The Adafruit Feather Is A Thing

A few years ago, Adafruit launched the Feather 32u4 Basic Proto. This tiny development board featured — as you would expect — an ATMega32u4 microcontroller, a USB port, and a battery charging circuit for tiny LiPo batteries. It was, effectively, a small Arduino clone with a little bit of extra circuitry that made it great for portable and wearable projects. In the years since, and as Adafruit has recently pointed out, the Adafruit Feather has recently become a thing. This is a new standard. Maxim is producing compatible ‘wings’ or shields. If you’re in San Francisco, the streets are littered with Feather-compatible boards. What’s the deal with these boards, and why are there so many of them?

The reason for Adafruit’s introduction of the Feather format was the vast array of shields, hats, capes, clicks, props, booster packs, and various other standards. The idea was to bring various chipsets under one roof, give them a battery charging circuit, and not have a form factor that is as huge as the standard Arduino. The Feather spec was finalized and now we have three-phase energy monitors, a tiny little game console, LoRaWAN Feathers, and CAN controllers.

Of course, the Feather format isn’t just limited to Adafruit products and indie developers. The recently introduced Particle hardware is built on the Feather format, giving cellular connectivity to this better-than-Arduino format. Maxim is producing some development boards with the same format.

So, do we finally have a form factor for one-off embedded development that isn’t as huge or as wonky as the gigantic Arduino with weirdly offset headers? It seems so.

Morse Code Blinking Jewelry

With the size of electronic parts and batteries these days, very small items are obviously becoming more and more viable. [Yann Guidon] has made some awesome pieces of LED jewelry using a minimal number of surface mount parts and a small lithium-ion battery. To make the jewelry stand out a bit, other than just blinking on and off, these LEDs blink a short message in Morse code.

This is an update and open sourcing of some work that [Yann] did a few years ago, and the iterations have resulted in a smaller design. But the main part of the latest version is the addition of the Morse code blinking using a small microcontroller. The microcontroller [Yann] used is the SMD version of the PIC10F200, a small, 8 pin PIC microcontroller. This, a resistor and a metal clip are soldered to pads on a Luxeon Star LED.  The LEDs are undervolted so they’re not too bright, so the heat sink isn’t really needed, but it’s a good size for the components. Because the LEDs don’t generation much heat, the back of the aluminum frame that the LED is on is carved out a bit so that the small lithium-ion battery can go there.

The final component is the code itself, and [Yann] has released it as an assembly file. An associated text file contains the text of the message that you want the earrings to blink. The text file can contain up to 190 bytes. A shell script converts the text to a file that can be included in the asm file. After that script is run, assemble the code and flash it to the PIC and you’re done!

We’ve seen a couple of other LED jewelry projects done, including this LED engagement ring, and these tiny light-up earrings. You can see video of [Yann]’s project in the video below:
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Accessing Blockchain on ESP8266 Using the NodeMCU Board

Blockchains claim to be public, distributed, effectively immutable ledgers. Unfortunately, they also tend to get a little bit huge – presently the Bitcoin blockchain is 194GB and Ethereum weighs in at 444GB. That poses quite an inconvenience for me, as I was looking at making some fun ‘Ethereum blockchain aware’ gadgets and that’s several orders of magnitude too much data to deal with on a microcontroller, not to mention the bandwidth cost if using 3G.

Having imagined a thin device that I could integrate into my mobile phone cover (or perhaps… a wallet?) dealing with the whole blockchain was clearly not a possibility. I could use a VPS or router to efficiently download the necessary data and respond to queries, but even that seemed like a lot of overhead, so I investigated available APIs.

As it turns out, several blockchain explorers offer APIs that do what I want. My efforts get an ESP8266 involved with the blockchain began with two of the available APIs: Ethplorer and Etherscan.

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An Open-Source Turbomolecular Pump Controller

It’s not every project write-up that opens with a sentence like “I had this TURBOVAC 50 turbomolecular pump laying around…”, but then again not every write-up comes from someone with a lab as stuffed full of goodies as that of [Niklas Fauth]. His pump had an expired controller board, so he’s created an open-source controller of his own centred upon an STM32. Intriguingly he mentions its potential use as “I want to do more stuff with sputtering and Ion implantation in the future“, as one does of course.

