Gameslab: The Other FPGA Game Console Badge

Anyone who was at Supercon will no doubt remember the badges that dangled around everyone’s neck. Some were reasonable, while some were neck-straining monsters that added anything and everything to hack the badge into something cool. We saw everything from AI cameras to a fully autonomous vehicle being worn with pride.

Sadly, one that we missed was Gameslab, [Craig J. Bishop]’s FPGA-based portable game console. No, not that FPGA-based game console; in an example of great minds thinking alike, [Craig] had actually been toying with his own handheld console design for quite some time. And we have to say the results are stunning.

The FPGA at the heart of this is a Xilinx Zynq FPGA-ARM Cortex A9 combo SoC, normally a prohibitively expensive monster of a chip. When [Craig] found “refurbished” Zynq chips on eBay for less than 10% of the cost of new units, it was literally game-on for the build. The console required a six-layer PCB to support the big BGA chip and the hundreds of support components around it. There’s a 5″ TFT touchscreen with a video controller implemented in the FPGA, a stereo sound system, and all the buttons and thumbsticks you’d expect on a modern console.

For our money, the best part is the case, about which [Craig] has yet to share any details. But it looks like a machined aluminum plate with wide chamfers around each cutout that contrast nicely with the brushed surface. We’ll be looking forward to more details on that and on progress with Gameslab.

How Safe Is That Ultrasonic Bath For Flux Removal?

How do you clean the residual flux off your boards? There are plenty of ways to go about the job, ranging from “why bother?” to the careful application of isopropyl alcohol to every joint with a cotton swab. It seems like more and more people are turning to ultrasonic cleaners to get the job done, though, and for good reason: just dunk your board and walk away while cavitation does the work for you.

But just how safe is it to sonically blast the flux off your boards? [SDG Electronics] wanted to know, so he ran some cleaning tests to get to the bottom of things. On the face of it, dunking a PCB in an aqueous cleaning solution seems ill-advised; after all, water and electricity famously don’t mix. But assuming all the nooks and crannies of a board can be dried out before power is applied, the cleaning solution itself should be of little concern. The main beef with ultrasonic cleaning seems to be with the acoustic energy coupling with mechanical systems on boards, such as crystal oscillators or micro-electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS) components, such as accelerometers or microphones. Such components could resonate with the ultrasonic waves and be blasted to bits internally.

To test this, [SDG Electronics] built a board with various potentially vulnerable components, including the popular 32.768-kHz crystal, cut for a frequency quite close to the cleaner’s fundamental. The video below goes into some detail on the before-and-after tests, but the short story is that nothing untoward happened to any of the test circuits. Granted, no components with openings as you might find on some MEMS microphones were tested, so be careful. After all, we know that ultrasound can deal damage, and if it can levitate tiny styrofoam balls, it might just do your circuit in.

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[Ben Krasnow] Builds A Mass Spectrometer

One of the features that made Scientific American magazine great was a column called “The Amateur Scientist.” Every month, readers were treated to experiments that could be done at home, or some scientific apparatus that could be built on the cheap. Luckily, [Ben Krasnow]’s fans remember the series and urged him to tackle a build from it: a DIY mass spectrometer. (Video, embedded below the break.)

[Ben] just released the video below showing early experiments with a copper tube contraption that was five months in the making; it turns out that analytical particle physics isn’t as easy as it sounds. The idea behind mas spectrometry is to ionize a sample, accelerate the ions as they pass through a magnetic field, and measure the deflection of the particles as a function of their mass-to-charge ratio. But as [Ben] discovered, the details of turning a simple principle into a working instrument are extremely non-trivial.

His rig uses filaments extracted from carefully crushed incandescent lamps to ionize samples of potassium iodide chloride; applied to the filament and dried, the salt solution is ionized when the filament is heated. The stream of ions is accelerated by a high-voltage field and streamed through a narrow slit formed by two razor blades. A detector sits orthogonal to the emitter across a powerful magnetic field, with a high-gain trans-impedance amplifier connected. With old analog meters and big variacs, the whole thing has a great mad scientist vibe to it that reminds us a bit of his one-component interferometer setup.

