An Amiga computer at NASA

Retrotechtacular: Amiga Pips The PC For Mission-Critical Computing At NASA

In 1986, a group of NASA engineers faced a difficult choice in solving their data processing woes: continue tolerating the poor performance of PC architecture, or pony up the cash for exotic workstations. It turns out that the Commodore Amiga was an intriguing third choice, except for the fact that, paradoxically, it didn’t cost enough. Oh, and Apple wanted nothing to do with any of it.

Steeped in history, NASA’s Hangar AE is a hub for launch vehicle telemetry and other mission communications, primarily during prelaunch phases for launches at Cape Canaveral. Throughout the late 20th century, Hangar AE supported NASA launch vehicles in all shapes and sizes, from the Atlas-Centaur evolutions to the mighty Titan family. It even supported user data from the Space Shuttle program. Telemetry from these missions was processed at Hangar AE before being sent out to other NASA boffins, and even transmitted worldwide to other participating space agencies.

Coming down from decades of astronomical levels of funding, the 1980s was all about tightening the belt, and NASA needed budget solutions that didn’t skimp on mission safety. The Commodore Amiga turned out to be the right choice for processing launch vehicle telemetry. And so it was still, when cameras from the Amiga Atlanta group were granted permission to film inside Hangar AE.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Amiga Pips The PC For Mission-Critical Computing At NASA”

Tesla Automatic Driving Under Scrutiny By US Regulators

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a formal investigation about Tesla’s automatic driving features (PDF), claiming to have identified 11 accidents that are of concern. In particular, they are looking at the feature Tesla calls “Autopilot” or traffic-aware cruise control” while approaching stopped responder vehicles like fire trucks or ambulances. According to the statement from NHTSA, most of the cases were at night and also involved warning devices such as cones, flashing lights, or a sign with an arrow that, you would presume, would have made a human driver cautious.

Qote from Tesla support page: "The currently enabled Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features require active driver supervision and do not make the vehicle autonomous."There are no details about the severity of those accidents. In the events being studied, the NHTSA reports that vehicles using the traffic-aware cruise control “encountered first responder scenes and subsequently struck one or more vehicles involved with those scenes.”

Despite how they have marketed the features, Tesla will tell you that none of their vehicles are truly self-driving and that the driver must maintain control. That’s assuming a lot, even if you ignore the fact that some Tesla owners have gone to great lengths to bypass the need to have a driver in control. Tesla has promised full automation for driving and is testing that feature, but as of the time of writing the company still indicates active driver supervision is necessary when using existing “Full Self-Driving” features.

We’ve talked a lot about self-driving car safety in the past. We’ve also covered some of the more public accidents we’ve heard about. What do you think? Are self-driving cars as close to reality as they’d like you to believe? Let us know what you think in the comments.

DIY Handheld Game Puts Its Brains On A Removable Cart

Over the years we’ve seen plenty of homebrew handheld game systems that combine an AVR microcontroller, a few buttons, and an small OLED display. Some of them have even been turned into commercial products, such as the Arduboy. They’re simple, cheap, and with the right software, a lot of fun. But being based on an MCU, most of them share the same limitation of only being able to hold a single game at any one time.

But not the Game Card, by [Dylan Turner]. This handheld was specifically designed so that games could be easily swapped out using physical cartridges. But rather than trying to get the system’s microcontroller to boot code from an external flash chip, the system relocates the MCU to the removable cartridge. That might seem a bit overkill, but given how cheap the ATTINY84A on each cartridge is, it’s not exactly going to break the bank.

With the microcontroller on the cartridge, the only hardware that stays behind on the Game Card is the SSD1306 128×64 OLED display, buttons, and the battery. That means the handheld is effectively non-functional unless a game is slotted in, but that could be said of most early cartridge-based game systems as well. On the other hand, it also opens up the possibility of producing cartridges with more powerful microcontrollers down the line.

Using a different microcontroller for each game is a neat hack, but it’s not the only solution to the problem. We previously saw a community effort to add expandable storage to the Arduboy in the form of a DIY cartridge, which ultimately led to the development of an official flash chip upgrade for the handheld.

Continue reading “DIY Handheld Game Puts Its Brains On A Removable Cart”

Raspberry Pi Real-Time HAT

New Part Day: Raspberry Pi HAT For IEEE1588 Precision Time Protocol

The new Real-Time HAT by InnoRoute adds IEEE1588 PTP support in hardware to a Raspberry Pi 4 nestled beneath. Based around a Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA and a handful of gigabit Ethernet PHY devices, the HAT acts as network-passthrough, adding accurate time-stamps to egress (outgoing) packets and stripping time-stamps from the ingress (incoming) side.