So given that probably not many Hackaday readers have a turbomolecular pump lying around but quite a few of you will find the subject interesting, what does this project do? Sadly it’s a little more mundane than the pump itself, since a turbomolecular pump is a highly specialised multi-stage turbine, this is a 3-phase motor controller with analogue speed feedback taken from the voltage across a couple of the motor phases. For this reason he makes the point that it’s a fork of his hoverboard motor controller software, the fruits of which we’ve shown you in the past. There isn’t a cut-out timer should the motor not reach full speed in a safe time, but he provides advice as to where to look in the code should that be necessary.

This is by no means the first turbomolecular pump to make it to these pages, in 2016 we brought you one taking inspiration from a Tesla turbine.

Microsoft Secures IoT from the Microcontroller Up

Frustrated by the glut of unsecured IoT devices? So are Microsoft. And they’re using custom Linux and hardware to do something about it.

Microsoft have announced a new ecosystem for secure IoT devices called “Azure Sphere.” This system is threefold: Hardware, Software, and Cloud. The hardware component is a Microsoft-certified microcontroller which contains Microsoft Pluton, a hardware security subsystem. The first Microsoft-certified Azure Sphere chip will be the MediaTek MT3620, launching this year. The software layer is a custom Linux-based Operating System (OS) that is more capable than the average Real-Time OS (RTOS) common to low-powered IoT devices. Yes, that’s right. Microsoft is shipping a product with Linux built-in by default (as opposed to Windows Subsystem for Linux). Finally, the cloud layer is billed as a “turnkey” solution, which makes cloud-based functions such as updating, failure reporting, and authentication simpler.

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Adventures In Gas Filled Tube Arrays

Vacuum tubes are awesome, and Nixies are even better. Numitrons are the new hotness, but there’s one type of tube out there that’s better than all the rest. It’s the ИГГ1-64/64M. This is a panel of tubes in a 64 by 64 grid, some with just green dots, some with green and orange, and even a red, green, blue 64 by 64 pixel matrix. They’re either phosphors or gas-filled tubes, but this is the king of all tube-based displays. Not even the RGB CRTs in a Jumbotron can match the absurdity of this tube array.

[Muth] got his hands on a few of these panels, and finally he’s displaying images on them. It’s an amazing project that involved finding the documentation, translating it, driving the tubes with 360 Volts, and figuring out a way to drive 128 inputs from just a few microcontroller pins.

First, the power supply. These panels require about 360 Volts to light up. This is significantly higher than what would usually be found in a Nixie clock or other normal tube-based display. That’s no problem, because a careful reading of the datasheet revealed a circuit that brings a normal-ish 180 Volt Nixie power supply up to the proper voltage. To drive these pixels, [Muth] settled on a rather large PIC18F microcontroller with eight tri-state buffers. The microcontroller takes data over a serial port and scans through the entire framebuffer. All in all, there are eight driver boards, 736 components, and 160 wires connecting everything together. It’s a lot of work, but now [Muth] has a 64×64 display that’s green and orange.

You can check out a ‘pixel dust’ demo of this display in action below.

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Dissecting the AVR debugWire

Anyone who’s ever written more than a dozen or so lines of code knows that debugging is a part of life in our world. Anyone who’s written code for microcontrollers knows that physical debugging is a part of our life as well. Atmel processors use a serial communications protocol called debugWire, which is a simpler version of JTAG and allows full read/write access to all registers and allows one to single step, break, etc. [Nerd Ralph], a prominent fixture here at Hackaday has dug into the AVR debugWire protocol and enlightened us with some valuable information.

While the protocol side of debugWire is a mostly-solved problem, the physical layer was giving him trouble. He started with a diode, and then went through a couple resistors and other components to interface with the debugWire pin on the AVR microcontroller, doing most of the troubleshooting work so now you don’t have to. He notes that interface components might need to be tailored to specific USB-TTL adapters, so keep that in mind if you care to delve into working with debugWire yourself.

We’re no strangers to debugging techniques here at Hackaday. As always, be sure to let us know if you run across any new techniques or try anything new yourself!