BreadboardOS, A Command Line Interface For The Pico

Operating systems! They’re everywhere these days, from your smart TV to your smartphone. And even in your microcontrollers! Enter BreadboardOS for the Raspberry Pi Pico.

BreadboardOS is built on top of FreeRTOS. It’s aim is to enable quick prototyping with the Pi Pico. Don’t confuse operating system with a graphical environment — BreadboardOS is command-line based. You’d typically interface with it via a serial terminal emulator, but joy of joys, it does support color!

Using BreadboardOS is a little different than typical microcontroller development. Creating an application involves adding a “service” which is basically a task in FreeRTOS parlance. The OS handles running your service for you. Via the text interface, you can query running services, and start or kill them at will.

Meanwhile, running df will happily give you stats on the flash usage of the Pi Pico, and free will tell you how full the memory is doing. If you really want to get raw, you can make calls to control GPIO pins, the SPI hardware, or other peripherals, and do it right on the command line.

BreadboardOS isn’t for everyone, but it could prove a useful tool if you like that way of doing things. It’s not the only OS out there for the Pi Pico, either!

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The Perfect Desktop Kit For Experimenting With Self Driving Cars

When we think about self-driving cars, we normally think about big projects measured in billions of dollars, all funded by major automakers. But you can still dive into this world on a smaller scale, as [jmoreno555] demonstrates.

The build consists of a small RC car—an HSP 94123, in fact. It’s got a simple brushed motor inside, driven by a conventional speed controller, and servo-driven steering. A Raspberry Pi 4 is charged with driving the car, but it’s not alone. It’s outfitted with a Google Coral USB stick, which is a machine learning accelerator card capable of 4 trillion operations per second. The car also has a Wemos D1 onboard, charged with interfacing distance sensors to give the car a sense of its environment. Vision is courtesy of a 1.2-megapixel camera with a 160-degree lens, and a stereoscopic camera with twin 75-degree lenses. Software-wise, it’s early days yet. [jmoreno555] is exploring the use of Python and OpenCV to implement basic lane detection and other self driving routines, while using Blender as a simulator.

The real magic idea, though, is the treadmill. [jmoreno555] realized that one of the frustrations of working in this space is in having to chase a car around a test track. Instead, the use of a desktop treadmill allows the car to be programmed and debugged with less fuss in the early stages of development.

If you’re looking for a platform to experiment with AI and self-driving, this could be an project to dive in to. We’ve covered some other great builds in this space, too. Meanwhile, if you’ve cracked driving autonomy and want to let us know, our tipsline is always standing by!

Vibrating Braille Display Is Portable

Smartphones are an integral part of life, but what if you can’t see the screen? There is text-to-speech available, but that’s not always handy and can be slow. It also doesn’t help users who can’t hear or see. Refreshable braille devices are also available, but they are expensive and not very convenient to use. [Bmajorspin] proposed a different method and built a prototype braille device that worked directly with a cell phone. The post admits that as the device stands today, it isn’t a practical alternative, but it does work and is ripe for future development to make it more practical.

The device saves costs and increases reliability by using six vibration motors to represent the six dots of a braille cell. However, this leads to an important issue. The motor can’t directly mount to the case because you have to feel each one vibrating individually. A spring mounting system ensures that each motor only vibrates the tactile actuator it is supposed to. However, the system isn’t perfect, and fast output is difficult to read due to the spread of vibrations.

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3D Print A Drill-Powered Helicopter Toy Because It’s Simply Fun

These days, you can get a fully remote-control helicopter that you can fly around your house for about $30. Maybe less. Back in the day, kids had to make do with far simpler toys, like spinning discs that just flew up in the air. [JBV Creative] has built a toy just like that with his 3D printer. It may be simple, but it also looks pretty darn fun.

The design is straightforward. It uses a power drill to spin up a geartrain, which in turn drives a small disc propeller. Spin the propeller fast enough and it’ll launch high into the air. The geartrain mounts to the drill via the chuck, and it interfaces with the propeller with a simple toothed coupler. Alternatively, there’s also a hand-cranked version if you don’t have a power drill to hand.

Launching is easy. First, the drill spins the propeller up to speed. Then, when the drill’s trigger is released, it slows down, and the propeller spins free of the toothed coupler, with the lift it generates carrying it into the sky.

