The $50 Ham: A Simple WSPR Beacon

I was having a chat recently with someone, and it surprised me that she had an amateur radio license. I suppose it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise; after all, getting a ham radio license is a pretty common rite of passage in the life of a hardware hacker. I guess it surprised me because she’d never mentioned it in our past conversations, and as we talked about it, I learned why. “I got my license because I thought ham radio was about building radios, ” she said. “But it’s not.”

In a lot of ways, she is right about the state of ham radio. There was a time that building one’s own gear was as central to the hobby as getting on the air, and perhaps more so. Now, though, with radios as cheap as $30 and the whiz-bang gear that can make reaching out across the planet trivially easy, building your own radios has slipped down a few notches. But homebrewing is far from a dead art, and as we’ll see in this installment of “The $50 Ham”, a WSPR beacon for the HF bands is actually a fun and simple — and cheap — way for the homebrew-curious to get a taste of what it’s like to build your own transmitter.

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Space Shuttle Program: 40th Anniversary Of The First Launch Of Columbia

For those who grew up watching the endless coverage of the Apollo program in the 60s and 70s, the sight of OV-102, better known as the Space Shuttle Columbia, perched on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center was somewhat disconcerting. Compared to the sleek lines of a Saturn V rocket, the spacecraft on display on April 12, 1981, seemed an ungainly beast. It looked like an airplane that had been tacked onto a grain silo, with a couple of roman candles attached to it for good measure. Everything about it seemed the opposite of what we’d come to expect from spaceflight, but as the seconds ticked away to liftoff 40 years ago this day, we still had hope that this strange contraption wouldn’t disappoint.

At first, as the main engines ignited, it seemed that Columbia would indeed disappoint. The liquid hydrogen exhaust plume seemed anemic, at least compared to the gout of incandescent kerosene that had belched out from every rocket I’d ever seen launched. But then those magnificent — and as it later turned out, deadly dangerous — solid rocket boosters came to life, and Columbia fairly leaped off the launchpad. Americans were on their way to space again after a six-year absence, and I remember cheering astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen on as I watched the coverage with my dad that early Sunday morning.

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Zinc Fever: A Look At The Risks Of Working With Hot Metal

For as raucous as things can get in the comments section of Hackaday articles, we really love the give and take that happens there. Our readers have an astonishing breadth of backgrounds and experiences, and the fact that everyone so readily shares those experiences and the strongly held opinions that they engender is what makes this community so strong and so useful.

But with so many opinions and experiences being shared, it’s sometimes hard to cut through to the essential truth of an issue. This is particularly true where health and safety are at issue, a topic where it’s easy to get bogged down by an accumulation of anecdotes that mask the underlying biology. Case in point: I recently covered a shop-built tool cabinet build and made an off-hand remark about the inadvisability of welding zinc-plated drawer slides, having heard about the dangers of inhaling zinc fumes once upon a time. That led to a discussion in the comments section on both sides of the issue that left the risks of zinc-fume inhalation somewhat unclear.

To correct this, I decided to take a close look at the risks involved with welding and working zinc. As a welding wannabe, I’m keenly interested in anything that helps me not die in the shop, and as a biology geek, I’m also fascinated by the molecular mechanisms of diseases. I’ll explore both of these topics as we look at the dreaded  “zinc fever” and how to avoid it.

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Inside Smart Meters Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, April 14 at noon Pacific for the Inside Smart Meters Hack Chat with [Hash]!

That electrical meter on the side of your house might not look like it, but it’s pretty packed with technology. What was once a simple electromechanical device that a human would have to read in person is now a node on a far-flung network. Not only does your meter total up the amount of electricity you use, but it also talks to other meters in the neighborhood, sending data skipping across town to routers that you might never have noticed as it makes its way back to the utility. And the smartest of smart meters not only know how much electricity you’re using, but they can also tease information about which appliances are being used simply by monitoring patterns of usage.

While all this sounds great for utility companies, what does it mean for the customers? What are the implications of having a network of smart meters all talking to each other wirelessly? Are these devices vulnerable to attack? Have they been engineered to be as difficult to exploit as something should be when it’s designed to be in service for 15 years or more?

These questions and more burn within [Hash], a hardware hacker and security researcher who runs the RECESSIM reverse-engineering wiki. He’s been inside a smart meter or two and has shared a lot of what he has learned on the wiki and with some in-depth YouTube videos. He’ll stop by the Hack Chat to discuss what he’s learned about the internals of smart meters, how they work, and where they may be vulnerable to attack.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 14 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, 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 Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
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Hackaday Links: April 11, 2021

Bad news, Martian helicopter fans: Ingenuity, the autonomous helicopter that Perseverance birthed onto the Martian surface a few days ago, will not be taking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet today as planned. We’re working on a full story so we’ll leave the gory details for that, but the short version is that while the helicopter was undergoing a full-speed rotor test, a watchdog timer monitoring the transition between pre-flight and flight modes in the controller tripped. The Ingenuity operations team is going over the full telemetry and will reschedule the rotor test; as a result, the first flight will occur no earlier than Wednesday, April 14. We’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Anyone who has ever been near a refinery or even a sewage treatment plant will have no doubt spotted flares of waste gas being burned off. It can be pretty spectacular, like an Olympic torch, but it also always struck us as spectacularly wasteful. Aside from the emissions, it always seemed like you could at least try to harness some of the energy in the waste gasses. But apparently the numbers just never work out in favor of tapping this source of energy, or at least that was the case until the proper buzzword concentration in the effluent was reached. With the soaring value of Bitcoin, and the fact that the network now consumes something like 80-TWh a year, building portable mining rigs into shipping containers that can be plugged into gas flaring stacks at refineries is now being looked at seriously. While we like the idea of not wasting a resource, we have our doubts about this; if it’s not profitable to tap into the waste gas stream to produce electricity now, what does tapping it to directly mine Bitcoin really add to the equation?

