The Cardboard Computer

Every time we say “We’ve seen it all”, along comes a project that knocks us off. 60 year old [Mark Nesselhaus] likes to learn new things and he’s never worked with hardware at the gate level. So he’s building himself a 4-bit Computer, using only Diode-Transistor Logic. He’s assembling the whole thing on “card board” perf-board, with brass tacks for pads. Why — because he’s a thrifty guy who wants to use what he has lying around. Obviously, he’s got an endless supply of cardboard, tacks and Patience. The story sounds familiar. It started out as a simple 4-bit full adder project and then things got out of hand. You know he’s old school when he calls his multimeter an “analog VOM”!

It’s still work in progress, but he’s made a lot of it in the past year. [Mark] started off by emulating the 4-bit full adder featured on Simon Inns’ Waiting for Friday blog. This is the ALU around which the rest of his project is built. With the ALU done, he decided to keep going and next built a 4-to-16 line decoder — check out the thumbnail image to see the rats nest of jumbled wires. Next on his list were several flip flops — R-S, J-K and D types, which would be useful as program counters. This is when he bumped into problems with signal levels, timing and triggering. He decided to allow himself the luxury of adding one IC to his build — a 555 based clock generator. But he still needed some pulse shaping circuitry to make it work consistently.

from right, Input, +5V, nc, gnd
LED Driver : from left, Gnd, NC, +5V, Input

[Mark] also built a finite-state-machine sequencer based on the work done by Rory Mangles TinyTim project. He finished building some multiplexers and demultiplexers, and it appears he may be using a whole bank of 14 wall switches for address, input and control functions. For the output display, he assembled a panel using LED’s recovered from a $1 Christmas light string. Something seems amiss with his LED driver, though — 2mA with LED on and >2.5mA with LED off. The LED appears to be connected across the collector and emitter of the PNP transistor. Chime in with your comments.

This build seems to be shaping along the lines of the Megaprocessor that we’ve swooned over a couple of times in the past. Keep at it, [Mark]!

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An Intel 8085 Microprocessor Trainer

The Intel 8085 microprocessor was introduced 40 years back, and along with its contemporaries — the Z80 and the 6502 — is pretty much a dinosaur in terms of microprocessor history. But that doesn’t stop it from still being included in the syllabus for computer engineering students in many parts of the world. The reason why a 40 year old microprocessor is still covered in computer architecture text books instead of computer history is a bit convoluted. But there’s a whole industry that thrives on the requirements of college laboratories and students requiring “8085 Microprocessor Training Kits”. [TisteAndii] just finished college in Nigeria, where these kits are not locally built and need to be imported, usually costing well over a 100 dollars.

Which is why his final year project was a low cost Intel 8085 Microprocessor Trainer. It’s a minimalist design with some basic read/write memory, program execution and register inspection, with no provision for single stepping or interrupts yet. The monitor program isn’t loaded in an EEPROM. Instead, a PIC18 is used and connected to the 8085 address, data and control pins. This makes it easier to write a monitor program in C instead of assembly. And allows use of a 1.8″ LCD with SPI interface instead of the more usual 7-segment displays used for these kind of kits. [TisteAndii] built a 6×4 keyboard for input, but couldn’t solve debounce issues and finally settled on a 5×4 membrane keypad.

Being a rookie, he ended up with a major flaw in his board layout — he missed connecting the SRAM and the PPI devices to the data bus. A bunch of jumper links seemed to solve the issue, but it wasn’t perfect. This, and a few other problems gave him a lot of grief, but towards the end, it all worked, almost. Most importantly, his BoM cost of about $35 makes it significantly cheaper compared to the commercial units available in Nigeria.

While some hackers may consider this a trivial project, it solves a local problem and we hope the next iteration of the design improves the kit and makes it more accessible.

Foldable Dymaxion Globe

Some time back, we posted about [Gavin]’s laser-cut/3D printed Dymaxion Globe — if you haven’t read about it yet, you should check it out. [noniq] loved the idea, and like a true hacker, built and shared an improved Foldable Dymaxion Globe. It can snap together to form an icosahedron globe, or it can be laid flat to form a map.

