Glasgow Uses An FPGA As An Embedded Systems Multitool

Everyone who builds embedded systems wants tools to help build and debug systems faster, so it isn’t uncommon to see boards outfitted with various tools like serial port sniffers. We’ve seen a few incarnations and the latest is Glasgow. The small board uses an FPGA and claims to do the following:

  • UART with automatic baud rate determination
  • SPI or I2C
  • Read and write common EEPROMs and flash chips
  • Read and write common EPROMs including a data rescue function
  • Program AVR chips via SPI
  • Play back JTAG SVF files
  • Debug ARC and some MIPS CPUs
  • Program XC9500LX CPLDs
  • Communicate to several wireless radios and CPUs
  • Do sound synthesis
  • Read raw data from floppy drives

The revC board is the first to be relatively functional and sports 16 I/O pins operating at up to 100 MHz, although the documentation hints that 6 MHz might be the top of what’s easily accomplished. The software is written in Python and the iCE40 FPGA toolchain that we’ve talked about many times in the past.

This already looks like a useful tool and the reconfigurable nature of FPGAs makes it a good platform to expand. The documentation discusses the difficulty in debugging things for the board, so the base software offers support such as a built-in logic analyzer to help.

We have seen dev boards become bench tools, like using the iCEstick as a logic analyzer. It’s nice to see dedicated tools like this one built up around the speed and versatility of FPGAs.

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Modular Vibrating ‘Bots Made From PCBs

Printed circuit boards, they’re a medium designed primarily to mount electrical components with the wires themselves places as copper traces on the boards. To accommodate wide range of needs that have arisen over decades, board houses have evolved all manner of advanced techniques in routing and plating. To our benefit, this also makes it possible to leverage PCBs in an entirely artistic way, taking advantage of the highly-optimized manufacturing process. [GeeekClub] did just that, creating awesome vibrating robots out of custom-made PCBs.

The ‘bots come as a single PCB, with the parts snapped out akin to removing parts from sprues in a plastic model kit. They can then be assembled, with a pair of pager vibration motors installed to provide motive power. But really it’s the aesthetic of the boards and not the functionality that make these so incredible.

The design nestles a coin cell in the base of each bot, providing power and using the weight to help keep them upright. There’s a smattering of LEDs on board, and the art style of the ‘bots draws from Hopi Indian, Asian, and South American influences.

Cyphercon 2017 featured these exciting cubic badges, created from PCBs and soldered by hand.
This Star Trek inspired piece shows just how far you can go with the right color soldermask and some creativity.

This “flat-pack” style of PCB design that comes to life with creative use of angles and layers is becoming its own sub-genre of the art. The Star Trek Enterprise inspired build in another great example. We’ve also seen a growing trend of using the PCB as enclosures, take the Cyphercon badge and Queercon badge projects from 2017 as examples. Get yourself up to speed on design techniques for using FR4 as an enclosure from [Voja Antonic’s] in-depth guide.

Raspberry Pi Gets PATA/IDE Drive Via GPIO Header

By and large, the Raspberry Pi is a computer that eschews legacy interfaces. Primarily relying on SD cards for storage and USB ports for further expansion, magnetic hard drives are a rare sight. However, [Manawyrm] decided that some 40-pin goodness was in order, and set to making a PATA IDE adapter for the platform.

To achieve the task of interfacing now-vintage IDE devices with the Raspberry Pi, [Manawyrm] elected to use the single board computer’s GPIO pins to get the job done. 23 pins are required, with 16 used for the data bus, with the rest dedicated to address lines, strobes, and other features.

The adapter is no speed demon, netting 800 KiB/s on reads and 500 KiB/s on writes with a Raspberry Pi 4. The main bottleneck comes from relying on libgpiod, which [Manawyrm] readily admits is designed for general IO tasks, not data transfers. Despite this, it’s still fast enough to play an audio CD from an IDE CD-ROM drive without skipping. A kernel build is required, however, as Raspberry Pis are unsurprisingly not configured to use ATA disks by default.

Obviously, more serious applications would substitute a dedicated USB hard disk adapter or give the Raspberry Pi a PCI-express (PCIe) card for sata drives instead, but that doesn’t discount the fun inherent in the build. While it may be slow, it shows that talking to PATA hard disks is actually quite straightforward when you understand the basics. Of course, if you want to do the opposite, and have your Raspberry Pi emulate a PATA disk, that’s possible too. Video after the break.

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True Craftsmanship: Pneumatic Powered Drone Wasn’t Made To Fly

From time to time it’s good to be reminded that mechanical engineering can also be art. [José Manuel Hermo Barreiro], also known as [Patelo], is a retired naval mechanic with a love for scale model engines. Using only basic tools and a lathe, he has built a non-flying hexacopter display model, each propeller turned by a tiny single cylinder motor that runs on compressed air. From the tiny components of the valve systems, the brass framed acrylic windows into the crankcases, and the persistence of vision disc on the exhaust, the attention to detail is breathtaking.

One of the six hand crafted pneumatic motors

[Patelo] started the project on paper, and created a set of detailed hand-drawn blueprints to work from. Sadly a large part of the build took place during lockdown, and was not filmed, but we still get to see some work on a crankcase, connecting rod, camshaft, propellers, flywheel, and exhaust tubes. It is very clear that [Patelo] knows his way around his lathe very well, and is very creative with custom tools and jigs. The beautiful machine took approximately 1,560 hours to build, consists of 265 individually made parts held together with 362 screws.

