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Hackaday Links: July 4, 2021

With rescue and recovery efforts at the horrific condo collapse in Florida this week still underway, we noted with interest some of the technology being employed on the site. Chief among these was a contribution of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), whose secretive Unit 9900 unveiled a 3D imaging system to help locate victims trapped in the rubble. The pictures look very much like the 3D “extrusions” that show up on Google Maps when you zoom into a satellite view and change the angle, but they were obviously built up from very recent aerial or satellite photos that show the damage to the building. The idea is to map where parts of the building — and unfortunately, the building’s occupants — ended up in the rubble pile, allowing responders to concentrate their efforts on the areas most likely to hold victims. The technology, which was developed for precision targeting of military targets, has apparently already located several voids in the debris that weren’t obvious to rescue teams. Here’s hoping that the system pays off, and that we get to learn a little about how it works.

Radio enthusiasts, take note: your hobby may just run you afoul of authorities if you’re not careful. That seems to be the case for one Stanislav Stetsenko, a resident of Crimea who was arrested on suspicion of treason this week. Video of the arrest was posted which shows the equipment Stetsenko allegedly used to track Russian military aircraft on behalf of Ukraine: several SDR dongles, a very dusty laptop running Airspy SDR#, an ICOM IC-R6 portable communications receiver, and various maps and charts. In short, it pretty much looks like what I can see on my own desk right now. We know little of the politics around this, but it does give one pause to consider how non-technical people view those with technical hobbies.

If you could choose a superpower to suddenly have, it really would take some careful consideration. Sure, it would be handy to shoot spider webs or burst into flames, but the whole idea of some kind of goo shooting out of your wrists seems gross, and what a nuisance to have to keep buying new clothes after every burn. Maybe just teaching yourself a new sense, like echolocation, would be a better place to start. And as it turns out, it’s not only possible for humans to echolocate, but it’s actually not that hard to learn. Researchers used a group of blind and sighted people for the test, ranging in age from 21 to 79 years, and put them through a 10-week training program to learn click-based echolocation. After getting the basics of making the clicks and listening for the returns in an anechoic chamber, participants ran through a series of tasks, like size and orientation discrimination of objects, and virtual navigation. The newly minted echolocators were also allowed out into the real world to test their skills. Three months after the study, the blind participants had mostly retained their new skill, and most of them were still using it and reported that it had improved their quality of life.

As with everything else he’s involved with, Elon Musk has drawn a lot of criticism for his Starlink satellite-based internet service. The growing constellation of satellites bothers astronomers, terrestrial ISPs are worried the service will kill their business model, and the beta version of the Starlink dish has been shown to be flakey in the summer heat. But it’s on equipment cost where Musk has taken the most flak, which seems unfair as the teardowns we’ve seen clearly show that the phased-array antenna in the Starlink dish is being sold for less than it costs to build. But still, Musk is assuring the world that Starlink home terminals will get down in the $250 to $300 range soon, and that the system could have 500,000 users within a year. There were a couple of other interesting insights, such as where Musk sees Starlink relative to 5G, and how he’s positioning Starlink to provide backhaul services to cellular companies.

Well, this is embarrassing. Last week, we mentioned that certain unlucky users of an obsolete but still popular NAS device found that their data had disappeared, apparently due to malefactors accessing the device over the internet and forcing a factory reset. Since this seems like something that should require entering a password, someone took a look at the PHP script for the factory restore function and found that a developer had commented out the very lines that would have performed the authentication:

    function get($urlPath, $queryParams=null, $ouputFormat='xml'){
//        if(!authenticateAsOwner($queryParams))
//        {
//            header("HTTP/1.0 401 Unauthorized");
//            return;
//        }

It’s not clear when the PHP script was updated, but support for MyBook Live was dropped in 2015, so this could have been a really old change. Still, it was all the hacker needed to get in and wreak havoc; interestingly, the latest attack may be a reaction to a three-year-old exploit that turned many of these devices into a botnet. Could this be a case of hacker vs. hacker?

NSF Releases Video Of Arecibo’s Final Moments

Today the National Science Foundation released a pair of videos that document the collapse of the Arecibo Observatory with incredible detail. A wide shot, apparently taken from the Visitors Center, shows the 900 ton instrument platform breaking free and swinging on the remaining support cables until it smashes into the edge of the dish. The second clip, recorded by an airborne drone, is focused directly on the cables as they failed. Both can be seen in the video embedded below.

