One More Day for Hackaday Prize Glory

This is your last day to enter the 2017 Hackaday Prize. The theme is to Build Something that Matters, so don’t sit on the sidelines.

You have great power to make a change in the world. Put your mind to a problem you believe is worth solving and inspire us with your build. Whether it’s a turnkey solution or a seed idea that inspires those around you, let’s work on making the world a little bit better place. Get your entry for Anything Goes in by Monday morning.

As Entries Close, Finalists Polish Their Projects

There have been five challenge rounds of the Hackaday Prize and we’ve seen more than 1000 entries. From each round, 20 finalists were chosen who were awarded $1000 each but we’re just getting started. The top five prizes totaling $75,000 still remain.

A panel of fantastic Hackaday Prize Judges will begin reviewing the final round projects on October 21st. Finalists are continuing to refine their projects since being selected, adding project logs, a bill of material, design files, and a project video. This all leads to the awarding of the Grand Prize on Saturday, November 11th at the Hackaday Superconference.

Hackaday’s Open Hardware Summit Experience

Last week was the Open Hardware Summit in Denver Colorado. This yearly gathering brings together the people and businesses that hold Open Hardware as an ideal to encourage, grow, and live by. There was a night-before party, the summit itself which is a day full of talks, and this year a tour of a couple very familiar open hardware companies in the area.

I thought this year’s conference was quite delightful and am happy to share with you some of the highlights.

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Review: New 3G and Cat-M1 Cellular Hardware from Hologram

In July we reported on the launch of the Hologram developer program that offered a free SIM card and a small amount of monthly cellular data for those who wanted to build connectivity into their prototypes. Today, Hologram has launched some new hardware to go along with that program.

Nova is a cellular modem in a USB thumb drive form factor. It ships in a little box with a PCB that hosts the u-blox cellular module, two different antennas, a plastic enclosure, and a SIM card. The product is aimed at those building connected devices around single-board computers, making it easy to plug Nova in and get connected quickly.

This device that Hologram sent me is a 3G modem. They have something like 1,000 of them available to ship starting today, but what I find really exciting is that there is another flavor of Nova that looks the same but hosts a Cat-M1 version of the u-blox module. This is a Low Power Wide Area Network technology built on the LTE network. We’ve seen 2G and 3G modems available for some time now, but if go that route you’re building a product around a network which has an end-of-life concern.

Cat-M1 will be around for much longer and it is designed to be low power and utilizes a narrower bandwidth for less radio-on time. I asked Hologram for some power comparison estimates between the two technologies:

AVERAGE current consumption comparisons:

Cat-M1: as low as 100 mA while transmitting and never more than 190 mA
Equivalent 3G: as high as 680 mA while transmitting

PEAK current consumption comparisons (these are typically filtered through capacitors so the power supply doesn’t ever witness these values, and they are only momentary):

Cat-M1: Less than 490 mA
Equivalent 3G: As high as 1550 mA

This is an exciting development because we haven’t yet seen LTE radios available for devices — of course there are hotspots but those are certainly not optimized for low power or inclusion in a product. But if you know your ESP8266 WiFi specs you know that those figures above put Cat-M1 on a similar power budget and in the realm of battery-operated devices.

The Cat-M1 Nova can be ordered beginning today, should ship in limited quantities within weeks, with wider availability by the end of the year. If you can’t get one in the first wave, the 3G Nova is a direct stand-in from the software side of things.

I suspect we’ll see a lot of interest in Cat-M1 technology moving forward simply because of the the technology promises lower power and longer support. (I’m trying to avoid using the term IoT… oops, there it is.) For today, let’s take a look at the 3G version of the new hardware and the service that supports it.

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Get Hands-On at Supercon: Workshop Tickets Now Available

Build something cool and pick up new skills from the workshops at the Hackaday Superconference. Last week we announced all of the talks you’ll find at Supercon, and starting today you can reserve your spot at one of the workshops.

You must have a Superconference ticket in order to purchase a workshop ticket; buy one right now if you haven’t already. You can get mechanical with Haptics and Animatronics, take your product design from schematic to PCB and enclosure, brush up your embedded development on several choices of platform, make cell towers do your bidding, or dump way too many volts into a block of wood.

