Hands-On: Flying Drones with Scratch

I’ll admit it. I have a lot of drones. Sitting at my desk I can count no fewer than ten in various states of flight readiness. There are probably another half dozen in the garage. Some of them cost almost nothing. Some cost the better part of a thousand bucks. But I recently bought a drone for $100 that is both technically interesting and has great potential for motivating kids to learn about programming. The Tello is a small drone from a company you’ve never heard of (Ryze Tech), but it has DJI flight technology onboard and you can program it via an API. What’s more exciting for someone learning to program than using it to fly a quadcopter?

For $100, the Tello drone is a great little flyer. I’d go as far as saying it is the best $100 drone I’ve ever seen. Normally I don’t suggest getting a drone with no GPS since the price on those has come down. But the Tello optical sensor does a great job of keeping the craft stable as long as there is enough light for it to see. In addition, the optical sensor works indoors unlike GPS.

But if that was all there was to it, it probably wouldn’t warrant a Hackaday post. What piqued my interest was that you can program the thing using a PC. In particular, they use Scratch — the language built at MIT for young students. However, the API is usable from other languages with some work.

Information about the programming environment is rather sparse, so I dug in to find out how it all worked.

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Fail of the Week: The Semiconductor Lapping Machine That Can’t Lap Straight

It seemed like a good idea to build a semiconductor lapping machine from an old hard drive. But there’s just something a little off about [electronupdate]’s build, and we think the Hackaday community might be able to pitch in to help.

For those not into the anatomy and physiology of semiconductors, getting a look at the inside of the chip can reveal valuable information needed to reverse engineer a device, or it can just scratch the itch of curiosity. Lapping (the gentle grinding away of material) is one way to see the layers that make up the silicon die that lies beneath the epoxy. Hard drives designed to spin at 7200 rpm or more hardly seem a suitable spinning surface for a gentle lapping, but [electronupdate] just wanted the platter for its ultra-smooth, ultra-flat surface.

He removed the heads and replaced the original motor with a gear motor and controller to spin the platter at less than 5 rpm. A small holder for the decapped die was fashioned, and pinched between the platter hub and an idler. It gently rotates the die against the abrasive-covered platter as it slowly revolves. But the die wasn’t abrading evenly. He tried a number of different fixtures for the die, but never got to the degree of precision needed to see through the die layer by layer. We wonder if the weight of the die fixture is deflecting the platter a bit?

Failure is a great way to learn, if you can actually figure out where you went wrong. We look to the Hackaday community for some insight. Check out the video below and sound off in the comments if you’ve got any ideas.

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Investigating the Tiny Salvaged UPS from a Lightbulb

Recently I had the opportunity to do a teardown of a battery-backed LED bulb, and found some interesting details on how the device operated. Essentially, the bulb contained a low voltage DC uninterruptible power supply that would automatically switch between AC power and internal battery as needed. The implications of this seemed pretty exciting. For around $12 at big box retailers, this little bulb could be a cheap and convenient solution for providing fault tolerant power to microcontrollers and other low-power devices.

The teardown was a runaway success, with quite a bit of discussion of the UPS idea specifically. Some people hated it, others loved it. But as we’ve come to expect from Hackaday readers, the comments from both sides of the aisle contained keen observations and invaluable real-world experience. From the safety of the device to the accuracy of the manufacturer’s claims, it seems like every element of the product was addressed.

I had ended the teardown with a promise that I’d continue experimenting with the tiny salvaged UPS, but even if I hadn’t, with so much feedback it seemed revisiting the subject was all but a necessity. It this little UPS really viable? Is it too dangerous to safely implement in your project? Will the thing just blow up?

So with your comments as a guide, and free of the somewhat restrictive teardown format, I set out to conduct a more thorough investigation of this little circuit that caused so much debate last month. It’s not all good news, but it’s not in the trash either. Not yet, anyway.

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Hackaday Links: May 20, 2018

One of the more interesting pieces of tech from Hollywood that never seems to become a reality is a location tracker. Remember the ‘movement tracker’ in Alien that found the cat in the locker? Yeah, like that. Something that reports the direction and distance to a target, kind of like a PKE Meter from Ghostbusters. I think there was something like this in Predator. On Indiegogo, there’s a device that tracks other devices. It’s called the Lynq, and it’s a small, handheld device that tells you the distance and bearing of other paired devices. Hand them out to your friends, and you’ll be able to find each other at Coachella. While the device and use case is interesting, we’re wondering how exactly this thing works. Our best guess is that each device has a GPS module inside, and communicates with other paired devices over the 900MHz band. It’s a bit pricey at $80 per unit (although you need at least two to be useful), but this is a really interesting project.

The SDRPlay SDR1 and SDR2 are — as you would guess — software defined radio receivers, that retail for $2-300. Problem: a few of these units were stolen from a warehouse, and are winding up on eBay. Solution: SDRPlay has decided to disable the specific receivers ‘via the serial number’. In a move just slightly reminiscent of FTDIgate, a manufacturer has decided to brick products that are stolen or infringe on IP. It’s a solution, but I wouldn’t want to be on the customer service team at SDRPlay.

