iterating on automation; asking and answering the question of how can we do more with less effort.

AutomationFor instance, you can boil coffee in a pot but then you have to use some filtering technique to sequester the grounds. You can use a French press but that this hasn’t saved you much effort. So someone invented the percolator but you still must watch that you don’t burn your brew. From there we have espresso machines and drip brewers that both regulate how much water is used and at what temperature (in addition to keeping the grounds separate). And now we’re seeing single-unit machines like Nespresso and Keurig which make everything a one-step process, if you’re happy with the pods they sell you. I like to refill my own pods, which lets me choose my own grind. I’d love to see someone automate this entire process of cleaning, grinding, filling and presenting a reusable pod. That would make a great entry and help move more people away from disposable plastic/metal.

All I see when I look around me are ways that life should be more automated, and I bet you have the same proclivity. Now you have a reason to take on the challenge. Automate something and enter it in the Hackaday Prize. Twenty of those entries will be awarded $1,000 and move on to vie for the grand prize of $150,000 and a residency at the Supplyframe Design Lab in Pasadena, plus four other huge top prizes.

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