High Voltage Measurement is Shockingly Safe

With the right equipment and training, it’s possible to safely work on energized power lines in the 500 kV range with bare hands. Most of us, though, don’t have the right equipment or training, and should take great care when working with any appreciable amount of voltage. If you want to safely measure even the voltages of the wiring in your house there’s still substantial danger, and you’ll want to take some precautions like using isolated amplifiers.

While there are other safe methods for measuring line voltage or protecting your oscilloscope, [Jason]’s isolated amplifier method uses high voltage capacitors to achieve isolation. The input is then digitized, sent across the capacitors, and then converted back to an analog signal on the other side. This project makes use of a chip from TI to provide the isolation, and [Jason] was able to build it on a perfboard while making many design considerations to ensure it’s as safe as possible, like encasing high voltage sections in epoxy and properly fusing the circuit.

[Jason] also discusses the limitations of this method of isolation on his site, and goes into a lot of technical details about the circuit as well. It probably wouldn’t get a UL certification, but the circuit performs well and even caught a local voltage sag while he was measuring the local power grid. If this method doesn’t meet all of your isolation needs, though, there are a lot of other ways to go about solving the problem.

Arduino Provides Hands-Free Focus for Digital Inspection Scope

With surface-mount technology pushing the size of components ever smaller, even the most eagle-eyed among us needs some kind of optical assistance to do PCB work. Lots of microscopes have digital cameras too, which can be a big help – unless the camera fights you.

Faced with a camera whose idea of autofocus targets on didn’t quite coincide with his, [Scott M. Baker] took matters into his own hands – foot, actually – by replacing mouse inputs to the camera with an outboard controller. His particular camera’s autofocus can be turned off, but only via mouse clicks on the camera’s GUI. That’s disruptive while soldering, so [Scott] used an Arduino Pro Micro and a small keypad to mimic the mouse movements needed to control the camera.

At the press of a key, the Arduino forces the mouse cursor up to the top left corner of the screen, pulls down the camera menu, and steps down the proper distance to toggle autofocus. The controller can also run the manual focus in and out or to take a screenshot. There’s even a footswitch that forces the camera to refocus if the field of view changes. It looks really handy, and as usual [Scott] provides a great walkthrough in the video below.

Like it or not, if shrinking technology doesn’t force you into the microscope market, entropy will. If you’re looking for a buyer’s guide to microscopes, you could do worse than [Shahriar]’s roundup of digital USB scopes. Or perhaps you’d prefer to dumpster dive for yours.

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The How and Why of Laser Cutter Aiming

Laser aficionado [Martin Raynsford] has built up experience with various laser cutters over the years and felt he should write up a blog post detailing his first-hand findings with an often overlooked aspect of the machines: aiming them. Cheap diode laser cutters and engravers operate in the visible part of the spectrum, but when you get into more powerful carbon dioxide lasers such as the one used in the popular K40 machines, the infrared beam is invisible to the naked eye. A secondary low-power laser helps to visualize the main laser’s alignment without actually cutting the target. There are a couple of ways to install an aiming system like this, but which way works better?

[Martin] explains that there are basically two schools of thought: a head-mounted laser, or a beam combiner. In both cases, a small red diode laser (the kind used in laser pointers) is used to indicate where the primary laser will hit. This allows the user to see exactly what the laser cutter will do when activated, critically important if you’re doing something like engraving a device and only have one chance to get it right. Running a “simulation” with the red laser removes any doubt before firing up the primary laser.

That’s the idea, anyway. In his experience, both methods have their issues. Head-mounted lasers are easier to install and maintain, but their accuracy changes with movement of the machine’s Z-axis: as the head goes up and down, the red laser dot moves horizontally and quickly comes out of alignment. Using the beam combiner method should, in theory, be more accurate, but [Martin] notes he’s had quite a bit of trouble getting both the red and IR lasers to follow the same course through the machine’s mirrors. Not only is it tricky to adjust, but it’s also much more complex to implement and may even rob the laser of power due to the additional optics involved.

In the end, [Martin] doesn’t think there is really a clear winner. Neither method gives 100% accurate results, and both are finicky, though in different scenarios. He suggests you just use whatever method your laser cutter comes with from the factory, as trying to change it probably isn’t worth the effort. But if your machine doesn’t have anything currently, the head-mounted laser is certainly the easier one to retrofit.

In the past, we’ve covered a third and slightly unconventional way of aiming the K40, as well as a general primer for anyone looking to pick up eBay’s favorite laser cutter.

Tractor Drives Itself, Thanks to ESP32 and Open Source

[Coffeetrac]’s ESP32-based Autosteer controller board, complete with OLD OLED display for debugging and easy status reference.
Modern agricultural equipment has come a long way, embracing all kinds of smart features and electronic controls. While some manufacturers would prefer to be the sole gatekeepers of the access to these advanced features, that hasn’t stopped curious and enterprising folks from working on DIY solutions. One such example is this self-steering tractor demo by [Coffeetrac], which demonstrates having a computer plot and guide a tractor through an optimal coverage pattern.

A few different pieces needed to come together to make this all work. At the heart of it all is [Coffeetrac]’s ESP32-based Autosteer controller, which is the hardware that interfaces to the tractor and allows for steering and reading sensors electronically. AgOpenGPS is the software that reads GPS data, interfaces to the Autosteer controller, and tells equipment what to do; it can be thought of as a mission planner.

