Ripping Up A Rothult

NFC locks are reaching a tipping point where the technology is so inexpensive that it makes sense to use it in projects where it would have been impractical months ago. Not that practicality has any place among these pages. IKEA carries a cabinet lock for $20USD and does not need any programming but who has a jewelry box or desk drawer that could not benefit from a little extra security? Only a bit though, we’re not talking about a deadbolt here as this teardown shows.

Rothult has all the stuff you would expect to find in an NFC scanner with a moving part. We find a microcontroller, RFID decoder, supporting passives, metal shaft, and a geartrain. The most exciting part is the controller which is an STM32L051K8 processor by STMicroelectronics and second to that is the AS3911 RFID reader from AMS. Datasheets for both have links in the teardown. Riping up a Rothult in the lab, we find an 25R3911B running the RFID, and we have a link to that PDF datasheet. Both controllers speak SPI.

There are a couple of things to notice about this lock. The antenna is a flat PCB-mounted with standard header pins, so there is nothing stopping us from connecting coax and making a remote antenna. The limit switches are distinct so a few dabs of solder could turn this into an NFC controlled motor driver. Some of us will rest easy when our coworkers stop kidnapping our nice pens.

Rothult first came to our attention in a Hackaday Links where a commenter was kind enough to tip us off to this teardown. Thanks, Pio! If this whets your appetite for NFC, we have more in store.

Teardown: Refuel Propane Tank Monitor

Regular Hackaday readers will know that the clearance section of your local big box retailer is a great place to pick up oddball gadgets and gizmos for dirt cheap. In an era where manufacturers are rushing to make their products “smart” whether they need to be or not, the occasional ideas which fail to gain traction are just the cost of doing business. If you keep an eye out, you’re almost guaranteed to see one of these Internet of Things rejects collecting dust on a back aisle, often selling for pennies on the dollar.

Case in point, the “Refuel” propane tank monitor from Wink. Though there’s also logos for Quirky and GE on the package as well, and even a picture of the guy who came up with the idea. Essentially what we have here is a digital scale that reports the current weight of your grill’s propane tank to your phone via the Internet. A trick we might consider a fairly simple hack with a load cell and an ESP8266 under normal circumstances, but as this is a commercial product with an MSRP of $49.99 USD, its naturally been over-complicated to the point of absurdity.

Of course, one could simply lift the propane tank and get a decent estimate of its contents; a trick mastered by weekend grill masters since time immemorial. But then you wouldn’t have to make an account with Wink, or go through the very strange process of attempting to configure the device by using the flashing light of your smartphone’s screen (seriously). All so you can check how much propane is left in your grill while you’re away from home. You know, as one does.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine who would actually have purchased such a thing at full retail. But of course, that’s likely why I was able to pick it up for the princely sum of $5. At that price, we can’t afford not to take a peek into this gizmo from Wink, Quirky, GE, and Anthony from Boston.

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Teardown: The Guts of a Digital Sentry

I have a home alarm system that has me wondering if I can make it better with my maker Kung-fu. Recently we had to replace our system, so I took the time to dissect the main controller, the remote sensors, and all the bits that make a home security system work.

To be precise, the subject of today’s interrogation is a Zicom brand Home Alarm that was quite famous a decade ago. It connects to a wired telephone line, takes inputs from motion, door, and gas sensors, and will make quite a racket if the system is tripped (which sometimes happened accidentally). Even though no circuits were harmed in the making of this post, I assure you that there are some interesting things that will raise an eyebrow or two. Lets take a look.

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Teardown: Nihon Kenko Magnetic Wave Tester

You never know what kind of wonders you’ll find on eBay, especially when you have a bunch of alerts configured to go off when weird electronic devices pop up. You may even find yourself bidding on something despite not being entirely sure what it is. Perhaps you’re a collector of unusual gadgets, or maybe it’s because you’ve committed to doing monthly teardowns for the hacker blog you work for. In any event, you sometimes find yourself in possession of an oddball device that requires closer inspection.

Case in point, this “Magnetic Wave Tester” from everyone’s favorite purveyor of high-end electronics, Nihon Kenko Zoushin Kenkyukai Corporation. The eBay listing said the device came from an estate sale and the seller didn’t know much about it, but with just a visual inspection we can make some educated guesses. When a strong enough magnetic field is present, the top section on the device will presumably blink or light up. As it has no obvious method of sensitivity adjustment or even a display to show specific values, it appears the unit must operate like an electromagnetic canary in a coal mine: if it goes off, assume the worst.

If you’re wondering what the possible use for such a gadget is, you’re not the only one. I wasn’t able to find much information about this device online, but the few mentions I found didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. It seems two groups of people are interested in this type of “Magnetic Wave Tester”: people who believe strong magnetic fields have some homeopathic properties, or those who think it will allow them to converse with ghosts. In both cases, these aren’t the kind of users who want to see a microtesla readout; they want a bright blinking light to show their friends.

So without further ado, let’s align our chakras, consult with the spirits, and see what your money gets you when you purchase a pocket-sized hokum detector.