What would you do if you discovered that your new clothes dryer was responsible for a gigabyte or more of traffic on your internet connection every day? We suppose in this IoT world, such things are to be expected, but a gig a day seems overly chatty for a dryer. The user who reported this over on the r/smarthome subreddit blocked the dryer at the router, which was probably about the only realistic option short of taking a Dremel to the WiFi section of the dryer’s control board. The owner is in contact with manufacturer LG to see if this perhaps represents an error condition; we’d actually love to see a Wireshark dump of the data to see what the garrulous appliance is on about.

As often happens in our wanderings of the interwebz to find the very freshest of hacks for you, we fell down yet another rabbit hole that we thought we’d share. It’s not exactly a secret that there’s a large number of “Star Trek” fans in this community, and that for some of us, the way the various manifestations of the series brought the science and technology of space travel to life kick-started our hardware hacking lives. So when we found this article about a company building replica Tricorders from the original series, we followed along with great interest. What we found fascinating was not so much the potential to buy an exact replica of the TOS Tricorder — although that’s pretty cool — but the deep dive into how they captured data from one of the few remaining screen-used props, as well as how the Tricorder came to be.

And finally, what do you do if you have 3,281 drones lying around? Obviously, you create a light show to advertise the launch of a luxury car brand in China. At least that’s what Genesis, the luxury brand of carmaker Hyundai, did last week. The display, which looks like it consisted mostly of the brand’s logo whizzing about over a cityscape, is pretty impressive, and apparently set the world record for such things, beating out the previous attempt of 3,051 UAVs. Of course, all the coverage we can find on these displays concentrates on the eye-candy and the blaring horns of the soundtrack and gives short shrift to the technical aspects, which would really be interesting to dive into. How are these drones networked? How do they deal with latency? Are they just creating a volumetric display with the drones and turning lights on and off, or are they actually moving drones around to animate the displays? If anyone knows how these things work, we’d love to learn more, and perhaps even do a feature article.

Scratch-Built Robot Arm Looks Like Something Off The Factory Floor

[Jeremy Fielding] is rightly impressed with the power and precision of industrial robot arms. The big arms that you see welding cars on assembly lines and the like are engineering feats in their own right, which is why his leap into scratch-building one in the home shop promises to be quite an adventure, and one we’re eager to follow.

From the look of the video below, [Jeremy]’s arm is already substantially complete, so it seems like he’ll be releasing videos that detail how he got to the point where this impressively large and powerful arm took over so much of his shop. He’s not fooling around here — this is a seven-axis articulated arm built from aluminum and powered by AC servos. [Jeremy] allows that some of the structural parts are still 3D-printed prototypes that he’s using to finalize the design before committing to cutting metal, a wise move as he notes that most of the metalworking skills he needs to complete the build are still fairly new to him. It still looks amazing, and we’re looking forward to the rest of the series to see how he got to this point.

We always appreciate [Jeremy]’s enthusiasm and presentation style, and we generally learn a lot from his videos. Whether it’s a CNC table saw, a homebrew dynamometer, or supersonically melting baseballs, his videos are always great to watch.

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Three-Piece Cyberdeck Plays The Role Of Military Computer That Never Was

While we’re not at all sick of the cyberdeck movement yet, we do have to admit that some of the builds we see are starting to fall into categories that are beginning to seem a little familiar. The clamshell aesthetic comes to mind, but really, with spaces for a display and a keyboard, the form factor is pretty much a natural for cyberdecking. Which is why we like this three-piece twist on the cyberdeck concept so much.

Like many cyberdeck builds, inspiration for the awesomely mustachioed [Max]’s deck came from the military surplus world. As the story goes, he has a smallish clamshell case that once held radio tools and supplies for the Bundeswehr. Figuring it would make the perfect case for half of a split keyboard, he tracked down a couple more of the sturdy aluminum cases and got to work. As a mechanical keyboard aficionado, [Max] already had PCBs that would fit into two of the cases, so he populated those with suitably clicky switches, came up with cool-looking faceplates, and connected the two boxes with retractile cables. The third case got a Raspberry Pi 4 with a trimmed-down heatsink, a battery and power management, and a generous touchpad and LCD panel display. A Kali Linux install completes the tacticool look.

The three-piece cyberdeck looks very cool when all wired up together, but [Max] needed one more piece to really sell it. So he 3D-printed a slipcase for all three units; painted in military colors and suitably distressed, the whole thing really just works. We’ve seen a lot of cyberdecks lately in all sorts of styles, but this one really pleases.

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