Homebuilt CNC Software, Brewed To Taste

Mainstream productivity software from the big companies is usually pretty tight, these days. Large open source projects are also to a similar standard when it comes to look and feel, as well as functionality. It’s when you dive into more niche applications that you start finding ugly, buggy software, and CNC machining can be one of those niches. MillDroid is a CNC software platform designed by someone who had simply had enough, and decided to strike out on their own.

The build began with the developer sourcing some KFLOP motion control boards from Dynomotion. These boards aren’t cheap, but pack 16MB of RAM, a 100-gate FPGA, and a microcontroller with DSP hardware that allows the boards to control a variety of types of motor in real time. These boards have the capability to read GCODE and take the load off of the computer delivering the instructions. With the developer wanting to build something robust that moved beyond the ’90s style of parallel port control, these boards were the key to the whole show, also bringing the benefit of being USB compatible and readily usable with modern programming languages.

To keep things manageable and to speed development, the program was split into modules and coded using the author’s existing “Skeleton Framework” for windowed applications. These modules include a digital readout, a jogging control panel, as well as a tool for editing G-code inside the application.

For the beginner, it’s likely quite dense, and for the professional machinist, industry standard tools may well surpass what’s being done here. But for the home CNC builder who is sick of mucking around with buggy, unmaintained software from here and there, it’s a project that shows it doesn’t have to be that bad. We look forward to seeing what comes next!

Want to see what else is out there? We’ve done a run down of DIY-appropriate CNC software, too.

Object Detection, With TensorFlow

Getting computers to recognize objects has been a historically difficult problem in computer science, but with the rise of machine learning it is becoming easier to solve. One of the tools that can be put to work in object recognition is an open source library called TensorFlow, which [Evan] aka [Edje Electronics] has put to work for exactly this purpose.

His object recognition software runs on a Raspberry Pi equipped with a webcam, and also makes use of Open CV. [Evan] notes that this opens up a lot of creative low-cost detection applications for the Pi, such as setting up a camera that detects when a pet is waiting at the door to be let inside or outside, counting the number of bees entering and exiting a beehive, or monitoring parking spaces at an office.

This project uses a number of other toolkits as well, including Protobuf. It also makes extensive use of Python scripts, but if you’re comfortable with that and you have an application for computer vision, [Evan]’s tutorial will get you started.

Continue reading “Object Detection, With TensorFlow”

A Custom Keyboard At Maximum Effort

No one loves hacked keyboards more than Hackaday. We spend most of our workday pressing different combinations of the same 104 buttons. Investing time in that tool is time well spent. [Max] feels the same and wants some personality in his input device.

In the first of three videos, he steps us through the design and materials, starting with a layer to hold the keys. FR4 is the layer of fiberglass substrate used for most circuit boards. Protoboards with no copper are just bare FR4 with holes. Homemade CNC machines can glide through FR4, achieving clean lines, and the material comes in different mask colors so customizing an already custom piece is simple. We see a couple of useful online tools for making a homemade keyboard throughout the videos. The first is a keypad layout tool which allows you to start with popular configurations and tweak them to suit your weirdest desires. Missing finger? Forget one key column. Extra digit? Add a new key column. Huge hands? More spaces between the keys. [Max] copied the Iris keyboard design but named his Arke, after the fraternal sister to Iris which is fitting since his wrist rests are removable. Continue reading “A Custom Keyboard At Maximum Effort”

Need A Tiny CRT? Karaoke Might Just Help

[Brett] is working on a video installation, and for the past few months, has been trying to get his hands on tiny CRTs any way he can. After initially coming up short, he happened across a karaoke machine from 2005, and got down to work.

Karaoke machines of this vintage are typically fairly low-rent affairs, built cheaply on simple PCBs. [Brett] found that the unit in question was easy to disassemble, having various modules on separate PCBs joined together with ribbon cables and headers. However, such machines rarely have video inputs, as they’re really only designed to display low-res graphics from CD-G format discs.

While investigating the machine, initial research online proved fruitless. In the end, a close look at the board revealed just what [Brett] was looking for – a pin labeled video in! After throwing in a Raspberry Pi Zero and soldering up the composite output to the karaoke machine’s input pin, the screen sprung to life first time! This initial success was followed by installing a Raspberry Pi 3 for more grunt, combined with a Screenly install – and a TRS adapter the likes of which we’ve never seen before. This allows video to be easily pushed to the device remotely over WiFi. [Brett] promises us there is more to come.

