Hackaday Links: April 26, 2020

Gosh, what a shame: it turns out that perhaps 2 billion phones won’t be capable of COVID-19 contact-tracing using the API that Google and Apple are jointly developing. The problem is that the scheme the two tech giants have concocted, which Elliot Williams expertly dissected recently, is based on Bluetooth LE. If a phone lacks a BLE chipset, then it won’t work with apps built on the contact-tracing API, which uses the limited range of BLE signals as a proxy for the physical proximity of any two people. If a user is reported to be COVID-19 positive, all the people whose BLE beacons were received by the infected user’s phone within a defined time period can be anonymously notified of their contact. As Elliot points out, numerous questions loom around this scheme, not least of which is privacy, but for now, something like a third of phones in mature smartphone markets won’t be able to participate, and perhaps two-thirds of the phones in developing markets are not compatible. For those who don’t like the privacy-threatening aspects of this scheme, pulling an old phone out and dusting it off might not be a bad idea.

We occasionally cover stories where engineers in industrial settings use an Arduino for a quick-and-dirty automation solution. This is uniformly met with much teeth-gnashing and hair-rending in the comments asserting that Arduinos are not appropriate for industrial use. Whether true or not, such comments miss the point that the Arduino solution is usually a stop-gap or proof-of-concept deal. But now the purists and pedants can relax, because Automation Direct is offering Arduino-compatible, industrial-grade programmable controllers. Their ProductivityOpen line is compatible with the Arduino IDE while having industrial certifications and hardening against harsh conditions, with a rich line of shields available to piece together complete automation controllers. For the home-gamer, an Arduino in an enclosure that can withstand harsh conditions and only cost $49 might fill a niche.

Speaking of Arduinos and Arduino accessories, better watch out if you’ve got any modules and you come under the scrutiny of an authoritarian regime, because you could be accused of being a bomb maker. Police in Hong Kong allegedly arrested a 20-year-old student and posted a picture of parts he used to manufacture a “remote detonated bomb”. The BOM for the bomb was strangely devoid of anything with wireless capabilities or, you know, actual explosives, and instead looks pretty much like the stuff found on any of our workbenches or junk bins. Pretty scary stuff.

If you’ve run through every binge-worthy series on Netflix and are looking for a bit of space-nerd entertainment, have we got one for you. Scott Manley has a new video that goes into detail on the four different computers used for each Apollo mission. We knew about the Apollo Guidance Computers that guided the Command Module and the Lunar Module, and the Launch Vehicle Digital Computer that got the whole stack into orbit and on the way to the Moon, but we’d never heard of the Abort Guidance System, a backup to the Lunar Module AGC intended to get the astronauts back into lunar orbit in the event of an emergency. And we’d also never heard that there wasn’t a common architecture for these machines, to the point where each had its own word length. The bit about infighting between MIT and IBM was entertaining too.

And finally, if you still find yourself with time on your hands, why not try your hand at pen-testing a military satellite in orbit? That’s the offer on the table to hackers from the US Air Force, proprietor of some of the tippy-toppest secret hardware in orbit. The Hack-A-Sat Space Security Challenge is aimed at exposing weaknesses that have been inadvertantly baked into space hardware during decades of closed development and secrecy, vulnerabilities that may pose risks to billions of dollars worth of irreplaceable assets. The qualification round requires teams to hack a grounded test satellite before moving on to attacking an orbiting platform during DEFCON in August, with prizes going to the winning teams. Get paid to hack government assets and not get arrested? Maybe 2020 isn’t so bad after all.

Poking Around The Wide World Of Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a technology with a very interesting history. When it first came around in the late 1990s, it promised to replace the mess of wires that was tucked behind every desk of the day. Unfortunately, the capabilities of early Bluetooth didn’t live up to the hype, and it never quite took off. It wasn’t until the rise of the smartphone more than a decade later that Bluetooth, now several versions more advanced, really started to make sense.