Space in these workshops is limited so make sure to sign up before all the seats are taken. The base price for workshops is $10 (basically a “skin in the game” price to encourage those who register to show up). Any tickets priced above that base is meant to cover the material expense of the workshop. Here’s what we have planned:

Embedded Programming with Black Magic and the Lights On

Piotr Esden-Tempski

Sunday Afternoon

Embedded systems programming has earned a bad reputation of being difficult to master. Especially in the open-source world, most people associate it with cut and pasted code that is difficult to debug. The usual tools we have to debug embedded systems are a blinking LED and, if we are lucky, printf statements through a serial port. In this self guided workshop we will show you how easy it can be to have full insight into your microcontroller using fully open source tools that are on par with expensive proprietary closed-source solutions.

Fun with High Voltage

Will Caruana

Sunday Morning

This workshop is about making Lichtenberg figures. A Lichtenberg figure is a piece of art though the multiplication of a few thousands of volts to burn wood. We will cover the science behind this art form as well as the safety and lastly we will be getting hands on experience in being able to using high voltage transformers to make these burnings into wood and make coasters you can take home.

Designing Electronic Textures

Noah Feehan

Sunday Afternoon

Participants will learn the physics behind electrovibration, and then get to play/design for it using a new open-source board called WEFT. After the workshop, you’ll know how to deploy electrovibration in your projects, and understand the feeling of different waveforms.

End to End Product Design with Eagle and Fusion 360

Matt Berggren

Saturday Morning

In this session, we’ll take you end to end, from building a new schematic, simulating a circuit using EAGLE’s built-in SPICE simulator, laying out a PCB, generating mfg files and include some tips & tricks for milling boards and making stencils. We’ll also take you thru the link between electronics and mechanics using Fusion360. Alongside EAGLE we’ll build an enclosure and generate the mfg outputs for your mechanical design (CAM, 3D prints, etc). We’ll look at library management across electronics and mechanics and bidirectional synchronization between both of these domains. This is more than an intro, as Matt’s always good for some essential, oft-missed background and tips with EAGLE you might never have known otherwise.

AVR® MCU Effortless Design Workshop: Prototyping with Sensors and BLE

Bob Martin, Senior Staff Engineer

Sunday Morning

This hands-on training session will walk you through how to develop an embedded sensor node prototype with Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE) connectivity. You will speed through configuration of the AVR microcontroller, sensor interface and communications interface setup by using Atmel Start, a graphical programming interface. This tool will generate libraries with simple APIs so you can spend time working on your solution instead of messing with registers or communication protocols.

Rapid Prototyping and Linux Kernel Development with the PocketBeagle® Platform

Robert Nelson

Saturday Afternoon

The newly introduced PocketBeagle® is an ultra-tiny-yet-complete Linux-enabled, community-supported, open-source USB-key-fob computer. By leveraging the Octavo SIP, the PocketBeagle offers complete BeagleBoard functionality and includes 512MB DDR3 RAM, 1-GHz ARM Cortex-A8 CPU, 2x 200-MHz PRUs, ARM Cortex-M3, 3D accelerator, power/battery management and EEPROM. The board offers lots of GPIOs, on board peripherals and various expansion capabilities via multiple headers and the Mikroelektronika click board interface. During this course you will learn about pin configuration, how to create a Linux distribution, reconfiguring io on the fly and how to leverage expansion modules. Attendees will leave with their very own PocketBeagle and a couple other surprises as well.

Cellular Connectivity for Your Next Hardware Project

Ben Strahan and Chris Gammell

Saturday Afternoon

Your project shouldn’t be constrained by the range of a WiFi signal. This workshop will show you how to connect to cellular towers via a serial link, get connected into the cloud and reliably start transmitting data. This workshop is suitable for people just getting started in the firmware ecosystem up through advanced firmware engineers. Advanced members of the workshop will have the opportunity to hack their conference badge to connect to cell towers. Sign up for this workshop to add another connection method to your hardware development toolbox.

