Modular Robotics: When You Want More Robots in Your Robot

While robots have been making our lives easier and our assembly lines more efficient for over half a century now, we haven’t quite cracked a Jetsons-like general purpose robot yet. Sure, Boston Dynamics and MIT have some humanoid robots that are fun to kick and knock over, but they’re far from building a world-ending Terminator automaton.

But not every robot needs to be human-shaped in order to be general purpose. Some of the more interesting designs being researched are modular robots. It’s an approach to robotics which uses smaller units that can combine into assemblies that accomplish a given task.

We’ve been immersing ourselves in topics like this one because right now the Robotics Module Challenge is the current focus of the Hackaday Prize. We’re looking for any modular designs that make it easier to build robots — motor drivers, sensor arrays, limb designs — your imagination is the limit. But self contained robot modules that themselves make up larger robots is a fascinating field that definitely fits in with this challenge. Join me for a look at where modular robots are now, and where we’d like to see them going.

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An Ode to Belgrade

In two weeks the Hackaday Community is gathering in Belgrade for Europe’s greatest hardware con, The Hackaday Belgrade Conference — an event not to be missed — but of course the city itself is a spectacular place to visit and has the perfect feel for those who like to build electronics. Why not join us for your own geek world tour to Serbia? Here’s a few of the things you’ll want to see while in Belgrade.

Aeronautical Museum Belgrade

Aircraft, Inventor, Architecture

Belgrade is a tech center and a hidden jewel of Europe. Need proof? Fly into Belgrade, and you’ll land at Nikola Tesla Airport. Pick up a car at the airport and you’ll pass a great glass torus housing Serbia’s Museum of Aviation. Here, you’ll find aircraft from both sides of the cold war, Sabres and MiGs, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts, a quite rare Sud Caravelle, and the canopy of the only stealth bomber ever to be shot down. It’s an aviation geek’s paradise, and you haven’t even left the airport.

What else is in store for you when you visit Belgrade? For the Hackaday crowd, the most interesting bit will probably be the Nikola Tesla Museum. You might know of Nikola Tesla from a webcomic, but he’s actually the greatest inventor of all time, even more so than Elon Musk. Tesla invented radio, even though Marconi got the credit. Tesla invented radar and discovered x-rays. The only person they could find to portray a figure like Tesla in The Prestige was David Bowie. Nikola Tesla is the most iconic inventor to ever live (change my mind), and his museum is in Belgrade.

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Sophie Wilson: ARM and How Making Things Simpler Made Them Faster & More Efficient

Sophie Wilson is one of the leading lights of modern CPU design. In the 1980s, she and colleague Steve Furber designed the ARM architecture, a new approach to CPU design that made mobile computing possible. They did this by realizing that you could do more, and quicker, with less. If you’ve use a Raspberry Pi, or any of the myriad of embedded devices that run on ARM chips, you’ve enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

It all began for Sophie Wilson with an electric lighter and a slot machine (or fruit machine, as they are called in the UK) in 1978. An aspiring thief had figured out that if you sparked an electric lighter next to the machine, the resulting wideband electromagnetic pulse could trigger the payout circuit. Electronics designer Hermann Hauser had been tasked with fixing the problem, and he turned to Wilson, a student working at his company.

Wilson quickly figured that if you added a small wideband radio receiver to detect the pulse, you could suppress the false payout, foiling the thief. Impressed with this innovation, Hauser challenged Wilson to build a computer over the summer holidays, based in part on a design for an automated cow feeder that Wilson had created at university. Wilson created this prototype computer that looked more like a hand-wired calculator than a modern computer, but the design became the basis for the Acorn System 1, the first computer that Hauser’s new company Acorn Computers launched in 1979. Continue reading “Sophie Wilson: ARM and How Making Things Simpler Made Them Faster & More Efficient”

Ask Hackaday: Whatever Happened to Wire Wrapping?

Back in the 70s when I started getting interested in electronics, tons of magazines catered to the hobbyist market. Popular Electronics was my favorite, and I think I remember the advertisements more than anything, probably because they outnumbered articles by a large margin. Looking back, it seemed like a lot of ad space was sold to companies hawking the tools and materials needed for wire wrapping, which was very popular for prototyping in the days before solderless breadboards were readily available. I remember beauty shots of neat rows of small, gold posts, with stripped wires wrapped evenly around them.

To the budding hobbyist, wire wrapping looked like the skill to have. With a huge selection of posts, terminals, and sockets for ICs and discrete components, as well as a wide range of manual and powered wrapping tools, it seemed like you could build anything with wire wrapping. But fast forward just a decade or so, and wire wrapping seemed to drop out of favor. And today — well, does anyone even wire wrap anymore?

