Drone Gives Up Its Wireless Secrets To Zigbee Sniffer

There’s something thrilling about decoding an unknown communications protocol. You start with a few clues, poke at the problem with some simple tools, and eventually work your way up to that first breakthrough that lets you crack the code. It can be frustrating, but when you eventually win, it can be very rewarding.

It seems that [Jason] learned this while decoding the wireless conversation between his mass-market quad and its controller. The quad in question, a Yuneec Q500, is one of those mid-range, ready-to-fly drones that’s targeted at those looking to get in the air easily and take some cool pictures. Unsure how the drone and controller were talking, [Jason] popped the covers and found a Zigbee chipset within. With the help of a $14 Zigbee USB dongle and some packet sniffing software from TI, [Jason] was able to see packets flowing, but decoding them was laborious. Luckily, the sniffer app can be set up to stream packets to another device, so [Jason] wrote a program to receive and display packets. He used that to completely characterize each controller input and the data coming back from the drone. It’s a long and strange toolchain, but the upshot is that he’s now able to create KML in real time and track the drone on Google Earth as it flies. The video below shows the build and a few backyard test flights.

Congratulations to [Jason] for breaking the protocol and opening up drones like this for other hackers. If you’re interested in learning more about Zigbee sniffing, you can actually hack a few smarthome gadgets into useful sniffers.

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The Deep Space Energy Crisis Could Soon Be Over

On the face of it, powering most spacecraft would appear to be a straightforward engineering problem. After all, with no clouds to obscure the sun, adorning a satellite with enough solar panels to supply its electrical needs seems like a no-brainer. Finding a way to support photovoltaic (PV) arrays of the proper size and making sure they’re properly oriented to maximize the amount of power harvested can be tricky, but having essentially unlimited energy streaming out from the sun greatly simplifies the overall problem.

Unfortunately, this really only holds for spacecraft operating relatively close to the sun. The tyranny of the inverse square law can’t be escaped, and out much beyond the orbit of Mars, the size that a PV array needs to be to capture useful amounts of the sun’s energy starts to make them prohibitive. That’s where radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) begin to make sense.

RTGs use the heat of decaying radioisotopes to generate electricity with thermocouples, and have powered spacecraft on missions to deep space for decades. Plutonium-238 has long been the fuel of choice for RTGs, but in the early 1990s, the Cold War-era stockpile of fuel was being depleted faster than it could be replenished. The lack of Pu-238 severely limited the number of deep space and planetary missions that NASA was able to support. Thankfully, recent developments at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) appear to have broken the bottleneck that had limited Pu-238 production. If it pays off, the deep space energy crisis may finally be over, and science far in the dark recesses of the solar system and beyond may be back on the table.

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Piezoelectric Gyro Shows How They Rolled Back in the Day

There’s no doubting the wonders that micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology have brought to the world. With MEMS chips, your phone can detect the slightest movement, turning it into a sensitive sensor platform that can almost anticipate what you’re going to do next. Actually, it’s kind of creepy when you think about it.

But before nano-scale MEMS inertial sensing came along, lots of products needed to know their ups from their downs, and many turned to products such as this vibrating piezoelectric gyroscope that [Kerry Wong] found in an old camcorder. The video below shows a teardown of the sensor, huge by MEMS standards but still a marvel of micro-engineering. The device is classified as a Coriolis vibratory gyroscope (CVG) which, as the name implies, uses the Coriolis effect to sense rotation. In this device, [Kerry] found that a long, narrow piezoelectric element spans the long axis of the sensor, suspended from what appears to be four flexible arms. [Kerry] probed the innards of the sensor while powered up and discovered a 22 kHz signal on the piezo element; this vibrates the bar in one plane so that when it rotates, it exerts a force on the support arms that can be detected. Indeed, [Kerry] hooked the output of the sensor to a wonderfully old-school VOM whose needle wiggled with the slightest movement of the sensor.

Sadly, MEMS made this kind of sensor obsolete, but we appreciate the look under the hood. And really, MEMS chips are using the same principle to detect motion, just on a much smaller scale. Want the MEMS basics? [Al] has you covered.

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Back to Video Basics with an ESP32 VGA Display

In a world where standards come and go with alarming speed, there’s something comforting about VGA. It’s the least common denominator of video standards, and seeing that chunky DB15 connector on the back of a computer means that no matter what, you’ll be able to get something from it, if you can just find a VGA cable in your junk bin.

