For the last several months, we’ve been hosting the greatest hardware competition on Earth. This is the Hackaday Prize, and we’ve just wrapped up the last of our five hardware challenges. For the Anything Goes challenge in this year’s Hackaday Prize, we’re asking hardware hackers to build the best, the coolest thing. No, it doesn’t matter what it is. We’re looking for technical skill and awesome applications. There are no limits here.
We just wrapped up the Anything Goes challenge last week, and now it’s time to announce the winners. These are the best, the coolest projects the Hackaday Prize has to offer.
The winners of the Anything Goes challenge are, in no particular order:
Most CNC robots people see involve belts and rails, gantries, lead screws, linear bearings, and so forth. Those components need a rigid chassis to support them and to keep them from wobbling during fabrication and adding imperfections to the design. As a result, the scale is necessarily small — hobbyist bots max out at cabinet-sized, for the most part. Their rigid axes are often laid out at Cartesian right angles.
One of the exceptions to this common configuration is the delta robot. Deltas might be the flashiest of CNC robots, moving the end effector on three arms that move to position it anywhere in the build envelope. A lot of these robots are super fast and precise when charged with carrying a light load, and they get put to work as pick-and-place machines and that sort of thing. It doesn’t hurt that delta bots are also parallel manipulators, which means that the motors work together to move the end effector, with one motor pulling while the matching motor pulls.
But while Cartesian CNC bots are sturdy workhorses, and deltas are fly-weight racehorces, neither can really cut it when you want to go gigantic. In terms of simplicity and scale, nothing beats cable bots.
Cable bots use wires or strings pulled by reel-mounted motors, with dimensions limited only by the room to mount the motors and the tensile strength of the cables used. When the strings are tensioned you can get a surprising degree of accuracy. Why not? Are they not computer-controlled motors? As long as your kinematic chain accounts for the end effector’s movement in one direction by unwinding another cable (for instance) you can very accurately control the end effector over a very wide scale.
The following are some fun cable bots that have caught my eye.
We must all have at some time or another spotted a hack that seems like an incredible idea and which just has to be tried, but turns out to have been stretching the bounds of what is possible just a little too far. A chunk of our time has disappeared without trace, and we sheepishly end up buying the proper part for the job in hand.
[Orionrobots] had a conversation with a YouTube follower about LED strips. An LED strip contains a length of ready-made PWM drivers, they mused. Wouldn’t it be great then, if each of the drivers on a strip could be connected to a servo, making the strip a ready-made single-stop SPI servo driver. With a large multi-servo robot to build, he set to work on a strip of WS2801s.
If you are in the Soldering Zone and have elite skills at the iron, then soldering a wire to a surface mount driver chip is something entirely possible. For mere mortals though it’s a bit of a challenge, and he notes just how much extra time it’s added to the project. The fun starts though when the servo is hooked up, the best that can be said is that it vibrates a bit. On paper, the LED drivers should be able to drive a servo, because they can create the correct waveform. But in practice the servo is designed to accept a logic level input while the driver is designed to sit in series with an LED and control its current. In practice therefore the voltages required for a logic transition can’t quite be achieved.
He concludes by recommending that viewers splash out on a servo driver board rather than trying an LED strip. We applaud him for the effort, after all it’s a hack any of us might have thought of trying for ourselves.
The mid-1980s were a time of drastic change. In the United States, the Reagan era was winding down, the Cold War was heating up, and the IBM PC was the newest of newnesses. The comparatively few wires stitching together the larger university research centers around the world pulsed with a new heartbeat — the Internet Protocol (IP) — and while the World Wide Web was still a decade or so away, The Internet was a real place for a growing number of computer-savvy explorers and adventurers, ready to set sail on the virtual sea to explore and exploit this new frontier.
In 1986, having recently lost his research grant, astronomer Clifford Stoll was made a computer system admin with the wave of a hand by the management of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s physics department. Commanded to go forth and administer, Stoll dove into what appeared to be a simple task for his first day on the job: investigating a 75-cent error in the computer account time charges. Little did he know that this six-bit overcharge would take over his life for the next six months and have this self-proclaimed Berkeley hippie rubbing shoulders with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the German Bundeskriminalamt, all in pursuit of the source: a nest of black-hat hackers and a tangled web of international espionage.
