Automate The Freight: Autonomous Ships Look For Their Niche

It is by no means an overstatement to say that life as we know it would grind to a halt without cargo ships. If any doubt remained about that fact, the last year and a half of supply chain woes put that to bed; we all now know just how much of the stuff we need — and sadly, a lot of the stuff we don’t need but still think we do — comes to us by way of one or more ocean crossings, on vessels specialized to carry everything from shipping containers to bulk liquid and solid cargo.

While the large and complex vessels that form the backbone of these globe-spanning supply chains are marvelous engineering achievements, they’re still utterly dependent on their crews to make them run efficiently. So it’s not at all surprising to learn that some shipping lines are working on ways to completely automate their cargo ships, to reduce their exposure to the need for human labor. On paper, it seems like a great idea — unless you’re a seafarer, of course. But is it a realistic scenario? Will shipping companies realize the savings that they apparently hope for by having fleets of unmanned cargo vessels plying the world’s oceans? Is this the right way to automate the freight?

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Hackaday Links: August 1, 2021

Amateur radio operators have a saying: When all else fails, there’s ham radio. And that’s true, at least to an extent — knock out the power, tear down the phone lines, and burn up all the satellites in orbit, and there will still be hams talking about politics on 40 meters. The point is, as long as the laws of physics don’t change, hams will figure out a way to send and receive messages. In honor of that fact, the police in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, India, make it a point to exchange messages with their headquarter using Morse code once a week. The idea is to maintain a backup system, in case they can’t get a message through any other way. It’s a good idea, especially since they rotate all their radio operators through the Sunday morning ritual. We can’t imagine that most emergency services dispatchers would be thrilled about learning Morse, though.

Just because you’re a billionaire with a space company doesn’t mean you’re an astronaut. At least that’s the view of the US Federal Aviation Administration, which issued guidelines pretty much while Jeff Bezos and his merry band of cohorts were floating about above the 100-km high Kármán line in a Blue Origin “New Shepard” rocket. The FAA guidelines make it clear that those making the trip need to have actually done something to qualify as an astronaut, by “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” That’s good news to the “Old Shepard”, who clearly was in control of “Freedom 7” during the Mercury program. But the Bezos brothers, teenager Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” group of women who trained to be NASA astronauts but never got to fly, were really just along for the ride, as the entire flight was automated. It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve been to space and you haven’t, of course, but they can’t officially call themselves astronauts. This goes to show that even billionaires can just be ballast too.

Good news, everyone — if you had anything that was being transported aboard the Ever Given, your stuff is almost there. The Suez Canal-occluding container ship finally made it to its original destination in Rotterdam, approximately four months later than originally predicted.  After plugging up the vital waterway for six days last March, the ship along with her cargo and her crew were detained in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, perhaps the coolest sounding body of water in the world next to the Dead Sea. Legal squabbling ensued at that point, all the while rendering whatever was in the 20,000-odd containers aboard the ship pretty much pointless. We’d imagine that even with continuous power, whatever was in the refrigerated containers must be pretty nasty by now, so there’s probably a lot of logistics and clean-up left to sort out.

I have to admit that I have a weird love of explosive bolts. I don’t know what it is, but the idea of fasteners engineered to fail in a predictable way under the influence of pyrotechnic charges just tickles something in me. I mean, I even wrote a whole article on the subject once. So when I came across this video explaining how the Space Shuttles were held to the launch pad, I really had to watch it. Surprisingly, the most interesting part of this story was not the explosive aspect, but the engineering problem of supporting the massive vehicle on the launch pad. For as graceful as the Shuttles seemed once they got into orbit, they really were ungainly beasts, especially strapped to the external fuel tank and booster. The scale of the eight frangible nuts used to secure the boosters to the pad is just jaw-dropping. We also liked the idea that NASA decided to catch the debris from the explosions in a container filled with sand.

Cloud-Based Atari Gaming

While the Google Stadia may be the latest and greatest in the realm of cloud gaming, there are plenty of other ways to experience this new style of gameplay, especially if you’re willing to go a little retro. This project, for example, takes the Atari 2600 into the cloud for a nearly-complete gaming experience that is fully hosted in a server, including the video rendering.

[Michael Kohn] created this project mostly as a way to get more familiar with Kubernetes, a piece of open-source software which helps automate and deploy container-based applications. The setup runs on two Raspberry Pi 4s which can be accessed by pointing a browser at the correct IP address on his network, or by connecting to them via VNC. From there, the emulator runs a specific game called Space Revenge, chosen for its memory requirements and its lack of encumbrance of copyrights. There are some limitations in that the emulator he’s using doesn’t implement all of the Atari controls, and that the sound isn’t available through the remote desktop setup, but it’s impressive nonetheless

[Michael] also glosses over this part, but the Atari emulator was written by him “as quickly as possible” so he could focus on the Kubernetes setup. This is impressive in its own right, and of course he goes beyond this to show exactly how to set up the cloud-based system on his GitHub page as well. He also thinks there’s potential for a system like this to run an NES setup as well. If you’re looking for something a little more modern, though, it is possible to set up a cloud-based gaming system with a Nintendo Switch as well.

