Ask Hackaday: Experiences With Capacitor Failure

Regular readers of Hackaday are intimately knowledgeable about old electronics, and whether it’s about that old oscilloscope sitting in the pile of other oscilloscopes, or the very rare vintage computer made in a Soviet bloc country, someone somewhere knows how to fix it. One of the biggest problems with these old electronics are capacitors. If it isn’t the battery that’s gone dead and leaked all over, it’s the caps that are either out of spec or have already exploded.

These machines can be brought back from the dead, and in recent months and years we’ve seen an uptick in the number of restomods hitting the Hackaday tip line. If you have a soldering iron and the patience to do so, any machine can be brought back from the grave.

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Ask Hackaday: Get the Lead Out or Not?

For most of the history of industrial electronics, solder has been pretty boring. Mix some lead with a little tin, figure out how to wrap it around a thread of rosin, and that’s pretty much it. Sure, flux formulations changed a bit, the ratio of lead to tin was tweaked for certain applications, and sometimes manufacturers would add something exotic like a little silver. But solder was pretty mundane stuff.

Source: RoHS Guide

Then in 2003, the dull gray world of solder got turned on its head when the European Union adopted a directive called Restriction of Hazardous Substances, or RoHS. We’ve all seen the little RoHS logos on electronics gear, and while the directive covers ten substances including mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, it has been most commonly associated with lead solder. RoHS, intended in part to reduce the toxicity of an electronic waste stream that amounts to something like 50 million tons a year worldwide, marked the end of the 60:40 alloy’s reign as the king of electrical connections, at least for any products intended for the European market, when it went into effect in 2006.

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Ask Hackaday: How Do You Draw Schematics?

The lingua franca of electronic design is the schematic. I can pick up a datasheet written in Chinese (a language I do not read or speak) and usually get a half-decent idea of what the part is all about from the drawings. Unfortunately, even as my design experience has grown over the years, I haven’t quite learned to think in schematics — I need to see it on paper (or on a screen) to analyze a circuit. Whether it’s literally on the back of an envelope or sketched in the condensation on the shower stall, actually drawing a design or idea makes a huge difference in being able to understand it. And, if you’ve ever tried to explain a circuit without a schematic — in an on-line forum or over the phone, for instance — you know how difficult it is.

So, given the importance of the schematic for design and communication, you’d think choosing a tool to draw them would be an easy task. Not so. There are dozens of choices, from dedicated schematic drawing programs to using the schematic-capture facilities of simulation or PCB design tools, or even old-fashioned pencil-and-paper and its modern equivalents. Each one has its pros and cons, and may be better suited to one specific application, but you have to choose something.

So, readers of Hackaday, what do you use to convey your electronic design ideas to the world?

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Ask Hackaday: Earth’s Magnetic Field Shifting Rapidly, But Who Will Notice?

Just when you though it was safe to venture out, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an unexpected update. Magnetic North is on the move — faster than expected. That’s right, we know magnetic north moves around, but now it’s happened at a surprising rate. Instead of waiting for the normal five year interval before an update on its position, NOAA have given us a fresh one a bit earlier.

There are some things that we can safely consider immutable, reliable, they’llĀ always be the same. You might think that direction would be one of them. North, south, east, and west, the points of the compass. But while the True North of the Earth’s rotation has remained unchanged, the same can not be said of our customary method of measuring direction.

Earth’s magnetic field is generated by a 2,000 km thick outer core of liquid iron and nickel that surrounds the planet’s solid inner core. The axis of the earth’s internal magnet shifts around the rotational axis at the whim of the currents within that liquid interior, and with it changes the readings returned by magnetic compasses worldwide.

The question that emerged at Hackaday as we digested news of the early update was this: as navigation moves inexorably towards the use of GPS and other systems that do not depend upon the Earth’s magnetic field, where is this still relevant beyond the realm of science?

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Ask Hackaday: Is There a Legit Use for Operator Precedence?

Computing is really all about order. If you can take data, apply an operation to it, and get the same result every single time, then you have a stable and reliable computing system.

