Tiny Cheap ARM Boards Get WiFi

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the value of putting tiny WIFi-enabled microcontrollers on a module that costs a dollar or two. Those smart light bulbs in your house probably have an ESP8266 in them, and you can build a WiFi-enabled anything with one of these chips for next to no money. Now there’s a new module that takes the design philosophy of, ‘a reasonably powerful microcontroller, on a module, that does WiFi’ to its logical conclusion. It’s the W600 module from Seeed Studios. It’s got an ARM Cortex-M3, it’s FCC and CE certified, it’s got WiFi, and it’s cheap. This is what the people want, so somebody’s got to give it to them.

This product seems to be the followup and/or refinement of the Air602 WiFi Development board released by Seeed late last year. While the module itself grew a few more castellated pins and an RF can, the other specs look to be the same. Compared to the ESP-8266, which this module is obviously competing against, the Air600 is more than capable of pulling its own weight with five GPIO pins that do PWM, a decent amount of Flash, and all the WiFi support you could want.

The W600 is part of an entire family of boards, with the module itself readily available, but there’s also a few breakout boards that add connections for power and serial, a bigger breakout board that’s trying really hard to forget the pin misalignment of the Arduino Uno, and since this is Seeed, a board that connects to everything via Grove connectors. What’s a Grove connector? It’s power, ground, and either I2C or serial over a connector I couldn’t buy the last time I checked.

The W600 and its family of boards will be shipping shortly — China is shutting down for two weeks soon, after all — and there are plans for support for the Arduino IDE, Micropython, and an SDK for the tool chain of your choice.

Is the ESP8266 still the go-to for putting WiFi? Probably. But here’s some more competition.

Solar Power Is Set To Get More Expensive

The sun constantly bathes half the planet with energy. The energy may be free, but the methods for converting it to electricity cost money. Last year, the Chinese government cut subsidies to their solar panel manufacturers to shrink the industry which was perceived as bloated. This forced Chinese solar panel makers to cut prices to clear inventory. This drove down prices about 30%, making solar power cheaper than ever.

Reuters is reporting that Eric Luo, president of one of the largest solar panel makers in China, predicts that “the party is definitely over.” Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Luo said that prices have quit dropping and he expected industry consolidation to cause prices to rise by as much as 15% over the next two years.

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Shred The Gnar Without Paddling For Waves

[Ben Gravy] isn’t your average pro surfer. For one thing, he lives in New Jersey instead of someplace like Hawaii or Australia, and for another he became famous not for riding the largest waves but rather for riding the weirdest ones. He’s a novelty wave hunter, but some days even the obscure surf spots aren’t breaking. For that, he decided to build a surfboard that doesn’t need waves. (Video, embedded below the break.)

The surfboard that [Ben] used for this project isn’t typical either. It’s made out of foam without any fiberglass, which makes the board less expensive than a traditional surfboard. The propulsion was handled by an electric trolling motor and was hooked up to a deep cycle battery mounted in the center of the board in a waterproof box. The first prototype ended up sinking though, as most surfboards can’t support the weight of a single person on their own without waves even without all the equipment that he bolted to it.

After some reworking, [Ben] was able to realize his dream of riding a surfboard without any waves. It’s not fast, but the amount of excitement that he had proves that it works and could fool most of us. This hack has everything, too: a first prototype that didn’t work exactly right and was fixed with duct tape, electricity used in a semi-dangerous way, and solving a problem we didn’t know we had. We hope he builds a second, faster one as well.

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DIY Vacuum Table Enhances PCB Milling

CNC milling a copper-clad board is an effective way to create a PCB by cutting away copper to form traces instead of etching it away chemically, and [loska] has improved that process further with his DIY PCB vacuum table. The small unit will accommodate a 100 x 80 mm board size, which was not chosen by accident. That’s the maximum board size that the free version of Eagle CAD will process.

