Tuning Into Atomic Radio: Quantum Technique Unlocks Laser-Based Radio Reception

The basic technology of radio hasn’t changed much since an Italian marquis first blasted telegraph messages across the Atlantic using a souped-up spark plug and a couple of coils of wire. Then as now, receiving radio waves relies on antennas of just the right shape and size to use the energy in the radio waves to induce a current that can be amplified, filtered, and demodulated, and changed into an audio waveform.

That basic equation may be set to change soon, though, as direct receivers made from an exotic phase of matter are developed and commercialized. Atomic radio, which does not rely on the trappings of traditional radio receivers, is poised to open a new window on the RF spectrum, one that is less subject to interference, takes up less space, and has much broader bandwidth than current receiver technologies. And surprisingly, it relies on just a small cloud of gas and a couple of lasers to work.

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Exploring The Raspberry Pi 4 USB-C Issue In-Depth

It would be fair to say that the Raspberry Pi team hasn’t been without its share of hardware issues, with the Raspberry Pi 2 being camera shy, the Raspberry Pi PoE HAT suffering from a rather embarrassing USB power issue, and now the all-new Raspberry Pi 4 is the first to have USB-C power delivery, but it doesn’t do USB-C very well unless you go for a ‘dumb’ cable.

Join me below for a brief recap of those previous issues, and an in-depth summary of USB-C, the differences between regular and electronically marked (e-marked) cables, and why detection logic might be making your brand-new Raspberry Pi 4 look like an analogue set of headphones to the power delivery hardware.

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Robot Harvesting Machine Is Tip Of The Agri-Tech Iceberg

Harvesting delicate fruit and vegetables with robots is hard, and increasingly us humans no longer want to do these jobs. The pressure to find engineering solutions is intense and more and more machines of different shapes and sizes have recently been emerging in an attempt to alleviate the problem. Additionally, each crop is often quite different from one another and so, for example, a strawberry picking machine can not be used for harvesting lettuce.

A team from Cambridge university, UK, recently published the details of their lettuce picking machine, written in a nice easy-to-read style and packed full of useful practical information. Well worth a read!

The machine uses YOLO3 detection and classification networks to get localisation coordinates of the crop and then check if it’s ready for harvest, or diseased. A standard UR10 robotic arm then positions the harvesting mechanism over the lettuce, getting force feedback through the arm joints to detect when it hits the ground. A pneumatically actuated cutting blade then attempts to cut the lettuce at exactly the right height below the lettuce head in order to satisfy the very exacting requirements of the supermarkets.

Rather strangely, the main control hardware is just a standard laptop which handles 2 consumer grade USB cameras with overall combined detection and classification speeds of about 0.212 seconds. The software is ROS (Robot Operating System) with custom nodes written in Python by members of the team.

Although the machine is slow and under-powered, we were very impressed with the fact that it seemed to work quite well. This particular project has been ongoing for several years now and the machine rebuilt 16 times! These types of machines are currently (2019) very much in their infancy and we can expect to see many more attempts at cracking these difficult engineering tasks in the next few years.

We’ve covered some solutions before, including: Weedinator, an autonomous farming ‘bot, MoAgriS, an indoor farming rig, a laser-firing fish-lice remover, an Aussie farming robot, and of course the latest and greatest from FarmBot.

Video after the break:

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The Future Of Space Is Tiny

While recent commercial competition has dropped the cost of reaching orbit to a point that many would have deemed impossible just a decade ago, it’s still incredibly expensive. We’ve moved on from the days where space was solely the domain of world superpowers into an era where multi-billion dollar companies can join on on the fun, but the technological leaps required to reduce it much further are still largely relegated to the drawing board. For the time being, thing’s are as good as they’re going to get.

Starlink satellites ready for launch

If we can’t count on the per pound cost of an orbital launch to keep dropping over the next few years, the next best option would logically be to design spacecraft that are smaller and lighter. Thankfully, that part is fairly easy. The smartphone revolution means we can already pack an incredible amount sensors and processing power into something that can fit in the palm of your hand. But there’s a catch: the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.

