Designing Electronics That Work

[Hunter Scott] who has graced these pages a fair few times, has been working on electronics startups for the past ten years or so, and has picked up a fair bit of experience with designing and building hardware. Those of us in this business seem to learn the same lessons, quite often the hard way; we call it experience. Wouldn’t it be nice to get up that learning curve a little quicker, get our hardware out there working sooner with less pain, due to not falling into the same old traps those before us already know about? The problem with the less experienced engineer is not their lack of talent, how quickly they can learn, nor how much work they can get done in a day, but simply that they don’t know what they don’t know. There’s no shame in that, it’s just a fact of life. [Hunter] presents for us, the Guide to Designing Electronics that Work.

The book starts at the beginning. The beginning of the engineering process that is; requirements capturing, specifications, test planning and schedule prediction. This part is hard to do right, and this is where the real experience shows. The next section moves onto component selection and prototyping advice, with some great practical advice to sidestep some annoying production issues. Next there’s the obvious section on schematic and layout with plenty of handy tips to help you to that all important final layout. Do not underestimate how hard this latter part is, there is plenty of difficulty in getting a good performing, minimal sized layout, especially if RF applications are involved.

The last few sections cover costing, fabrication and testing. These are difficult topics to learn, if up till now all you’ve done is build prototypes and one-offs. These are the areas where many a kickstarter engineer has fallen flat.

Designing Electronics That Work doesn’t profess to be totally complete, nor have the answer to everything, but as the basis for deeper learning and getting the young engineer on their way to a manufacturable product, it is a very good starting point in our opinion.

The book has been around a little while, and the latest version is available for download right now, on a pay what-you-want basis, so give it a read and you might learn a thing or two, we’re pretty confident it won’t be time wasted!

A 60 GHz Phased Array

Our friend [Hunter Scott] gave a talk at a past Supercon about phased array antennas. He mentioned he was looking for collaborators to create an antenna with the SiBeam SB9210 chip. This is a specialized chip for WirelessHD, a more or less failed video streaming protocol, and it’s essentially an entire 60 GHz phased array on a chip with both transmit and receive capabilities. For $15, it seems like quite the bargain, and [Hunter] still wants to put the device to work.

The downside is that Lattice bought SiBeam and killed this chip — not surprising considering WirelessHD never really took off. However, [Hunter] says the chip was in some old smart TVs and laptops. If you can find replacement boards for those devices on the surplus market, you can get the chip and the supporting circuitry for a song.

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No Moving Parts: Phased Array Antennas Move While Standing Still

If you watch old science fiction or military movies — or if you were alive back in the 1960s — you probably know the cliche for a radar antenna is a spinning dish. Although the very first radar antennas were made from wire, as radar sets moved higher in frequency, antennas got smaller and rotating them meant you could “look” in different directions. When most people got their TV with an antenna, rotating those were pretty common, too. But these days you don’t see many moving antennas. Why? Because antennas these days move electrically rather than physically using multiple antennas in a phased array. These electronically scanned phased array antennas are the subject of Hunter Scott’s talk at 2018’s Supercon. Didn’t make it? No problem,  you can watch the video below.

While this seems like new technology, it actually dates back to 1905. Karl Braun fed the output of a transmitter to three monopoles set up as a triangle. One antenna had a 90 degree phase shift. The two in-phase antennas caused a stronger signal in one direction, while the out-of-phase antenna canceled most of the signal and the resulting aggregate was a unidirectional beam. By changing the antenna fed with the delay, the beam could rotate in three 120 degree steps.

Today phased arrays are in all sorts of radio equipment from broadcast radio transmitters to WiFi routers and 5G phones. The technique even has uses in optics and acoustics.

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Supercon Talks That Inspire You To Take On Something New

There’s wealth of activities at the Hackaday Superconference but we’ve saved a few for today’s announcement that will inspire you to take on something new and different. Check out the eight talks below that will push you to try the unexpected, to look at old things in a new way, and to propel your hardware adventures for another year.

This is the Ultimate Hardware Conference and you need to be there! We’ll continue to announce speakers and workshops as final confirmations come in. Supercon will sell out so grab your ticket now before it’s too late.

Samy Kamkar
Ultra Low Cost, Low Power, Low Weight, Light-up Mesh Networkings

How to “float” a mesh network with light-up balloons in the air without re-powering.

Carl Bugeja
Building Motors from PCBs

Ongoing design and prototyping experiments that use Printed Circuit Boards (either rigid or flexible) as a coil in conjunction with rare earth magnets to create interesting motors and actuators.

Joan Horvath and Rich Cameron
Hacker Calculus

Travel back to Isaac Newton’s work to rethink calculus and make it intuitive using 3D printed open-source designs.

Rob Ryan-Silva
Making it Matter for Developing Countries

Building hardware in support of foreign aid projects. Learn what considerations really matter when designing for developing country contexts.

Dominic Spill
Ridiculous Radios

RF engineers put great effort into crafting high quality radio systems. I am not one of those engineers. Experimenting with radio protocols using SDR.

Michael Rigsby
Connect the Dots; Choices Make a Life

How does life unfold if you create things? Nothing created is wasted — following your dreams will lead you somewhere (maybe not where you planned), but to a good place. How I quit my engineering job and built interesting things as a career.