A few years ago, [Oscar] created the PiDP-8/I, a computer kit that miniaturized the venerable PDP-8/I into a desktop form factor, complete with blinkenlights and clicky switches. It’s a full simulation of a PDP-8 running on a Raspberry Pi, and if you took the PiDP-8/I back to 1975, you could, indeed, connect it to other computers. But the PDP-8/I isn’t the most beautiful minicomputer ever created. That honor goes to the PDP-11/70, a beast of a machine wrapped in injection molded plastic and purple toggle switches. Now, after years of work, [Oscar] has miniaturized this beast of a machine. The PiDP-11/70 is a miniature remake of the PDP-11/70, runs a Raspberry Pi, and is everything you could ever want in a minimainframe. The price will be around $250 — expensive, but have you ever tried to find a PDP-11 front panel on eBay?

The Nvidia TX2 is a credit card-sized computer with a powerful ARM processor and a GPU. The TX2 is a module designed for ‘AI at the edge’, or something along those lines, meaning you can take a trained data set, load it onto an SD card, and the TX2 will do all the fancy image processing and OpenCV without a connection to the Internet. The obvious application for the TX2 is something like an ‘AI camera’, and now this is finally a product. The DNNCam is a 4k, 60FPS camera attached to a TX2 and stuffed into an IP67-rated enclosure. If you’re thinking of building anything like a security camera attached to a GPU, this is the all-in-one solution. It’s pricey, yes, but the TX2 module isn’t exactly cheap.

InSight Brings New Tech to Mars

Unless you’ve got your ear on the launch pad so to speak, you might not be aware that humanity just launched a new envoy towards the Red Planet. Estimated to touch down in Elysium Planitia on November 26th, the InSight lander is relatively low-key as far as interplanetary missions go. Part of the NASA’s “Discovery Program”, it operates on a considerably lower budget than Flagship missions such as the Curiosity rover; meaning niceties like a big advertising and social media campaign to get the public excited doesn’t get a line item.

Which is a shame, because not only are there much worse things to do with tax money than increase public awareness of scientific endeavours, but because InSight frankly deserves a bit more respect than that. Featuring a number of firsts, the engineers and scientists behind InSight might have been short on dollars, but ambition was in ample supply.

So in honor of the successful launch, let’s take a look at the InSight mission, the unique technology onboard, and the answers scientists hope it will be able to find out there in the black.

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Retrotechtacular: The Saturn Propulsion System

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too”

When President Kennedy gave his famous speech in September 1962, the art of creating liquid-fueled rocket engines of any significant size was still in its relative infancy. All the rocketry and power plants of the Saturn series of rockets that would power the astronauts to the Moon were breaking entirely new ground, and such an ambitious target required significant plans to be laid. What is easy to forget from a platform of five decades of elapsed time is the scale of the task set for the NASA engineers of the early 1960s.

The video below the break is from 1962, concurrent with Kennedy’s speech, and it sets out the proposed development of the succession of rocket motors that would power the various parts of the Saturn family. We arrive at the famous F-1 engine that would carry the mighty Saturn 5 and start its passengers on their trip to the Moon at a very early stage in its development, after an introduction to liquid rocket engines from the most basic of first principles. We see rockets undergoing testing on the stand at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facility, along with rather superlative descriptions of their power and capabilities.

The whole production is very much in the spirit of the times, though unexpectedly it makes no mention whatsoever of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, whose own rocket program had put the first satellite and the first man into space, and which was also secretly aiming for the moon. It’s somewhat jarring to understand that the people in this video had little idea that such an ambitious program would be as successful as it became, or even that in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination the following year there would be such an effort to fulfill the aim set out in his speech to reach the moon within the decade.

The moon landings, and the events and technology that made them possible, are a subject of considerable fascination for our community. We must have covered innumerable stories about artifacts from the Apollo era in these pages, and no doubt more will continue to come our way in the future. Films like this one do not tell us quite the same story as does a real artifact, but their values lies in capturing the optimism of the time. Anything seemed possible in 1962, and those who lived through the decade were lucky enough to see this proven.

Fifty years from now, what burgeoning engineering efforts will we look back on?

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3D Printering: When an STL File is Not Quite Right

STL files are everywhere. When there’s something to 3D print, it’s probably going to be an STL. Which, as long as the model is good just as it is, is no trouble at all. But sooner or later there will be a model that isn’t quite right in some way and suddenly project progress hits a snag.

When models interface with other physical things, those other components may not always be exactly as the designer expected. Being mindful about such potential inconsistencies during the design phase can help prevent problems, but it’s not always avoidable. The reason it’s a problem is because an STL file represents a solid model as a finished unit; it is not really intended to be rolled back into CAD programs for additional design changes.

STL files can be edited, but just like re-modeling a component from scratch, it can be a tricky process for those who don’t live and breathe this stuff. I’ll describe a few common issues related to STLs that can hold up getting that new project together, along with ways to deal with them. Thanks to 3D printing becoming much more commonplace, basic tools are within reach of even the least CAD-aware among us.

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