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Restoring An HP LCZ Meter From The 1980s

We are fantastically lucky not only in the parts that are easily available to us at reasonable cost, but also for the affordable test equipment that we can have on our benches. It was not always this way though, and [NFM] treats us to an extensive teardown and upgrade of a piece of test equipment from the days when a hacker’s bench would have been well-appointed with just a multimeter and a 10MHz ‘scope.

The Hewlett Packard 4276A LCZ meter is, or perhaps was, the king of component testers. A 19″ rack unit that would comfortably fill a shelf, it has a host of functions and a brace of red LED displays. This particular meter had clearly seen better days, and required a look inside just to clean up connectors and replace aged batteries.

In the case is a backplane board with a series of edge connectors for a PSU, CPU, and analogue boards. Aged capacitors and those batteries were replaced, and those edge connectors cleaned up again. The CPU board appears to have a Z80 at its heart, and we’re sure we spotted a 1987 date code. There are plenty of nice high-quality touches, such as the individual 7-segment digits being socketed.

An after-market option for this equipment included a DC offset board, and incredibly HP publish its full schematic and a picture of its PCB in their manual. It was thus a simple process and quick PCB ordering to knock up a modern replica, with just a few component substitutions and single resistors replacing an HP specific encapsulated resistor pack.

As a treat we get a ringside seat for the set-up and alignment of the machine. The DC offset board gives the wrong voltage, which he traces to a voltage reference with a different tolerance to the original HP part. [NFM] makes some adjustments to resistor values, and is able to pull the voltage to the correct value. Finally we see the instrument put through its paces, and along the way have a demonstration of how capacitance of a ceramic capacitor can vary with voltage close to its working voltage. Even if you never have the need for an LCZ meter or never see an HP 4276A, this should be worth a watch. And if you now have an urge to find a bench full of similar treasures, take a look at our guide to old test equipment.

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Components Cut in Half Reveal their Inner Beauty

We rarely take a moment to consider the beauty of the components we use in electronic designs. Too often they are simply commodities, bought in bulk on reels or in bags, stashed in a drawer until they’re needed, and then unceremoniously soldered to a board. Granted, little scraps of black plastic with silver leads don’t exactly deserve paeans sung to their great beauty – at least not until you cut them in half to reveal the beauty within.

We’ve seen a little of what [Tube Time] has accomplished here; recall this lapped-down surface-mount inductor that [electronupdate] did a while back. The current work is more extensive and probably somewhat easier to accomplish because [TubeTime] focused mainly on larger through-hole components such as resistors and capacitors. It’s not clear how the sections were created, but it is clear that extreme care was taken to lap down the components with enough precision that the inner structures are clearly visible, and indeed, carefully enough that some, most notably the LED, still actually work. For our money, though, the best looking cross-sections are the capacitors, especially the electrolytic, for which [Tube Time] thoughtfully provides both radial and axial sections. The little inductor is pretty cool too. Some of the component diagrams are annotated, too, which makes for fascinating reading.

Honestly, we could look at stuff like this all day.

Thanks to [Stuart Rogers] for the tip.

Teardown Of A 50 Year Old Modem

A few years ago, I was out at the W6TRW swap meet at the parking lot of Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. Tucked away between TVs shaped like polar bears and an infinite variety of cell phone chargers and wall warts was a small wooden box. There was a latch, a wooden handle, and on the side a DB-25 port. There was a switch for half duplex and full duplex. I knew what this was. This was a modem. A wooden modem. Specifically, a Livermore Data Systems acoustically coupled modem from 1965 or thereabouts.

The Livermore Data Systems Modem, where I found it. It cost me $20

The probability of knowing what an acoustically coupled modem looks like is inversely proportional to knowing what Fortnite is, so for anyone reading this who has no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll spell it out. Before there was WiFi and Ethernet and cable modems and fiber everywhere, you connected to the Internet and BBSes via phone lines. A modem turns digital data, in this case a serial connection, into analog data or sound. Oh yeah, we had phone lines, too. The phone lines and the phones in your house were owned by AT&T. Yes, you rented a phone from the phone company.

90s kids might remember plugging in a US Robotics modem into your computer, then plugging an RJ-11 jack into the modem. When this wooden modem was built, that would have been illegal. Starting with the communications act of 1934, it was illegal to attach anything to the phone in your house. This changed in 1956 with Hush-A-Phone Corp v. United States, which ruled you could mechanically attach something to a phone’s headset. (In Hush-A-Phone’s case, it was a small box that fit over a candlestick phone to give you more privacy.)

The right to attach something to AT&T’s equipment changed again in 1968 with Carterphone decision that allowed anyone to connect something electronically to AT&T’s network. This opened the door for plugging an RJ-11 phone jack directly into your computer, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the tariffs, specifications, and certifications were worked out. The acoustically coupled modem was the solution to sending data through the phone lines from 1956 until 1978. It was a hack of the legal system.

This leaves an ancient modem like the one sitting on my desk in an odd position in history. It was designed, marketed and sold before the Carterphone decision, and thus could not connect directly to AT&T’s network. It was engineered before many of the integrated chips we take for granted were rendered in silicon. The first version of this modem was introduced only a year or so after the Bell 103 modem, the first commercially available modem, and is an excellent example of what can be done with thirteen or so transistors. It’s time for the teardown, so let’s dig in.

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