In recent months, the ability to hide components inside a circuit board has become an item of interest. We could trace this to the burgeoning badgelife movement, where engineers create beautiful works of electronic art. We can also attribute this interest to Bloomberg’s Big Hack, where Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley asserted Apple was the target of Chinese spying using components embedded inside a motherboard. The Big Hack story had legs, but so far no evidence of this hack’s existence has come to light, and the companies and governments involved have all issued denials that anything like this exists.
That said, embedding components inside a PCB is an interesting topic of discussion, and thanks to the dropping prices of PCB fabrication (this entire project cost $15 for the circuit boards), it’s now possible for hobbyists to experiment with the technique.
But first, it’s important to define what ‘stuffing components inside a piece of fiberglass’ is actually called. My research keeps coming back to the term ’embedded components’ which is utterly ungooglable, and a truly terrible name because ’embedded’ means something else entirely. You cannot call a PCB fabrication technique ’embedded components’ and expect people to find it on the Internet. For lack of a better term, I’m calling this ‘Oreo construction’, because of my predilection towards ‘stuf’, and because it needs to be called something. We’re all calling it ‘Oreo construction’ now, because the stuf is in the middle. This is how you do it with standard PCB design tools and cheap Chinese board houses.
I recently came across the most peculiar way to make a color CRT monitor. More than a few oscilloscopes have found their way on to my bench over the years, but I was particularly struck with a find from eBay. A quick look at the display reveals something a little alien. The sharpness is fantastic: each pixel is a perfect, uniform-colored little dot, a feat unequaled even by today’s best LCDs. The designers seem to have chosen a somewhat odd set of pastels for the UI though, and if you move your head just right, you can catch flashes of pure red, green, and blue. It turns out, this Tektronix TDS-754D sports a very peculiar display technology called NuColor — an evolutionary dead-end that was once touted as a superior alternative to traditional color CRTs.
Join me for a look inside to figure out what’s different from those old, heavy TVs that have gone the way of the dodo.
When Charles “Chuck” Yeager reached a speed of Mach 1.06 while flying the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis in 1947, he became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in controlled level flight. Specifying that he reached supersonic speed “in controlled level flight” might seem superfluous, but it’s actually a very important distinction. There had been several unconfirmed claims that aircraft had hit or even exceeded Mach 1 during the Second World War, but it had always been during a steep dive and generally resulted in the loss of the aircraft and its pilot. Yeager’s accomplishment wasn’t just going faster than sound, but doing it in a controlled and sustained flight that ended with a safe landing.
In that way, the current status of hypersonic flight is not entirely unlike that of supersonic flight prior to 1947. We have missiles which travel at or above Mach 5, the start of the hypersonic regime, and spacecraft returning from orbit such as the Space Shuttle can attain speeds as high as Mach 25 while diving through the atmosphere. But neither example meets that same requirement of “controlled level flight” that Yeager achieved 72 years ago. Until a vehicle can accelerate up to Mach 5, sustain that speed for a useful period of time, and then land intact (with or without a human occupant), we can’t say that we’ve truly mastered hypersonic flight.
So why, nearly a century after we broke the sound barrier, are we still without practical hypersonic aircraft? One of the biggest issues historically has been the material the vehicle is made out of. The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” struggled with the intense heat generated by flying at Mach 3, which ultimately required it to be constructed from an expensive and temperamental combination of titanium and polymer composites. A craft which flies at Mach 5 or beyond is subjected to even harsher conditions, and it has taken decades for material science to rise to the challenge.
With modern composites and the benefit of advanced computer simulations, we’re closing in on solving the physical aspects of surviving sustained hypersonic flight. With the recent announcement that Russia has put their Avangard hypersonic glider into production, small scale vehicles traveling at high Mach numbers for extended periods of time are now a reality. Saying it’s a solved problem isn’t quite accurate; the American hypersonic glider program has been plagued with issues related to the vehicle coming apart under the stress of Mach 20 flight, which heats the craft’s surface to temperatures in excess of 1,900 C (~3,500 F). But we’re getting closer, and it’s no longer the insurmountable problem it seemed a few decades ago.
