Hacking The Pocket Operator

The number of easily usable and programmable microcontrollers is small, so when selecting one for a project there are only a handful of very popular, well documented chips that most of us reach for. The same can be said for most small companies selling electronics as well, so if you reach for a consumer device that is powered by a microcontroller it’s likely to have one of these few in it. As a result, a lot of these off-the-shelf devices are easy to hack, reprogram, or otherwise improve, such as the Robot Pocket Operator.

The Pocket Operator is a handheld, fully-featured synthesizer complete with internal speaker. It runs on a Cortex M3, a very popular ARM processor which has been widely used for many different applications, and features everything you would need for a synthesizer in one tiny package, including a built-in speaker. It also supports a robust 24-bit DAC/ADC and all the knobs and buttons you would need. And now, thanks to [Frank Buss] there is a detailed teardown on exactly how this device operates.

Some of the highlights from the teardown include detailed drawings of how the display operates, all of the commands for controlling the device, and even an interesting note about how the system clock operates even when the device has been powered off for a substantial amount of time. For a pocket synthesizer this has a lot to offer, even if you plan on using it as something else entirely thanks to the versatility of the Cortex M3.

Continue reading “Hacking The Pocket Operator”

Turn A Ceiling Fan Into A Wind Turbine… Almost

It’s not uncommon to drive around the neighborhood on trash day and see one or two ceiling fans haphazardly strewn onto a pile of garbage bags, ready to be carted off to the town dump. It’s a shame to see something like this go to waste, and [Giesbert Nijhuis] decided he would see what he could do with one. After some painstaking work, he was able to turn a ceiling fan into a wind turbine (of sorts).

While it’s true that some generators and motors can be used interchangeably by reversing the flow of electricity (motors can be used as generators and vice-versa) this isn’t true of ceiling fans. These motors are a type called induction motors which, as a cost saving measure, have no permanent magnets and therefore can’t simply be used as a generator. If you make some modifications to them, though, like rewiring some of the windings and adding permanent magnets around them, you can get around this downside of induction motors.

[Giesbert] does note that this project isn’t a great way to build a generator. Even after making all of the changes needed to get it working, the motor just isn’t as efficient as one that was built with its own set of magnets. For all the work that went into it, it’s not that great of a time investment for a low-quality generator. However, it’s interesting to see the theory behind something like this work at all, even if the end result wasn’t a complete wind turbine. Perhaps if you have an old ceiling fan lying around, you can put it to better use.

Continue reading “Turn A Ceiling Fan Into A Wind Turbine… Almost”

Yo Dawg, I Heard You Like FPGAs

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails. And if your goal is to emulate the behavior of an FPGA but your only tools are FPGAs, then your nail-and-hammer issue starts getting a little bit interesting. That’s at least what a group of students at Cornell recently found when learning about the Xilinx FPGA used by a researcher in the 1990s by programming its functionality into another FPGA.

Using outdated hardware to recreate a technical paper from decades ago might be possible, but an easier solution was simply to emulate the Xilinx in a more modern FPGA, the Cyclone V FPGA from Terasic. This allows much easier manipulation of I/O as well as reducing the hassle required to reprogram the device. Once all of that was set up, it was much simpler to perform the desired task originally set up in that 90s paper: using evolutionary algorithms to discriminate between different inputs.

While we will leave the investigation into the algorithms and the I/O used in this project as an academic exercise for the reader, this does serve as a good reminder that we don’t always have to have the exact hardware on hand to get the job done. Old computers can be duplicated on less expensive, more modern equipment, and of course video games from days of yore are a snap to play on other hardware now too.

Thanks to [Bruce Land] for the tip!

Enforce Speed Limits With A Rusty Bike

They say you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and that certainly held true in the case of this bicycle that was used to measure the speed of cars in one Belgian neighborhood. If we understand the translation from Dutch correctly, the police were not enforcing the speed limit despite complaints. As a solution, the local citizenry built a bicycle with a radar gun that collected data which was then used to convince the police to enforce the speed limit on this road.