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Lightweight OS For Any Platform

Linux has come a long way from its roots, where users had to compile the kernel and all of the other source code from scratch, often without any internet connection at all to help with documentation. It was the wild west of Linux, and while we can all rely on an easy-to-install Ubuntu distribution if we need it, there are still distributions out there that require some discovery of those old roots. Meet SkiffOS, a lightweight Linux distribution which compiles on almost any hardware but also opens up a whole world of opportunity in containerization.

The operating system is intended to be able to compile itself on any Linux-compatible board (with some input) and yet still be lightweight. It can run on Raspberry Pis, Nvidia Jetsons, and x86 machines to name a few, and focuses on hosting containerized applications independent of the hardware it is installed on. One of the goals of this OS is to separate the hardware support from the applications, while being able to support real-time tasks such as applications in robotics. It also makes upgrading the base OS easy without disrupting the programs running in the containers, and of course has all of the other benefits of containerization as well.

It does seem like containerization is the way of the future, and while it has obviously been put to great use in web hosting and other network applications, it’s interesting to see it expand into a real-time arena. Presumably an approach like this would have many other applications as well since it isn’t hardware-specific, and we’re excited to see the future developments as people adopt this type of operating system for their specific needs.

Thanks to [Christian] for the tip!

Codespaces For Embedded Development

We can sympathize with [Benjamin Cabé]. He has a lot of development boards and it has become painful to maintain the many toolchains for each board. We’ve also suffered from upgrading one tool breaks another tool in some obscure way. His solution? Use Github Codespaces which you can get early access for beta testers.

The idea is that you can spin off a container-specific to a GitHub repository that has all the proper versions and dependencies required to work with a project.

If you sign up for the beta, you’ll be on a waitlist, but it is interesting to see [Benjamin] go through the steps. The service is free during the beta and you get two codespaces. Presumably, you’ll eventually be able to pay for more capability.

The idea is good, but we’ll have to see about the implementation. A preconfigured container might move from machine to machine or even to deep storage for later reconstitution. Flashing the binary image to the device looked painful from the browser. We’ve seen it done nicely with, for example, the online Arduino IDE but it did take some installable software helpers to do that.

We’ll be curious about how many different platforms this will support. However, you can roll your own version of this and avoid the cloud using Docker or even a full-blown VM like VirtualBox. Sure, it is more work, but you control your destiny. Add something like Platform.IO and your choice of development tools and you can avoid having so many competing development tools all in your main computer.

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Preserved Lemons On A Hacker’s Budget

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” [Carl Sagan]. If you wish to make preserved lemons the same way as [Uri Tuchman], you have to start with that mentality. Video also below. The recipe for [Uri]’s preserved lemons involves two ingredients see sea salt, and sliced lemons, but we don’t expect you came here looking for a recipe and the food is less important than the journey.

Recipes take for granted that we have all the necessary utensils on hand, but what if you are missing one? What if you are missing all of them? Life’s lemons won’t get the best of us, and if we’re utensil-poor and tool-rich we will make those lemons regret trying to take a bite out of us. The first fixture for cutting lemons is a cutting board, then a knife, and finally an airtight container. We see him make all of them from stock material by hand. Does that seem like a lot of work? You forgot that if you’re going to eat up, you’ll need a serving platter and fork. If he ever opens a restaurant, don’t expect it to be fast food.

Maybe humans will only need one tool in the kitchen someday but at least one cat receives food from a single silicone-brained tool.

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Automate The Freight: Shipping Containers Sorted By Robot Stevedores

Towering behemoths are prowling the docks of Auckland, New Zealand, in a neverending shuffle of shipping containers, stacking and unstacking them like so many out-sized LEGO bricks. And they’re doing it all without human guidance.
It’s hard to overstate the impact containerized cargo has had on the modern world. The ability to load and unload ships laden with containers of standardized sizes rapidly with cranes, and then being able to plunk those boxes down onto a truck chassis or railcar carrier for land transportation has been a boon to the world’s economy, and it’s one of the main reasons we can order electronic doo-dads from China and have them show up at our doors essentially for free. At least eventually.
As with anything, solving one problem often creates other problems, and containerization is no different. The advantages of being able to load and unload one container rather than separately handling the dozen or more pallets that can fit inside it are obvious. But what then does one do with a dozen enormous containers? Or hundreds of them?
That’s where these giant self-driving cranes come in, and as we’ll see in this installment of “Automate the Freight”, these autonomous stevedores are helping ports milk as much value as possible out of containerization.

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