Duct tape, stoppers and magnet holders
Duct tape, stoppers and magnet holders

Like the original, [noniq]’s version is laser cut and engraved, and uses some 3D printed parts. But it does away with the fasteners (that’s 60 pairs of nuts and bolts), and instead uses neodymium magnets to make all the triangle pieces snap together to form the icosahedron globe. The hinges are simply some pieces of gaffer-tape.

This design improvement creates a cleaner globe and also addresses some of the concerns posted in the comments of the earlier build. The design files are available for download on [noniq]’s blog — you need to 3D print some magnet holders and stopper plates, and laser cut the 20 triangle tiles. The stopper plates help ensure that the angle between tiles when it is put together is limited to 138 degrees, making it easier to assemble the globe.

Check out the video after the break to hear the satisfying “thunk” of neodymium magnets snapping together.

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Fail of the Week: NASA Edition

There’s a reason we often use the phrase “It ain’t Rocket Science”. Because real rocket science IS difficult. It is dangerous and complicated, and a lot of things can and do go wrong, often with disastrous consequences. It is imperative that the lessons learned from past failures must be documented and disseminated to prevent future mishaps. This is much easier said than done. There’s a large number of agencies and laboratories working on multiple projects over long periods of time. Which is why NASA has set up NASA Lessons Learned — a central, online database of issues documented by contributors from within NASA as well as other organizations.

The system is managed by a steering committee consisting of members from all NASA centers. Public access is limited to a summary of the original driving event, lessons learned and recommendations. But even this information can be quite useful for common folks. For example, this lesson on Guidance for NASA Selection & Application of DC-DC Converters contains several bits of useful wisdom. Or this one about IC’s being damaged due to capacitor residual discharge during assembly. If you ever need to add a conformal coating to your hardware, check how Glass Cased Components Fractured as a Result of Shrinkage in Coating/Bonding Materials Applied in Excessive Amounts. Finally, something we have all experienced when working with polarized components — Reverse Polarity Concerns With Tantalum Capacitors. Here is a more specific Technical Note on polarized capacitors (pdf): Preventing Incorrect Installation of Polarized Capacitors.

Unfortunately, all of this body of past knowledge is sometimes still not enough to prevent problems. Case in point is a recently discovered issue on the ISS — a completely avoidable power supply mistake. Science payloads attach to the ISS via holders called the ExPRESS logistics carriers. These provide mechanical anchoring, electrical power and data links. Inside the carriers, the power supply meant to supply 28V to the payloads was found to have a few capacitors mounted the other way around. This has forced the payloads to use the 120V supply instead, requiring them to have an additional 120V to 28V converter retrofit. This means modifying the existing hardware and factoring in additional weight, volume, heat, cost and other issues when adding the extra converter. If you’d like to dig into the details, check out this article about NASA’s power supply fail.

Thanks to [Jarek] for tipping us about this.

A Singing Arc Lighter

We’ve all been guilty of buying things we want, but don’t need. And that’s how [PodeCoet] found himself in possession of a couple of double-arc electric lighters, thanks to those far-eastern websites purveying cheap goods. ‘Tis the season of giving after all, justified [PodeCoet]. Being a hacker, the obvious thing to do was to make them belt out tinny tunes. If you’re still holding on to your gas lighters, don’t — because these electric ones are ‘oh so hackable’. Dual-arcs are the same, but twice the fun.

[PodeCoet] starts off with a tear down of the lighter, to figure out the schematic and understand how it works. There’s a charger IC for the LiPo, an unidentifiable micro-controller, a pair of FET’s driving a pair of power transistors, which in turn drive the HF output transformer at around 15.6kHz. He guesses that the “original micro-controller is probably an OTP part like a 12C508” but in the absence of a chipID he couldn’t be sure.

Instead of trying to break his head over it, he just swapped in a pin-compatible PIC12F1840. All that’s left to do is to write some quick-n-dirty code and sprinkle it with funny comments in order to modulate the output signal at audio frequencies. His first choice of tune was “We are Number One” by Lazy Town, the Icelandic educational musical comedy children’s television series (phew). But redditors are awesome, and someone asked him to add the “Imperial March” and [PodeCoet] obliged.