Karaoke is a sparse topic in the Hackaday archives, but we’ve seen a couple builds, like this vocal processor. If you’ve got the hacks, though? You know where to send ’em.

High Efficiency, Open-Sourced MPPT Solar Charger

A few years ago, [Lukas Fässler] needed a solar charge controller and made his own, which he has been improving ever since. The design is now mature, and the High Efficiency MPPT Solar Charger is full of features like data logging, boasts a 97% efficiency over a range of 1 to 75 Watts, and can be used as a standalone unit or incorporated as a module into other systems. One thing that became clear to [Lukas] during the process was that a highly efficient, feature-rich, open-sourced hardware solution for charge controllers just didn’t exist, at least not with the features he had in mind.

Data logging and high efficiency are important for a charge controller, because batteries vary in their characteristics as they recharge and the power generated from things like solar panels varies under different conditions and loads. An MPPT (Maximum Point Power Tracking) charger is a smart unit optimized to handle all these changing conditions for maximum efficiency. We went into some detail on MPPT in the past, and after three years in development creating a modular and configurable design, [Lukas] hopes no one will have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to charge controllers.

Retrotechtacular: Apex Radio — The Forgotten HiFi

Broadcasting has changed a lot in the last few decades. We have satellite radio, internet streaming, HD radio all crowding out the traditional AM and FM bands. FM became popular because the wider channels and the modulation scheme allowed for less static and better sound reproduction. If you’ve never tried to listen to an AM radio station at night near a thunderstorm, you can’t appreciate how important that is. But did you know there was another U.S. broadcast band before FM that tried to solve the AM radio problem? You don’t hear about it much, but Apex or skyscraper radio appeared between 1937 and 1941 and then vanished with the onslaught of FM radio.

If you’ve heard of Apex radio — or if you are old enough to remember it — then you are probably done with this post. For everyone else, consider what radio looked like in 1936. The AM band had 96 channels between 550 and 1500 kHz. Because those frequencies propagate long distances at night, the FCC had a complex job of ensuring stations didn’t interfere with each other. Tricks like carefully choosing the location of stations, reducing power at night, or even shutting a station down after dark, were all used to control interference.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Apex Radio — The Forgotten HiFi”

Are Patent Claims Coming for Your WS2812?

There are some components which are used within our sphere so often as to become ubiquitous, referred to by their part number without the need for a hasty dig through a data sheet to remind oneself just what we are talking about. You can rattle a few of them off, the 555, the 741, the ESP8266, and so on.

In the world of LEDs, the part that most immediately springs to mind is the Worldsemi WS2812 addressable LED. This part consists of three LEDs in red, green, and blue, all in the same package with a serial interface allowing a chain of individually addressable multicolour lights to be created. We’ve seen them in all sorts of places, and if you don’t recognise the part number then perhaps you will by one of the names they’re sold under: Neopixel.

Yesterday we received an email from our piratical friends at Pimoroni, the British supplier of all forms of electronic goodies. Among their range they have a reasonable number of products containing WS2812s, and it was these products that had formed the subject of an unexpected cease-and-desist letter. APA Electronic are the manufacturer of the APA102 addressable LED (which you may know as the Dotstar), and their cease-and-desist asking for the products to be withdrawn from sale rests on their holding a patent for an addressable multicolour LED. We’d be very interested to hear whether any other suppliers of WS2812-based parts have received similar communications.

US patent number 8094102B2 is indeed a patent for a “Single full-color LED with driving mechanism”, which does look a lot like a WS2812. But as always, such things are not as cut-and-dried as they might first appear. The LED in the patent for example relies upon a clock line for its operation, while the Worldsemi part doesn’t. I am not a lawyer so I’d hesitate to call this a baseless and speculative move, but I suspect that there will be plenty over which the two semiconductor companies can duke it out in the courtroom.

It’s fair to say that a large part of the ethos of our movement shares something with that of the world of open-source, so news of legal manoeuvres such as this are never likely to go down well. We’re small fry in this context and our commercial influence on APA102 or WS2812 sales will be minimal, but inevitably APA’s standing in our eyes will be diminished. Companies such as Pimoroni are not the target but a piece of collateral damage in a battle between manufacturers.

Whether the patent has been violated or not can only be decided by the courts. It is not uncommon for patent holders to go after companies selling the “infringing” products in hopes that rather than risk a costly court battle, they simply adhere to the demands, in this case buying parts from APA and not from Worldsemi.

So, if you rely on addressable LEDs, watch out! There may be trouble ahead.

Header image: Tristan Robitaille [CC BY-SA 4.0].