Often referred to as simply the “rocket equation”, it allows you to calculate (among other things) the ratio of a vehicle’s useful cargo to its total mass. For an orbital rocket, this figure is very small. Even with a modern launcher like the Falcon 9, the payload makes up less than 5% of the liftoff weight. In other words, the laws of physics demand that orbital rockets are huge.

Unfortunately, the cost of operating such a rocket doesn’t scale with how much mass it’s carrying. No matter how light the payload is, SpaceX is going to want around $60,000,000 USD to launch the Falcon 9. But what if you packed it full of dozens, or even hundreds, of smaller satellites? If they all belong to the same operator, then it’s an extremely cost-effective way to fly. On the other hand, if all those “passengers” belong to different groups that split the cost of the launch, each individual operator could be looking at a hundredfold price reduction.

SpaceX has already packed 60 of their small and light Starlink satellites into a single launch, but even those craft are massive compared to what other groups are working on. We’re seeing the dawn of a new era of spacecraft that are even smaller than CubeSats. These tiny spacecraft offer exciting new possibilities, but also introduce unique engineering challenges.

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You Wouldn’t Download A Nuclear Reactor, But Could You?

By pretty much any metric you care to use, the last couple of decades has been very good for the open source movement. There was plenty of pushback in the early days, back when the only people passionate about the idea were the Graybeards in the IT department. But as time went on, more and more developers and eventually companies saw the benefit of sharing what they were working on. Today, open source is effectively the law of the land in many fields, and you don’t have to look far to find the community openly denouncing groups who are keeping their source under lock and key.

The open source submarine that won 2017 Hackaday Prize.

In the last few years, we’ve even seen the idea gain traction in the hardware field. While it’s not nearly as prevalent as opening up the software side of things, today it’s not uncommon to see hardware schematics and PCB design files included in project documentation. So not only can you download an open source operating system, web browser, and office suite, but you can also pull down all the information you need to build everything from a handheld game system to an autonomous submarine.

With so many projects pulling back the curtain, it’s not unreasonable to wonder where the limits are. There’s understandably some concerns about the emerging field of biohacking, and anyone with a decent 3D printer can download the files necessary to produce a rudimentary firearm. Now that the open source genie is out of the bottle, it seems there’s precious little that you can’t download from your favorite repository.

Scratching an exceptionally surprising entry off that list is Transatomic, who late last year uploaded the design for their TAP-520 nuclear reactor to GitHub. That’s right, now anyone with git, some uranium, and a few billion dollars of seed money can have their very own Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). Well, that was the idea at least.

So six months after Transatomic dumped a little under 100 MB worth of reactor documentation on GitHub, is the world any closer to forkable nuclear power? Let’s find out.

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Perovskites: Not Just For Solar Cells Anymore

If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll know there’s a long history of advances in materials science that get blown far out of proportion by both the technical and the popular media. Most of the recent ones seem to center on the chemistry of carbon, particularly graphene and nanotubes. Head back a little in time and superconductors were all the rage, and before that it was advanced ceramics, semiconductors, and synthetic diamonds. There’s always some new miracle material to be breathlessly and endlessly reported on by the media, with hopeful tales of how one or the other will be our salvation from <insert catastrophe du jour here>.

While there’s no denying that each of these materials has led to huge advancements in science, industry, and the quality of life for billions, the development cycle from lab to commercialization is generally a tad slower than the press would have one believe. And so when a new material starts to gain traction in the headlines, as perovskites have recently, we feel like it’s a good opportunity to take a close look, to try to smooth out the ups and downs of the hype curve and manage expectations.

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A Field Guide To Transmission Lines

The power grid is a complicated beast, regardless of where you live. Power plants have to send energy to all of their clients at a constant frequency and voltage (regardless of the demand at any one time), and to do that they need a wide array of equipment. From transformers and voltage regulators to line reactors and capacitors, breakers and fuses, and solid-state and specialized mechanical relays, almost every branch of engineering can be found in the power grid. Of course, we shouldn’t leave out the most obvious part of the grid: the wires that actually form the grid itself.

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