Building A Drone That (Almost) Follows You Home

There’s a great deal of research happening around the topic of autonomous vehicles of all creeds and colours. [Ryan] decided this was an interesting field, and took on an autonomous drone as his final project at Cornell University.

The main idea was to create a drone that could autonomously follow a target which provided GPS data for the drone to follow. [Ryan] planned to implement this by having a smartphone provide GPS coordinates to the drone over WiFi, allowing the drone to track the user.

As this was  a university project, he had to take a very carefully considered approach to the build. Given likely constraints on both money and time, he identified that the crux of the project was to develop the autonomous part of the drone, not the drone itself. Thus, off-the-shelf parts were selected to swiftly put together a drone platform that would serve as a test bed for his autonomous brain.

The write up is in-depth and shares all the gritty details of getting the various subsystems of the drone talking together. He also shares issues that were faced with altitude control – without any sensors to determine altitude, it wasn’t possible to keep the drone at a level height. This unfortunately complicated things and meant that he didn’t get to complete the drone’s following algorithm. Such roadblocks are highly common in time-limited university projects, though their educational value cannot be overstated. Overall, while the project may not have met its final goals, it was obviously an excellent learning experience, and one which has taught him plenty about working with drones and the related electronics.

For another take on autonomous flight, check out this high-speed AI racing drone.

Fully-functional Oscilloscope on a PIC

When troubleshooting circuits it’s handy to have an oscilloscope around, but often we aren’t in a lab setting with all of our fancy, expensive tools at our disposal. Luckily the price of some basic oscilloscopes has dropped considerably in the past several years, but if you want to roll out your own solution to the “portable oscilloscope” problem the electrical engineering students at Cornell produced an oscilloscope that only needs a few knobs, a PIC, and a small TV.

[Junpeng] and [Kevin] are taking their design class, and built this prototype to be inexpensive and portable while still maintaining a high sample rate and preserving all of the core functions of a traditional oscilloscope. The scope can function anywhere under 100 kHz, and outputs NTSC at 30 frames per second. The user can control the ground level, the voltage and time scales, and a trigger. The oscilloscope has one channel, but this could be expanded easily enough if it isn’t sufficient for a real field application.

All in all, this is a great demonstration of what you can accomplish with a microcontroller and (almost) an engineering degree. To that end, the students go into an incredible amount of detail about how the oscilloscope works since this is a design class. About twice a year we see a lot of these projects popping up, and it’s always interesting to see the new challenges facing students in these classes.

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An Education on SoC using Verilog

[Bruce Land] is one of those rare individuals who has his own Hackaday tag. He and his students at Cornell have produced many projects over the years that have appeared on these pages, lately with FPGA-related projects. If you only know [Land] from projects, you are missing out. He posts lectures from many of his classes and recently added a series of new lectures about developing with a DE1 System on Chip (SoC) using an Altera Cyclone FPGA using Verilog. You can catch the ten lectures on YouTube.

The class material is different for 2017, so the content is fresh and relevant. The DE1-SOC has a dual ARM processor and boots Linux from an SD card. There are several labs and quite a bit of background material. The first lab involves driving a VGA monitor. Another is a hardware solver for ordinary differential equations.

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Logic Analyzer on Chips

The Internet is full of low-speed logic analyzer designs that use a CPU. There are also quite a few FPGA-based designs. Both have advantages and disadvantages. FPGAs are fast and can handle lots of data at once. But CPUs often have more memory and it is simpler to perform I/O back to, say, a host computer. [Mohammad] sidestepped the choice. He built a logic analyzer that resides partly on an FPGA and partly on an ARM processor.

In fact, his rationale was to replace built-in FPGA logic analyzers like Chipscope and SignalTap. These are made to coexist with your FPGA design, but [Mohammad] found they had limitations. They also eat up die space you might want for your own design, so by necessity, they probably don’t have much memory.

The system can capture and display 32-bit signals on a 640×480 VGA monitor in real-time. The system also has a USB mouse interface which is used to zoom and scroll the display. You can see a video of the thing in operation, below.

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Cornell Students Have Your Back

Back problems are some of the most common injuries among office workers and other jobs of a white-collar nature. These are injuries that develop over a long period of time and are often caused by poor posture or bad ergonomics. Some of the electrical engineering students at Cornell recognized this problem and used their senior design project to address this issue. [Rohit Jha], [Amanda Pustis], and [Erissa Irani] designed and built a posture correcting device that alerts the wearer whenever their spine isn’t in the ideal position.

The device fits into a tight-fitting shirt. The sensor itself is a flex sensor from Sparkfun which can detect deflections. This data is then read by a PIC32 microcontroller. Feedback for the wearer is done by a vibration motor and a TFT display with a push button. Of course, they didn’t just wire everything up and call it a day; there was a lot of biology research that went into this. The students worked to determine the most ideal posture for a typical person, the best place to put the sensor, and the best type of feedback to send out for a comfortable user experience.

We’re always excited to see the senior design projects from university students. They often push the boundaries of conventional thinking, and that’s exactly the skill that next generation of engineers will need. Be sure to check out the video of the project below, and if you want to see more of this semester’s other projects, we have you covered there tooContinue reading “Cornell Students Have Your Back”

Gravity Simulations With An FPGA

Gravity can be a difficult thing to simulate effectively on a traditional CPU. The amount of calculation required increases exponentially with the number of particles in the simulation. This is an application perfect for parallel processing.

For their final project in ECE5760 at Cornell, [Mark Eiding] and [Brian Curless] decided to use an FPGA to rapidly process gravitational calculations. This allows them to simulate a thousand particles at up to 10 frames per second. With every particle having an attraction to every other, this works out to an astonishing 1 million inverse-square calculations per frame!

The team used an Altera DE2-115 development board to build the project. General operation is run by a Nios II processor, which handles the VGA display, loads initial conditions and controls memory. The FPGA is used as an accelerator for the gravity calculations, and lends the additional benefit of requiring less memory access operations as it runs all operations in parallel.

This project is a great example of how FPGAs can be used to create serious processing muscle for massively parallel tasks. Check out this great article on sorting with FPGAs that delves deeper into the subject. Video after the break.

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Sorting Resistors with 3D Printing and a PIC

If you aren’t old enough to remember programming FORTRAN on punched cards, you might be surprised that while a standard card had 80 characters, FORTRAN programs only used 72 characters per card. The reason for this was simple: keypunches could automatically put a sequence number in the last 8 characters. Why do you care? If you drop your box of cards walking across the quad, you can use a machine to sort on those last 8 characters and put the deck back in the right order.

These days, that’s not a real problem. However, we have spilled one of those little parts boxes — you know the ones with the little trays. We aren’t likely to separate out the resistors again. Instead, we’ll just treasure hunt for the value we want when we need one.

[Brian Gross], [Nathan Lambert], and [Alex Parkhurst] are a bit more industrious. For their final project in [Bruce Land’s] class at Cornell, they built a 3D-printed resistor sorting machine. A PIC processor feeds a resistor from a hopper, measures it, and places it in the correct bin, based on its value. Who doesn’t want that? You can see a video demonstration, below.

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