Making Autonomous Racing Drones Lean And Mean

Recently the MAVLab (Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory) at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands proudly proclaimed having made an autonomic drone that’s a mere 72 grams in weight. The best part? It’s designed to take part in drone races. What this means is that using a single camera and onboard processing, this little drone with a diameter of 10 centimeters has to navigate the course, while avoiding obstacles.

To achieve this goal, they took an Eachine trashcan drone, replacing its camera with an open source JeVois smart machine vision camera and the autopilot software with the Paparazzi open UAV software. Naturally, scaling a racing drone down to this size came at an obvious cost: with its low-quality sensors, relatively low-quality camera and limited processing power compared to its big brothers it has to rely strongly on algorithms that compensate for drift and other glitches while racing.

Currently the drone is mainly being tested at a four-gate race track at TU Delft’s Cyberzoo, where it can fly multiple laps at a leisurely two meters per second, using its gate-detecting algorithms to zip from gate to gate. By using machine vision to do the gate detection, the drone can deal with gates being displaced from their position indicated on the course map.

While competitive with other, much larger autonomous racing drones, the system is still far removed from the performance of human-controlled racing drones. To close this gap, MAVLab’s [Christophe De Wagter] mentions that they’re looking at improving the algorithms to make them better at predictive control and state estimation, as well as the machine vision side. Ideally these little drones should be able to be far more nimble and quick than they are today.

See a video of the drone in action after the link.

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The Fascinating World Of Solder Alloys And Metallurgy

Solder is the conductive metal glue that one uses to stick components together. If you get the component and the PCB hot enough, and melt a little solder in the joint, it will stay put and conduct reliably. But it’s far from simple.

There are many different solder alloys, and even the tip of the soldering iron itself is a multi-material masterpiece. In this article, we’ll take a look at the metallurgy behind soldering, and you’ll see why soldering tip maintenance, and regular replacement, is a good idea. Naturally, we’ll also touch upon the role that lead plays in solder alloys, and what the effect is of replacing it with other metals when going lead-free. What are you soldering with? Continue reading “The Fascinating World Of Solder Alloys And Metallurgy”

Please Meet ‘Capability Inquiry’, Part Of The MIDI 2.0 Standard

It may have passed you by in the news, but the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA) has recently unveiled more details about the upcoming MIDI 2.0 standard. Previously we covered the prototyping phase start of this new standard. The original Musical Instrument Digital Interface standard was revealed all the way back in August of 1983, as a cooperation between companies including Moog Music, Roland, Yamaha, Korg, Kawai and others. It was the first universal interface that allowed one to connect and control all kinds of musical instruments.

Over the years, MIDI has seen use with the composing of music, allowing instruments to be controlled by a computer system and to easily share compositions between composers. Before MIDI such kind of control was limited to a number of proprietary interfaces, with limited functionality.

The MMA lists the key features of MIDI 2.0 as: Bidirectional, Backwards Compatible, and the enhancing of MIDI 1.0 where possible. Using a new technology called MIDI Capability Inquiry (MIDI-CI), a MIDI 2.0 device can exchange feature profiles and more with other 2.0 devices. 1.0 is the fallback if MIDI-CI finds no new functionality. MIDI-CI-based configuration can allow 2.0 devices to automatically configure themselves for their environment.

Suffice it to say, MIDI 2.0 is a far cry from the original MIDI standard. By transforming MIDI into a more versatile, bidirectional protocol, it opens new ways in which it can be used to tie musical devices and related together. It opens the possibility of even more creative hacks, many of which were featured on Hackaday already. What will you make with MIDI 2.0?

See a brief demonstration of this feature of MIDI 2.0 in the below video:

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Zork And The Z-Machine: Bringing The Mainframe To 8-bit Home Computers

Computer games have been around about as long as computers have. And though it may be hard to believe, Zork, a text-based adventure game, was the Fortnite of its time. But Zork is more than that. For portability and size reasons, Zork itself is written in Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), makes heavy use of the brand-new concept of object-oriented programming, and runs on a virtual machine. All this back in 1979. They used every trick in the book to pack as much of the Underground Empire into computers that had only 32 kB of RAM. But more even more than a technological tour de force, Zork is an unmissable milestone in the history of computer gaming. But it didn’t spring up out of nowhere.

DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module
DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module

The computer revolution had just taken a fierce hold during the second World War, and showed no sign of subsiding during the 1950s and 1960s. More affordable computer systems were becoming available for purchase by businesses as well as universities. MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) was fortunate to have ties to ARPA, which gave MIT’s LCS and AI labs (formerly part of Project MAC) access to considerable computing resources, mostly in the form of DEC PDP systems.

