[Théo Gautier] thought that a human-following utility trailer would be helpful for people working on farms. He didn’t just think about it, however, he designed and built it as a final project at the Agrilab FabAcademy at the University UniLasalle Polytechnique in northern France. He took the idea from concept to fruition in six weeks.
His build log documents the project very well, and takes you through his design choices and their implementation. The brains of the cart are a SAMD21E board that he made himself, and its sensory perception of the world is provided by HC-SR04 ultrasonic sensors and a PixyCam 2. Locomotion is provided by four each 100W DC motor / gearbox assemblies. He’s put a lot of effort into the construction process and posted a lot of photos of the intermediate steps. One piece of advice that caught our eye was to measure the diagonals of your frame repeatedly when welding it together — things can and do shift around. If you don’t, you may have to rectify the mistake like [Théo] did, with a big hammer.
[Ken Shirriff]’s analysis of a fascinating high-tech paperweight created by GE at the height of the space race is as informative as it is fun to look at. This device was created to show off GE’s thin-film electronics technology, and while it’s attractive enough on its own, there’s an added feature: as soon as the paperweight is picked up, it begins emitting a satellite-like rhythmic beep. It is very well-made, and was doubtlessly an impressive novelty for its time. As usual, [Ken] dives into what exactly makes it tick, and shares important history along the way.
In the clear area of the paperweight is a thin-film circuit, accompanied by a model of an early satellite. The module implements a flip-flop, and the flat conductors connect it to some additional components inside the compartment on the left, which contains a power supply and the necessary parts to create the beeps when it is picked up.
Thin-film electronics reduced the need for individual components by depositing material onto a substrate to form things like resistors and capacitors. The resulting weight and space savings could be considerable, and close-ups of the thin film module sure look like a precursor to integrated circuits. The inside of the left compartment contains a tilt switch, a battery, a vintage earphone acting as a small speaker, and a small block of components connected to the thin-film module. This block contains two oscillators made with unijunction transistors (UJTs); one to create the beep, and one to control each beep’s duration. The construction and overall design of the device is easily recognizable, although some of the parts are now obsolete.
If you’d like a bit more detail on exactly how this device worked, including circuit diagrams and historical context, be sure to click that first link, and pay attention to the notes and references at the end. One other thing that’s clear is that functional electronics embedded in clear plastic shapes simply never go out of style.
Do you live in a small or yard-less space, but want to grow things anyway? You’re not totally out of luck — you’ll just have to get creative and probably vertical with your planting scheme. And since apartments and other smallish dwellings often have a limited amount of exposure, it would really help a lot if you could somehow rotate the plants so that they receive even sunlight.
[JT_Makes_It] already had a tube with holes, though they did cut several more into it. As built, this is not exactly apartment dweller-friendly, unless you have off-site access to things like plasma cutters and welding equipment. But as they point out, you could theoretically use PVC and a hole saw and make it shorter and therefore lighter. We think this looks great, although we’re a bit concerned about the weight. Not so much on the mechanism itself; that looks strong. We’re just wondering how long that carport frame will support it. Judge the build quality for yourself from the video after the break.
Did you know that strawberries can do tricks? Fasciation makes fanned-out berries, and vivipary makes them hairy.
The rig is built around an earlier build from [Engineering After Hours], a skid-steer RC chassis that is nice and tough to handle rough and tumble driving. It’s paired with a trailer attached to the center of rotation of the chassis that makes the pair highly maneuverable.
In order to launch rockets, an air tank on the trailer is hooked up to some piping to launch four Nerf rockets. Charged up to just 40 psi, it’s capable of launching the rounds with plenty of power for play purposes. Paired with a elevation control and a servo to trigger the firing valve, it’s a complete system that can shoot on the go.
It’s a fun build that packs a punch, even if it doesn’t quite have the accuracy or range you might desire in an all-conquering Nerf combat platform. We’d love to see a similar build hooked up to some AI smarts to stalk targets independently of human control. Video after the break.
While the disquieting appearance of some of the robots coming out of DARPA and other labs might give us some reservations about how much intelligence we want to give to those robots, there’s a lot to be learned from them before their inevitable global takeover. This small quadruped called the Mini Pupper is just the robot for that job. With a low cost and familiar platform, it’s the ideal robot to learn some of the tricks of the trade.
For a quadruped so small, some unique changes had to be made to ensure the robot’s functionality. There have been a few developments since it was first shown over a year ago. The first was to design a custom servo that could handle the unique characteristics of this robot. From there, some other improvements were made to the robot chassis such as using threaded rods for ease of assembly and maintenance. Some other things have stayed the same though like using a Raspberry Pi to handle the control systems and self-navigation.
Of course everything needed to make this robot yourself is open source, from the code to the schematics. For experimenting with quadrupeds and even with automatic navigation, this would be a great way to get started, and the small size will also limit its ability for a Skynet-style takeover as well. That’s a nice bonus.
Regular readers may be aware that I have a certain affinity for vintage VTech educational toys, especially ones that attempted to visually or even functionally tie in with contemporary computer design. In the late 1980s, when it became obvious the personal computer was here to stay, these devices were seen as an affordable way to give kids and even young teens hands-on time with something that at least somewhat resembled the far more expensive machines their parents were using.
A perfect example is the PreComputer 1000, released in 1988. Featuring a full QWERTY keyboard and the ability to run BASIC programs, it truly blurred the line between toy and computer. In fact from a technical standpoint it wasn’t far removed from early desktop computers, as it was powered by the same Zilog Z80 CPU found in the TRS-80 Model I.
By comparison, the Smart Start has more in common with a desktop electronic calculator. Even though it was released just two years prior to the PreComputer 1000, you can tell at a glance that it’s a far more simplistic device. That’s due at least in part to the fact that it was aimed at a younger audience, but surely the rapid advancement of computer technology at the time also played a part. Somewhat ironically, VTech did still at least attempt to make the Smart Start look like a desktop computer, complete with the faux disk drive on the front panel.
Of course, looks can be deceiving. While the Smart Start looks decidedly juvenile on the outside, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few surprising technical discoveries lurking under its beige plastic exterior. There’s only one way to find out.
As a society, we’ve learned a lot of hard lessons over the last year and a half or so. But one of the strongest lessons we’ve faced is the true fragility of our infrastructure. The crumbling buildings and bridges and their tragic consequences are one thing, but along with attacks on the food and energy supply chains, it’s clear that our systems are at the most vulnerable as their complexity increases.
And boy are we good at making complex systems. In the United States alone, millions of miles of cables and pipelines stitch the country together from one coast to the other, much of it installed in remote and rugged places. Such far-flung systems require monitoring and control, which is the job of supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, systems. These networks have grown along with the infrastructure, often in a somewhat ad hoc manner, and given their nature they can be tempting targets for threat actors.
Finding ways to secure such systems is very much on Éireann Leverett’s mind. As a Senior Risk Researcher at the University of Cambridge, he knows about the threats to our infrastructure and works to find ways to mitigate them. His book Solving Cyber Risk lays out a framework for protecting IT infrastructure in general. For this Hack Chat, Éireann will be addressing the special needs of SCADA systems, and how best to protect these networks. Drop by with your questions about infrastructure automation, mitigating cyber risks, and what it takes to protect the endless web of pipes and wires we all need to survive.