Exploring Turn Of The Century RAF Avionics

The second hand market is a wonderful thing; you never know what you might find selling for pennies on the dollar simply because it’s a few years behind the curve. You might even be able to scrounge up some electronics pulled out of a military aircraft during its last refit. That seems to be how [Adrian Smith] got his hands on a Control Display Unit (CDU) originally installed in a Royal Air Force AgustaWestland AW101 “Merlin” helicopter. Not content to just toss it up on a shelf, he decided to take a look inside of the heavy-duty cockpit module and see if he couldn’t make some sense out of how it works.

Unsurprisingly, [Adrian] wasn’t able to find much information on this device on the public Internet. The military are kind of funny like that. But a close look at the burn-in on the CDU’s orange-on-black plasma display seems to indicate it had something to do with the helicopter’s communication systems. Interestingly, even if the device isn’t strictly functional when outside of the aircraft, it does have a pretty comprehensive self-test and diagnostic system on-board. As you can see in the video after the break, there were several menus and test functions he was able to mess around with once it was powered up on the bench.

With the case cracked open, [Adrian] found three separate PCBs in addition to the display and keyboard panel on the face of the CDU. The first board is likely responsible for communicating with the helicopter’s internal systems, as it features a MIL-STD-1553B interface module, UART chips, and several RS-232/RS-485 transceivers. The second PCB has a 32-bit AMD microcontroller and appears to serve as the keyboard and display controller, possibly also providing the on-board user interface. The last board looks to be the brains of the operation, with a 25 MHz Motorola 68EC020 CPU and 1Mb of flash.

All of the hardware inside the CDU is pretty generic, but that’s probably the point. [Adrian] theorizes that the device serves as something of a generic pilot interface module, and when installed in the Merlin, could take on various functions based on whatever software was loaded onto it. He’s found pictures online that seem to show as many as three identical CDUs in the cockpit, all presumably running a different system.

[Adrian] has uncovered some interesting diagnostic information being dumped to the CDU’s rear connectors, but he’s still a long way off from actually putting the device to any sort of practical use. If any Hackaday readers have some inside information on this sort of hardware, we’re sure like to hear about it.

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Extracting A Gate From AMD And Intel

The competition between Intel and AMD has been heating up in the last few years as Intel has released chips fabbed with their 14nm++ process and AMD has been using TMSC’s 7nm process. In the wake of the two semiconductor titans clashing, a debate between the merits of 14nm++ and 7nm has sprung up with some confusion about what those numbers actually measure. Not taking either number at their face value, [der8auer] decided to extract a transistor from both Intel’s and AMD’s latest offerings to try and shed some light.

Much of the confusion comes from the switch to the FinFET process. While older planar transistors could be thought of as largely 2d structures, FinFET’s are three dimensional. This means that the whole vertical fin can act as a gate, greatly reducing leakage. It is this fin or gate that [der8auer] is after. On each chip, a thin sliver from the L1 cache was chosen as caches tend to be fairly homogenous sections with transistors that are fairly indicative of the rest of the chip. Starting with a platinum gas intersecting with a focused ion beam on the surface of the chip, [der8auer] built a small deposit of platinum over several hours. This deposit protects the chip when he later cut it at an angle, forming a small lamella 100 micrometers long. In order for the lamella to be properly imaged by the scanning electron microscope, it needed to be even thinner (about 200 to 300nm).

Eventually, [der8auer] was ultimately able to measure the gate height, width, spacing, and other aspects of these two chips. The sheer amount of engineering and analysis that went into this project is remarkable and we love the deep dive into the actual gates that make up the processors we use. If you’re looking for a deep dive into the guts of a processor but perhaps at a more macro scale, why not learn about a forgotten Intel chip from the 1970s?

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Watercooling A Canon DSLR Leads To Serious Engineering Upgrades

The Canon EOS R5 is a highly capable, and correspondingly very expensive camera. Capable of recording video in 8K in a compact frame size, it unfortunately suffers from frustrating overheating issues. Always one to try an unconventional solution to a common problem, [Matt] decided to whip up a watercooling solution. What ensues is pure, top-notch engineering.

The watercooling setup is amusing, but the real star of the show is the custom copper heatsink that transforms the camera’s performance without spoiling its practicality.