Together, they produce an invaluable visual record of what finally brought the iconic radio telescope down. As was predicted by engineers earlier in the month, the failure of another support cable on tower 4 triggered a chain reaction that brought the entire platform crashing down onto the 305 meter reflector. Footage from a drone observing the top of tower 4 shows that the entire sequence, from the first visual wire break to the remaining cables being torn from their mounts, only took five seconds. While some initially doubted the NSF’s determination that it was too dangerous to repair Arecibo, this footage seems to prove just how tenuous the structural integrity of the Observatory really was.

A drone captured the critical cable failure.

These videos will hopefully help investigators who still need to determine why the cables failed in the first place. The cable in August didn’t snap, it simply pulled lose from its mount. It was suspected that the cable may have been incorrectly installed, but as it was only a backup, the situation was not seen as critical. But when the second cable failed in November it was found to have snapped at just 60% of its minimum breaking strength.

This immediately called into question the condition of the remaining cables, and ultimately lead to the decision by the NSF to proceed with a controlled demolition of the Observatory that would preserve as much of the scientific equipment as possible. Unfortunately, the remaining cables didn’t last long enough to put that plan into action.

Continue reading “NSF Releases Video Of Arecibo’s Final Moments”

The Battle For Arecibo Has Been Lost

It is with a heavy heart that we must report the National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to dismantle the Arecibo Observatory. Following the failure of two support cables, engineers have determined the structure is on the verge of collapse and that the necessary repairs would be too expensive and dangerous to conduct. At the same time, allowing the structure to collapse on its own would endanger nearby facilities and surely destroy the valuable research equipment suspended high above the 300 meter dish. Through controlled demolition, the NSF hopes to preserve as much of the facility and its hardware as possible.

Section of the Arecibo Message

When the first support cable broke free back in August, we worried about what it meant for the future of this unique astronomical observatory. Brought online in 1963 as part of a Cold War project to study how ICBMs behaved in Earth’s upper atmosphere, the massive radio telescope is unique in that it has the ability to transmit as well as receive. This capability has been used to produce radar maps of distant celestial objects and detect potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids.

In 1974, it was even used to broadcast the goodwill of humankind to any intelligent lifeforms that might be listening. Known as the “Arecibo Message”, the transmission can be decoded to reveal an assortment of pictograms that convey everything from the atomic numbers of common elements to the shape of the human body. The final icon in the series was a simple diagram of Arecibo itself, so that anyone who intercepted the message would have an idea of how such a relatively primitive species had managed to reach out and touch the stars.

There is no replacement for the Arecibo Observatory, nor is there likely to be one in the near future. The Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China is larger than Arecibo, but doesn’t have the crucial transmission capability. The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California can transmit, but as it’s primarily concerned with communicating with distant spacecraft, there’s little free time to engage in scientific observations. Even when it’s available for research, the largest dish in the Goldstone array is only 1/4 the diameter of the reflector at Arecibo.

Just last week we wondered aloud whether a nearly 60 year old radio telescope was still worth saving given the incredible advancements in technology that have been made in the intervening years. Now, unfortunately, we have our answer.

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Hackaday Links: October 13, 2019

Trouble in the Golden State this week, as parts of California were subjected to planned blackouts. Intended to prevent a repeat of last year’s deadly wildfires, which were tied in part to defective electrical distribution equipment, the blackouts could plunge millions in the counties surrounding Sacramento into the dark for days. Schools have canceled classes, the few stores that are open are taking cash only, and hospitals are running on generators. It seems a drastic move for PG&E, the utility that promptly went into bankruptcy after being blamed for last year’s fires, but it has the support of the governor, so the plan is likely to continue as long as the winds do. One group is not likely to complain, though;  California amateur radio operators must be enjoying a greatly decreased noise floor in the blackout areas, thanks to the loss of millions of switch-mode power supplies and their RF noise.

Good news, bad news for Fusion 360 users. Autodesk, the company behind the popular and remarkably capable CAD/CAM/CAE package, has announced changes to its licensing scheme, which went into effect this week. Users no longer have to pay for the “Ultimate” license tier to get goodies like 5-axis machining and generative design tools, as all capabilities are now included in the single paid version of Fusion 360. That’s good because plenty of users were unwilling to bump their $310 annual “Standard” license fee up to $1535 to get those features, but it’s bad because now the annual rate goes to $495. In a nice nod to the current userbase, those currently on the Standard license, as well as early adopters, will get to keep the $310 annual rate as long as they renew, and The $495 pricing tier went into effect in November of 2018, while anyone still on the $310 annual price was grandfathered in (and will remain to be). At that time there was still a $1535 tier called Ultimate, whose price will now be going away but the features remain in the $495 tier which is now the only pricing option for Fusion 360. Ultimate users will see a $1040 price drop. As for the current base of freeloaders like yours truly, fear not: Fusion 360 is still free for personal, non-commercial use. No generative design or tech support for us, though. (Editor’s Note: This paragraph was updated on 10/14/2019 to clarify the tier changes after Autodesk reached out to Hackaday via email.)