But that’s the PC world; what about microcontrollers? Can you coax VGA video from them? Yes, you can, with an ESP32, a handful of resistors, and a little bit of clever programming. At least that’s what [bitluni] has managed to do in his continuing quest to push the ESP32 to output all the signals. For this project, [bitluni] needed to generate three separate signals – red, green, and blue – but with only two DACs on board, he had to try something else. He built external DACs the old way using R/2R voltage divider networks and addressed them with the I2S bus in LCD mode. He needed to make some compromises to fit the three color signals and the horizontal and vertical sync pulses into the 24 available bits, and there were a few false starts, but the video below shows that he was able to produce a 320×240 signal, and eventually goosed that up to a non-native 460×480.

It’s a pretty impressive hack, and we learned a lot about both the ESP32 and the VGA standard by watching the video. He’s previously used the ESP32 to build an AM radio station and to output composite PAL video, and even turned his oscilloscope into a vector display with it. They’re all great learning projects too.

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Well-Loved Toy Turned Into Robotic Glockenspiel

If there’s a happier word ever imported into the English language than “Glockenspiel”, we’re not sure what it is. And controlling said instrument with a bunch of servos and an Arduino makes us just as happy.

When [Leon van den Beukel] found a toy glockenspiel in a thrift store, he knew what had to be done – Arduinofy it. His first attempt was a single hammer on a pair of gimballed servos, which worked except for the poor sound quality coming from the well-loved toy. The fact that only one note at a time was possible was probably the inspiration for version two, which saw the tone bars removed from the original base, cleaned of their somewhat garish paint, and affixed to a new soundboard. The improved instrument was then outfitted with eight servos, one for each note, each with a 3D-printed arm and wooden mallet. An Arduino runs the servos, and an Android app controls the instrument via Bluetooth, because who doesn’t want to control an electronic glockenspiel with a smartphone app? The video below shows that it works pretty well, even if a few notes need some adjustment. And we don’t even find the servo noise that distracting.

True, we’ve featured somewhat more accomplished robotic glockenspielists before, but this build’s simplicity has a charm of its own.

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High-Altitude Ballooning Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the high-altitude ballooning Hack Chat!

The Cope brothers are our hosts this week. Jeremy, a computer engineer, and Jason, a mechanical engineer, have recently caught the high-altitude ballooning (HAB) bug. In their initial flights they’ve racked up some successes and pushed the edge of space with interesting and varied missions. Their first flight just barely missed the 100,000 foot (30,000 meter) mark and carried a simple payload package of cameras and GPS instruments and allowed them to reach their goal of photographing the Earth’s curvature.

Flight 2 had a similar payload but managed to blow through the 100K foot altitude, capturing stunning video of the weather balloon breaking. Their most recent flight carried a more complex payload package, consisting of the usual camera and GPS but also a flight data recorder of their own devising, as well as a pair of particle detectors to measure the change in flux of subatomic particles with increasing altitude. That flight “only” reached 62,000 ft (19,000 meters) but managed to hitch a ride on the jet stream that nearly took the package out to sea.

The Cope brothers will be joining the Hack Chat to talk about the exciting field of DIY high-altitude ballooning and the challenges of getting a package halfway to space (depending on how that’s defined). Please join us as we discuss:

  • The basics of flight – balloons, rigging, payload protection, tracking, and recovery;
  • Getting started on the cheap;
  • Making a flight into a mission with interesting and innovative ideas for payload instrumentation;
  • Will hobbyist HABs ever break the Kármán Line? and
  • What’s in store for this year’s Global Space balloon Challenge?

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the High-Altitude Ballooning Hack Chat event page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.


Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 6, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

join-hack-chatClick 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.

3D-Printed Tourbillon Demo Keeps the Time with Style

It may only run for a brief time, and it’s too big for use in an actual wristwatch, but this 3D-printed tourbillon is a great demonstration of the lengths watchmakers will go to to keep mechanical timepieces accurate.

For those not familiar with tourbillons, [Kristina Panos] did a great overview of these mechanical marvels. Briefly, a tourbillon is a movement for a timepiece that aims to eliminate inaccuracy caused by gravity pulling on the mechanism unevenly. By spinning the entire escapement, the tourbillon averages out the effect of gravity and increases the movement’s accuracy. For [EB], the point of a 3D-printed tourbillon is mainly to demonstrate how they work, and to show off some pretty decent mechanical chops. Almost the entire mechanism is printed, with just a bearing being necessary to keep things moving; a pair of shafts can either be metal or fragments of filament. Even the mainspring is printed, which we always find to be a neat trick. And the video below shows it to be satisfyingly clicky.

[EB] has entered this tourbillon in the 3D Printed Gears, Pulleys, and Cams Contest that’s running now through February 19th. You’ve still got plenty of time to get your entries in. We can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with!

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