Flash your Libre Firmware with a Libre Programmer

Whether or not you personally agree with all the ideals of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), you’ve got to give them credit: they don’t mess around. They started by laying the groundwork for a free and open source operating system, then once that dream was realized, started pushing the idea of replacing proprietary BIOS firmware with an open alternative such as Libreboot. But apparently, even that’s not enough, as there’s still more freedom to be had. We’re playing 4D Libre Chess now, folks.

To flash your libre boot firmware on your libre OS running computer without any proprietary funny business, you’re going to need a libre chip programmer. Luckily, the FSF has just awarded the Zerocat Chipflasher their “Respects Your Freedom” certification, meaning every element of the product is released under a free license for your hacking enjoyment. According to the FSF, this is a major milestone towards their goal of providing users a truly free and open source computer, from the browser all the way down to the BIOS.

Of course, you don’t need to be Richard Stallman to appreciate a fully open chip programmer. With the software, wiring diagrams, and PCB files available on the Chipflasher’s website, the project is an excellent educational reference. Is also means that with a clone the Chipflasher’s Git repository, you’re well on the way to spinning up your own build of the device.

Given the roughly $350 USD price tag on the first generation Zerocat Chipflasher, it seems fairly likely we’ll be seeing some DIY builds of this device before too long. Not that we want to deprive Zerocat commercial success for this very neat piece of gear, but for many it’s a mighty steep price; even if you do get all the Freedoms.

It may use a device of slightly more nebulous morality than the Zerocat Chipflasher, but our own [Bryan Cockfield] documented the saga of getting Libreboot installed on a Thinkpad X200 if you’d like to know more about the high stakes world of BIOS replacement. Whatever it takes to get that Intel Management Engine off your penguin-powered box.

DIY Submersible Aims for Low Cost, Ease of Operation

If you’re like us, a body of water is a source of wonder and awe. The wonder comes from imagining what lies hidden below the surface, and the awe is from the fear of trying to find out and becoming one of those submerged objects on a permanent basis. So if you want to explore the depths in relative comfort and safety, a DIY remotely operated underwater vehicle might be the thing you need to build.

Most ROV builds these days seem to follow more or less similar designs, which is probably because they all share project goals similar to those of [dcolemans]: build something to take a look around under the water, make it easy to operate, and don’t spend a ton of money. To achieve that, he used 1/2″ PVC pipe and fittings to build the frame and painted it yellow for visibility. A dry tube for the electronics was fashioned from 4″ ABS pipe. The positive buoyancy provided by the dry tube is almost canceled out by the water flooding the frame through weep holes and the lead shot ballast stored in the landing skids. Propulsion is provided by bilge pump cartridges with 3D-printed ducted propellers. A nice touch is a separate topside control box with a screen for the ROV’s camera that talks to a regular RC controller, along with simplified controls and automatic station keeping. Check out the recent swimming pool test in the video below.

There’s a lot going on under the sea, and plenty of ways to explore it. You could deploy sensors shaped like clams, zap underwater lice with lasers, or even glide your way to a Hackaday Prize.

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An Oscilloscope For The Nuclear Age

Here at Hackaday, we’re suckers for vintage instruments. More than one of our staffers has a bench adorned with devices spanning many decades, and there’s nothing more we like reading about that excursions into the more interesting or unusual examples. So when a Tweet comes our way talking about a very special oscilloscope, of course we have to take a look! The Tektronix 519 from 1962 has a 1GHz bandwidth, and [Timothy Koeth] has two of them in his collection. His description may be a year or two old, but this is the kind of device for which the up-to-the-minute doesn’t matter.

A modern 1GHz oscilloscope is hardly cheap, but is substantially a higher-speed version of the run-of-the-mill ‘scope you probably have on your bench. Its 1962 equivalent comes from a time when GHz broadband amplifiers for an oscilloscope input were the stuff of science fiction. The 519 takes the novel approach of eschewing amplification or signal conditioning and taking the input directly to the CRT deflection plates. It thus has a highly unusual 125Ω input impedance, and its feed passes through a coiled coaxial delay line to give the trigger circuits time to do their job before going into the CRT and then emerging from it for termination. It thus has a fixed deflection in volts per centimeter rather than millivolts, and each instrument has the calibration of its CRT embossed upon its bezel.

The 519 would not have been a cheap instrument in 1962, and it is no accident that there are reports of many of them coming back to Tek for service with radioactive contamination from their use in Government projects. We can’t help wondering whether the Russian equivalent super-high-speed ‘scope used the same approach, though we suspect we’ll never know.

If vintage Tek is your thing, have a look at their PCB manufacture from the 1960s.

Thanks [Luke Weston] for the tip.

