Friday Hack Chat: All About Drones

In the future, drones will fill the skies. The world is abuzz (ha!) with news of innovative uses of unmanned aerial vehicles. Soon, our flying robotic overlords will be used for rescue operations, surveillance, counter-insurgency missions, terrorism, agriculture, and delivering frozen dog treats directly from the local Amazon aerodrome to your backyard. The future is nuts.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about unmanned aerial vehicles. This is a huge subject, ranging from aeronautical design, the legal implications of autonomous flying machines, the true efficiency of delivering packages via drones, and the moral ambiguity of covering a city with thousands of mobile, robotic observation posts. In short, the future will be brought to us thanks to powerful brushless motors and lithium batteries.

Our guest for this week’s Hack Chat will be [Piotr Esden-Tempski], developer of UAV autopilot hardware for Paparazzi UAV. Paparazzi can be used for autonomous flight and control of multiple aircraft, and we’ll be talking about the types of embedded systems that can be used for these applications. [Pitor] is also the developer of the 1Bitsy ARM dev platform, the Black Magic Probe JTAG/SWD programmer/debugger and the founder of 1BitSquared.

In this Hack Chat, we’ll be discussing Open Source hardware design for UAVs, all things airborne robotics, the sensors that go into these flying robots, the stalled development (ay, another pun) of consumer and prosumer fixed-wing UAVs, ARM embedded systems, and JTAG and SWD programming and debugging. We’re also taking questions from the audience, and here’s the spreadsheet that will guide the discussion.

Here’s How To Take Part:

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hack Chat group messaging. This Hack Chat will be going down noon, Pacific time on Friday, September 22nd. Sidereal and solar getting you down? Wondering when noon is this month? Not a problem: here’s a handy countdown timer!

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Hackaday Prize Entry: The $50 Raspberry Pi Smartphone

The Hackaday Prize is a challenge to create hardware, and the ZeroPhone is quite possibly the most popular project entered in the Hackaday Prize. What is it? It’s a mobile phone built around the Raspberry Pi Zero that can be assembled for about $50 in parts. Already, it’s a finalist in the Hackaday Prize best product competition, a finalist for the grand prize of $50,000, and one of the most popular projects on of all time.

We took a look at the ZeroPhone early this year, and while there have been significant advances in this project, the philosophy is still pretty much the same. This is a mobile phone with a numeric keypad and a 128 x 64 pixel OLED display — basically the same user interface as a Nokia brick. The brain of the phone is a Raspberry Pi Zero wrapped in a PCB sandwich, with options for WiFi, Bluetooth, HDMI and audio outputs, a USB port, battery charging, and a ton of GPIOs that include ISM band radios, infrared receivers and transmitters, more flash storage, and anything else you can imagine. Basically, we’re looking at one of those modular, reconfigurable smartphone ideas, using a Raspberry Pi as the brains. Tech journos should be creaming themselves over this. We’re looking forward to [Arsenijs]’ cover story in Wired.

As with any Open Source / DIY cell phone, the big question surrounding the ZeroPhone is the cellular radio. 2G radios are cheap and plentiful, but the infrastructure is either coming down shortly, or already is down. A 3G radio is a must for a minimum viable product, and [Arsenijs] says there are provisions for replacing the 2G radio with a 3G module. Of course, 3G modules aren’t as capital-‘O’-Open as their technological predecessors, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Already the ZeroPhone is a huge success. There’s an actual team working on this project, the ZeroPhone subreddit is bigger than the Hackaday subreddit, there are newsletters, a wiki, and there will be a crowdfunding campaign ‘shortly’. This is one to look out for, and a very worthy project in the running for the 2017 Hackaday Prize.

Single Board Relay Computer

We all know you can build a computer out of relays, and if you’re a regular reader of Hackaday, you’ve probably seen a few. Actually designing and fabricating a computer built around relays is another thing entirely, and an accomplishment that will put you right up there with the hardware greats.

The newest inductee of the DIY microcomputer hall of fame is [Jhallen]. He’s built a microcomputer ‘trainer’ out of relays. It’s got more click and clack than the Tappet family, and is a work of art rendered in DPDT relays.

The biggest consideration in designing a relay computer is the memory. You can implement a CPU in a few dozen relays, but even a small amount of memory is still hundreds of additional components. In this computer, [Jhallen] is sort of cheating. The memory is implemented as 256 32-bit words on a microcontroller alongside a controller for the front panel. The CPU is still all relays, with support for self-modifying code, a bunch of instructions for conditional jumps, and an ‘increment and jump if not equal to zero’ instruction.

Below, you can check out a very in-depth video of the relay computer in action, starting off with some satisfying click and clack of Euclid’s algorithm and a demonstration of the variable clock rate. The video goes on to demonstrate the assembly language of the relay computer itself and a bit of the overall architecture. This is really one of the most educational demo videos for vintage computing we’ve ever seen.

[Jhallen] assembled a few of these boards and he’s selling some of the extras. If you have $600, you can pick one up over on Tindie (standard Hackaday / Tindie disclosure statement). Considering the amount of soldering required to assemble this board, we’re going to guess that’s a very fair price.
Continue reading “Single Board Relay Computer”

A Smaller, Cheaper RISC V Board

Early this year, the world of electronics saw something amazing. The RISC-V, the first Open Source microcontroller was implemented in silicon, and we got an Arduino-derived dev board in the form of the HiFive 1. The HiFive 1 is just a bit shy of mindblowing; it’s a very fast microcontroller that’s right up there with the Teensy when it comes to processing power. There’s support for the Arduino IDE, so all those fancy libraries are ready to go. That’s not to say there aren’t a few problems; it’s a relatively expensive board, and it does use the ubiquitous but somewhat unfortunate Arduino form factor.