Hunter Scott
Why Phased Arrays Are Cool and How to Build One

At the intersection of the two black arts of RF engineering and antenna design is the phased array. But don’t worry, they’re not as hard to understand as you might think.


Charles Alexanian
Small Scale Vacuum Tube Construction

Showing the process for the construction of vacuum tubes. Tubes will be built and tested on site using glass working torches and other specialized tools

We Want You at Supercon!

The Hackaday Superconference is a can’t-miss event for hardware hackers everywhere. Join in on three amazing days of talks and workshops focusing on hardware creation. This is your community of hardware hackers who congregate to hack on the official hardware badge and on a slew of other projects that show up for the fun. Get your ticket right away!

An Affordable Ultrasonic Soldering Iron

One of the most interesting facets of our community of hackers and makers comes from its never-ending capacity to experiment and to deliver new technologies and techniques. Ample demonstration of this came this morning, in the form of [Hunter Scott]’s project to create an ultrasonic soldering iron. This is a soldering technique in which the iron is subjected to ultrasonic vibrations which cavitate the surface of the materials to be soldered and remove any oxides which would impede the adhesion of the solder. In this way normally unsolderable materials such as stainless steel, aluminium, ceramic, or glass can be soldered without the need for flux or other specialist chemicals. Ultrasonic soldering has been an expensive business, and [Hunter]’s project aims to change that.

This iron takes the element and tip from a conventional mains-powered soldering iron and mounts it on the transducer from an ultrasonic cleaner. The transducer must be given an appropriate load which in the case of the cleaner is furnished by a water bath, or it will overheat and burn out. [Hunter]’s load is just a soldering iron element, so to prevent transducer meltdown he keeps the element powered continuously but the transducer on a momentary-action switch to ensure it only runs for the short time he’s soldering. The project is not quite finished so he’s yet to prove whether this approach will save his transducer, but we feel it’s an interesting enough idea to make it definitely worth following.

This is the first ultrasonic soldering project we’ve featured here at Hackaday. We have however had an ultrasonic plastic welder before, and an ultrasonic vapour polisher for 3D prints. It would be good to think this project could spark a raft of others that improve and refine DIY ultrasonic soldering designs.

Hackaday Prize Entry : Impact – A Head Concussion Monitor

A lot of young athletes who get concussions each year go undiagnosed, leading to brain injury. [Hunter Scott] is working on a device called Impact to help detect these events early. According to this article which discusses the issue of concussion recognition and evaluation, “Early identification on the sports sideline of suspected concussion is critical because, in most cases, athletes who are immediately removed from contact or collision sports after suffering a concussion or other traumatic brain injury will recover without incident fairly quickly. If an athlete is allowed to keep playing, however, their recovery is likely to take longer, and they are at increased risk of long-term problems”

The device is a dime sized disk, which has an ATTiny85 microcontroller, memory to hold data, an accelerometer and a LED which gets activated when the preset impact threshold is breached, all driven by a coin cell. This small size allows it to be easily embedded in sports equipment such as helmets. At the end of a game, if the LED is blinking, the player is then screened for a concussion. For additional analysis, data stored on the on-board memory can be downloaded. This can be done by a pogo-pin based docking station, which is what [Hunter Scott] is still working on.

He’s having a functional problem that needs fixing. The ATTiny85 cannot be programmed with the accelerometer populated. He first needs to populate the ATTiny85, program it, and then populate the accelerometer. He’s working in fixing that, but if you have any suggestions, chime in on the comments below. We’d like to add that [Hunter] is a prolific hacker. His project, the Ultra-wideband radio module was a Hackaday Prize semi-finalist last year.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

THP Semifinalist: Level, The Ultrawideband Radio Module


When you start looking into the Internet of Things, the first thing you realize is that despite there being grand ideas for Internet connected everything, nobody knows how these things will actually connect to the Internet. There are hundreds of different radio protocols being pushed, and dozens of networking schemes currently in development. The solution to this is a radio module that can do them all, talking to all these modules and serving them up to the Internet. This is the idea of [Hunter Scott]’s Level, a radio module with a frequency range of 30 MHz to 4.4 GHz. That’ll cover just about everything, including some interesting applications in the TV whitespace.

[Hunter]’s module is based around TI’s CC430, basically an MSP430 microcontroller and a CC1101 transceiver smooshed together into a single piece of silicon. There’s bit of filtering that makes this usable in the now sorta-empty TV whitespace spectrum, something that a lot of IoT and wireless networking protocols are looking at.

If the form factor of the device looks familiar, that’s because it is; the board itself is Arduino compatible, but not with Arduinos themselves; it will accept shields, though, meaning building a bridge to Ethernet or WiFi to whatever radios this board is talking to is really just a change in firmware.

This board is excellent for experimenting with different radio modules, yes, but it’s also great for experimenting with different radio protocols. [Hunter] has been looking around at different mesh networking protocols.

You can check out [Hunter]’s two minute video overview, along with a more detailed overview of the schematic below.

SpaceWrencherThe project featured in this post is a semifinalist in The Hackaday Prize.

Continue reading “THP Semifinalist: Level, The Ultrawideband Radio Module”