Finally, An Open Source Multimeter

For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Martin] is building an Open Source Multimeter that can measure voltage, current, and power. It’s an amazing build, and you too can build one yourself.

The features for this multimeter consist of voltage mode with a range of +/-6V and +/-60V. There’s a current mode, basically the same as voltage, with a range of +/-60 mA and +/-500mA. Unlike our bright yellow Fluke, there’s also a power mode that measures voltage and current at the same time, with all four combinations of ranges available. There’s a continuity test that sounds a buzzer when the resistance is below 50 Ω, and a component test mode that measures resistors, caps, and diodes. There’s a fully isolated USB interface capable of receiving commands and transmitting data, a real-time clock, and in the future there might be frequency measurement.

This build is based on the STM32F103 microcontroller, uses an old Nokia phone screen, and unlike so many other multimeters, this thing is small. It’s very small. More than small enough to fit in your pocket and forget about it, unlike nearly every other multimeter available. There’s one thing about multimeters, and it’s that the best multimeter is the one that you have in your hands when you need it, and this one certainly fits the bill.

The entire project is being written up on hackaday.io, there’s a GitHub repo for all the hardware and software, and there’s also a video demo covering all the features (available below). This is a stand-out project, and something we desperately want to get our hands on.

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Seeing Transistors Switch In Infrared

In the hacker and DIY community, there are people who have exceptional knowledge and fantastic tools. These people are able to do what others could only dream about, and that others can only browse eBay looking for that one tool they need to do the job. One of these such people is [John McMaster]. He is the resident expert on looking inside integrated circuits. He drops acid on a chip, and he can tell you exactly how it works on the inside.

At the hardwear.io conference, [John] shared one of his techniques for reverse-engineering intgrated circuits. He’s doing this by simply looking at the transistors, and looking at the light they give off. He’s also looking at the wrong side of the die.

The technique [John] is using is properly called backside analysis, or looking at the infrared emissions of electron recombinations. This happens at the junction of every transistor when it’s active, and these photons are emitted at the bandgap of silicon, or about 1088 nm, far into the infrared. This sort of thing has been done before by [nedos] at CCC in 2013, but rarely have we seen a deep dive into the tools and techniques needed to look at the reverse side of an IC and see the photons coming off.

An IC, seen in infrared

There are several tools [John] used for this work, and he actually did a good comparison of different camera technologies used to image infrared photon emissions from integrated circuits. InGaAs cameras are expensive, but they offer high sensitivity. New back-illuminated CMOS cameras and cooled CCDs normally reserved for astrophotography were also tested, and as always, you get what you pay for; the most expensive cameras worked best, but there were ways you could make the cheap ones work.

As with any camera work, preparing the lighting is of utmost importance. This includes an IR pass filter, and using only LED lighting in the lab with no sunlight, incandescent, or halogen light bulbs in the room — you don’t want any IR, after all. A NIR objective in the microscope was sourced from eBay, for about 1/10th the normal cost, because the objective had a small, insignificant scratch. Using this NIR objective made the image twice as bright as any other method. You can successfully image a chip with this, and [John] tested the setup on a resistor inside a CD4050 chip; the resistor glowed a slight purple, the color you would expect with infrared sensors. But can it work with I/O levels in a more modern chip? Also, yes. It needs some Photoshop to process, and stretching the 12-bit or 16-bit color space into an 8-bit color space, but it does work.

Finally, the supreme achievement of doing backside IR analysis. Is that possible with even this minimal setup? This requires some preparation; the silicon substrate in an IC is transparent in IR, but there is attenuation and this is especially important when the substrate is 300 um thick. This needs to be shaved down to about 25 um thick, which surprisingly is best done with fine sandpaper and a finger.

While few IR emissions were observed via backside emissions, the original plan wasn’t to completely analyze the chip, but merely to do some floor planning. For this, it worked. It’s a remarkable amount of work to see the inside of a silicon chip.