[Ben]’s data from the potassium sample agreed with expected results, and the instrument is almost sensitive enough to discern the difference between two different isotopes of potassium. He promises upgrades to the mass spec in the future, including perhaps laser ionization of the samples. We’re looking forward to that.

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Fun With A 200-kW Fiber Laser

We’ve all heard the “Do not stare into laser with remaining eye” joke. It’s funny because it’s true, as pretty much any laser a hobbyist can easily come by can cause permanent damage to eyes unless the proper precautions are taken. But a fiber laser with 200kW peak power is in another hazard class entirely.

Granted, outsized power ratings like this are a bit misleading, based as they are on femtosecond-long pulses. And to be sure, the fiber laser that [Marco Reps] tears down in the video below was as harmless as a kitten when he got it, thanks to its output optics having been unceremoniously shorn from the amplifier by its former owner. Reattaching the output and splicing the fiber would be necessary to get the laser lasing again, but [Marco] had other priorities in mind. He wanted to understand the operation of a fiber laser, but the tangle of fibers on two separate levels inside the chassis was somewhat inscrutable. The coils of fiber wrapped around the aluminum drums inside the chassis turned out to be the amplifier; fed by a semiconductor seed laser, the light pulse travels through the ytterbium-doped fiber of the two-stage amplifier, which is the active gain medium where stimulated emission, and therefore amplification, occurs.

With a little reverse engineering and the help of an online manual, he was able to understand the laser’s operation. A laser company helped him splice the optics back together – seeing the splicing rig in action is worth the price of admission alone – and the unit seems to be in more or less working order at this point. Normally the most powerful laser we see around here are the CO2 lasers in those cheap Chinese laser cutters, so we’re looking forward to learning more about fiber lasers.

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AMSAT CubeSat Simulator Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, December 4th at noon Pacific for the AMSAT CubeSat Simulator Hack Chat with Alan Johnston!

For all the lip service the world’s governments pay to “space belonging to the people”, they did a pretty good job keeping access to it to themselves for the first 50 years of the Space Age. Oh sure, private-sector corporations could spend their investors’ money on lengthy approval processes and pay for a ride into space, but with a few exceptions, if you wanted your own satellite, you needed to have the resources of a nation-state.

All that began to change about 20 years ago when the CubeSat concept was born. Conceived as a way to get engineering students involved in the satellite industry, the 10 cm cube form factor that evolved has become the standard around which students, amateur radio operators, non-governmental organizations, and even private citizens have designed and flown satellites to do everything from relaying ham radio messages to monitoring the status of the environment.

But before any of that can happen, CubeSat builders need to know that their little chunk of hardware is going to do its job. That’s where Alan Johnston, a teaching professor in electrical and computer engineering at Villanova University, comes in. As a member of AMSAT, the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation, he has built a CubeSat simulator. Built for about $300 using mostly off-the-shelf and 3D-printed parts, the simulator lets satellite builders work the bugs out of their designs before committing them to the Final Frontier.

Dr. Johnston will stop by the Hack Chat to discuss his CubeSat simulator and all things nanosatellite. Come along to learn what it takes to make sure a satellite is up to snuff, find out his motivations for getting involved in AMSAT and CubeSat testing, and what alternative uses people are finding the platform. Hint: think high-altitude ballooning.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, December 4 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

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 Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Hackaday Links: December 1, 2019

We can recall a book from our youth that cataloged some of the most interesting airplanes in the world. One particularly interesting beast was dubbed “The Super Guppy”, a hilariously distended cargo plane purpose-built for ferrying Saturn rocket sections around the US in the 1960s. We though the Guppies were long gone, victims like so many other fascinating machines of the demise of the Apollo program. It turns out we were only 4/5 right about that, since one of the original five Super Guppies is still in service, and was spotted hauling an Orion capsule from Florida to Ohio for vacuum testing. The almost 60-year-old plane, a highly modified C-97 Stratofreighter, still has a big enough fan-base to attract 1500 people to brave the Ohio cold and watch it land.

