Anderson’s Water Computer Spills The Analog Secrets Of Digital Logic

One of the first things we learn about computers is the concept of binary ones and zeroes. When we dig into implementation of digital logic, we start to learn about voltages, and currents, and other realities of our analog world. It is common for textbooks to use flow of water as an analogy to explain flow of electrons, and [Glen Anderson] turned that conceptual illustration into reality. He brought his water computer to the downtown Los Angeles Mini Maker Faire this past weekend to show people the analog realities behind their digital devices.

[Glen]’s demonstration is a translation of another textbook illustration: binary adder with two four-bit inputs and a five-bit output. Each transistor is built from a plastic jewel box whose lid has been glued to the bottom to form two chambers. A ping-pong ball sits in the upper chamber, a rubber flap resides in the lower chamber covering a hole, with a string connecting them so a floating ball would lift the flap and expose the hole.

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Buy Or Build An Autonomous Race Car To Take The Checkered Flag

Putting autonomous vehicles on public roads takes major resources beyond most of our means. But we can explore all the same general concepts at a smaller scale by modifying remote-control toy cars, limited only by our individual budgets and skill levels. For those of us whose interest and expertise lie in software, Amazon Web Services just launched AWS DeepRacer: a complete package for exploring machine learning on autonomous vehicles.

At a hardware level, the spec sheet makes it sound like they’ve bolted their AWS DeepLens machine vision computer on an 1/18th scale monster truck chassis. But the hardware is only the tip of the iceberg. The software behind DeepRacer is AWS RoboMaker, a set of tools for applying AWS to robot development. Everything from running digital simulations on AWS to training neural networks on AWS. Don’t know enough about machine learning? No problem! Amazon has also just opened up their internal training curriculum to the world. And to encourage participation, Amazon is running a DeepRacer League with races taking place both digitally online and physically at AWS Summit events around the world. They’ve certainly offered us a full plate at their re:Invent conference this week.

But maybe someone prefers not to use Amazon, or prefer to build their own hardware, or run their own competitions. Fortunately, Amazon is not the only game in town, merely the latest entry in an existing field. The DeepRacer’s League’s predecessor was the Robocar Rally, and the DeepRacer itself follows the Donkey Car. A do-it-yourself autonomous racing platform we first saw at Bay Area Maker Faire 2017, Donkey Car has since built up its documentation and software tools including a simulator. The default Donkey Car code is fairly specific to the car, but builders are certainly free to use something more general like the open source Robot Operating System and Gazebo robot simulator. (Which is what AWS RoboMaker builds on.)

So if the goal is to start racing little autonomous cars, we have options to buy pre-built hardware or enjoy the flexibility of building our own. Either way, it’s just another example of why this is a great time to get into neural networks, with or without companies like Amazon devising ways to earn our money. Of course, this isn’t the only Amazon project trying to build a business around an idea explored by an existing open source project. We had just talked about their AWS Ground Station offering which covers similar ground (sky?) as our 2014 Hackaday Prize winner SatNOGS.

Generative Design Algorithms Prepare For Space

NASA is famously risk-averse, taking cautious approaches because billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake and each failure receives far more political attention than their many successes. So while moving the final frontier outward requires adopting new ideas, those ideas must first prove themselves through a lengthy process of risk-reduction. Autodesk’s research into generative design algorithms has just taken a significant step on this long journey with a planetary lander concept.

It was built jointly with a research division of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the birthplace of many successful interplanetary space probes. This project got a foot in the door by promising 30% weight savings over conventional design techniques. Large reduction in launch mass is always a good way to get a space engineer’s attention! Mimicking mother nature’s evolutionary process, these algorithms output very organic looking shapes. This is a relatively new approach to design optimization under exploration by multiple engineering software vendors. Not just Autodesk’s “Generative Design” but also “Topology Optimization” in SolidWorks, plus others. Though these shapes appear ideally suited to 3D printing, Autodesk also had to prove their algorithm could work with more traditional fabrication techniques like 5-axis CNC mills.

This is leading-edge research technology though some less specialized, customer-ready versions are starting to trickle out of research labs. Starting with an exclusive circle: People with right tiers of SolidWorks license, the paid (not free) tier of Autodesk Fusion 360, etc. We’ve looked at another recent project with nontraditional organic shapes, and we’ve looked at generative designs used for their form as well as their function. This category of CAD tools hold a lot of promise, and we’re optimistic they’ll soon become widely accessible so we can all put them to good use in our earthbound projects.

Possibly even before they fly to another planet.

[via Engadget]

Apple 1 Emulator Is A Perfect Fit For Supercon Badge

Supercon badge hackers had to be ready to present their show-and-tell by 6 pm Sunday evening. This ruthless unmoving deadline meant every badge hack on stage represents an accomplishment in time management, and some luck, in addition to their own technical merits. But that deadline also meant a few fantastic projects lost their race against the clock. We were rooting for [Jac Goudsmit] to build an Apple I emulator as his badge expansion, but he wasn’t quite done when our badge hack ceremony began. After Supercon he went home, finished the project, and documented everything in a detailed writeup.

