Robot Graffiti

There’s talk of robots and AIs taking on jobs in many different industries. Depending on how much stock you place in that, it might still be fair to say the more creative fields will remain firmly in the hands of humans, right?

Well, we may have some bad news for you. Robots are now painting our murals.

Estonian inventor [Mihkel Joala] — also working at SprayPainter — successfully tested his prototype by painting a 30m tall mural on a smokestack in Tartu, Estonia. The creative procedure for this mural is a little odd if you are used to the ordinary painting process: [Joala] first takes an image from his computer, and converts it into a coordinate grid — in this case, about 1.5 million ‘pixels’. These pixels are painted on by a little cart loaded with five colours of spray paint that are able to portray the mural’s full palette once combined and viewed at a distance. Positioning is handled by a motor at the base of the mural controlling the vertical motion in conjunction with tracks at the top and bottom which handle the horizontal motion.

For this mural, the robot spent the fourteen hours trundling up and down a set of cables, dutifully spraying the appropriate colour at such-and-such a point resulting in the image of a maiden cradling a tree and using thirty cans of spray paint in the process.

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Knowing What’s Below: Buried Utility Location

We humans have put an awful lot of effort into our infrastructure for the last few centuries, and even more effort into burying most of it. And with good reason — not only are above ground cables and pipes unsightly, they’re also vulnerable to damage from exposure to the elements. Some utilities, like natural gas and sanitary sewer lines, are also dangerous, or at least perceived to be so, and so end up buried. Out of sight, out of mind.

But humans love to dig, too, and it seems like no sooner is a paving project completed than some joker with a jackhammer is out there wrecking the pristine roadway. Before the construction starts, though, cryptic markings will appear on the pavement courtesy of your local buried utility locating service, who apply their rainbow markings to the ground so that nothing bad happens to the often fragile infrastructure below our feet.

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Ghetto Ribbon Connector

[Marcel] was trying to shoehorn a few new parts into his trusty Nexus 5 phone. If you’ve ever opened one of these little marvels up, you know that there’s not much room under the hood to work with. Pulling out some unnecessary parts (like the headphone jack) buys some space, but then how to wire it all up?

[Marcel] needed a multi-wire connector that’s as thin as possible, but he wasn’t going to go the order-Kapton-flex route. Oh no! He built one himself from masking tape and the strands from a stranded wire. Watch the video how-to if that alone isn’t enough instruction.

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What’s Special about Fifty Ohms?

If you’ve worked with radios or other high-frequency circuits, you’ve probably noticed the prevalence of 50 ohm coax. Sure, you sometimes see 75 ohm coax, but overwhelmingly, RF circuits work at 50 ohms.

[Microwaves 101] has an interesting article about how this became the ubiquitous match. Apparently in the 1930s, radio transmitters were pushing towards higher power levels. You generally think that thicker wires have less loss. For coax cable carrying RF though, it’s a bit more complicated.

First, RF signals exhibit the skin effect–they don’t travel in the center of the conductor. Second, the dielectric material (that is, the insulator between the inner and outer conductors) plays a role. The impedance is also a function of the dielectric material and the diameter of the center conductor.

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What Lies Beneath: The First Transatlantic Communications Cables

For some reason, communications and power infrastructure fascinates me, especially the long-haul lines that move power and data over huge distances. There’s something about the scale of these projects that really gets to me, whether it’s a high-tension line marching across the countryside or a cell tower on some remote mountain peak. I recently wrote about infrastructure with a field guide that outlines some of the equipment you can spot on utility poles. But the poles and wires all have to end at the shore. Naturally we have to wonder about the history of the utilities you can’t see – the ones that run under the sea.

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A Field Guide to the North American Utility Pole

We live under the umbrella of an intricate and fascinating web of infrastructure that enables every aspect of modern technology. But how often do we really look at it? I’ve been intrigued by utility poles for years, and I’ve picked up a thing or two that I’d like to share. Bear in mind these are just my observations from the ground in my area; I’m sure utility professionals will have better information, and regional practices will no doubt lead to very different equipment arrangements. But here’s a little of what I’ve picked up over my years as a pole geek.

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Retrotechtacular: Cut All the Cables in this Speedy Teleco Switch Upgrade

In this short but intense classic of corporate cinematography, we get to watch as the Pacific Bell central office in Glendale, California is converted to electronic switching in a 47-second frenzy of cable cutting in 1984.

In the 1970s and 1980s, conversion of telephone central office (CO) switch gear from older technologies such as crossbar (XBar) switches or step-by-step (SxS) gear to electronic switching systems (ESS) was proceeding apace. Early versions of ESS were rolling out as early as the 1950s, but telcos were conservative entities that were slow to adopt change and even slower to make changes that might result in service outages. So when the time finally came for the 35,000 line Glendale CO to cutover from their aging SxS gear to ESS, Pacific Bell retained Western Electric for their “Speedy Cutover Service.”

Designed to reduce the network outage time to a minimum, cuts like these were intricately planned and rehearsed. Prep teams of technicians marked the cables to be cut and positioned them for easy access by the cutters. For this cut, scaffolding was assembled to support two tiers of cutters. It looks like the tall guys got the upper deck, and the shorter techs – with hard hats – worked under them.

At 11PM on this cut night, an emergency coordinator verified that no emergency calls were in progress, and the cut began. In an intense burst of activity, each of the 54 technicians cut about 20 cables. Smiles widened as the cut accelerated, and sparks actually flew at the 35.7 second mark. When done, each tech turned around and knelt down so the supervisors knew when everyone was done. At least one tech couldn’t help but whoop it up when the cut was done. Who could blame him? It must have been a blast.

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