Disaster Area Communications With Cloud Gateways

2017, in case you don’t remember, was a terrible year for the Caribbean and Gulf coast. Hurricane Maria tore Puerto Rico apart, Harvey flooded Houston, Irma destroyed the Florida Keys, and we still haven’t heard anything from Saint Martin. There is, obviously, a problem to be solved here, and that problem is communications. Amateur radio only gets you so far, but for their Hackaday Prize entry, [Inventive Prototypes] is building an emergency communication system that anyone can use. It only needs a clear view of the sky, and you can use it to send SMS messages. It’s the PR-Holonet, and it’s something that’s already desperately needed.

The basis for the PR-Holonet is built around an Iridium satellite modem. To date, satellite communication is the best way to get a message out to the world without any infrastructure. It’ll work in the middle of the Sahara, the depths of the Amazon, and conveniently anywhere that was just hit by a category five hurricane.

Along with the Iridium modem, [Inventive Prototypes] is using standard, off-the-shelf equipment to turn that connection to a satellite network into something any smartphone can use. That means pulling out a Raspberry Pi, of course. But building a project for areas that were recently ravaged by hurricanes is no easy task. The enclosure it the key here, and [Inventive Prototypes] is using some great water-resistant, dust-proof junction boxes, solar panels, and a whole bunch of batteries to keep everything humming along. It’s a great project and something that was desperately needed a year ago.

A Custom Keypad with Vision

A combination of cheap USB HID capable microcontrollers, the ability to buy individual mechanical keys online, and 3D printing has opened up a whole new world of purpose-built input devices. Occasionally these take the form of full keyboards, but more often than not they are small boards with six or so keys that are dedicated to specific tasks or occasionally a particular game or program. An easy and cheap project with tangible benefits to anyone who spends a decent amount of time sitting in front of the computer certainly sounds like a win to us.

But this build by [r0ckR2] takes the concept one step farther. Rather than just being a simple 3×3 keypad, his includes a small screen that shows the current assignments for each key. Not only does this look really cool on the desk (always important), but it also allows assigning multiple functions to each key. The screen enables the user to switch between different pages of key assignments, potentially allowing a different set of hot keys or macros for every piece of software they use.

The case is entirely 3D printed, as are the key caps. To keep things simple, [r0ckR2] didn’t bother to design a full enclosure, leaving all the electronics exposed on the back. Some might think it’s a little messy, but we appreciate the fact that it gives you easy access to the internals if you need to fix anything. Rubber feet were added to the bottom so it doesn’t slide around while in use, but otherwise the case is a pretty straightforward affair.

As for the electronics, [r0ckR2] went with an STM32 “Blue Pill” board, simply because it’s what he had on hand. The screen is a ST7735 1.44 inch SPI TFT, and the keys themselves are Cherry MX Red clones he got off of eBay. All in all, most of the gear came from his parts bins or else was only a couple bucks online.

If you’re looking for something a bit bigger, check out this gorgeous Arduino-powered version, or this far more utilitarian version. Both are almost entirely 3D printed, proving the technology is capable of more than making little boats.

[via /r/functionalprint]

Watch the Honeycomb Clock Gently Track Time

We love clocks here at Hackaday, and so does [John Whittington]. Last year he created this hexagonal honey clock (or “Honock”) by combining some RGB LEDs with a laser-cut frame to create a smooth time display that uses color and placement to display time with a simple and attractive system.

The outer ring of twelve hexagons is essentially the hour hand, similar to analog clock faces: twelve is up, three is directly to the right, six is straight down, and nine is to the left. The inner ring represents ten minutes per hex. Each time the inner ring fills, the next hex (hour) on the outer ring lights up. The whole display is flooded with a minute-long rainbow at noon and midnight. Watch it in action in the video, embedded below.

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Their Battery is Full of Air

Storing electrical energy is a huge problem. A lot of gear we use every day use some form of battery and despite a few false starts at fuel cells, that isn’t likely to change any time soon. However, batteries or other forms of storage are important in many alternate energy schemes. Solar cells don’t produce when it is dark. Windmills only produce when the wind blows. So you need a way to store excess energy to use for the periods when you aren’t creating electricity. [Kris De Decker] has an interesting proposal: store energy using compressed air.

Compressed air storage is not a new idea. On a large scale, there have been examples of air compressed in underground caverns and then released to run a turbine at a future date. However, the efficiency of this is poor — around 40 to 50 percent — mainly because the air heats up during compression and often needs to be prewarmed (using energy from another source) prior to decompression to prevent freezing. By comparison, batteries can be 70 to 90 percent efficient, although they have their own problems, too.

The idea explored in this paper is not to try to store a power plant’s worth of energy in a giant underground cavern, but rather use smaller compressed air setups like you would use batteries to store power at the point of consumption. The technology is called micro-CAES (an acronym for compressed air energy storage).

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