[Coffeetrac] put it all together with everything controlled by a tablet mounted in the tractor’s cab. The video is embedded below, complete with a “cockpit view” via webcam right alongside the plotted course and sensor data.

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Printed Parts Turn Ruler into Marking Gauge

For Hackaday readers who spend more time with a soldering iron than a saw, a marking gauge is a tool used to put parallel lines on a piece of wood (and occasionally metal or plastic) for cutting. The tool is run across the edge of the piece to be marked, and an adjustment allows the user to set how far in the line will be made. As an example, if you wanted to cut a board into smaller strips, a marking gauge would be an ideal choice for laying out your lines ahead of time.

But as with many niche tools, it’s not something you’re going to use every day. For [chaosbc], this meant he wanted to see if he could come up with a DIY solution on the cheap. Plus he could have it in hand now, rather than waiting for it to take the slow boat from overseas. With the addition of a few clever 3D printed components, he was able to turn his trusty aluminum ruler into a serviceable marking gauge for the cost of filament and a few bits of hardware.

The general design of a marking gauge is fairly simple: there’s a block that rides up and down a graduated shaft (known as the headstock) which allows you to set the depth of the line, and then a piece on the end which holds your marking tool. The marking tool could be a blade if you’re working with something soft enough, but for wood is usually going to be a pencil.

[chaosbc] provides all the STL files for his DIY marking gauge, though they might need adapting as they were created for his specific ruler. Luckily the parts aren’t that complex so it shouldn’t be too difficult to get it sorted out. He also has a useful hint for anyone looking to duplicate his work: a few drops of super glue on the bolt used to lock down the headstock is enough to create a non-marring surface so you don’t tear up your ruler.

We’ve got a few other tips for woodworking on a budget, as well as a primer about this whole making stuff with dead trees concept.

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Junkbox Constant Current Source Helps with Kelvin Sensing

Is it ironic when a YouTube channel named “The Current Source” needs to build a current source? Or is that not ironic and actually just coincidental?

Regardless of linguistic considerations, [Derek], proprietor of the aforementioned channel has made and disassembled a few current sources in his day. Most of those jobs were for one-off precision measurements or even to drive a string of LEDs in what he describes as a pair of migraine-inducing glasses. Thankfully, The junk box current source presented in the video below is more in service of the former than the latter, as his goal is to measure very small resistances in semiconductors using Kelvin clips.

The current source uses a 24-volt switch-mode power supply and the popular LM317 adjustable voltage regulator. The ‘317 can be configured in a constant current mode by connecting the chip’s adjustment pin to the output through a series resistance. A multiturn pot provides current adjustment, although the logarithmic taper is not exactly optimal for the application. We spotted a pair of what appear to be optoisolators in the build too, but there’s no schematic and no discussion of what they do. [Derek] puts the final product to use for a Kelvin measurement of a 0.47-Ω 1% resistor at the end of the video.

We’re glad to see [Derek] in action; you may recall his earlier video about measuring his own radiation with a Geiger counter after treatment for thyroid cancer. Here’s hoping that’s behind him now.

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Teardown of a (Relatively) Cheap Thermal Camera

The cost of tools and test equipment has largely been on the downward trend for years, making it now more affordable than ever to get into the hacking and making scene. This is particularly visible with something like the venerable oscilloscope: a piece of equipment that was near unobtainium for the home hacker a decade ago, you can now get digital pocket scope for as little as $20 USD. But there are still pieces of gear which haven’t quite hit the sort of prices we’d like to see.

A perfect example are thermal imaging cameras. The cheap ones are usually so low resolution they might as well just be thermometers, but the higher resolution ones can cost thousands. [Rob Scott] recently wrote in to tell us about a very promising middle ground, the HTI HT-A1. But he didn’t just point it out to us, he also tore it down and laid its internal’s bare for our entertainment. Now that’s our kind of introduction.

[Rob] walks us through the disassembly of the device, which is made unnecessarily difficult due to the fact that half the screws are hidden under a glued on screen bezel. That means a heat gun, a thin tool, and patience are in order if you want to get inside the device. It’s bad enough they use these kinds of construction techniques on modern smartphones, but at least they’re so thin that we can understand the reasoning. Why this chunky thing needs to resort to such measures is beyond us.

Eventually he cracks the HT-A1 open and is greeted with a single double-sided PCB. The top side is pretty much bare except for the buttons and the LCD display, and the flip side is largely just a breakout for a quad-core Allwinner A33 daughterboard. [Rob] theorizes this is to keep costs down by allowing reuse of the modular A33 board on other devices. Given the A33’s use in so many cheap tablets, it’s also possible HTI simply purchased these daughterboards as a drop-in component and designed their own board around it.

There’s not much else inside the HT-A1 beyond the rechargeable battery pack and thermal camera, both attached to the device’s rear panel. [Rob] noticed that the date on the thermal camera PCB is a full two years older than the date on the main PCB, leading one to wonder if HTI might have gotten a good deal on a bunch of these slightly outdated sensors and spun up a whole device around them.

The HT-A1 is high enough resolution that you can actually pick out individual components on a PCB, and at $400 USD is approaching a reasonable price point for the individual hacker. Which is not to say it’s cheap, but at least you get a useful tool for your money. We wouldn’t suggest you buy this device on a whim, but if you do a lot of diagnostic work, it might pay for itself after a couple repairs.

If that’s still a little too rich for your blood, we’ve covered a handful of DIY options which might better fit your budget.

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