Building A RISC-V Desktop

If you want to talk about RISC-V, the Open Source instruction set for CPUs, you’re probably talking about microcontrollers. You can buy small but powerful RISC-V micros on par with an ARM Cortex-M4 right now. Deep in the pipeline are cores for something resembling SoCs, the kind you’d find in desktop NAS solutions, maybe a few routers, and smart TVs. This is great and all, but our idea of a ‘computer’ is still a desktop. When is the Open instruction set desktop coming? Well, it’s here right now. [Andrew Back] built a RISC-V desktop computer. It runs Linux, it comes in a case, it has HDMI and USB, there’s a graphics card in there somewhere, and it works. This is a desktop, running with a RISC-V core.

The core of this build is the HiFive Unleashed, a Linux-capable board from SiFive, makers of the first (production) RISC-V microcontroller. This board uses the Freedom U540 SOC built with a 28nm process, has 8GB of DDR4, and 32MB of Flash. For a board built on an Open archetecuture this is impressive, but it comes at a cost: the HiFive Unleashed ran for $1000 during its crowdfunding campaign.

But a board with an Open CPU does not a desktop make. You need peripheral IO, maybe a few PCIe, and hopefully a SATA interface. This problem has been solved by Microsemi with an Expansion board for the HiFive Unleashed. It includes a big ‘ol FPGA and all the connectors you could use. It also costs $2000.

With most of the parts ready to go, a few buttons, M.2 PCIe and SATA SSD storage, a graphics card, and a nice acrylic case were added. Thanks to Western Digital, building Linux was as easy as building Linux, and you end up with a desktop computer with a RISC-V brain.

Compared to a bog-standard ‘gaming machine’, this is an expensive build. The quick and dirty ballpark for the price is somewhere around $4000 USD for a machine that will let you check your Facebook. There’s a video of the machine running, you can check that out below.

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Automate The Freight: Amazon Tackles The Last Mile Problem On Wheels

We’ve been occasionally exploring examples of what could be the killer application for self-driving vehicles: autonomous freight deliveries, both long-haul and local, as well as some special use cases. Some, like UAV delivery of blood and medical supplies in Kenya, have taken off and are becoming both profitable and potentially life-saving. Others, like driverless long-haul trucking, made an initial splash but appear to have gone quiet since then. This is to be expected, as the marketplace picks winners and losers in a neverending quest to maximize return on investment. But the whole field seems to have gotten a bit sleepy lately, with no big news of note for quite a while.

That changed last week with Amazon’s announcement of Scout, their autonomous delivery vehicle. Announced first on Amazon’s blog and later picked up by the popular and tech press who repeated the Amazon material almost verbatim, Scout appears at first glance to be a serious attempt by Amazon to own the “last mile” of delivery – the local routes that are currently plied by the likes of UPS, FedEx, and various postal services. Or is it?

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Two Joysticks Talk To FPGA Arcade Game Over A VGA Cable

We really love when hacks of previous hacks show up in the tip line. It shows how the hardware hacking community can be a feedback loop, where one hack begets the next, and so on until great things are everywhere. This hacked joystick port for an FPGA Pac Man game is a perfect example of that creative churn.

The story starts with Pano Man, a version of the venerable arcade game ported to a Pano Logic FPGA thin client by [Skip]. We covered that story when it first came out, and it caught the attention of [Tom Verbeure], particularly the bit in the GitHub readme file which suggested there might be a better way to handle the joystick connections. So [Tom] took up the challenge of using the Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) circuit in the VGA connector to support an Atari 2600 joystick. The EDID system is an I²C bus, so the job needed the right port expander. [Tom] chose the MCP23017, a 16-bit device that would have enough GPIO for dual joysticks and a few extra buttons. Having never designed a PCB before, [Tom] fell down that rabbit hole for a bit, but quickly came up with a working design, and then a better one, and then the final version. The video below shows it in action with Pano Man.

We think the creative loop between [Skip] and [Tom] was great here, and we can’t wait to see who escalates next. And it’s pretty amazing how much IO can be stuffed over two wires if you have the right tools. Check out this VGA sniffing effort to learn more about EDID and I²C.

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Little FPV Bot Keeps It Simple With An ESP32

When it comes to robots, it seems the trend is to make them as complicated as possible – look at anything from Boston Dynamics if you’ve any doubt of that. But there’s plenty to be said for simple robots too, such as this adorable ESP32-driven live-streaming bot.

Now it’s true that [Max.K]’s creation is more remote controlled car than robot, and comparing it to one of the nightmare-fuelling creations of Boston Dynamics is perhaps unfair. But [Max.K]’s new project is itself a simplification and reimagining of his earlier, larger “ZeroBot“. As the name implies, ZeroBot was controlled by a Raspberry Pi Zero, an obvious choice for a mobile platform designed to stream FPV video. The ESP32 bot eschews the Pi platform in favor of, well, an ESP32. To save as much space as possible, [Max.K] did a custom PCB for the microcontroller and its supporting components. The 3D-printed case is nicely designed to hold the board along with two motors, a small VGA camera, and a battery pack. At 160×120 resolution, the video isn’t amazing, but the fact that it can be streamed from the ESP32 at a decent enough framerate to drive the bot using a simple web interface is impressive.

This was a fun project and a very clean, smooth build. We like the lines of this little bot, and wouldn’t mind building one as a quick weekend project ourselves.

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