The result: students at the MIT Dynamic Modeling Group (part of LCS) having access to a PDP-10 KA10 mainframe — heavy iron at the time. Though this PDP-10 was the original 1968 model with discrete transistor Flip Chip modules and wire-wrapping, it had been heavily modified, adding virtual memory and paging support to expand the original 1,152 kB of core memory. Running the MIT-developed Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) OS, it was a highly capable multi-user system.

Naturally, it got mostly used for playing games.
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Wing Opens The Skies For Drones With UTM

Yesterday Alphabet (formerly known as Google) announced that their Wing project is launching delivery services per drone in Finland, specifically in a part of Helsinki. This comes more than a month after starting a similar pilot program in North Canberra, Australia. The drone design Wing has opted for consists not of the traditional quadcopter design, but a hybrid plane/helicopter design, with two big propellers for forward motion, along with a dozen small propellers on the top of the dual body design, presumably to give it maximum range while still allowing the craft to hover.

With a weight of 5 kg and a wingspan of about a meter, Wing’s drones are capable of lifting and carrying a payload of about 1.5 kg. This puts it into a category of drones far beyond of what hobbyists tend to fly on a regular basis, and worse, it involves Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS for short) flying, which is frowned upon by the FAA and similar regulatory bodies. What Google/Alphabet figures that can enable them to make this kind of service a commercial reality is called Unmanned aircraft system Traffic Management (UTM).

UTM is essentially complementary to the existing air traffic control systems, allowing drones to integrate into these flows of manned airplanes without endangering either. Over the past years, it’s been part of NASA’s duty to develop the systems and infrastructure that would be required to make UTM a reality. Working together with the FAA and companies such as Amazon and Alphabet, the hope is that before long it’ll be as normal to send a drone into the skies for deliveries and more as it is today to have passenger and cargo planes with human pilots take to the skies.

Deflecting Earthquakes The Way Ancient Romans Did It

A recent French study indicates that the ancient Romans may have figured out how to deal with earthquakes by simply deflecting the energy of the waves using structures that resemble metamaterials. These are materials which can manipulate waves (electromagnetic or otherwise) in ways which are normally deemed impossible, such as guiding light around an object using a special pattern.

In a 2012 study, the same researchers found that a pattern of 5 meter deep bore holes in the ground was effective at deflecting a significant part of artificially generated acoustic waves. One of the researchers, [Stéphane Brûlé], noticed on an aerial photograph of a Gallo-Roman theater near the town of Autun in central France that its pattern of pillars bore an uncanny resemblance to this earlier experiment: a series of concentric (semi) circles with the distance between the pillars (or holes) decreasing nearer the center.

Further research using archaeological data of this theater site confirmed that it did appear to match up the expected pattern if one would have aimed to design a structure that could successfully deflect the acoustic energy from an earthquake. This raises the interesting question of whether this was a deliberate design choice, or just coincidence.

Additional research on the Colosseum in Rome and various other amphitheaters did however turn up the same pattern, which makes it seem like a deliberate choice by the Roman builders over a long period of time. With this pattern apparently capable of protecting a structure from the destructive effects of the acoustic waves generated by an earthquake, the remaining question is whether they discovered this pattern over time by observing damage to buildings and decided to implement it in new buildings.

Although we’ll likely never get an answer to that question, this discovery can however lead to improvements to individual buildings today, as well as entire cities, that may protect them against earthquakes and save countless lives that way.

Add A Bit Of Soviet-Era Super-Computing To Your FPGA

The MESM-6 project is focused on bringing the 1960s Soviet BESM-6 computer to the modern age of FPGAs and HDLs. At the moment the team behind this preservation effort consists out of [Evgeniy Khaluev], [Serge Vakulenko] and [Leo Broukhis], who are covering the efforts on the Russian-language project page.

The BESM-6 (in Russian: БЭСМ-6, ‘Bolshaya Elektronno-Schetnaya Mashina’ or ‘large electronic computing machine’) was a highly performing Soviet super computer that was first launched in 1968 and in production for the next 19 years. Its system clock ran at 9 MHz using an astounding number of discrete components, like 60,000 transistors and 170,000 diodes, capable of addressing 192 kB of memory in total. Of the 355 built, a few survive to this day, with one on display at the London Science Museum (pictured above). Many more images and information can be found on its Russian Wikipedia page.

For those not gifted with knowledge of the Russian language, the machine-translated summary reveals that the project goal is to make a softcore in SystemVerilog that is compatible with user mode BESM-6, using the same Pascal compiler as originally used with that system. Further goals include at least 24 kB of data memory, 96 kB of command memory and the addition of modern peripherals such as SPI and I2C.

The system is meant to be integrated with the Arduino IDE, using the Pascal compiler to make it highly accessible to anyone with an interest in programming a system like this. Considering the MIT license for the project, one could conceivably use a bit of Soviet-era computing might in one’s future FPGA efforts.

If after watching the BESM-6 video — included below — you feel inspired to start your own Soviet-computing project, we’d like to wish you luck the Russian way: Ни пуха ни пера!

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