We previously featured tiny V-12 engine that [Patelo] built around 2012. At that time he was 72 years of age, which means he should be around 80 now. We can only hope to come to emulate him one day, and that we get to see more of what comes out of his workshop. Hats off to you, sir.

Breathtaking Alarm Clock Looks Like It Came From A 1960 Fallout Shelter

All the hardcore geeks have alarm clocks where the bell striker is a hard disk read head… or at least they’ll be building them after seeing this. [Senile Data Systems] created an industrial voltage alarm clock out of decade counters that looks like it was unearthed from a fallout shelter (machine translation).

At first glace you might mistake this for a binary clock since it uses a column of LEDs to indicate each digit of 24-hour time. It’s not, as each row corresponds to a pin on the CD4017 decade counters that make up the timekeeping circuit inside.

Thumbscrew wheel switches at the top of the bulky handheld unit are how the alarm time is set, triggering a bell along the top edge. The clock is driven by the 50 Hz line voltage and [SDS] tried using that AC to drive a solenoid as the striker on the prototype unit but it performed poorly. The use of a hard disk read head turns out to be the perfect striker, as heard in the video after the break. As for triggering from the decade counters, here’s what [SDS] told us about the design:

The switches’ outputs gets ANDed with a 10 Hz signal (on a 60 Hz grid it will become 12 Hz). This drives a slightly beefy transistor which in turn drives an electromagnet to hammer a bell which broke off my bicycle. Yes. This is a digital analog alarm clock. The clock portion is digital but the bell is analog and sounds like Grampa’s old wind up alarm clock.

The build came about when a cache of over 600 industrial LEDs (24 V – 48 V) fell into his lap. This makes the insides of the clock something to behold as point-to-point soldering connects the panel mount lights and all nine logic chips. Add in that transformer for getting the line voltage and we imagine this thing has quite a bit of heft to it.

If you’ve ever had an alarm with a wind-up bell you know there’s no better way to jolt yourself out of a peaceful slumber and into the chaos of the real world. If the gentle tinkle of the hard drive head isn’t enough for you, this fire bell alarm clock will certainly do the trick.


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Boom Hopes To Reignite Supersonic Travel With XB-1

Since the last Concorde rolled to a stop in 2003, supersonic flight has been limited almost exclusively to military aircraft. Many have argued that it’s an example of our civilization seeming to slip backwards on the technological scale, akin to returning to the Age of Sail. There’s no debating that we have the capability of moving civilian passengers and cargo at speeds above Mach 1 safely, it’s just something that isn’t done anymore.

Concorde on its final flight, November 2003

Of course to be fair, there’s plenty of good reasons why the sky isn’t filled with supersonic aircraft. For one, they’ve historically been more drastically expensive to build and operate than their slower peers. The engineering that goes into an aircraft that can operate for an extended period of time at supersonic speeds doesn’t come cheap, nor do the materials required. But naturally, the same could have been said for commercial jet aircraft at one time. With further development, the cost would eventually come down.

The real problem holding supersonic aircraft back is much more practical: they are just too loud. From the roar of their powerful engines on takeoff to the startling and sometimes even dangerous “sonic boom” they leave in their wake, nobody wants them flying over their homes or communities. In fact, civilian flight above Mach 1 over land has been outlawed in the United States for exactly this reason since 1973 under the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulation 91.817.

For any commercial supersonic aircraft to be viable, it needs to not only be much cheaper to build and operate than older designs, but it also needs to be far quieter. Which is exactly what Boom hopes to demonstrate with their XB-1 prototype. The sleek craft will never enter into commercial service itself, but if all goes according to plan during its 2021 test flights, it may prove that the state-of-the-art in aircraft design is ready to usher in a new era of supersonic civilian transport.

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Recreating Retrocomputers Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 12 at noon Pacific for the Recreating Retrocomputers Hack Chat with Mike Gardi!

Building the first commercial computers in the late 1950s and early 1960s was certainly a complex a task, but building the computer industry was even harder. Sure, engineers were already getting on board with designing in silicon and germanium instead of glass and tungsten, and all digital circuits are really just abstractions of analog designs most of them were already familiar with. But what about all the other people who would need to get up to speed on the workings of digital computers? What good is a tool if the only people who know how to use it art the ones who built it?

To make computers make money, companies needed legions of installers, operators, programmers, marketers, and salespeople, and all of them needed training. And so early computer companies put a lot of effort into building training devices to get people up to speed. These trainers helped teach everything from basic logic circuits and Boolean relationships to simple programming concepts, and each of them contributed in their own way to developing the computer industry that we know today.

Mike Gardi has a unique hobby: among other things, he builds faithful replicas of some of the nicer examples of these lost bits of computing history. His reproduction of Claude Shannon’s Minivac 601 trainer is a great example of the art, as is the DEC H-500 Computer Lab build he’s currently working on. Along the way, he’s explored some side alleys on the road to our computerized world, like Dr. Nim and the paperclip computer. All his builds are lovingly created from 3D-prints and really capture the essence of the toys and tools of the time.

Join us as we take a trip inside this niche realm of retrocomputing and find out why Mike finds it fascinating enough to devote the time it obviously takes to build such exacting replicas. We’ll talk about what projects he’s got going on right now, what he has planned for the future, and maybe even dive into some of his secrets for such great looking 3D prints.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 12 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones baffle you as much as us, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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