Since he was going to gift these lighters, the sneaky hacker added a prank in the code. Every time the button is pressed for more than two seconds, it works as normally expected and a counter is incremented. On the 20th count, and for one time only, the tune is played. No amount of pressing the button will play the tune again, confounding the user to wonder if he was hallucinating. This also helps ensure the lighter does not self-destruct prematurely, since the output transformer is likely designed for low duty cycles. His blog post contains all of the information needed to do this hack along with handy tips to avoid the problems he faced. A “Happy Birthday” tune would be great when lighting some birthday candles, we think.

[PodeCoet] has a fancy for high voltage stuff – check out “Home built Stun Baton turns you into a cop from Demolition Man“. This man surely loves his pranks, as evidenced by “Hacking your Co-Workers Label Makers“. And the farce is strong in this one — “Student trolls anti-Arduino Prof with parasite MCU“.

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An Eye-Catching Raspberry Pi Smart Speaker

[curcuz]’s BoomBeastic mini is a Raspberry Pi based smart connected speaker. But don’t dis it as just another media center kind of project. His blog post is more of a How-To guide on setting up container software, enabling OTA updates and such, and can be a good learning project for some. Besides, the design is quite elegant and nice.

boombeastic_02The hardware is simple. There’s the Raspberry-Pi — he’s got instructions on making it work with the Pi2, Pi2+, Pi3 or the Pi0. Since the Pi’s have limited audio capabilities, he’s using a DAC, the Adafruit I2S 3W Class D Amplifier Breakout for the MAX98357A, to drive the Speaker. The I2S used by that part is Inter-IC Sound — a 3 wire peer to peer audio bus — and not to be confused with I2C. For some basic visual feedback, he’s added an 8×8 LED matrix with I2C interface. A Speaker rounds out the BoM. The enclosure is inspired by the Pimoroni PiBow which is a stack of laser cut MDF sheets. The case design went through four iterations, but the final result looks very polished.

On the software side, the project uses Mopidy — a Python application that runs in a terminal or in the background on devices that have network connectivity and audio output. Out of the box, it is an MPD and HTTP server. Additional front-ends for controlling Mopidy can be installed from extensions, enabling Spotify, Soundcloud and Google Music support, for example. To allow over-the-air programming, [curcuz] is using resin.io which helps streamline management of devices that are hard to reach physically. The whole thing is containerized using Docker. Additional instructions on setting up all of the software and libraries are posted on his blog post, and the code is hosted on GitHub.

There’s a couple of “To-Do’s” on his list which would make this even more interesting. Synced audio being one: in a multi-device environment, have the possibility to sync them and reproduce the same audio. The other would be to add an Emoji and Equalizer display mode for the LED matrix. Let [curcuz] know if you have any suggestions.

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A Beacon Suitable for Tracking Santa’s sleigh?

High-altitude ballooning is becoming a popular activity for many universities, schools and hacker spaces. The balloons, which can climb up to 40 km in the stratosphere, usually have recovery parachutes to help get the payload, with its precious data, back to solid ground safely. But when you live in areas where the balloon is likely to be flying over the sea most of the time, recovery of the payload becomes tricky business. [Paul Clark] and his team from Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation are working on building a small, autonomous glider – essentially a flying hard drive – to navigate from 30 km up in the stratosphere to a drop zone somewhere near a major road. An important element of such a system is the locator beacon to help find it. They have now shared their design for an “Iridium 9603 Beacon” — a small Arduino-compatible unit which can transmit its location and other data from anywhere via the Iridium satellite network.

The beacon uses the Short Burst Data service which sends email to a designated mail box with its date, time, location, altitude, speed, heading, temperature, pressure and battery voltage. To do all of this, it incorporates a SAMD21G18 M0 processor; FGPMMOPA6H GPS module; MPL3115A2 altitude sensor; Iridium 9603 Short Burst Data module + antenna and an LTC3225 supercapacitor charger. Including the batteries and antenna, the whole thing weighs in at 72.6 g, making it perfectly suited for high altitude ballooning. The whole package is powered by three ‘AAA’ Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries which ought to be able to withstand the -56° C encountered during the flight. The supercapacitors are required to provide the high current needed when the beacon transmits data.

The team have tested individual components up to 35 km on a balloon flight from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility and the first production unit will be flown on a much smaller balloon, launched from the UK around Christmas. The GitHub repository contains detailed information about the project along with the EagleCAD hardware files and the Arduino code. Now, if only Santa carried this on his Sleigh, it would be easy for NORAD to track his progress in real time.