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Hackaday Links: June 7, 2020

For many of us who were in college at the time, the 1989 release of Will Wright’s classic SimCity sounded the death knell of our GPAs. Being able to create virtual worlds and then smite them with a tornado or a kaiju attack was the stuff of a procrastinator’s dreams. We always liked the industrial side of the game best, and took great pains in laying out the factory zones, power plants, and seaports. Those of a similar bent will be happy to know that Maxis, the studio behind the game, had a business simulations division, and one of their products was a complete refinery simulator the studio built for Chevron called, unsurprisingly, SimRefinery. The game, which bears a striking resemblance to SimCity, has been recovered and is now available for download, which means endless procrastination by playing virtual petrochemical engineer is only a mouse click away.

Speaking of time wasters, we stumbled upon another simulation this week that sucked away a couple of hours of productivity. As RTL-SDR.com reports, YouTuber called Information Zulu has a 24/7 live stream showing arrivals and departures at Los Angeles International Airport. That may sound boring, but the cameras used to watch the runways are virtual, and the planes are animated based on ADS-B data being scooped up by an RTL-SDR dongle. We pinged Information Zulu and asked for a rundown of the gear behind the system, but never heard back. If we do, we’ll post a full article on what we learned, because the level of detail is amazing. The arriving and departing planes sport the correct livery for the airline, the current weather conditions are shown, taxiing is shown in real time, and there’s even an audio feed from air traffic control.

If you’re looking to gain back a little of the productivity lost to the last two items, Digi-Key might be able to help with their new PCB Builder service. All you have to do is upload your gerbers and select your materials, and they’ll give you options for a bunch of different quick-turn fabrication houses. Looks mighty convenient.

Steve Mould dropped a video this week about vibration analysis. That might not sound very exciting, but the fascinating bit is how companies are now using motion amplification video techniques to show how and where industrial equipment is moving, even if those motions are too subtle to be seen by the naked eye. It’s frankly terrifying to see how pipes flex and tanks expand and contract, and how pumps and motors move relative to each other. The technique used is similar to the way a person’s pulse can be detected on a video by the subtle color change as blood rushes into capillaries. We’d love to see someone tackle a homebrew version of this so we can all see what’s going on around us.

And finally, we want to remind everyone that the Hackaday Prize is back, and that you should get your entries going. What’s new this year is the Dream Team challenges, where four worthy non-profits organizations will each assemble a three-person team to work on a specific pain-point in their process. The application deadline has been extended to June 9, and there are two $3,000 microgrants, one in June and one in July, for each team member. So look through the design briefs and see if your skills match their needs.

Wind Farms In The Night: On-Demand Warning Lights Are Coming

There appears to be no shortage of reasons to hate on wind farms. That’s especially the case if you live close by one, and as studies have shown, their general acceptance indeed grows with their distance. Whatever your favorite flavor of renewable energy might be, that’s at least something it has in common with nuclear or fossil power plants: not in my back yard. The difference is of course that it requires a lot more wind turbines to achieve the same output, therefore affecting a lot more back yards in total — in constantly increasing numbers globally.

Personally, as someone who encounters them occasionally from the distance, I find wind turbines mostly to be an eyesore, particularly in scenic mountainous landscapes. They can add a futuristic vibe to some otherwise boring flatlands. In other words, I can not judge the claims actual residents have on their impact on humans or the environment. So let’s leave opinions and emotions out of it and look at the facts and tech of one issue in particular: light pollution.

This might not be the first issue that comes to mind when thinking about wind farms. But wind turbines are tall enough to require warning lights for air traffic safety, and can be seen for miles, blinking away in the night sky. From a pure efficiency standpoint, this doesn’t seem reasonable, considering how often an aircraft is actually passing by on average. Most of the time, those lights simply blink for nothing, lighting up the countryside. Can we change this?

Continue reading “Wind Farms In The Night: On-Demand Warning Lights Are Coming”

Remote ADS-B Install Listens In On All The Aircraft Transmissions With RTL-SDR Trio, Phones Home On Cellular

When installing almost any kind of radio gear, the three factors that matter most are the same as in real estate: location, location, location. An unobstructed location at the highest possible elevation gives the antenna the furthest radio horizon as well as the biggest bang for the installation buck. But remote installations create problems, too, particularly with maintenance, which can be a chore.

So when [tsimota] got a chance to relocate one of his Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) receivers to a remote site, he made sure the remote gear was as bulletproof as possible. In a detailed write up with a ton of pictures, [tsimota] shows the impressive amount of effort he put into the build.

The system has a Raspberry Pi 3 with solid-state drive running the ADS-B software, a powered USB hub for three separate RTL-SDR dongles for various aircraft monitoring channels, a remote FlightAware dongle to monitor ADS-B, and both internal and external temperature sensors. Everything is snuggled into a weatherproof case that has filtered ventilation fans to keep things cool, and even sports a magnetic reed tamper switch to let him know if the box is opened. An LTE modem pipes the data back to the Inter, a GSM-controlled outlet allows remote reboots, and a UPS keeps the whole thing running if the power blips atop the 15-m building the system now lives on.

Nobody appreciates a quality remote installation as much as we do, and this is a great example of doing it right. Our only quibble would be the use of a breadboard for the sensors, but in a low-vibration location, it should work fine. If you’ve got the itch to build an ADS-B ground station but don’t want to jump in with both feet quite yet, this beginner’s guide from a few years back is a great place to start.