Upon its original release, Canon had the R5 camera simply shut off on a 20 minute timer when recording 8K video. When the userbase complained, an updated firmware was released that used an onboard sensor and would only shutdown when excessive temperatures were reached. Under these conditions, the camera could record for around 25 minutes at 20 °C. [Matt] set about disassembling the camera to investigate, figuring out that the main processor was the primary source of heat. With a poor connection to its heatsink and buried under a power supply PCB, there simply wasn’t anywhere for heat to go, leaving the camera to regularly overheat and take hours to cool down.

After whipping up an amusing but impractical watercooling solution and verifying it allowed the camera to record indefinitely, [Matt] set about some proper thermal engineering. A custom copper heatsink was produced for inside the camera, bonded directly to the processor and DRAM with thermal paste instead of poor-quality thermal tape. This then directs heat out through the plastic back of the camera. In cool environments, this is enough to allow the camera to record continuously. In warmer environments, simply adding a small fan to the back of the camera was enough to keep things operational indefinitely.

[Matt] finishes the video by pointing out that Canon could have made the camera far more useful for videographers by simply investing a little more time into the camera’s cooling design, while also generating more profits by selling a cooling accessory for extended recording. We’ve seen some of [Matt’s] work before too, such as this DIY 4K projector build. Video after the break.

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Wemo Smart Plug Gets Brain Transplant

Like many modern smart home gadgets, Belkin’s Wemo brand of smart plugs has a tendency to phone home every time you turn on a lamp. [Gigawatts] wasn’t having it, so they figured out how to flash the device with OpenWRT and replicated its original functionality with a web interface. Unfortunately this stopped working after awhile, and rather than trying to diagnose the issue, it seemed the time would be better spent simplifying the whole thing.

As [Gigawatts] explains, there are actually two separate boards inside the Wemo plug. One holds the relay to do the high-voltage switching, and the other provides the control. They are linked with a three wire connector, making it exceptionally simple to swap out the original controller for something different. The connector supplies 5 V and ground, all you’ve got to do is pull the third wire high to flick the switch.

While the ESP8266 probably would have been the first choice for many a Hackaday reader, [Gigawatts] actually went with the Moteino, a low-power Arduino compatible board with integrated RFM69 transceiver. With an LED to indicate status and a few lines of code tweaked, the Moteino got this once WiFi-only smart plug speaking a new language.

There’s some debate over how effective smart plugs are from an energy efficiency standpoint, but even if this reborn Wemo doesn’t help [Gigawatts] save much power, at least it won’t be blabbing about everything to a third-party.

Remoticon Video: How To Reverse Engineer A PCB

You hold in your hand a circuit board from a product you didn’t make. How does the thing work? What a daunting question, but it’s both solvable and approachable if you know what you’re doing. The good news is that Eric Schlaepfer knows exactly what he’s doing and boiled down the process of reverse engineering printed circuit boards into this excellent workshop. It was presented live during the 2020 Hackaday Remoticon, and the edited video, which you’ll find below, was just published. Slides for the talk have been published on the workshop project page.

Need proof that he has skills that we all want? Last year Eric successfully reverse-engineered the legendary Sound Blaster audio card and produced his own fully-functional drop-in replacement called the Snark Barker. And then re-engineered it to work with the ancient MCA bus architecture. Whoa.

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Spacing Out: Rocks From The Moon, Rocks From Mars, A Near Miss, And Some Interesting Launches

Sure, the SpaceX crew made it safely to the ISS, but there’s plenty happening beyond just that particular horizon. The Chinese National Space Administration have launched their Chang’e 5 mission to collect and return lunar rock samples, a collaboration between NASA and ESA to do the same with samples from Mars has passed its review, and a pair of satellites came uncomfortably close to each other in a near-miss that could have had significant orbital debris consequences. It’s time for Spacing Out!

Bringing Alien Rocks to Earth

The Chang'e 5 mission on the launch pad. China News Service, CC BY 3.0.
The Chang’e 5 mission on the launch pad. China News Service, CC BY 3.0.

Ever since the NASA and Soviet lunar launches at the height of the Space Race, there have been no new missions to collect material from the Lunar surface and return it to Earth. That changed last week.

