Hackaday Links: January 17, 2021

Sad news from Mars, where the InSight lander’s “mole” was officially declared dead. The self-drilling probe, the centerpiece of the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) experiment, was designed to ram itself 5 meters into the Martian regolith while deploying a sensor-laden tail. The mole would then explore heat flow from within the planet. But the unexpected properties of the soil beneath the lander, including lower-than-expected friction on the hull of the mole and a cement-like “duricrust” layer, confounded the probe’s downward progress for the last two years. We covered the design of the mole, which is similar to an impact drill, as well as the valiant efforts to save the mission, but after one last try on January 9 where the mole gave 500 more whacks without any progress, controllers threw in the towel. It just goes to show that space travel and exploration are anything but routine, and that there’s far, far more we don’t know about even our nearest solar neighbor than what we do know.

Sad news, too, from closer to home, this time — Ohio, to be exact: the 2021 Hamvention has been canceled. It’s not exactly a surprise given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a blow to have ham radio’s biggest party canceled for two years running. We expect a lot of cons and meetings will suffer a similar fate in 2021. We’ll be sure to bring you any announcements we hear about.

One event that hasn’t been canceled is iQuHACK, a quantum hackathon hosted by MIT. We don’t pretend to fully understand quantum computing, or even to have scratched the surface of the subject in any meaningful way. Following up on what comes out of iQuHACK after it runs next weekend might be interesting for the quantum-curious, though. But really, just the fact that we’re in an age where quantum hackathons are a thing is pretty cool.

Back on the COVID-19 theme, managing editor Elliot Williams gave us the heads up on a story about gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park testing positive for the virus. It’s not exactly surprising that some of our evolutionarily closest relatives would be susceptible to the disease, and it’s not exactly a funny story, but the conversation in the morning meeting at the zoo must have been priceless:

“Hey, that gorilla looks sick. We’d better test him for COVID.”
“Yeah, probably. Here’s the brain-tickling swab, you go stick it up his nose.”
“Nu-uh, you stick it up his nose!”
“Nope. Hey, where’s the intern?”

And speaking of dangerous work environments, behold yet another classic of corporate safety propaganda: The Color of Danger. Like Shake Hands with Danger, this film was produced by heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. But this time, instead of concentrating on the various opportunities maintaining heavy equipment presents for traumatic amputations, the subject matter is forklift safety. We’ve spent a fair number of hours in the driver’s seat of a lift truck, so we know full well how quickly things can go wrong, and this film does a great job of showing a lot of them. But what you’ve got to admire is the trick driving and stunt work that went into these vignettes; not too many people can pull off forklift drifting safely (12:30), and putting the truck in the drink without drowning was a neat trick (13:00). And of course, with any film on forklift safety, we’d be remiss not to tip our hardhat to Staplefahrer Klaus and his oft-bloodied co-workers.

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Unknown Quantum Effect Makes Insulator Oscillate

If there are two classes of matter that electronics people can agree on, its conductors and insulators. Electrically, conductors and insulators don’t have much in common. The same has held true in the quantum physics world until some research at Princeton has suggested that quantum oscillation — a phenomenon associated with metals — is taking place in an insulator. Scientists aren’t sure what’s really happening yet, but it may suggest there is a new quantum particle yet to be discovered.

In metals, electrons are very mobile which allows a relatively easy flow of electrical current. However, at low temperatures, a magnetic field can shift electrons to a quantum state causing its resistance to change in an oscillating pattern. Insulators generally do not exhibit this effect.

Researchers made a monolayer of tungsten ditelluride using the same kind of adhesive tape process you see to create graphene. In bulk, the material is a conductor but in a monolayer, tungsten ditelluride is an insulator.

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TRS-80 Model 100 Gets 64-Bit CPU And A Very Wide LCD

To say the TRS-80 Model 100 was ahead of its time would be something of an understatement. It had a high-quality mechanical keyboard, phenomenal battery life, plenty of I/O and expansion capabilities, and was actually small and light enough to easily carry around. While its layout might seem to be a bit dated to modern eyes, there’s little debate that it was one of the most successful and influential computers in history.

So it’s little surprise that [belsamber] thought the Model 100 might make an ideal platform for his mobile command line work. With a few modifications, naturally. While technically the nearly 40 year old portable could connect to a Linux computer as a simple serial terminal, its outdated and non-backlit LCD leaves a bit to be desired in 2021. But there’s little sense in upgrading the display if he’d still be saddled with the anemic Intel 80C85 motherboard, so he decided to clean house and replace everything.

Once stripped of the original hardware, the Model 100’s enclosure offered up plenty of room for a Pine A64 LTS single-board computer, four 18650 cells, and a 1920×480 ultra-wide LCD. While not a perfect match for the dimensions of the original panel, the new screen is an exceptionally close fit. The keyboard has been left intact, but rather than adding a QMK-compatible microcontroller to the mix, [belsamber] wired the matrix directly into the GPIO of the A64.