An Introduction to Animatronics with Laser Cut Tentacle Mechanisms

Joshua Vasquez

Saturday Morning

Animatronics are way cool, but the hacker community rarely ventures farther than a few hobby servos and “dem-blinkin’ LEDs.” In this workshop, I’ll get you cozy with tentacle mechanisms that you can build with just a laser cutter and a few hand tools. There are three big takeaways from this workshop. We’ll build up a two-stage controller reusable in other projects, muscle up our vocabulary of off-the-shelf parts for cable mechanisms, and discover a few laser-cut design techniques.

Superconference workshops tend to sell out extremely quickly. Don’t wait to get your ticket.

LAMEBOY is Handheld Gaming on the ESP8266

We’ve had our eye on [davedarko’s] LAMEBOY project for a while now, a handheld setup in roughly the same form factor as the classic Nintendo Game Boy. It’s remarkable how approachable portable electronic design has become, and that’s really what makes this interesting. The design is beautiful, and the closer you look, the more respect you have for what [dave] is doing.

Right now his proof of concept has a 3D printed enclosure whose face is the printed circuit board. We love how the lower left corner of the PCB slips under a pocket in the case, which makes it possible to use just one screw to secure the two together in the upper right.

The LAMEBOY is built around an ESP8266 module. Anyone who has used one knows this chip contains a fair amount of horsepower, but very little I/O. [Dave] has a lot going on with an LCD screen, six user buttons, a USB to I/O chip, and an SD card slot. He took two approaches to solve this dilemma. First he grabbed a PCF8574 port expander, and second he’s offloaded the color control of the screen backlights to an ATtiny85 (running a BlinkM clone).

Below you can see some early game tests on the perfboard prototype. We haven’t seen game play on the most recent prototype (there is a screen color test video in his latest project log) but it sounds as though [dave] plans to make use of the Gamebuino framework. This should mean that there will be no shortage of cool ROMs to load.

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Milling a Flow Sensor to Safeguard a Laser Tube

Powerful lasers get powerfully hot and if you don’t keep them cool you’ll pay the price. After two such experiences [NixieGuy] got smart and milled this flow sensor as a failsafe.

Laser cutters are awesome. But acquiring one can be expensive, and keeping them in working order is no small feat. From the gunk that builds up as a byproduct of vaporizing the cutting stock, to keeping the optics focused correctly, it’s a game that forces you to become a laser cutter operator and not merely a user. One of the worst things to deal with is having to replace a burnt out laser tube. They do have a life to them but in this case the filter on the water cooling system clogged and the tube cooked itself. Twice.

Flow sensor shown in the upper right.

This flow sensor now acts as an interconnect with the laser enable line. Starting with an acrylic rod, [NixieGuy] machined out a center hole for a magnetic stopper, then milled three channels for water to pass around it. Each end of the rod was turned on a lathe to interface with plastic tubing of the water cooling system, and a slot was milled on the outside for a reed switch.

The demo video is below. You can see that when water flows it pushes the magnetic stop up (against gravity) where it engages the reed switch, allowing the laser to operate. If something impedes the flow of water (even if the pump still runs) the laser will be disabled and (hopefully) prevent future tube loss.

Want to see some of the oops moments faced by many a laser cutter operator? Check our guide on how to fail at laser cutting.

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We’re Using the Word Firmware Wrong

I had an interesting discussion the other day about code written for an embedded system. I was speaking with Voja Antonic about ‘firmware’. The conversation continued forward but I noticed that he was calling it ‘software’. We later discussed it and Voja told me he thought only the parts of the code directly interacting with the microcontroller were firmware; the rest falls under the more generic term of software. It really had me wondering where firmware stops being firmware and is merely software?

The topic has remained on my mind and I finally got around to doing some dictionary searches. I’m surprised that I’ve been using the word differently and I think most of the people I’ve heard use it are doing the same — at least as far as dictionary definitions are concerned. My go to sources are generally Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries and both indicate that firmware is a type of software that is indelible:

Permanent software programmed into a read-only memory.

computer programs contained permanently in a hardware device (such as a read-only memory)

According to this definition, I have never written a single bit of firmware. Everything I have written has been embedded software. But surely this is a term that must change with the times as technology progress so I kept digging.

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