Pocket-Sized Workstation Sports Pi Zero, Pop-Up Screen

Many of us could use a general-purpose portable workstation, something small enough to pocket but still be ready for a quick troubleshooting session. Terminal apps on a smartphone will usually do the job fine, but they lack the panache of this pocketable pop-top Raspberry Pi workstation.

It doesn’t appear that [Michael Horne] has a specific mission in mind for his tiny Linux machine, but that’s OK — we respect art for art’s sake. The star of the show is the case itself, a unit intended for dashboard use with a mobile DVD player or backup camera. The screen is a 4.3″ TFT with a relatively low-resolution, so [Michael] wasn’t expecting too much from it. And he faced some challenges, like dealing with the different voltage needs for the display and the Raspberry Pi Zero W he intended to stuff into the base. Luckily, the display regulates the 12-volt supply internally to 3.3-volts, so he just tapped into the 3.3-volt pin on the Pi and powered everything from a USB charger. The display also has some smarts built in, blanking until composite video is applied, which caused a bit of confusion at first. A few case mods to bring connectors out, a wireless keyboard, and he had a nice little machine for whatever.

No interest in a GUI machine? Need a text-only serial terminal? We’ve seen that before too. And here’s one with a nice slide-out keyboard built in.

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Zephyr Adds Features, Platforms, And Windows

Zephyr is an open source real-time operating system (RTOS) that appeared on the scene a few years ago with support for a few boards. The new 1.11 release adds a lot of features, a lot of new boards, and also has a Windows development environment. But don’t worry, the environment is portable so it still runs on Linux and Mac, as well.

The OS has support for many ARM and x86 boards. It also supports ESP32, NIOS II, and can also target Linux which is useful for debugging or studying execution using desktop tools.

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Need a Thousand Extra PWM Pins?

If your Arduino runs out of I/O lines, you can always add one of the several I/O expander chips that takes a serial interface to set its several pins. Or perhaps you could buy something like an Arduino Mega, with its extra sockets to fulfil your needs. But what would you do if you really needed more pins, say a thousand of them? Perhaps [Brian Lough] has the answer. OK, full disclosure: If you really need a thousand, the video isn’t exactly for you, as he shows you how to add up to 992 PWM outputs. The chip he uses works with any microcontroller (the video shows an ESP8266), and we suppose you could use two daisy chains of them and break the 1,000 barrier handily.

We like how short the video is (just two minutes; see below) as it gets right to the point. The PCA9685 chip gives you 16 12-bit PWM channels via an I2C interface. You can daisy chain up to 62 of the boards to get the 992 outputs promised.

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Universal Chip Analyzer: Test Old CPUs In Seconds

Collecting old CPUs and firing them up again is all the rage these days, but how do you know if they will work? For many of these ICs, which ceased production decades ago, sorting the good stuff from the defective and counterfeit is a minefield.

Testing old chips is a challenge in itself. Even if you can find the right motherboard, the slim chances of escaping the effect of time on the components (in particular, capacitor and EEPROM degradation) make a reliable test setup hard to come by.

Enter [Samuel], and the Universal Chip Analyzer (UCA). Using an FPGA to emulate the motherboard, it means the experience of testing an IC takes just a matter of seconds. Why an FPGA? Microcontrollers are simply too slow to get a full speed interface to the CPU, even one from the ’80s.

So, how does it actually test? Synthesized inside the FPGA is everything the CPU needs from the motherboard to make it tick, including ROM, RAM, bus controllers, clock generation and interrupt handling. Many testing frequencies are supported (which is helpful for spotting fakes), and if connected to a computer via USB, the UCA can check power consumption, and even benchmark the chip. We can’t begin to detail the amount of thought that’s gone into the design here, from auto-detecting data bus width to the sheer amount of models supported, but you can read more technical details here.

The Mojo v3 FPGA development board was chosen as the heart of the project, featuring an ATmega32U4 and Xilinx Spartan 6 FPGA. The wily among you will have already spotted a problem – the voltage levels used by early CPUs vary greatly (as high as 15V for an Intel 4004). [Samuel]’s ingenious solution to keep the cost down is a shield for each IC family – each with its own voltage converter.

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Dublin Unconference Roundup: The Topics That are Hot Right Now

On Saturday, the Hackaday Community from across Ireland and other parts of Europe poured into the performance hall at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre for a massive collection of talks. From rediscovering century’s old technology, to cutting edge research projects, we heard talks from dozens of attendees on the technology that is interesting them most right now.

Choosing what to share about last weekend’s Uncon has been a particularly taxing process. So many and varied were the projects presented, and such was their high standard, that a writer faces a significant challenge to fit them into a single report. But we’ll give it a try. Read on for highlights of what was a weekend we will remember forever.

[Rachel]'s about to lull us into a false sense of security with talk of fashion, then go for the eyeballs!
[Rachel]’s about to lull us into a false sense of security with talk of fashion, then go for the eyeballs!

From Wearables to Lab-Grown Eyeballs

Dublin by early April has lost some of winter’s chill, but the sun hadn’t regained control enough for the populace to have shed their coats and boots. It was in a slightly damp Temple Bar then that the Hackaday faithful convened at the Project Arts Centre, temporarily forsaking for us its role as one of Ireland’s most cutting-edge contemporary performing arts venues. We’d spent the previous day rounding up what seemed like Ireland’s entire stock of snack food to keep everyone happy, so it was into the upstairs performance hall for the day’s festivities. After putting in a talk topic and stopping by the swag table for goodies from our sponsor, DesignSpark, we all packed into the hall and began the Uncon.

