Who Knew Cut Grass Would Be So Tricky To Move!

Like all publications, here at Hackaday we are besieged by corporate public relations people touting press releases. So-and-so inc. have a new product, isn’t it exciting! But we know you, our readers, we know you like hacks, and with the best will in the world, the vast majority of such things have nothing of the hack about them. Just occasionally though a corporate offering does contain a hack, and today we have a fascinating one from Charm Industrial, who are doing their best to make hydrogen from biomass. They were finding cut grass to be an extremely difficult material to handle, and their account of how they managed to feed it from a hopper into their machinery makes for interesting reading.

You might expect grass to flow from a conical hopper like an ungainly liquid, but in fact it readily clogs and forms bridges, blocking the outlet. Changing the design of the hopper made little difference, so they tried an auger. The auger simply compressed the blockage harder, resulting in the counter-intuitive strategy of running the auger in reverse. But even that didn’t work, leaving the area round the auger clear but the rest of the grass as a solid clump. Rotating plows were tried with multiple different profiles followed, but finally they settled upon a vibrating bin activator. It’s a crash course in materials handling, and though the Hackaday bench is likely to avoid having to handle cut grass except when emptying the lawnmower, it’s still worth a look.

We may have done very little with handling cut grass, but we’ve certainly taken a look at creating it.

Look Ma, No Glue! Electrostatic Adhesion As If By Magic

One of the projects at the recent Hacker Hotel hacker camp in the Netherlands appeared to have achieved the impossible. A vertical PCB surface was holding pieces of paper as though they were pinned to it as on a notice board, yet there was no adhesive or fixings in sight. Was Harry Potter among the attendees, ready with a crafty bit of magic at a waggle of a wizard’s wand, or was a clever hack at work?

Of course, it was the latter, as [Jan-Henrik Hemsing], had created an electrostatic adhesion plate because he was curious about the phenomenon. A PCB with extra insulation has an array of conductors on one side that carry a very high voltage. High enough for electrostatic attraction to secure a piece of paper to the PCB.

The voltage is generated from an AC source by a Cockroft-Walton multiplier on the back of the PCB, and the front is coated with Plasti-Dip for insulation. It seems that soldermask is not a reliable insulator at such high voltages.

Using the board, [Jan] was able to attach a piece of paper to it with a shearing force of 5mN at 3kV applied voltage, which may not sound like much but appeared to be just enough to carefully pick the contraption up by the piece of paper. The boards are designed for tessellation, so larger arrays could easily be assembled.

We’ve never had a project quite like this one, but we have brought you an electrostatic ping-pong ball accelerator.

Talk To Your ‘Scope, And It Will Obey

An oscilloscope is a device that many of us use, and which we often have to use while our hands are occupied with test probes or other tools. [James Wilson] has solved the problem of how to control his ‘scope no-handed, by connecting it to a Raspberry Pi 3 running the snips.ai voice assistant. This is an interesting piece of software that runs natively upon the device in contrast to the cloud service provided by the likes of Alexa or Google Assistant.

The ‘scope in question is a Keysight 1000-X that can be seen in the video below the break, but looking at the Python code we could imagine the same technique being brought to other instruments such as the Rigol 1054z we looked at controlling via USB a year or two ago. The use of the snips.ai software provides a pointer to how voice-controlled projects in our community might evolve beyond the cloud services, interestingly though they do not make a big thing of it their software appears to be open-source.

Oscilloscopes do not have to be remotely controlled by voice alone. It seems to be a common desire to take measurements no-handed — one project we’ve featured in the past did the job with a foot switch.

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Building A Simple Python API for Internet of Things Gadgets

It’s no secret that I rather enjoy connecting things to the Internet for fun and profit. One of the tricks I’ve learned along the way is to spin up simple APIs that can be used when prototyping a project. It’s easy to do, and simple to understand so I’m happy to share what has worked for me, using Web2Py as the example (with guest appearances from ESP8266 and NodeMCU).

Barring the times I’m just being silly, there are two reasons I might do this. Most commonly I’ll need to collect data from a device, typically to be stored for later analysis but occasionally to trigger some action on a server in the cloud. Less commonly, I’ll need a device to change its behavior based on instructions received via the Internet.

Etherscan is an example of an API that saves me a lot of work, letting me pull data from Ethereum using a variety of devices.

In the former case, my first option has always been to use IoT frameworks like Thingsboard or Ubidots to receive and display data. They have the advantage of being easy to use, and have rich features. They can even react to data and send instruction back to devices. In the latter case, I usually find myself using an application programming interface (API) – some service open on the Internet that my device can easily request data from, for example the weather, blockchain transactions, or new email notifications.

Occasionally, I end up with a type of data that requires processing or is not well structured for storage on these services, or else I need a device to request data that is private or that no one is presently offering. Most commonly, I need to change some parameter in a few connected devices without the trouble of finding them, opening all the cases, and reprogramming them all.

At these times it’s useful to be able to build simple, short-lived services that fill in these gaps during prototyping. Far from being a secure or consumer-ready product, we just need something we can try out to see if an idea is worth developing further. There are many valid ways to do this, but my first choice is Web2Py, a relatively easy to use open-source framework for developing web applications in Python. It supports both Python 2.7 and 3.0, although we’ll be using Python 3 today.