Steamed Hams Localized Entirely Within A Printed Circuit Board

Maybe you’ve heard of a TV show called The Simpsons. Steamed Hams make a one-gag appearance in an unforgettable luncheon where Principal Skinner poker-faces his way out of a disaster with Superintendent Chalmers. Meanwhile, over on imgur, [Agumander] has put a black and white screencap from Steamed Hams in a printed circuit board.

The memory for this chip is an AT28C64, a 64 kilobit or 8 kilobyte steamed RAM. You call it a steamed RAM despite the fact that it is obviously a ROM. There is no microcontroller on this board or really anything resembling programmable logic. Everything is just logic chips. This board displays a 256×256 1 bit per pixel image over composite video. The sync is generated with the help of a 14MHz crystal and some circuitry taken from the original PONG board. Other than that, it’s just a bunch of NANDs and ORs that roll through the address space of the ROM and spit values out over a composite video port.

The build began by breadboarding everything save for a nifty solderless breadboard power adapter. Three ROM chips were programmed with different images — a cat, something to do with vaporwave, and some guy that looks like the poster from Eraserhead. Everything worked on the breadboard — yes, even at 14 MHz — so the build moved on to a printed circuit board.

The result is fantastic, and should work well on anything with a composite video port. We’re awarding bonus points for putting a socket on the ROM, simply so [Agumander] can change the image without whipping out the desoldering braid. If you need a refresher on Steamed Hams, it’s from the 7th season Simpsons episode ’22 Short Films About Springfield’.

Tomorrow Night: HDDG 40, Mechanical And Electronic Ephemera

For the last several years, we’ve hosted a series of meetups for the Bay Area. This week is no different and we’re pleased to announce the fortieth Hardware Developers Didactic Galactic. It’s this Thursday, June 20th, in downtown San Francisco.

The Hardware Developers Didactic Galactic is our monthly IRL meetup, where we ask hardware developers what makes their thing tick. We’ve done dozens of these things, and for those of you in Internet-land, all the talks are available online. Even if you’re not in the Bay Area, all the talks are live streamed. Yes, you too can participate in the event, even if you’re not going to physically attend! It’s an amazing technology called ‘the Internet’ that combines real life with virtual being! It’s like [William Gibson] created some sort of virtual/hyperspace interface.

For this month’s talks, we’ll be joined by Embedded Ninja Shaun Meehan. Shaun has previously given talks that answer the question, what happens when the majority of your work blows up on the Antares space accident? You turn around and get some of your second string units on the next SpaceX launch (9 days later)! Shaun will be talking about his two 300kg robotic arms, FRED & LEFTY, and the project of replacing their 1987 era controllers. This talk includes high power electronics, FPGAs, fixed point algorithms, galvanic isolation, transistor matching, splitting transistors in half, strange position sensors, homemade 3-phase 480 in a garage, and freight LTL shipping.

The live stream for the talks will be available here. Of course, if you can make it to downtown San Francisco (a few blocks south of the Powell Muni/BART stop) we’d be happy to see you. It all goes down Thursday, July 20th, at 6:30 PM.

Reverse Engineering The Sound Blaster

The first sound card to output PCM audio — the kind you need for audio samples — wasn’t the Sound Blaster. The AdLib Music Synthesizer Card could output PCM audio over software. The AdLib card also cost $200 at the time of its release. This was too much for some, and in time the Creative Labs Sound Blaster was released for the rock-bottom price of $125. This was a more capable card, and in the years since prices on the used market have gone through the roof. In 1990, you could buy a Sound Blaster for a Benjamin and a half, in 2019, prices on eBay are reaching and exceeding $400.

With the prices of used cards so high, we start to get into the territory where it starts to make sense to reverse engineer and re-manufacture the entire card. This hasn’t been done before, but that’s no matter for [Eric Schlaepfer], or [@TubeTimeUS]; he’s done crazier projects before, and this one is no different.

In reverse-engineering the Sound Blaster, there are a few necessary components. The Sound Blaster had an OPL2 chip for sound synthesis, which you can get through various vendors. The trick, though, is the microcontroller. This is really just an 8051 with a custom mask ROM.