While we know some retro aficionados might shed a tear to see an iconic computer get gutted, [belsamber] mentions that nothing will go to waste; the parts he pulled from this machine will serve as spares for a second Model 100 he has in his collection. Besides, given the immense popularity of these machines, they aren’t exactly rare to begin with.

As an aside, we recently saw this same unique display used in a 3D printed desktop computer with distinctively retro-futuristic styling. We didn’t have miniature 4:1 ratio displays on our list of 2021 hardware predictions, but it seems they’re already making a strong showing.

AI Learns To Drive Trackmania

Machine learning has long been a topic of interest for humanity, but only in recent years have we had broad access to great computing power to enable to the average person to dive in. [Yosh] recently decided to put an AI to work learning how to race in Trackmania.

After early experiments with supervised learning, [Yosh] decided to implement a genetic algorithm to produce an AI to drive in the game. The AI takes distance from the track walls as an input, and has steering and accelerator values as an output. Starting with 100 AIs in generation 1, [Yosh] iterated by choosing the AIs that covered the longest distance in 13 seconds. Once the AIs started to get the hang of the first few corners, he changed the training to instead prioritize the lowest time taken to traverse each of the checkpoints along the track.

The AI improved over time, and over 100 generations, got down to a 23.48s time on the test track, versus 19.63s for [Trabadia], a talented human. We’d love to see how much better the AI could do with more training. [Yosh] is trying more experiments, like providing extra feedback in the AI fitness function to keep it from hitting the walls. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a genetic algorithm used to train a racing AI, either. Video after the break.

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Serving The Feline Masters: A Chair To Follow The Sunny Spot

Terry Pratchett once wrote, “In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this”. [Jonathan]’s cat has clearly not forgotten, and makes it loudly known whenever her favorite chair needs to be moved to stay in the spot of sunlight. He was looking for a fun hack anyway, so he decided to give in to her majesty’s demands, and automated the task.

[Jonathan] first considered adding motorizing the chair itself, but decided to keep it simple and just drag the chair across the room with a spool attached to a motor. The rope spool was attached to a small geared DC motor, mounted on a salad bowl base, and connected to an ESP8266 via a motor driver. The ‘8266 is running  NodeMCU with a web server that accepts simple motor commands through a RESTful API. This setup can’t reset the chair to it’s starting position at the end of the day, but this is a small price to pay for simplicity. The motor was a bit underpowered, but it only needed to move the chair in small distances at a time, so [Jonathan] removed the chair’s back to reduce the weight, and upped the motor voltage.

Determining when and how far to move the chair is the second part of the challenge. [Jonathan] considered a simple lookup table for the time of day, but the motor’s movement wasn’t consistent enough. The final solution was a set of three BH1750 digital ambient light sensors to give feedback. A pair of sensors on the chair determines its position relative to the sunny spot, by comparing light levels to a reference sensor mounted in the window. These light sensors are also attached to NodeMCUs, and send movement commands to the winding unit as necessary.

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Arduino Wannabe Should Have Used A 555. Oh Wait, It Does.

It’s a little known secret that when the Hackaday writers gather in their secret underground bunker to work on our plans for world domination, we often take breaks to play our version of the corporate “Buzzword Bingo”, where paradigms are leveraged and meetings circle back to loop in offline stakeholders, or something like that. Our version, however, is “Comment Line Bingo”, and right in the middle of the card is the seemingly most common comment of all: “You should have used a 555,” or variations thereof.

So it was with vicious glee that we came across the Trollduino V1.0 by the deliciously named [Mild Lee Interested]. It’s the hardware answer to the common complaint, which we’ll grant is often justified. The beautiful part of this is that Trollduino occupies the same footprint as an Arduino Uno and is even pin-compatible with the microcontroller board, or at least sort of. The familiar line of components and connectors sprout from the left edge of the board, and headers for shields line the top and bottom edges too. “Sketches” are implemented in hardware, with jumpers and resistors and capacitors of various values plugged in to achieve all the marvelous configurations the indispensable timer chip can be used for. And extra points for the deliberately provocative use of Comic Sans in the silkscreen.

Hats off to [Lee] for a thoroughly satisfying troll, and a nice look at what the 555 chip can really do. If you want a more serious look at the 555, check out this 555 modeled on a breadboard, or dive into the story of the chip’s development.

RGB Glasses Built From PCBs

Shutter shades were cool once upon a time, but if you really want to stand out, it’s hard to go past aggressively bright LEDs right in the middle of your face. A great way to achieve that is by building a pair of RGB glasses, as [Arnov Sharma] did.

The design intelligently makes use of PCBs to form the entire structure of the glasses. One PCB makes up the left arm of the glasses, carrying an ESP12F microcontroller and the requisite support circuitry. It’s fitted to the front PCB through a slot, and soldered in place. The V+, GND, and DATA connections for the WS2812B LEDs also serve as the mechanical connection. The right arm of the glasses is held on in the same way, being the same as the left arm PCB but simply left unpopulated. A little glue is also used to stiffen up the connection.

It’s a tidy build, and one that can be easily controlled from a smartphone as the ESP12F runs a basic webserver which allows the color of the glasses to be changed. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a flashy pair of LED shades either! Video after the break.

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