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The Woeful World of Worldwide E-Waste

How large is the cache of discarded electronics in your home? They were once expensive and cherished items, but now they’re a question-mark for responsible disposal. I’m going to dig into this problem — which goes far beyond your collection of dead smartphones — as well as the issues of where this stuff ends up versus where it should end up. I’m even going to demystify the WEEE mark (that crossed out trashcan icon you’ve been noticing on your gadgets), talk about how much jumbo jets weigh, and touch on circular economies, in the pursuit of better understanding of the waste streams modern gadgets generate.

Our lives are encountering an increasing number of “how do I dispose of this [X]” moments, where X is piles of old batteries, LCDs, desktop towers, etc. This leads to relationship-testing piles of garbage potential in a garage or the bottom of a closet. Sometimes that old gear gets sold or donated. Sometimes there’s a handy e-waste campaign that swings through the neighborhood to scoop that pile up, and sometimes it eventually ends up in the trash wrapped in that dirty feeling that we did something wrong. We’ve all been there; it’s easy to discover that responsible disposal of our old electronics can be hard.

Fun fact: the average person who lives in the US generates 20 kg of e-waste annually (or about 44 freedom pounds). That’s not unique, in the UK it’s about 23 kg (that’s 23 in common kilograms), 24 kg for Denmark, and on and on. That’s quite a lot for an individual human, right? What makes up that much waste for one person? For that matter, what sorts of waste is tracked in the bogus sounding e-waste statistics you see bleated out in pleading Facebook posts? Unsurprisingly there are some common definitions. And the Very Serious People people at the World Economic Forum who bring you the definitions have some solutions to consider too.

We spend a lot of time figuring out how to build this stuff. Are we spending enough time planning for what to do with the gear once it falls out of favor? Let’s get to the bottom of this rubbish.
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Naomi Wu On The Sino:Bit, 3D Printers, And Open Source Hardware In China

Many readers will be familiar with [Naomi Wu], the prolific hardware hacker who has shown us so much of the epicentre of Chinese tech in her native Shenzhen through a lens that most outsiders would struggle to achieve. We’ve seen her touring factories and electronics marts, building a load of interesting projects, and achieving the first open source hardware certifications in China.

We’ve seen a lot of [Naomi] speaking to us in English as an audience outside her country, so it is extremely interesting to see her latest video posting in which she makes her case for open source hardware in Chinese to a Chinese audience (Chinese audio with English subtitles). She’s speaking at the recent China open source conference, and her description starts with “**THIS IS VERY BORING UNLESS YOU ARE INTO OPEN SOURCE**”, which we think is a little unfair as it should appeal to anyone with an interest in the Chinese tech business.

In the talk she takes us through the potential benefits of open source to Chinese business by using her projects as case studies. In particular she concentrates on how the arguments for open source in a commercial arena have to be made differently for a Chinese business to those used in the rest of the world. Using the analogy of a college dorm hotpot party, she outlines the importance of a community in open-source development, then we get a blow-by blow account of her work with Elecrow and Creality on the Sino:bit (a single-board computer targeting education in China) and the 3D printers.

The software support for the Sino:bit in particular demonstrates the added value of open source to a business, with significant tutorial and curriculum material coming from Adafruit Industries, Hindi language and character set support from developers in India, and a Chinese developer painstakingly transcribing all the Chinese character set for the device. That last step alone would have cost a non open-source developer a significant sum.

During her talk we are shown the commercial benefits to all three devices, for example one of the Creality 3D printers rapidly becoming Amazon’s top seller despite an array of knock-off machines appearing. We’ve embedded the video below the break, and we think it should be required viewing for anyone with an interest in open source or the Chinese tech industry.

Once you have seen the video you might find [Naomi’s] guide to buying on Taobao to be of interest, as well as her explanation of the Chinese cultural attitude to engineers while introducing us to the historical master craftsman, [Lu Ban].

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Single Board Computer Plays Nice with NVIDIA GPU

It’s about convenience when it comes to single board computers. The trade-off of raw compute power for size means the bulk of them end up being ARM based, but there are a few exceptions like the x86 based Udoo Ultra. The embedded Intel 405 GPU on the Udoo Ultra is better than most in the category, but that won’t begin to play much of anything outside of a browser window. Not satisfied with “standard” [Matteo] put together his build combining an Udoo x86 Ultra with a NVIDIA 1060 GPU. It seems ridiculous to have an expansion card almost three times longer than the entire computer its attached to, but since when did being ridiculous stop anyone in the pursuit of a few more polygons?

M.2 adapter board trim comparison
M.2 to PCIe adapter board (Top) Trimmed adapter board (Bottom)

Since the Udoo Ultra doesn’t feature a PCIe slot [Matteo] slotted in a M.2 to PCIe adapter board. There are two PCIe lines accessible by the Udoo Ultra’s M.2 port although trimming the adapter board was required in order to fit. The PCIe female slot was cut open to allow the 1060 GPU to slide in. All of the throughput of the 1060 GPU wouldn’t be utilized given the Udoo Ultra’s limitations anyway.

Windows 10 was the OS chosen for the machine so that all those NVIDIA drivers could be installed, and there’s also the added benefit of being able to sneak in a little Trackmania Turbo too. So to accompany the build, [Matteo] created a graphics comparison video to show the remarkable improvement over the embedded graphics chip. You can see the Time Spy benchmark results in the video below.

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