This hardware time-stamping involves re-writing Ethernet packets on-the-fly using specialised network hardware which the Raspberry Pi does not have. Yes, there are software-only 1588 stacks, but they can only get down to 10s of microsecond resolutions, unlike a hardware approach which can get down to 10s of nanoseconds.

1588 is used heavily for applications such as telecoms infrastructure, factory equipment control and anything requiring synchronisation of data-consuming or data-producing devices. CERN makes very heavy use of 1588 for its enormous arrays of sensors and control equipment, for all the LHC experiments. This is the WhiteRabbit System, presumably named after the time-obsessed white rabbit of Alice In Wonderland fame. So, if you have a large installation and a need for precisely controlling when stuff happens across it, this may be just the thing you’re looking for.

IEEE1588 PTP Synchronisation

The PTP client and master device ping a few messages back and forth between themselves, with the network time-stamper recording the precise moment a packet crosses the interface. These time-stamps are recorded with the local clock. This is important. From these measurements, the time-of-flight of the packet and offset of the local clock from the remote clock may be calculated and corrected for. In this way each client node (the hat) in the network will have the same idea of current time, and hence all network packets flowing through the whole network can be synchronised.

The beauty of the system is that the network switches, wiring and all that common infrastructure don’t need to speak 1588 nor have any other special features, they just need to pass along the packets, ideally with a consistent delay.

The Real-Time HAT configures its FPGA via SPI, straight from Raspberry Pi OS, with multiple applications possible, just by a change on the command line. It is possible to upload custom bitstreams, allowing the HAT to be used as a general purpose FPGA dev board should you wish to do so. It even stacks with the official PoE HAT, which makes it even more useful for hanging sensors on the end of a single wire.

Of course, if your needs are somewhat simpler and smaller in scale than a Swiss city, you could just hack a GPS clock source into a Raspberry Pi with a little soldering and call it a day.

Voice-Controlled Smart Home From The Foundation Up

Smart homes are becoming an increasingly popular way to automate one’s home, whether it’s turning on lights, closing blinds, or even feeding pets. But the commercial offerings often rely on an internet connection to reach servers in order to work, which invites a lot of privacy concerns for a large percentage of us as well as being inconvenient when the internet is down. Essentially the only way to have a privacy-respecting, self-sufficient smart home is to build one on your own from the ground up, which is exactly what [Xasin] has done with this project.

This build is based on ESP32 modules with a Raspberry Pi as a hub, but it’s not as simple as a MQTT implementation. Not only does the self-contained home automation setup not rely on any outside services, but a failure of the central Pi server will not impact the nodes either as they are configured to continue operating independently even without central control. This allows for a robust home automation implementation without a single point of failure, and also includes some other features that are helpful as well including voice control, all while retaining a core design philosophy that makes it relatively easy to build.

Not only is the build technologically impressive for its standalone capabilities and its elimination of privacy concerns, but [Xasin] also did an excellent job with the physical design as well, adding plenty of RGB and a hexagonal enclosure that gives it a unique look wherever its is placed. If you’re renting right now or otherwise unable to interface any automation with your current home, be sure to take a look at some projects that do home automation without making any permanent changes.

Continue reading “Voice-Controlled Smart Home From The Foundation Up”

Valve Sells Software, So What’s With All The Hardware?

Steam branding is strong. Valve Corporation has turned their third-party marketplace into the first place millions choose to buy their PC games. The service has seen record-breaking numbers earlier this year with over 25 million concurrent users, so whatever they are doing is clearly working. Yet with all those software sales, last month Valve announced a new piece of hardware they call the Steam Deck.

Use the colloquialism you’d like, “not resting on your laurels” or “Mamba Mentality”, it’s not as if competitors in the handheld PC space are boasting ludicrous sales numbers. At their core, Valve is in the business of selling computer games. So why venture into making hardware? Continue reading “Valve Sells Software, So What’s With All The Hardware?”

Game Development Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 18 at noon Pacific for the Game Development Hack Chat with Kyle Donnelly!

Chances are we all have fallen into the time trap of computer games at one point or another. It’s easy to do — the worlds that games put before us can be immersive and addictive, and even if they’re populated by fantastical creatures hell-bent on our virtual destruction, they offer a degree of escapism and relaxation that can be hard to come by with any other form of entertainment.

But what does it take to build these virtual worlds? How exactly does one come up with all the ideas needed to make a game fresh and exciting? And once you’ve got the ideas, how do you turn them into the code needed to make the whole thing work? Kyle Donnelly has quite a bit of experience with the game development process, seeing his idea through from initial prototyping to working with a publisher and even getting the game demonstrated at conventions. Along the way, he picked up a collection of tips and shortcuts to make the process easier, as well as developing a small suite of tools to help set up and test game levels quickly and easily, and to deal with the custom physics of his virtual world.

Join us as Kyle stops by the Hack Chat to talk about game development from an angle that rarely gets much coverage — from the software side.

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 18 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.