As [Larry Bank] explains in a recent blog post, that means there’s a whole lot to learn if you want to really understand Bluetooth hacking. For example, the Bluetooth versions that were used in the 1990s and 2000s are actually a completely different protocol from that which most modern devices are using. But the original protocol, now referred to as “Classic”, is still supported and in use.

That means to really get your head wrapped around working with Bluetooth, you need to learn about the different versions and all the tools and tricks associated with them. To that end, [Larry] does a great job of breaking down the primary versions of Bluetooth and the sort of tools you might find yourself using. That includes microcontrollers such as the ESP32 or Arduino Nano 33 BLE.

But the post isn’t just theory. [Larry] also goes over a few real-world projects of his that utilize Bluetooth, such as getting a portable printer working with his Arduino, or figuring out how to use those tiny mobile phone game controllers for his own purposes. Even if you don’t have these same devices, there’s a good chance that the methods used and lessons learned will apply to whatever Bluetooth gadgets you’ve got your eye on.

Readers may recall [Larry] from our previous coverage of his exploits, such as his efforts to increase the frame rate of the SSD1306 OLED display or his wireless bootloader for the SMART Response XE. Whenever we see his name pop up in the Tip Line, we know a fascinating hardware deep dive isn’t far behind.

Teardown: BilBot Bluetooth Robot

Historically, the subject of our January teardown has been a piece of high-tech holiday lighting from the clearance rack; after all, they can usually be picked up for pocket change once the trucks full of Valentine’s Day merchandise start pulling up around the back of your local Big Box retailer. But this year, we’ve got something a little different.

Today we’re looking at the BilBot Bluetooth robot, which over the holidays was being sold at Five Below for (you guessed it) just $5 USD. These were clearly something the company hoped to sell a lot of, with stacks of the little two-wheeled bots in your choice of white and yellow livery right by the front door. With wireless control from your iOS or Android device, and intriguing features like voice command, I’d be willing to bet they managed to move quite a few of these at such a low price.

For folks like us, it can be hard to wrap our minds around a product like this. It must have a Bluetooth radio, some kind of motor controller, and of course the motors and gears themselves. Yet they can sell it for the price of a budget hamburger and still turn a profit. If you wanted to pick up barebones robotics platform, with just a couple gear motors and some wheels, it would cost more than that. The economies of scale are a hell of a thing.

Which made me wonder, could hackers take advantage of this ultra-cheap robot for our own purposes? It’s pretty much a given that the software for this robot will be terrible, and that whatever control electronics live inside it will be marginal at best. But what if we write those off and just look at the BilBot as a two-wheeled platform to carry our own electronics? It’s certainly worth $5 to find out.

Continue reading “Teardown: BilBot Bluetooth Robot”

Quadruped Robot Disguises Itself As A Ball

When the Skynet baseball bot swarms attack, we’ll be throwing [Carl Bugeja] some dirty looks for getting them started. He’s been working on 4B, a little quadruped robot that can transform itself into a sphere almost perfectly.

Before [Carl] was distracted by the wonders of PCB actuators more than a year ago, he started working on this little guy. He finally found some time to get it moving on its own, and the preliminary results look promising to say the least. Inside the 6 cm sphere is a total of 12 servos, 3 for each leg. All of the mechanical parts were 3D printed in nylon on an SLS machine, and the custom PCB has a BLE microcontroller module, an IMU and IR proximity sensors onboard. Everything is open source with all the files available on the Hackaday.io project page.

The microcontroller runs a full inverse kinematic model, so only the desired tip and base coordinate for each leg is input and the servo angles are automatically calculated. Ultimately [Carl] aims to have the robot both walking and rolling controllably. So far he’s achieved some degree of success in both, but it still needs some work (see the videos below. We’re eager to see what the future holds for this delightfully creepy bot.

Walking robots are always an interesting challenge. For more of our future overlords, check out this adorable little cat and this truly terrifying strandbeest.

3D Printed Goggles Let R.O.B. See Into The Bluetooth World

We admit that a hack enabling a 34-year-old video game peripheral to be controlled by a mobile app wasn’t something we were expecting to see today, but if controlling something with something else isn’t the definition of a classic hack, we don’t know what is. The folks at [Croxel Inc.] worked out a way to control R.O.B. using a phone app to demo out their expertise in building hardware and software prototypes, a service they offer at their website.