The bike isn’t the functional part of this build, as it doesn’t seem to have been intended to move. Rather, it was chosen because it is inconspicuous (read: rusty and not valuable) and simply housed the radar unit and electronics in a rear luggage case. The radar was specially calibrated to have less than 1% error, and ran on a deep cycle lead acid battery for around eight days. Fitting it with an Arduino-compatible shield and running some software (provided on the github page) is enough to get it up and running.

This is an impressive feat of citizen activism to provide the local police with accurate data to change a problem in a neighborhood. Not only was the technology put to good use, but the social engineering involved with hiding expensive electronics in plain sight with a rusty bicycle is a step beyond what we might have thought of as well.

Thanks to [Jo_elektro] for the tip!

A Field Guide To Transmission Lines

The power grid is a complicated beast, regardless of where you live. Power plants have to send energy to all of their clients at a constant frequency and voltage (regardless of the demand at any one time), and to do that they need a wide array of equipment. From transformers and voltage regulators to line reactors and capacitors, breakers and fuses, and solid-state and specialized mechanical relays, almost every branch of engineering can be found in the power grid. Of course, we shouldn’t leave out the most obvious part of the grid: the wires that actually form the grid itself.

Continue reading “A Field Guide To Transmission Lines”

You Don’t Need That Bulky CRT Oscilloscope Anymore

While it might be nice to use a $4,000 oscilloscope in a lab at a university or well-funded corporate environment, a good portion of us won’t have access to that kind of equipment in our own home shops. There are a few ways of getting a working oscilloscope without breaking the bank, though. One option is to find old CRT-based unit for maybe $50 on craigslist which might still have 60% of its original 1970s-era equipment still operational. A more reliable, and similarly-priced, way of getting an oscilloscope is to just convert a device you already have.

The EspoTek Labrador is an open-source way of converting a Raspberry Pi, Android device, or even a regular run-of-the-mill computer into a working oscilloscope. It’s a small USB device with about a two square inch PCB footprint that includes some other features as well like a signal generator and logic analyzer. It’s based on an ATxmega which is your standard Arduino-style AVR microcontroller but geared for low power usage. It looks as though it is pretty simple to use as well, and the only requirements are that you can install the software needed for the device on whatever computing platform you decide to use.

While the Labrador is available for sale at their website, it is definitely a bonus when companies offer products like this but also release the hardware and software as open source. That’s certainly a good way to get our attention, at least. You can build your own if you’d like, but if you’d rather save the time you have pre-built options. And it doesn’t hurt that most of the reviews of this product seem to be very favorable (although we haven’t tried one out ourselves). If you’d prefer an option without a company backing it, though, we have you covered there too.

New Circuits With Old Technology

Before the invention of transistors, vacuum tubes ruled the world. The only way to get amplification or switching (or any electrical control of current) back then was to use tubes. But some tube design limitations were obvious even then. For one, they produce an incredible amount of heat during normal operation, which leads to reliability issues. Tubes were difficult to miniaturize. Thankfully transistors solved all of these issues making vacuum tubes obsolete, but if you want to investigate the past a little bit there are still a few tubes on the market.

[kodera2t] was able to get his hands on a few of these, and they seem to be relatively new. This isn’t too surprising; there are some niche applications where tubes are still used. These have some improvements over their ancestors too, operating at only 30V compared to hundreds of volts for some older equipment. [kodera2t] takes us through a few circuits built with these tubes, from a simple subminiature vacuum tube radio to a more complex reflex radio.

Taking a walk through this history is an interesting exercise, and it’s worth seeing the ways that transistor-based circuits differ from tube-based circuits. If you’re interested enough to move on beyond simple radio circuits, though, you can also start building your own audio equipment with vacuum tubes.

Continue reading “New Circuits With Old Technology”