First to brave the floor was [Rachel “Konichiwakitty” Wong], who started by talking about her interest in and flair for wearable electronics applied to fashion. This is not however what she does for a living, and she soon switched from the kawaii to the everyday work of a stem cell research scientist. This section of her talk was entitled “The Future Of Medicine, stem cells, tissue engineering, off-the-shelf pick-n-mix organs”.  Because of the work being done by people like her our hospitals may one day be able to prescribe custom 3D-printed organs for their patients, and her talk was a fascinating overview of that field for those of us who can not grow eyeball tissue on our benches.

There followed the exciting Unconference format, in which attendees were scheduled on-the-fly in four talk sessions throughout the day. Each deliver a seven-minute presentation and although it’s not compulsory to give an Unconference talk, there were definitely more than enough people wanting to give it a go. It’s impossible to mention them all in a single Hackaday piece, but here follows a selection of the many that caught our eye.

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Retrotechtacular: Operation Smash Hit

Judging by the number of compilations that have been put online, one of the not-so-secret vices of the YouTube generation must be the watching of crash videos. Whether it is British drivers chancing their luck on level crossings, Russians losing it at speed on packed snow, or Americans driving tall trucks under low bridges, these films exert a compelling fascination upon the viewing public intent on deriving entertainment from the misfortunes of others. The footage is often peripheral or grainy, having inevitably been captured by a dashcam or a security camera rather than centre-stage on a broadcast quality system with professional operation. You can’t predict when such things will happen.

There was one moment, back in 1984, when predicting a major crash was exactly what you could do. It was a national event, all over the TV screens, and one which was watched by millions. The operators of British nuclear power stations wished to stage a public demonstration of how robust their transport flasks for spent nuclear fuel rods were, so after all the lab tests they could throw at one they placed it on a railway test track and crashed a 100mph express train into it.

Water escaping during drop test.

This was as much a PR stunt as it was a scientific endeavour, and they lost no time in promoting it across all media. The film below the break was part of this effort, and takes us through the manufacture of the flask forged in one piece from huge billets of steel, before showing us the tests to which it was subjected. The toughest of these, a drop-test onto a corner of a fully laden flask, resulted in a small escape of the water contained within it. It was thus decided to conduct the ultimate test to ensure full public confidence in nuclear transport.

The Old Dalby test track is a section of a closed-to-passengers line in the English Midlands that was retained by British Railways as a proving ground for new locomotives. In the ultimate test of rail transport for nuclear waste, a flask was placed on its side across a piece of the track, and a train formed of a withdrawn 1960s locomotive and a short rake of 1950s carriages was accelerated without a driver over several miles to 100mph.

An instant before impact, we see the underside of the derailed car. The flask is between it and the locomotive.

[Nigel Harris] for Rail magazine wrote an almost funerial description of the destruction of locomotive 46009 25 years later in 2009, and as he reported the flask survived with only superficial damage and a tiny loss in pressure. The event was hailed as a success by the nuclear industry, before fading from the public consciousness as nuclear power station operators prefer to remain out of the news.

It is questionable how much the Old Dalby crash was for the cameras and the public, and how much it was for the scientists and engineers. But such destructive tests do serve as a means to gain vital test data that could not be harvested any other way, and have been performed more than once in the aviation industry. Later in the same year a Boeing 720 was crashed for science in the USA, while more recently in 2012 a Boeing 727 was crashed in Mexico.

Crashing an express train into a nuclear flask is something not likely to be seen again, it was a one-off event. But one thing’s for sure, our inability to turn away from watching a train wreck is nothing new. YouTube and ubiquitous cameras certainly make crashes available with a few keystrokes. But from the 1984 cask crash test, to the the spectacle of Crush, Texas back in 1896, the sheer power shown in these crashes seems to have a siren song effect on us.

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Friday Hack Chat: Talking MQTT With The Community

The Internet of Things is just around the corner, and somehow or another, all these bits of intelligent dust and juice bag squeezers will have to talk to one another. One of the better ways to get IoT bits talking to each other is MQTT, Message Queuing Telemetry Transport, a protocol designed for small code footprints and limited network bandwidth. It gets a lot of IoT hype, but it’s a great alternative to HTTP for your own small projects, so that’s what we’re talking about during this week’s Hack Chat.

MQTT is a machine-to-machine connectivity protocol, very useful in remote locations, where a small code footprint is required, where bandwidth is at a premium, or for turning a lamp on and off from your phone, while sitting in the same room. It’s ideal for mobile applications, and in the twenty or so years since its creation, MQTT has made inroads into all those ‘smart’ devices around your house.

MQTT is based on a very simple publish and subscribe model with ‘topics’ that allow you to configure where messages should be sent. It is an extremely simple protocol, but with MQTT, you can set up a complete home automation system that opens the garage door, turns on a lamp, or pings a few weather sensors.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be discussing MQTT with the entire Hackaday.io community. There are dozens of people who have built MQTT-based projects that frequent the Hack Chat, and hundreds more that want to learn. Want to get in on the ground floor of the Internet of Things? This is the Hack Chat you want to check out. It’s a community pow-wow around connected devices.

join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week the crew is going to sit down around the campfire around noon, Pacific time, Friday, April 13th (oooh, spooky). Want to know what time this is happening in your neck of the woods? Have a countdown timer!

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.