Our 2018 Supercon badge is built on a retro-computing theme, and the default firmware came with a BASIC interpreter as well as a Z80 emulator running CP/M. So an Apple 1 emulator should feel right home with its contemporaries. Mechanically speaking, all the parts were a tight fit on the badge expansion board given out to every attendee at Supercon. So tightly that [Jac] had to file down the two main chips in order to fit them side by side. The breadboard-like pattern of connected holes on the expansion board, intended to help ease in beginners for their badge hack soldering, proved to be an inconvenience in tightly packed arrangements such as this.

With all the work [Jac] had invested, it was heartbreaking to know he was only five minutes of soldering and 30 minutes of coding away when time ran out. Time pressure was part of the challenge faced by every Supercon badge hacker, and while we’re sad [Jac] missed the deadline for stage time we’re happy to see him finish and write it all up. We hope every badge hacker would write up their stories of frantic weekend projects. Those who do so on are encouraged to tag their project with “Supercon” and get them added to our list of badge hacks for everyone to admire.

Supercon Badge Hackers Racing The Clock

At the end of Hackaday Superconference weekend, we hold a badge hacking ceremony on the main stage where anyone who has done anything with their badge is invited to come on stage and show off their work. Yes, even if it’s just a blinking LED! It was a tremendous pleasure to see not only people taking us at our word and presented blinking LEDs, but that the community in the room welcomed these inductees to hardware hacking with cheers. Before the ceremony, though, there was a lot of frantic work by badge hackers armed with soldering irons and fueled by caffeine. It’s always amazing how much people can accomplish in a single focused weekend.

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Green LED Means GO For Supercon Badge Hacking

In addition to great speakers and enlightening workshops at Supercon, we have an area set aside for attendees to hack on their conference badges. There is no prerequisite beyond having a badge and a willingness to get hands-on. From hardware beginners to professional embedded system developers, we welcome all skill levels!

The image above is a free-form LED light sculpture by [4C1dBurn], who had just learned to solder and this is how a new skill was put into practice. In the background is the badge hacking arena: 7 tables set up in a row with 6 seats per table. The doors opened at 9AM and almost all the seats were filled by 9:30AM. There’s a constant flow as people leave to attend a talk or workshop, and others arrive to fill the vacancy.

In our hardware hacking overview, we shared an example of an LED array controlled by badge using shift registers. Several badge hackers built on top of this idea. [X] is making a version for surface mount LEDs, and [macegr]’s variant incorporated an USB-to-serial adapter on board to reduce wire clutter. He calls it a “quality of life improvement” and we think it’s brilliant.

Any reduction in wire clutter can only help with the many glorious explosions of wires scattered about. This particular example is a work-in-progress by [carfucar] turning a badge into wireless remote for a large array of WS2812B LED strips.

Heeding our call to action in the hardware hacking overview, there are at least two efforts underway to add wireless communication capability to the badge. [Preston] is making good progress teaching a badge to talk to an AVR-IoT module. [morgan] and [Ben] are building a mesh network using ESP32s. If it gets up and running, they’ve brought a bunch of ESP32s to add more nodes to their network.

For the talks currently on stage, go to the Supercon event page and click “Livestream” in the upper right corner for the official live stream. Badge hacking will continue all through Supercon, parts of which will be visible through unofficial livestream of badge hacking from attendees like [X]’s robot [Sharon].

SMORES Robot Finds Its Own Way To The Campfire

Robots that can dynamically reconfigure themselves to adapt to their environments offer a promising advantage over their less dynamic cousins. Researchers have been working through all the challenges of realizing that potential: hardware, software, and all the interactions in between. On the software end of the spectrum, a team at University of Pennsylvania’s ModLab has been working on a robot that can autonomously choose a configuration to best fit its task at hand.

We’ve recently done an overview of modular robots, and we noted that coordination and control are persistent challenges in this area. The robot in this particular demonstration is a hybrid: a fixed core module serving as central command, plus six of the lab’s dynamic SMORES-EP modules. The core module has a RGB+Depth camera for awareness of its environment. A separate downwards-looking camera watches SMORES modules for awareness of itself.

Combining that data using a mix of open robot research software and new machine specific code, this team’s creation autonomously navigates an unfamiliar test environment. While it can adapt to specific terrain challenges like a wood staircase, there are still limitations on situations it can handle. Kudos to the researchers for honestly showing and explaining how the robot can get stuck on a ground seam, instead of editing that gaffe out to cover it up.

While this robot isn’t the completely decentralized modular robot system some are aiming for, it would be a mistake to dismiss based on that criticism alone. At the very least, it is an instructive step on the journey offering a tradeoff that’s useful on its own merits. And perhaps this hybrid approach will find application with a modular robot close to our hearts: Dtto, the winner of our 2016 Hackaday Prize.

[via Science News]

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