The goal of this project is actually just to dump the ROM on the Intel 8051-alike microcontroller. This is something that’s relatively commonly done in high-tech labs, and luckily the Bay Area has [John McMaster], the guy who will take you into his lab and strip a die from its epoxy. Looking at the chip under the microscope, it was discovered the mask ROM on this chip was an implant ROM, with the ones and zeros represented by invisible ions in the substrate itself. There was no hope of reverse-engineering this chip from a purely visual inspection, but there was a sense amplifier on one of the data lines. By probing this sense amplifier while running through the address space, [Eric] was able to dump all the bytes of the ROM one bit at a time.

However, and there’s always a however, there are clone Sound Blasters out there, usually from China, and you can dump these chips if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one. [Eric] reached out to the community and found these clone microcontrollers didn’t have the code protect bit set; dumping these was easy. This ROM was compared to the work [Eric] did with the sense amplifier, and after figuring out the order of the bits, it was found the code matched. The code was successfully cloned, and now new Sound Blasters can be made. Don’t tell eBay that, because someone is trying to sell one of [Eric]’s clone cards for $180.

All the code, files, materials, and everything needed to clone a Sound Blaster can be found in [Eric]’s GitHub, although there are a few open questions as to what’s going on in the Sound Blaster’s microcontroller. There’s a ‘secret’ 512-byte ROM on the die, and no one outside of an Intel NDA knows what it does. This could be used for a manufacturing test, but who knows. Other than that, there are a few features in the code that weren’t used, like previously unknown DSP commands, an ADPCM lookup table, and a routine that plays from SRAM without using DMA. It’s a deep dive into the inner workings of the most popular sound card of all time, and it’s quite simply amazing.

Manufacturing New Connectors For The Apollo Guidance Computer

The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – the flight that first took man to the surface of the moon — is coming up. By the time this post is published, some YouTube channel will invariably be running a real-time-but-delayed-fifty-years live stream of all the mission events, culminating on the wee hours of July 20th where we wait hours for someone to figure out how to open the door.

[CuriousMarc] and space hardware collector [Jimmie Loocke] have a different type of anniversary in mind. They have an Apollo Guidance Computer sitting on a bed in a motel room, and they’re going to get it up and running by July 20th. That’s the plan, at least. This is no easy feat: the Apollo Guidance Computer looks like two 19-inch, 1U rack units, with no standardized connectors to talk to any other hardware. They’ve just figured out the hardest part of this build by making their own NASA-spec contacts. They can now connect external hardware to the AGC, probably for the first time in decades.

As it stands now, there are external ports on the gigantic bricks of aluminum enclosure that comprise the two AGC modules. These ports are just female pin headers, completely unlike any standard that can be found today. However, the folks at Samtec managed to build the male versions of these pin headers for this project. These pins fit the female sockets on one end, and are standard, square-shaped wire wrapped headers on the other. They are mounted in a milled plastic block, and after everything is wired up, [Marc] and [Jimmie] had a direct electrical connection to the Apollo Guidance Computer. The machine lives again.

There’s still a lot of work to do to get these bricks of computer up and running for the 20th, but this is fantastic progress. Already they’re single-stepping the AGC and running the P63 program that landed on the moon. Check out the video below.

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Tiny Tank Inspects Your Crawlspace

If you’ve got some drone or FPV part lying around, this is the build for you. It’s a remote controlled tank, with a camera and video transmitter, that’s only 65 mm x 40 mm x 30 mm in size. Why on Earth would you ever build something so small? You can look around in your crawlspace, I guess. Any way you look at, this thing is tiny.

The tank has traditional tank skid steering through two brushless motors. The battery is one cell, as that’s just about the largest battery you can put in a vehicle so small, and the camera is just off-the-shelf quadcopter stuff set into a 3D printed enclosure. There are a few LEDs for lights. Other than that, it’s just so tiny and so cute.

The builder behind this tank, [honnnest], put up a video going through the build and demonstrating what kind of video you can expect from a tank this small. It’s a bit fast for a tank, and that’s not even considering the scale effects, but if the chassis is 3D printed, you can always print a few reduction gears, too.

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