The Chang’e 5 mission launched in China on November 23rd will deliver moon rocks to earth, and as this is being written it has already entered Lunar orbit and separated into its constituent parts in preparation for landing. It’s a four-craft mission, with a lunar lander and ascent module going to the surface, and a service module and Earth return craft remaining in orbit to receive the samples and send them back to the planet for re-entry and retrieval. The hurdles facing the mission scientists and engineers are immense, and a safe sample return in mid-December will be an extremely impressive achievement.

Happily Chang’e 5 even has a hacker angle, as its telemetry has offered a bonanza to satellite-watchers who have turned their dishes skyward to capture the event. Daniel Estévez EA4GPZ has posted a collected analysis of data telemetry work by a variety of people worldwide, but the eye-candy prize goes to r00t.cz, who has successfully decoded image stream data to the extent that they have assembled a fragment of video captured from the craft during its journey.

Not to be outdone in the field of ambitious sample return missions, NASA and ESA’s joint plan to collect and return rock core samples from Mars has met with the approval of the independent review board set up to examine it. This will involve multiple craft from both agencies, with NASA’s already launched Perseverance rover collecting and containing the samples before leaving them on the surface for eventual collection by a future ESA rover. This will then pass them to a NASA ascent craft which will take them to Martian orbit and rendezvous with an ESA craft that will return them to Earth. We space-watchers are in for an exciting decade.

That Was a Close One!

Anyone who has seen the film Gravity will be familiar with the Kessler syndrome, in which collisions between spacecraft and or debris could create a chain reaction of further collisions and render entire orbital spheres unusable to future craft because of the collision hazard presented by the resulting cloud of space debris. Because of this, spacecraft operators devote considerable resources towards avoiding such collisions, and it is not uncommon for slight orbital adjustments to be made to avoid proximity with other orbiting man-made objects.

On the 27th of November it seems that these efforts failed, with a terse announcement from Roscosmos of a near-miss between their Kanopus-V craft and the Indian CARTOSAT 2F. The two remote-imaging satellites passed as close as 224 metres from each other, which in space terms given their likely closing speeds would have been significantly too close for comfort. The announcement appears worded to suggest that the Indian craft was at fault, however it’s probably a fairer conclusion that both space agencies should have seen the other’s satellite coming. Fortunately we escaped a catastrophe this time, but it is to be hoped that all operators of such satellites will take note.

RocketLab Joins the Reusable Booster Club

Other recent launches that might excite the interest of readers are the New Zealand-based RocketLab launching their Electron rocket with  30 small satellites on board before for the first time retrieving their booster stage, and the Japanese Mitsubish Electric sending their JDRS-1 satellite to geosynchronous orbit. This last craft is of interest because it carries an optical data link rather than the more usual RF, and could prove the technology for future launches.

The coming weeks should be full of news from China on Chang’e 5’s progress. Getting a craft to the moon and returning it will be a huge achievement, and we hope nothing fails and we’ll see pictures of the first new Moon rocks on Earth since the 1970s. We don’t know how to say “Good luck and a successful mission!” in Chinese, so we’ll say it in English.

Giving Micro Channel Bus Computers A Sound Blaster Bark

Not many people today probably remember what ‘Micro Channel Architecture’ was about, though its acronym ‘MCA’ might ring a bell. Created by IBM to replace ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) and presumably claw back some of that sweet, sweet licensing money, it didn’t quite pan out as IBM hoped. As history shows us, PCI ended up replacing MCA in all of IBM’s systems. The IBM PS/2 systems that used MCA didn’t miss out on classic 1990s cards, such as the original Sound Blaster, but today MCA versions of the Sound Blaster are admittedly rather… rare, not to mention expensive.

But, no longer: decades after the last PS/2 users have moved on, [Tube Time] proudly presents the Snark Barker MCA. It’s a fully Sound Blaster compatible sound card. It supports AdLib synthesis, digital sound playback and recording, as well as a joystick input and MIDI. Based around a Xilinx XC9572XL CPLD and featuring what looks like a full-length MCA card, it would have made an original Sound Blaster card proud.

The GitHub repository not only contains the schematics, BOM and Verilog-based HDL for the CPLD, but also extensive documentation on the assembly and programming. As a bonus, there’s a troubleshooting section which covers some of the joys that came with the sloppy implementations of MCA across systems. Definitely worth a read.

If anyone decides to build this project and use it in their IBM PS/2 system, we would love to hear about it.

Of course, if all you need is a garden variety PCI Sound Blaster clone, the original Snark Barker is the way to go.

(Thanks, Darry)