Hackaday Podcast 023: Everything Breaks… Raspberry Pi, ADS-B, Hackaday Website, And Automotive Airbags

Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams talk news and great hacks from the past seven days. Sad word this week as Maker Media, the company behind Make Magazine and Maker Faire, have closed their doors. There seems to be a lot of news about broken hardware and software to discuss, with ADS-B problems grounding hundreds of flights in the US, Hackaday itself having a site outage, the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ can be bricked with a really easy mistake, and Lewin wrote a great overview of the Takata airbag debacle. Don’t worry there are still plenty of hacks as we look at old computers that sing, microcontrollers that chiptune, beat boxes that are actually boxes, and some very neat cartridge hacks for NES and Arduboy.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

Direct download (60 MB or so.)

Continue reading “Hackaday Podcast 023: Everything Breaks… Raspberry Pi, ADS-B, Hackaday Website, And Automotive Airbags”

GPS And ADS-B Problems Cause Cancelled Flights

Something strange has been going on in the friendly skies over the last day or so. Flights are being canceled. Aircraft are grounded. Passengers are understandably upset. The core of the issue is GPS and ADS-B systems. The ADS-B system depends on GPS data to function properly, but over this weekend a problem with the quality of the GPS data has disrupted normal ADS-B features on some planes, leading to the cancellations.

What is ADS-B and Why Is It Having Trouble?

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) is a communication system used in aircraft worldwide. Planes transmit location, speed, flight number, and other information on 1090 MHz. This data is picked up by ground stations and eventually displayed on air traffic controller screens. Aircraft also receive this data from each other as part of the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS).

ADS-B isn’t a complex or encrypted signal. In fact, anyone with a cheap RTL-SDR can receive the signal. Aviation buffs know how cool it is to see a map of all the aircraft flying above your house. Plenty of hackers have worked on these systems, and we’ve covered that here on Hackaday. In the USA, the FAA will effectively require all aircraft to carry ADS-B transponders by January 1st, 2020. So as you can imagine, most aircraft already have the systems installed.

The ADS-B system in a plane needs to get position data before it can transmit. These days, that data comes from a global satellite navigation system. In the USA, that means GPS. GPS is currently having some problems though. This is where Receiver autonomous integrity monitoring (RAIM) comes in. Safety-critical GPS systems (those in planes and ships) cross-check their current position. If GPS is sending degraded or incorrect data, it is sent to the FAA who displays it on their website. The non-precision approach current outage map is showing degraded service all over the US Eastern seaboard, as well as the North. The cause of this signal degradation is currently unknown.

What Hardware is Affected?

GPS isn’t down though — you can walk outside with your cell phone to verify that. However, it is degraded. How a plane’s GPS system reacts to that depends on the software built into the GPS receiver. If the system fails, the pilots will have to rely on older systems like VOR to navigate. But ADS-B will have even more problems. An aircraft ADS-B system needs position data to operate. ┬áIf you can’t transmit your position information, air traffic controllers need to rely on old fashioned radar to determine position. All of this adds up to a safety of flight problem, which means grounding the aircraft.

Digging through canceled flight lists, one can glean which aircraft are having issues. From the early reports, it seems like Bombardier CRJ 700 and 900 have problems. Folks on Airliners.net are speculating that any aircraft with Rockwell Collins flight management systems are having problems.

This is not a small issue, there are hundreds or thousands of canceled flights. The FAA set up a teleconference to assess the issue. Since then, the FAA has issued a blanket waiver to all affected flights. They can fly, but only up to 28,000 feet.

This is a developing story, and we’ll be keeping an eye on it. Seeing how the industry handles major problems is always educational, and there will be much to learn in the coming days.

The Cat, The Aircraft, And The Tiny Computer

Sharing your life with a cat is a wonderful and fulfilling experience. Sharing your life with an awake, alert, and bored cat in the early hours when you are trying to sleep, is not. [Simon Aubury] has just this problem, as his cat [Snowy] is woken each morning by a jet passing over. In an attempt to identify the offending aircraft, he’s taken a Raspberry Pi and a software-defined radio, and attempted to isolate it by spotting its ADS-B beacon.

The SDR was the ubiquitous RTL chipset model, and it provided a continuous stream of aircraft data. To process this data he used an Apache Kafka stream processing server into which he also retrieved aircraft identifying data from an online service. Kafka’s SQL interface for interrogating multiple streams allowed him to untangle the mess of ADS-B returns and generate a meaningful feed of aircraft. This in turn was piped into an elasticsearch search engine database, upon which he built a Kibana visualisation.

The result was that any aircraft could be identified at a glance, and potential noise hotspots forecast. Whether all this heavy lifting was worth the end result is for you to decide, however it does provide an interesting introduction to the technologies and software involved. It is however possible to monitor ADS-B traffic considerably more simply.

Thanks [Oleg Anashkin] for the tip.

Putting That Airplane On The Map – Live And With Python

Mankind’s fascination with airplanes is unbroken. Whether you’re outside with your camera, getting an actual glimpse of the aircraft, or sitting at home with your RTL-SDR dongle and have a look at them from a distance, tracking them is a fun pastime activity. Provided, of course, that you are living close by an airport or in an area with high enough air traffic. If not, well there’s always real-time tracking online to fall back to, and as [geomatics] will show you, you can build your own live flight tracking system with a few lines of Python.

As it’s usually the case with Python, a lot of functionality is implemented and readily available from external modules, which lets you focus on the actual application without having to worry too much about the details. Similarly, plenty of data can be requested from all sorts of publicly accessible APIs nowadays. If you are looking for a simple-enough example to get into both subjects with a real-world application, [geomatics]’ flight tracker uses cartopy to create a map using Open Street Map data, and retrieves the flight information from ADS-B Exchange‘s public API.

We have seen ADS-B Exchange mentioned a few times before, for example with this ESP8266 based plane spotter and its successor. And if you’re more curious about the air traffic in your direct surroundings, it’s probably time for a DVB USB dongle.