When it comes to milling PCBs, double-sided tape or toe clamps are easy solutions to holding down a board, but [loska]’s unit has purpose behind its added features. The rigid aluminum base and vacuum help ensure the board is pulled completely flat and held secure without any need for external fasteners or adhesives. It’s even liquid-proof, should cutting fluid be used during the process. Also, the four raised pegs provide a way to reliably make double-sided PCBs. By using a blank with holes to match the pegs, the board’s position can be precisely controlled, ensuring that the back side of the board is cut to match the front. Holes if required are drilled in a separate process by using a thin wasteboard.

Milling copper-clad boards is becoming more accessible every year; if you’re intrigued by the idea our own [Adil Malik] provided an excellent walkthrough of the workflow and requirements for milling instead of etching.

Ben Krasnow at Supercon: Making Alien Technology in Your Own Shop

Ben Krasnow has a vision of future electronics: instead of the present PCB-screwed-into-a-plastic-box construction, flexible circuits will be deposited straight onto the plastic body of the device itself, merging the physical object and its electronics. There is existing copper-on-plastic technology, but Ben’s got something novel that he presents in this talk that you could implement yourself. You might also want a display, or at least something to blink, so he’s also working on some electroluminescent technology to complement it. If you were wondering why Ben is so interested in silkscreening photopolymers right now, watching this talk will pull a lot of interesting threads together. Continue reading “Ben Krasnow at Supercon: Making Alien Technology in Your Own Shop”

The Cyborgs Among Us: Exoskeletons Go Mainstream

Every technological advancement seems to have a sharp inflection point, a time before which it seems like any early adopters are considered kooks, but beyond which the device or service quickly becomes so mainstream that non-adopters become the kooky ones. Take cell phones, for example – I clearly remember a news report back in the 1990s about some manufacturers crazy idea to put a digital camera in a phone. Seemingly minutes later, you couldn’t buy a phone without a camera.

It seems like we may be nearing a similar inflection point with a technology far more complex and potentially far more life-altering than cameras in cell phones: powered exoskeletons. With increasing numbers of news stories covering advancements in exoskeletal assistants for the elderly, therapeutic applications for those suffering from spinal cord injuries and neurodegenerative diseases, and penetration into the workplace – including the battlefield – as amplifiers of human effort, it’s worth taking a look at where we are with exoskeletons before seeing someone using one in public becomes so commonplace as to go unnoticed.

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Raspberry Pi’s Latest Upgrade: the Compute Module 3+

We’ve become so used to the Raspberry Pi line of boards that have appeared in ever-increasing power capabilities since that leap-year morning in 2012 when the inexpensive and now ubiquitous single board computer was announced and oversold its initial production run. The consumer boards have amply fulfilled their mission in providing kids with a pocket-money computer, and even though they are not the most powerful in the class of small Linux boards they remain the one to beat.

The other side of the Pi coin comes with the industrial siblings of the familiar boards, the Compute Module. This is a version of the Pi meant to be built into other products, utilizing a SODIMM connector as the hardware interface. Today brings news of a fresh addition to that range: the Compute Module 3+.

As you might expect from the nomenclature this brings the Broadcom BCM2837B0 processor from the Raspberry Pi 3B+ to the barebones SODIMM-style Pi, but unexpectedly they have also made it available with a range of different size eMMC devices installed. In place of the 4 GB capacity of previous offerings are 8, 16, and 32 GB devices, with an intriguing new “lite” variant that has no onboard storage at all.

Perhaps the saddest thing from a Hackaday reader’s perspective is that as the Pi blog post notes due to commercial sensitivities they have little idea what products many of the Compute Modules they sell end up in — a mystery we’d really like to solve. No doubt there are some fascinating applications just waiting do be discovered by hardware hackers in a decade’s time as units enter the surplus market, but for now we’ll have to be content with community offerings. This stereoscopic camera is a recent one, or perhaps one of several handheld game consoles.