In the past few months, SiFive, the folks behind the FE310 microcontroller inside the HiFive 1, have been working to get bare chips out on the market. Now, those trays of microcontrollers are being turned into newer, slightly more development-friendly boards. Meet the LoFive RISC-V. It’s a GroupGets crowdfunding campaign from [Michael Welling], and it takes all the openness from the HiFive 1 and the FE310 microcontroller and stuffs it into a cheap, easy-to-use board.

Like the HiFive 1, the LoFive features the FE310 microcontroller and a 128 Mbit SPI flash. Unlike the HiFive 1, there’s not much else on this board. There’s a few voltage regulators, a crystal, some caps, and a button on an interrupt pin. If you’re looking for an Open Source microcontroller development board without a lot of cruft, here you go. This is a RISC-V microcontroller with the minimum amount of support circuitry.

The GroupGets campaign is offering up 1,000 of these little boards for $25 each plus shipping. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to play around with Open Source microcontrollers, this may be the best chance you’re going to get for a while.

A Slew Of NYC Meetups With Tindie And Hackaday This Week

This is a busy, busy week for Tindie and Hackaday. We’re going to New York, and we have a ton of events planned.

First up is the monthly Hackaday meetup. This time, we’re teaming up with Kickstarter for a pre-Maker Faire Meetup. We’ll be hosting this at Kickstarter’s HQ, and already we have an impressive line of speakers set up to talk about Assistive Technology. These speakers include:

  • Anita Perr and R. Luke Dubois from the NYU Ability Project
  • Andrew Chepaitis from ELIA Life Technology

Also on deck for the for the Hackaday x Kickstarter meetup are live demos from WearWorks, who are developing the WAYBAND, a haptic navigation device and from Elia Frames, a tactile reading system.

The Hackaday x Kickstarter meetup will be Thursday, September 21st, starting at 6:30pm. Here’s the link to RSVP.

This weekend is also World Maker Faire New York and Tindie will be out in force showcasing all the wonderful bits and bobs developed by the Tindie community.

On deck will be [Jasmine] and [Brandon] from Tindie, and of course we’re inviting Tindie sellers to drop by the booth throughout the weekend and showcase their wares.

Also on deck for the World Maker Faire will be [Shulie], [Shayna] and myself. We’ll be tossing brand new Tindie stickers into the audience and giving out Tindie Blinky Badges. If you’ve ever wanted to show your enthusiasm for DIY hardware, now you can with an electronic blinky lapel pin. Solder it up and listen to Benchoff rationalize why it doesn’t need a current limiting resistor! Such fun!

Better Stepping With 8-Bit Micros

The electronics for motion control systems, routers, and 3D printers are split into two camps. The first is 8-bit microcontrollers, usually AVRs, and are regarded as being slower and incapable of cool acceleration features. The second camp consists of 32-bit microcontrollers, and these are able to drive a lot of steppers very quickly and very smoothly. While 32-bit micros are obviously the future, there are a few very clever people squeezing the last drops out of 8-bit platforms. That’s what the Buildbotics team did with their ATxmega chip — they’re using a clever application of DMA as counters to drive steppers.

The usual way of driving steppers quickly with an ATMega or other 8-bit microcontroller is abusing the hardware timers. It’s quick, but there is a downside. It takes time for these timers to start and stop, and if you’re doing it two hundred times per second with four stepper motors, that clock jitter will ruin your CNC machine. The solution is to use a DMA channel to count down, with each count sending out a pulse to a stepper. It’s a clever abuse of the hardware, and the only drawback is the micro can’t send more than 2¹⁶ pulses per any 5ms period. That’s not really an issue because that would mean some very, very fast acceleration.

The Buildbotics team currently has a Kickstarter running for their four-axis CNC controller using this technique. It’s designed for Taig mills, 6040 routers, K40 lasers, and other various homebrew robots. It’s an interesting solution to the apparent end of the of the age of 8-bit microcontrollers in CNC machines and certainly worth checking out.

Hackaday Links: September 17, 2017


Mergers and acquisitions? Not this time. Lattice Semiconductor would have been bought by Canyon Bridge — a private equity firm backed by the Chinese government — for $1.3B. This deal was shut down by the US government because of national security concerns.

[Jan] is the Internet’s expert in doing synths on single chips, and now he has something pretty cool. It’s a breadboard synth with MIDI and CV input. Basically, what we’re looking at is [Jan]’s CVS-01 chip for a DCO, DCF, and DCA), a KL5 chip for an LFO, and an envelope chip. Tie everything together with a two-octave captouch keyboard, and you have a complete synthesizer on a breadboard.

As an aside relating to the above, does anyone know what the cool kids are using for a CV/Gate keyboard controller these days? Modular synths are making a comeback, but it looks like everyone is running a MIDI keyboard into a MIDI-CV converter. It seems like there should be a –simple, cheap– controller with quarter-inch jacks labeled CV and Gate. Any suggestions?

World leaders are tweeting. The Canadian PM is awesome and likes Dark Castle.

Way back in July, Square, the ‘POS terminal on an iPad’ company posted some data on Twitter. Apparently, fidget spinner sales peaked during the last week of May, and were declining through the first few weeks of summer. Is this proof the fidget spinner fad was dead by August? I have an alternate hypothesis: fidget spinner sales are tied to middle schoolers, and sales started dropping at the beginning of summer vacation. We need more data, so if some of you could retweet this, that would be awesome.

Remember [Peter Sripol], the guy building an ultralight in his basement? This is going to be a five- or six-part video build log, and part three came out this week. This video features the installation of the control surfaces, the application of turnbuckles, and hardware that is far too expensive for what it actually is.