Vector Network Analyzer Uses SoC FPGA

If you are working with AC circuits a vector network analyzer (VNA) is quite handy. As an entry to the InnovateFPGA competition for students, [Evgenii Vostrikov], [Danila Nikiforovskii], and [Daniil Smirnov] created a VNA using a DE10-Nano, high-speed analog to digital and digital to analog converters, and a circulator. Most of the details are in the video below, and on the project’s GitHub page.

The DE10-Nano has a dual-core ARM processor and an Altera FPGA in one package. That allows you to use the CPUs where that makes sense and still leverage the FPGA where you need high performance.

The circulator uses an op-amp to allow the test signal to route to the device under test, while steering any reflected signal back to the device for measurement. The design also uses a lock-in amplifier, something we’ve talked about a few times recently. This allows less expensive converters to generate magnitude and phase information.

Judging by the fan in the video, we suspect the setup gets a little toasty. The GitHub page has a lot of Russian on it, so we aren’t sure how much we could puzzle out since our Russian skills were mostly from watching the Adventures of Moose and Squirrel.

If you are interested in a VNA, they aren’t as expensive as they used to be. Particularly, if you roll your own and already have some things in your junk box.

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Writing On A Whiteboard, Performed By A Robot

For some of us here at Hackaday, school is but a very distant memory. All that teenage awkwardness we’d rather forget, synth pop, and 8-bit computers were cool the first time around, and our newer classrooms didn’t have blackboards any more. The Whiteboard Future Had Arrived, and it came with solvent-laden pens that our more rebellious classmates swore would get you high if you sniffed them for long enough. Innocent times. Kids nowadays probably get their lessons from iPads, but the whiteboard isn’t finished just yet. [f4hdk] has updated his board with Scribot, a whiteboard-writing robot arm driven by a couple of stepper motors and a nicely-engineered set of belts, that writes text from ASCII files in a custom-designed vector font.

At the end of the arm is a whiteboard marker, and in a neat twist it has an eraser on its rear end. A quick flip of the servo holding the marker, and it can rub out any of its work. Behind it all is an LPC1789 Cortex M3-based Mbed board with appropriate servo driver boards, and for those curious enough to take a second look there is a full code repository. The result as you can see in the video below the break is a very well-executed whiteboard writer. Your 1980s teacher might have grumbled at the new technology, but certainly couldn’t accuse it of doing a bad job!

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Tiny Vacuum Chamber Arm to Help with Homemade Semiconductors

[Nixie] wants to make semiconductors at home, and that requires some unusual tools. Chief among them is a vacuum chamber to perform thin-film deposition, and true to the hacker credo his is homemade, and will soon be equipped with a tiny manipulator arm with magnetically coupled mechanical controls.

If [Nixie]’s setup looks familiar, it might be because we featured his plasma experiments a few days ago. He was a little cagey then about his goal, but he’s come clean with his desire to make his own FETs (a project that is his 2018 Hackaday Prize entry). Doing so will require not only creating stable plasmas, but also the ability to move substrates around inside the vacuum chamber. Taking inspiration from the slender and maneuverable instruments surgeons use for laparoscopic procedures, [Nixie] is working on a miniature arm that will work inside his vacuum chamber. The video below is a 3D-printed proof-of-concept model in action, and shows how the arm’s segments will be controlled by cables. What’s really interesting is that the control cables will not penetrate the vacuum chamber — they’ll be moved right through the glass wall using magnets.

We’re keen to see chips from [Nixie]’s home fab lab, but it looks like there will be a lot of cool hacks between here and there. We’ll be watching closely. Continue reading “Tiny Vacuum Chamber Arm to Help with Homemade Semiconductors”


Every month, semiconductor manufacturers across the globe retire old devices. A product that has been superseded, isn’t selling well, or maybe whose application has declined, is removed from the catalogue and ceases to be manufactured. Usually these moments pass unnoticed, just one old device among many. Who is going to remark upon the demise of a chip for a VGA card for example, or a long-ago-left-behind Flash memory chip?

One has come to our attention that is pretty unremarkable, but that could concern some of our readers. NXP have stopped manufacturing the LPC810M021FN8. What on earth is an LPC810M021FN8, you ask, the answer being that it appears to have been the last microcontroller with an ARM core available in a DIP package. Even that in itself is hardly earth-shattering, for if you really must use an ARM core rather than any of the myriad 8, 16, or 32 bit microcontrollers still available you can always get a DIP breakout board for a small surface mount chip.

This turn of events comes as a reminder that, while breadboard-friendly and popular among a section of our community, DIP packages are now particularly old-school. Other once-popular devices such as the LPC1114 have also long-since ceased to be available in this format, and we have to wonder how long we will be able to take advantage of DIP packages for some of the other microcontroller families.

A few years ago this news might have come as something of a disaster, but it now has more of a sense of the passing of a bygone era. It’s normal to use microcontroller dev boards in a larger DIP format for prototyping, so maybe getting used to a bit of surface-mount soldering on a break-out board will be only for the truly hard-core when the last DIP package has been retired. Other than that of course, the 555 is still available in a DIP8, and you can make anything with one of them!

If you didn’t have a chance to take the 810 for a test drive, the usual suppliers still list it in stock, Adafruit have a starter pack for it, and it will no doubt be possible to find it in small quantities for years to come.

[Thanks Tod E. Kurt for the tip]

Zephyr Adds Features, Platforms, And Windows

Zephyr is an open source real-time operating system (RTOS) that appeared on the scene a few years ago with support for a few boards. The new 1.11 release adds a lot of features, a lot of new boards, and also has a Windows development environment. But don’t worry, the environment is portable so it still runs on Linux and Mac, as well.

The OS has support for many ARM and x86 boards. It also supports ESP32, NIOS II, and can also target Linux which is useful for debugging or studying execution using desktop tools.

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Tiny Quad Core Module Available Soon

We get a lot of new product announcements here at Hackaday, and we run across even more. As excited as a manufacturer might be about their latest Raspberry Pi killer or cheaper Arduino clone, we usually don’t have much to say about new products unless there is something really interesting about them. Our attention was piqued though when we saw the Neutis N5. Shipping in April, the device packs a quad-core ARM processor running at 1.3 GHz with 8 GB of flash memory and 512 MB of RAM, has an extended temperature range, WiFi (802.11N), and Bluetooth (including BLE). There’s also a crypto chip, and all this is packed into a tiny package. Really tiny. Less than 41×30 mm square and less than 4.5 mm thick. There’s a Debian-based distribution and a development board. Oh and the really interesting thing is the price, which is $49 in single quantities.

Some of the I/O ports are multiplexed, but there are plenty of options including audio, Ethernet, HDMI, USB, and more. They clearly mean for these to be put into products. The module claims UL and CE certification, each unit has a unique serial number, and there is a gang programming capability.

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Rolling Robot With Two Motors, But None Are On the Wheels

This unusual 3D printed Rolling Robot by [ebaera] uses two tiny hobby servos for locomotion in an unexpected way. The motors drive the front wheel only indirectly, by moving two articulated arms in a reach-and-retract motion similar to a breaststroke. The arms are joined together at the front, where a ratcheting wheel rests underneath. When the arms extend, the wheel rolls forward freely. When the arms retract, the wheel’s ratchet locks and the rest of the body is pulled forward. It looks as though extending one arm more than the other provides for rudimentary steering.

The parts are all 3D printed but some of them look as though they might be a challenge to print well due to the number of small pieces and overhangs. A short video (embedded below) demonstrates how it all works together; the action starts about 25 seconds in.

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