Files are available online for those interested. We could imagine this toy could make the basis for a great design competition. Students could compete to optimise the design with more effective gear ratios or better airfoils. We’ve seen similar designs before, too. Video after the break.

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PCB Design Review: HDMI To LVDS Sony Vaio LCD Devboard

Today, we revisit another board from [Exentio] – a HDMI/DVI to LVDS transmitter for the Sony Vaio P display. This board is cool to review – it has a high-speed serial interface, a parallel interface, a healthy amount of power distribution that can be tricky to route, and many connectors to look over.

I’ve decided to show this review to you all because it demonstrates a PCB improvement concept we haven’t yet touched upon, that you should absolutely know about when doing board layout. Plus, I get a chance to talk about connector choice considerations!

The board is lovely. It integrates the DPI-LVDS circuit we’ve previously reviewed, but also a HDMI to parallel RGB chip from Texas Instruments, TFP401, a chip appreciated enough that even Adafruit has adapters with it. The fun thing about this chip is that it doesn’t even handle EDID like the usual HDMI to RGB/LVDS chips you get on cheap Aliexpress boards. So, there’s no firmware to take care of – it just receives a HDMI/DVI signal, converts it into parallel RGB, then converts that to LVDS, and off to the display it goes. The downside is that you have to provide your own EDID with an EEPROM, but that isn’t that tricky.

Again, this is a two-layer board, and, again, I like this – fitting tracks to the smallest possible space is a respectable and enjoyable challenge. This board has absolutely done well by this challenge. I do see how this board could be routed in an even better way, however, and it could be way way cleaner as a result. For a start, rotating the chip would improve the odds a whole lot.

The Chip Gets Rotated

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The Alien Energy Crisis Solved

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, humans have been searching for more energy. Especially lately, there has been a huge interest in wind, solar, geothermal, and other ways to capture and harness power. However, we have a huge power plant just eight light minutes away: our sun. Oh sure, we toy with solar power, but the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth or even Earth orbit is a tiny fraction of Sol’s total output. But what if you could capture nearly all of the sun’s output? Scientists think that maybe — just maybe — they’ve detected 60 new extraterrestrial civilizations doing just that. At least, that’s what it could be.

[Freeman Dyson] popularized the idea of a Dyson sphere, an artificial sphere surrounding a sun to capture the maximum amount of energy, back in 1960. However, the idea is older and usually credited to [Olaf Stapledon]’s 1937 novel Star Maker. While most people think the sphere would be solid, [Dyson] himself thought it would be a swarm of disjointed collectors owing to the difficulty in creating a solid shell of the required size.

Both SETI and Fermilab have searched for what is thought to be telltale infrared radiation that scientists think would emanate from a star surrounded by spheres or swarms. Several have been located, but there is no conclusive evidence.

The new 60 were identified by analyzing data from the Gaia satellite. Again, the evidence is not conclusive, but small and dim stars that are very bright in infrared can’t be explained by conventional explanations. One way to explain at least some of the stars would be if about 16% of the star was obscured by something like a swarm of Dyson sphere collectors.

There are, of course, more jejune explanations possible. For example, the star might happen to be in front of some more distant IR source. Still, it is tantalizing to think there may be more than 60 high-tech civilizations out there either waiting to meet us or, perhaps, waiting to eat us, depending on how paranoid you are.

Supercon 2023: Building The Ultimate Apple IIe, Decades Later

The Apple II was launched in 1977, a full 47 years ago. The Apple IIe came out six years later, with a higher level of integration and a raft of new useful features. Apple eventually ended production of the whole Apple II line in 1993, but that wasn’t the end. People like [James Lewis] are still riffing on the platform to this day. Even better, he came to Supercon 2023 to tell us all about his efforts!

[James]’s talk covers the construction of the Mega IIe, a portable machine of his own design. As the name suggests, the project was based on the Mega II chip, an ASIC for which he had little documentation. He wasn’t about to let a little detail like that stop him, though.

The journey of building the Mega IIe wasn’t supposed to be long or arduous; the initial plan was to “just wire this chip up” as [James] puts it. Things are rarely so simple, but he persevered nonetheless—and learned all about the Apple II architecture along the way.

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