R.O.B. was a little robot with movable clamp arms bundled with the 1985 release of the NES, an effort by Nintendo of America to drive sales of the console after the gaming crash of 1983 by making it look less like a video game and more like a toy. The robot receives inputs from light sensors in its head, which would be pointed towards the TV playing one of the only two games released with support for it. [Croxel] used this to their advantage, and in order to control the robot without needing a whole NES, they fabricated a board using a BGM111 Bluetooth Low-Energy module which can receive outside inputs and translate them to the light commands the robot recognizes.

To avoid having to modify the rare toy itself and having to filter out any external light, the hack consists of a 3D printed “goggles” enclosure that fits over R.O.B.’s eyes, covering them entirely. The board is fitted inside it to shine the control light into its eyes, while also flashing “eye” indicators on the outside to give it an additional charming 80s look. The inputs, which are promptly obeyed, are then given by a phone paired to the module using a custom app skinned to look like a classic NES controller.

We’ve seen more intrusive hacks to this little robot here on Hackaday, such as this one which replaces the old sluggish motors entirely with modern servos and even plans to reconstruct it from scratch given the scarcity of the originals. It’s interesting to see the ways in which people are still hacking hardware from 35 years ago, and we’re excited to see what they’ll come up with around the 40 or 50 year marks!

[via Gizmodo, thanks Itay for the tip!]

Pulling Display Data Off Of A Fitness Tracker

[Aaron Christophel] writes in with yet another clever hack for his D6 Fitness Tracker. Using OpenOCD and Pygame, he shows how you can pull data right off the tracker’s screen and sent it to the computer.

This one appealed to us for its brevity. First [Aaron] launches the OpenOCD server which connects to the D6. Then, a short Python script connects to the server through telnet, reads the screen data, and uses a look-up table to turn the data into a duplicate display on the PC screen. If you’re more of a visual learner, there’s a demonstration video after the break.

The D6 is a popular fitness tracker that’s often re-branded and sold at a very low cost. [Aaron] is a big fan of these Nordic nRF52 powered devices, and we’ve covered some of his hacks before. If you’d like to learn more about these interesting little devices there’s quite a write-up on their inner-workings here.

Continue reading “Pulling Display Data Off Of A Fitness Tracker”

Punch Through Switches Gears, Shucks Beans

Do you own a LightBlue Bean or Bean+ from Punch Through? If you don’t have one now, you probably never will, as the company has recently announced they’re no longer selling or supporting the Bluetooth Low Energy microcontrollers. The company says that after selling more than 100,000 Bean devices, the challenge of keeping up with a constantly evolving software ecosystem became too difficult, and they are instead going to focus their efforts on advising other companies on how to best develop Bluetooth products.

Frankly, that sounds a bit like getting advice on how to build a fully armed and operational battle station from the Empire, but who are we to judge. While the Bean family of devices clearly wasn’t able to go the distance, Punch Through at least got them out the door and supported them for longer than many might have expected given the increased competition in the BLE market. It’s not hard to do the math: the LightBlue Bean retailed for around $35 USD, and today you can get a BLE-capable ESP32 for five bucks.

So what happens to all those Beans out in the wild? Normally, the parent company dropping support for a microcontroller wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but this time around we have the “Bean Loader” to contend with. This piece of software is used to push code to the device over Bluetooth, and it’s possible that the constant march of operating system upgrades (especially on mobile devices) will eventually break it. Long story short, there’s nothing to worry about in the short term. But down the road, these Beans might be baked.

Luckily, Punch Through did provide some pretty extensive documentation for the Beans. If there’s significant demand, we imagine the community will do their best to take over development of whatever ancillary software is required to keep the hardware usable for the foreseeable future. Speaking of which, the schematics and PCB layouts for both the Bean and Bean+ have been released under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that somebody else might put them back into production.

[Thanks to Chris for the tip.]