Today, the biggest remaining challenge is propelling a hypersonic vehicle in level flight for a useful period of time. The most promising solution is the scramjet, an engine that relies on the speed of the vehicle itself to compress incoming air for combustion. They’re mechanically very simple, and the physics behind it have been known since about the time Yeager was climbing into the cockpit of the X-1. Unfortunately the road towards constructing, much less testing, a full scale hypersonic scramjet aircraft has been a long and hard one.
If adding a cell modem is dealing with a drama queen of a hardware component, then choosing from among the many types of modules available turns the designer into an electronics Goldilocks. There are endless options for packaging and features all designed to make your life easier (or not!) so you-the-designer needs to have a clear understanding of the forces at work to come to a reasonable decision. How else will Widget D’lux® finally ship? You are still working on Widget D’lux®, aren’t you?
OK, quick recap from last time. Cell modems can be used to add that great feature known as The Internet to your product, which is a necessary part of the Internet of Things, and thus Good. So you’re adding a cell modem! But “adding a cell modem” can mean almost anything. Are you aiming to be Qualcomm and sue Apple build modems from scratch? Probably not. What about sticking a Particle Electron inside to bolt something together quickly? Or talk to Telit and put a bare modem on a board? Unless you’re expecting to need extremely high volume and have a healthy appetite for certification glee, I bet you’ve chosen to get a modem with as many existing certifications as possible, which takes us to where we are today. Go read the previous post if you want a much more elaborate discussion of your modem-packaging options and some of the trade offs involved. Continue reading “Finding the Goldilocks Cell Module”→
Here’s a fun exercise: take a list of the 20th century’s inventions and innovations in electronics, communications, and computing. Make sure you include everything, especially the stuff we take for granted. Now, cross off everything that can’t trace its roots back to the AT&T Corporation’s research arm, the Bell Laboratories. We’d wager heavily that the list would still contain almost everything that built the electronics age: microwave communications, data networks, cellular telephone, solar cells, Unix, and, of course, the transistor.
But is that last one really true? We all know the story of Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley, the brilliant team laboring through a blizzard in 1947 to breathe life into a scrap of germanium and wires, finally unleashing the transistor upon the world for Christmas, a gift to usher us into the age of solid state electronics. It’s not so simple, though. The quest for a replacement for the vacuum tube for switching and amplification goes back to the lab of Julius Lilienfeld, the man who conceived the first field-effect transistor in the mid-1920s.
On the outside chance that we ever encounter a space probe from an alien civilization, the degree to which the world will change cannot be overestimated. Not only will it prove that we’re not alone, or more likely weren’t, depending on how long said probe has been traveling through space, but we’ll have a bonanza of super-cool new technology to analyze. Just think of the fancy alloys, the advanced biomimetic thingamajigs, the poly-godknowswhat composites. We’ll take a huge leap forward by mimicking the alien technology; the mind boggles.
Sadly, we won’t be returning the favor. If aliens ever snag one of our interstellar envoys, like one of the Voyager spacecraft, they’ll see that we sent them some really old school stuff. While one team of alien researchers will be puzzling over why we’d encode images on a phonograph record, another team will be tearing apart – an 8-track tape recorder?
The history of aviation is full of notable X-Planes, a number of which heralded in new generations of flight. The Bell X-1 became the first aircraft to break the speed of sound during level flight in 1947 with the legendary Charles “Chuck” Yeager at the controls. A few years later the X-2 would push man up to Mach 3, refining our understanding of supersonic flight. In the 1960’s, the North American built X-15 would not only take us to the edge of space, but set a world speed record which remains unbroken.
Compared to the heady post-war days when it seemed the sky was quite literally the limit, X-Planes in the modern era have become more utilitarian in nature. They are often proposed but never built, and if they do get built, the trend has been towards unmanned subscale vehicles due to their lower cost and risk. The few full-scale piloted X-Planes of the 21st century have largely been prototypes for new military fighter jets rather than scientific research aircraft.
But thanks to a commitment from NASA, the Lockheed Martin X-59 might finally break that trend and become another historic vehicle worthy of the X-Plane lineage. Construction has already begun on the X-59, and the program has recently passed a rigorous design and timeline overview by NASA officials which confirmed the agency’s intent to financially and logistically support the development of the aircraft through their Low Boom Flight Demonstrator initiative. If successful, the X-59 will not only help refine the technology for the next generation of commercial supersonic aircraft, but potentially help change the laws which have prevented such aircraft from operating over land in the United States since 1973.