Sometimes when researching one Hackaday story we as writers stumble upon the one train of thought that leads to another. So it was with a recent look at an unmanned weather station buoy from the 1960s, which took us on a link to a much earlier automated weather station.
Weather Station Kurt was the only successful installation among a bold attempt by the German military during the Second World War to gain automated real-time meteorological data from the Western side of the Atlantic. Behind that simple sentence hides an extremely impressive technical and military achievement for its day. This was the only land-based armed incursion onto the North American continent by the German military during the entire war. Surrounded as it was though by secrecy, and taking place without conflict in an extremely remote part of Northern Labrador, it passed unnoticed by the Canadian authorities and was soon forgotten as an unimportant footnote in the wider conflagration.
Kurt took the form of a series of canisters containing a large quantity of nickel-cadmium batteries, meteorological instruments, a telemetry system, and a 150W high frequency transmitter. In addition there was a mast carrying wind speed and direction instruments, and the transmitting antenna. In use it was to have provided vital advance warning of weather fronts from the Western Atlantic as they proceeded towards the European theatre of war, the establishment of a manned station on enemy territory being too hazardous.
A small number of these automated weather stations were constructed by Siemens in 1943, and it was one of them which was dispatched in the U-boat U537 for installation on the remote Atlantic coast of what is now part of modern-day Canada. In late October 1943 they succeeded in that task after a hazardous trans-Atlantic voyage, leaving the station bearing the markings of the non-existent “Canadian Meteor Service” in an attempt to deceive anybody who might chance upon it. In the event it was not until 1977 that it was spotted by a geologist, and in 1981 it was retrieved and taken to the Canadian War Museum.
There is frustratingly little information to be found on the exact workings on the telemetry system, save that it made a transmission every few hours on 3940kHz. A Google Books result mentions that the transmission was encoded in Morse code using the enigmatic Graw’s Diaphragm, a “sophisticated contact drum” named after a Dr. [Graw], from Berlin. It’s a forgotten piece of technology that defies our Google-fu in 2017, but it must in effect have been something of a mechanical analogue-to-digital converter.
Should you happen to be visiting the Canadian capital, you can see Kurt on display in the Canadian War Museum. It appears to have been extensively restored from the rusty state it appears in the photograph taken during its retrieval, it would be interesting to know whether anything remains of the Graw’s Diaphragm. Do any readers know how this part of the station worked? Please let us know in the comments.
Weather station Kurt retrieval image, Canadian National Archives. (Public domain).
Think about an Internet-connected device that never needs charging, never plugs into an outlet, and will never run out of power. With just a small solar cell, an Internet of Thing module can run for decades. This is the promise of energy harvesting, and it opens the doors to a lot of interesting questions.
Joining us for this week’s Hack Chat will be [John Tillema], CTO and co-founder of TWTG. They’re working on removing batteries completely from the IoT equation. They have a small device that operates on just 200 lux — the same amount of light that can be found on a desktop. That’s a device that can connect to the Internet without batteries, wall warts, or the black magic wizardry of RF harvesting. How do you design a device that will run for a century? Are caps even rated for that? Are you really going to download firmware updates several decades down the line?
For this week’s Hack Chat, we’ll be discussing what energy harvesting actually is, what TWTG’s ‘light energy’ technology is all about, and the capabilities of this technology. Going further, we’ll be discussing how to design a circuit for low-power usage, how to select components that will last for decades, and how to measure and test the entire system so it lives up to the promise of being always on, forever, without needing a new battery.
People talk about active and passive components like they are two distinct classes of electronic parts. When sourcing components on a BOM, you have the passives, which are the little things that are cheaper than a dime a dozen, and then the rest that make up the bulk of the cost. Diodes and transistors definitely fall into the cheap little things category, but aren’t necessarily passive components, so what IS the difference?