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The Anxiety of Open Source: Why We Struggle With Putting It Out There

You’ve just finished your project. Well, not finished, but it works and you’ve solved all the problems worth solving, and you have a thing that works for you. Then you think about sharing your creation with the world. “This is cool” you think. “Other people might think it’s cool, too.” So you have to take pictures and video, and you wish you had documented some more of the assembly steps, and you have to do a writeup, and comment your code, and create a repository for it, maybe think about licensing. All of a sudden, the actual project was only the beginning, and now you’re stressing out about all the other things involved in telling other people about your project, because you know from past experience that there are a lot of haters out there who are going to tear it down unless it’s perfect, or even if it is, and even if people like it they are going to ask you for help or to make one for them, and now it’s 7 years later and people are STILL asking you for the source code for some quick little thing you did and threw up on YouTube when you were just out of college, and of course it won’t work anymore because that was on Windows XP when people still used Java.

Take a deep breath. We’ve all been there. This is an article about finding a good solution to sharing your work without dealing with the hassle. If you read the previous paragraph and finished with a heart rate twice what you started, you know the problem. You just want to share something with the world, but you don’t want to support that project for the rest of your life; you want to move on to new and better and more interesting projects. Here are some tips.

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What Does ‘Crypto’ Actually Mean?

This article is about crypto. It’s in the title, and the first sentence, yet the topic still remains hidden.

At Hackaday, we are deeply concerned with language. Part of this is the fact that we are a purely text-based publication, yes, but a better reason is right there in the masthead. This is Hackaday, and for more than a decade, we have countered to the notion that ‘hackers’ are only bad actors. We have railed against co-opted language for our entire existence, and our more successful stories are entirely about the use and abuse of language.

Part of this is due to the nature of the Internet. Pedantry is an acceptable substitute for wisdom, it seems, and choosing the right word isn’t just a matter of semantics — it’s a compiler error. The wrong word shuts down all discussion. Use the phrase, ‘fused deposition modeling’ when describing a filament-based 3D printer, and some will inevitably reach for their pitchforks and torches; the correct phrase is, ‘fused filament fabrication’, the term preferred by the RepRap community because it is legally unencumbered by patents. That’s actually a neat tidbit, but the phrase describing a technology is covered by a trademark, and not by a patent.

The technical side of the Internet, or at least the subpopulation concerned about backdoors, 0-days, and commitments to hodl, is now at a semantic crossroads. ‘Crypto’ is starting to mean ‘cryptocurrency’. The netsec and technology-minded populations of the Internet are now deeply concerned over language. Cryptocurrency enthusiasts have usurped the word ‘crypto’, and the folks that were hacking around with DES thirty years ago aren’t happy. A DH key exchange has nothing to do with virtual cats bought with Etherium, and there’s no way anyone losing money to ICO scams could come up with an encryption protocol as elegant as ROT-13.

But language changes. Now, cryptographers are dealing with the same problem hackers had in the 90s, and this time there’s nothing as cool as rollerblading into the Gibson to fall back on. Does ‘crypto’ mean ‘cryptography’, or does ‘crypto’ mean cryptocurrency? If frequency of usage determines the correct definition, a quick perusal of the press releases in my email quickly reveals a winner. It’s cryptocurrency by a mile. However, cryptography has been around much, much longer than cryptocurrency. What’s the right definition of ‘crypto’? Does it mean cryptography, or does it mean cryptocurrency?

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When Hackerspace Directors Burn Out

A friend of mine once suggested that there should be a support group for burned-out former hackerspace directors. We could have our own Village of the Damned at summer camps, where we’d sit moodily in the gathering twilight sipping our bourbon and Club Mate and decrying whatever misfortunes came to our space to leave such visible mental scars, or gazing hollow-eyed into the laser-tinged haze and moving gently to the pulse of the chiptune music. “See that’s Jenny over there, she don’t say much“. Hackerspace noir, where the only entry criterion is being crazy enough to stand for election to your space’s board.

You can tell [Dr. Seuss] is thinking about his next volume: <em>How The Grinch Stole Whoville Hackspace</em>. Al Ravenna, World Telegram [Public domain].
You can tell [Dr. Seuss] is thinking about his next volume: How The Grinch Stole Whoville Hackspace. Al Ravenna, World Telegram [Public domain].
There must be spaces somewhere that live in such perfect harmony, in which a happy membership support a board for whom everything falls into place. Maybe the makerspace in [Dr. Seuss]’s Whoville would have that kind of atmosphere, but the reality of life is that every group is made up of both Grinch and Who. Keeping a diverse group of people harmonious is a huge challenge, but that’s what hackerspaces are really about — the people make the space.

There are several defined periods in the gestation of a hackerspace, and at least from where I’m sitting they relate to its member count. Some spaces pass through them all as they grow, while others are lucky enough to reach an equilibrium and spare themselves some of the drama.

If you recognise yourselves in some of the following then you have my commiserations, while if your space hasn’t got there yet or has managed to dodge some of the bullets then consider yourselves lucky.

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