You might have had a bad day at the bench, but was it as bad as Román’s? He tipped us off to his nightmare of running into defective Wemos D1 boards – a lot of them. The 50 boards were to satisfy an order of data loggers for a customer, but all the boards seemed caught in an endless reboot loop when plugged into a USB port for programming. He changed PCs, changed cables, but nothing worked to stop the cycle except for one thing: touching the metal case of the module. His write up goes through all the dead-ends he went down to fix the problem, which ended up being a capacitor between the antenna and ground. Was it supposed to be there? Who knows, because once that cap was removed, the boards worked fine. Hats off to Román for troubleshooting this and sharing the results with us.

Ever since giving up their “Don’t be evil” schtick, Google seems to have really embraced the alternative. Now they’re in trouble for targeting the homeless in their quest for facial recognition data. The “volunteer research studies” consisted of playing what Google contractors were trained to describe as a “mini-game” on a modified smartphone, which captured video of the player’s face. Participants were compensated with $5 Starbucks gift cards but were not told that video was being captured, and if asked, contractors were allegedly trained to lie about that. Contractors were also allegedly trained to seek out people with dark skin, ostensibly to improve facial recognition algorithms that notoriously have a hard time with darker complexions. To be fair, the homeless were not exclusively targeted; college students were also given gift cards in exchange for their facial data.

For most of us, 3D-printing is a hobby, or at least in service of other hobbies. Few of us make a living at it, but professionals who do are often a great source of tips and tricks. One such pro is industrial designer Eric Strebel, who recently posted a video of his 3D-printing pro-tips. A lot of it is concerned with post-processing prints, like using a cake decorator’s spatula to pry prints off the bed, or the use of card scrapers and dental chisels to clean up prints. But the money tip from this video is the rolling cart he made for his Ultimaker. With the printer on top and storage below, it’s a great way to free up some bench space.

And finally, have you ever wondered how we hackers will rebuild society once the apocalypse hits and mutant zombie biker gangs roam the Earth? If so, then you need to check out Collapse OS, the operating system for an uncertain future. Designed to be as self-contained as possible, Collapse OS is intended to run on “field expedient” computers, cobbled together from whatever e-waste can be scrounged, as long as it includes a Z80 microprocessor. The OS has been tested on an RC2014 and a Sega Master System so far, but keep an eye out for TRS-80s, Kaypros, and the odd TI-84 graphing calculator as you pick through the remains of civilization.

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Hackaday Links: March 18, 2018

Oh, boy. You know what’s happening next weekend? The Midwest RepRap Festival. The greatest 3D printing festival on the planet is going down next Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon in beautiful Goshen, Indiana. Why should you go? Check this one out. To recap from last year, E3D released a new extruder, open source filaments will be a thing, true color filament printing in CMYKW is awesome, and we got the world’s first look at the infinite build volume printer. This year, The Part Daddy, a 20-foot-tall delta bot will be there once again. It’s awesome and you should come.

We launched the 2018 Hackaday Prize this week. Why should you care? Because we’re giving away $200,000 in prizes. There are five challenges: the Open Hardware Design Challenge, Robotics Module, Power Harvesting, Human-Computer Interface, and Musical Instrument Challenge. That last one is something I’m especially interested in for one very specific reason. This is a guitorgan.

Building a computer soon? Buy your SSD now. Someone fell asleep on the e-stop at a Samsung fab, and now 3.5% of global NAND production for March has been lost.

Need to put an Arduino in the cloud? Here’s a shield for that. It’s a shield for SIMCom’s SIM7000-series module, providing LTE for a microcontroller. Why would you ever need this? Because 2G is dead, for various values of ‘dead’. 3G is eventually going to go the same way.

A bridge collapsed in Florida this week. A pedestrian walkway at Florida International University collapsed this week, killing several. The engineering efforts are still underway to determine the cause of the accident, but some guy from Canukistan posted a pair of informative videos discussing I-beams and pre-tensioned concrete. It’s going to be months until the fault (and responsibility) will be determined, but until then we have the best footage yet of this collapse. It’s dash cam footage from a truck that rolled up to the red light just before the collapse. This is one that’s going to go down in engineering history along with the Hyatt Regency collapse.

Need to test your app? Here’s a delta robot designed for phones. You would be shocked at how popular this robot is.