The news this week was filled with reports from Texas of a massive chemical plant explosion that forced the evacuation of 50,000 people from their homes the day before Thanksgiving. The explosion and ensuing fire at the TPC Group petrochemical plant were spectacular; thankfully, there were no deaths and only two injuries reported from the incident. The tie-in to the hacker community lies in what this plant made: butadiene, or synthetic rubber. The plant produced about 16% of the North American market’s supply of butadiene, which we know from previous coverage is one of the polymers in acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS. It remains to be seen if this will put a crimp in ABS printer filament supplies, or any of the hundreds of products that butadiene is in, including automotive tires and hoses.

Remember when “Cyber Monday” became a thing? We sure do; in the USA, it was supposed to be the first workday back from the Thanksgiving break which would afford those lacking a fast Internet connection at home the opportunity to do online shopping on company time. The idea seems so year 2000 now, but the name stuck, and all kinds of sales and bargains are now competing for your virtual attention and cyber dollars. That includes Tindie, of course, where the Cyber Monday Sale is running through December 6. There’s tons to chose from, including products that got started as projects and certified open-source hardware products. Be sure to check out the Tindie Twitter feed and blog for extra discount codes, too.

Speaking of gift-giving, we got an interesting tip about a product we never knew we needed. Called “WorkBench”, it’s a modular development system that takes care of an oft-neglected side of prototyping: the physical and mechanical layout. Too often we just start with a breadboard on the bench, and while that’ll do for lots of smaller projects, as the build keeps growing and the breadboards keep coming, things can get out of hand. WorkBench aims to tidy things up by providing a basal platen onto which breadboards, microcontrollers, perfboards, or just about anything else can be snapped. Handles make the whole thing portable, and a clear acrylic cover protects your hard work.

We love to hear stories about citizen science, especially when the amateurs scoop the professionals. Astronomy seems to be a hotbed for this brand of discovery, usually as a lone astronomer peering into the night sky to see a comet or asteroid nobody has seen before. Catching a glitching pulsar in the act is an entirely different level of discovery, though. Back in February, Steve Olney detected a 2.5 parts-per-million increase in the 89-millisecond period of emissions for the Vela pulsar using his RTL-SDR-based observatory. Steve has some fascinating information about pulsars and his observatory on his website. Color us impressed that he was able to pull off this observation without the benefit of millions of dollars in equipment and a giant parabolic dish antenna.

Turning A Bad Bench Supply Into A Better Bench Supply

‘Tis the season for dropping hints on what new doodads would make a hacker happy, and we have to admit to doing a little virtual window shopping ourselves. And as a decent bench power supply is on our list, it was no surprise to see videos reviews that the hive mind thinks will help us make a choice pop up in our feed. It’s a magical time to be alive.

What did surprise us was this video on a mashup of two power supplies, both of which we’ve been eyeing, with the result being one nicely hacked programmable bench PSU. It comes to us courtesy of [jeffescortlx], who suffered with one of those no-name, low-end 30V-5A bench supplies that has significant lag when changing the settings, to the point that it’s difficult to use, not to mention dangerous for sensitive components.

So he got a hold of a Riden RD6006 programmable buck converter, which is something like those ubiquitous DPS power supply modules we’ve seen so much of, only on steroids. The Riden takes up to 70V input and turns it into a 0-60V output at up to 6 amps, at constant current or constant voltage. It also just happens to (almost) fit as a replacement for the faceplate of the dodgy old supply. A few SMD resistors simulate the original front panel pots being pegged so that the supply outputs maximum voltage and current, and a little finagling with the case and fan was needed to fit everything up, but the finished product actually looks really good, and fixes all the problems of the original.

We love this hack, and may well cobble this together for our bench.

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