So it makes total sense that there is Operator Precedence. This is also called Order of Operations, and it dictates which computations will be performed first, and which will be performed last. To get the same results every time, you must perform addition, multiplication, power functions, bitwise math, and all other calculations in a codified order.

The question I’ve had on my mind lately is, does this matter to us or just the compiler?

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Ask Hackaday: Help Me Pick A CAD Package

Of all the skills that I have picked up over the years as an engineer, there is one that has stayed with me and been a constant over the last three decades. It has helped me work on electronic projects, on furniture, on car parts, robots, and even garments, and it is likely that I will continue using it periodically for the rest of my career. You see, I am a trained PAD expert.

Don't build this, it's fundamentally flawed! Sometimes the front of an envelope is as effective as its back.
Don’t build this, it’s fundamentally flawed! Sometimes the front of an envelope is as effective as its back.

PAD, you ask? OK, it’s an acronym of my own coinage, it stands for Pencil Aided Design, and it refers to the first-year undergraduate course I sat many years ago in which I learned technical drawing to the old British standard BS308. If I’m making something then by far the quickest way for me to visualise its design is to draw it, first a freehand sketch to get a feel of how everything will sit, then a series of isometric component drawings on graph paper with careful attention to dimensions and angles. Well, maybe I lied a little there, the graph paper only comes in when I’m doing something very fancy; the back of an envelope is fine as long as the dimensions on the diagram are correct.

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Ask Hackaday: How Would You Detect A Marauding Drone?

The last few days have seen drone stories in the news, as London’s Gatwick airport remained closed for a couple of days amid a spate of drone reports. The police remained baffled, arrested a couple who turned out to be blameless, and finally admitted that there was a possibility the drone could not have existed at all. It emerged that a problem with the investigation lay in there being no means to detect a drone beyond the eyesight of people on the ground, and as we have explored in these pages already, eyewitness reports are not always trustworthy.

Not much use against a small and mostly plastic multirotor. Sixflashphoto [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Not much use against a small and mostly plastic multirotor. Sixflashphoto [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Radar Can’t See Them

It seems odd at first sight, that a 21st century airport lacks the ability to spot a drone in the air above it, but a few calls to friends of Hackaday in the business made it clear that drones are extremely difficult to spot using the radar systems on a typical airport. A system designed to track huge metal airliners at significant altitude is not suitable for watching tiny mostly-plastic machines viewed side-on at the low altitudes. We’re told at best an intermittent trace appears, but for the majority of drones there is simply no trace on a radar screen.

We’re sure that some large players in the world of defence radar are queueing up to offer multi-million-dollar systems to airports worldwide, panicked into big spending by the Gatwick story, but idle hackerspace chat on the matter makes us ask the question: Just how difficult would it be to detect a drone in flight over an airport? A quick Google search reveals multiple products purporting to be drone detectors, but wouldn’t airports such as Gatwick already be using them if they were any good? The Hackaday readership never fail to impress us with their ingenuity, so how would you do it?

Can You Hear What You Can’t See?

It’s easy to pose that question as a Hackaday scribe, so to get the ball rolling here’s my first thought on how I’d do it. I always hear a multirotor and look up to see it, so I’d take the approach of listening for the distinctive sound of multirotor propellers. Could the auditory signature of high-RPM brushless motors be detected amidst the roar of sound near airports?

I’m imagining a network of Rasberry Pi boards each with a microphone attached, doing some real-time audio spectrum analysis to spot the likely frequency signature of the drone. Of course it’s easy to just say that as a hardware person with a background in the publishing business, so would a software specialist take that tack too? Or would you go for a radar approach, or perhaps even an infra-red one? Could you sense the heat signature of a multirotor, as their parts become quite hot in flight?

Whatever you think might work as a drone detection system, give it a spin in the comments. We’d suggest that people have the confidence to build something, and maybe even enter it in the Hackaday Prize when the time comes around. Come on, what have you got to lose!