Hackaday Podcast 060: Counting Bees, DogBox Transmissions, And The Lowdown On Vents, BiPAP, And PCR

Hackaday editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys recount the past week in hardware hacking. There’s a new king of supercomputing and it’s everyone! Have you ever tried to count bees? Precision is just a cleverly threaded bolt away. And we dig into some of the technical details of the coronavirus response with a close look at PCR testing for the virus, and why ventilators are so difficult to build.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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Ventilators 101: What They Do And How They Work

Treating the most serious cases of COVID-19 calls for the use of ventilators. We’ve all heard this, and also that there is a shortage of these devices. But there is not one single type of ventilator, and that type of machine is not the only option when it comes to assisted breathing being used in treatment. Information is power and having better grasp on this topic will help us all better understand the situation.

We recently wrote about a Facebook group focused on open source ventilators and other technology that could assist in the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an outpouring of support, and while the community is great when it comes to building things, it’s clear we all need more information about the problems doctors are currently dealing with, and how existing equipment was designed to address them.

It’s a long and complicated topic, though, so go get what’s left of your quarantine snacks and let’s dig in.

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Ask Hackaday: What Should We Be Doing During Coronavirus Lockdown?

There’s a lot of good in the world and that includes you. Humanity has a way of coming together at crucial moments and we have certainly reached that with the outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus. At this point, most people’s daily lives have been turned upside down. We can all have an impact on how this plays out.

It’s scary, it’s real, but we will get through this. What we need to focus on now is how we can behave that will lead to the best outcomes for the largest number of people. The real question is, how can we help? If you’re stuck at home it’s easy to feel powerless to help but that’s not true. Let’s cover a few examples, then open up the discussion in the comments so we can hear what has been working for you.

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Living In Corona Times

This week the new coronavirus has spread like wildfire. The good news last week has been the success with which China, Taiwan, and Singapore have handled the epidemic, and that western nations are just beginning to emulate their approach of reducing person-to-person interactions as much as possible to slow the rate of infection. The bad news, however, is that countries like Italy currently have a number of cases that is overwhelming their health system, and that the disease seems to be spreading rapidly in other countries. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Our sincerest thanks go out to all of the medical professionals who are providing care in this difficult situation. But also to those who are providing public infrastructure in less obvious ways: the cashiers who subject themselves to hundreds of contacts per day just so that you and I can buy toothpaste, for instance. The rest of us are staying at home as much as possible, washing our hands, and slowing the spread as much as possible simply by not catching or passing on the virus.

The original part, left, with its 3D-printed counterpart.

Of course, everyone wants to help, and there have been some heroic hacks. The fablabs and hackerspaces in Italy who’ve been 3D printing respirator parts for instance, have directly and obviously helped save lives. With respirators being the limiting factor in many hospitals, we’ve also seen an effort to design an open source ventilator, adapt one to serve multiple patients, and even a start towards converting a CPAP fan into a ventilator for emergencies.

But most of us don’t have medical expertise. If you have spare CPU cycles, consider donating them to the folding@home effort to simulate the proteins in the virus. And any hack to make the lives of those stuck in voluntary quarantine more “normal” is perhaps as important in the long run. I made a simple clock to help my son who’s stuck at home and can’t yet tell time, adjust to his new daily routine. Others have made more obviously whimsical devices. We like this computer-vision face-touching alarm. If it makes people smile while slowing down one transmission vector, it’s a win.

If you have the expertise, consider helping out your local schools with telepresence and online education. While a number of colleges are already geared up for distance learning, it’s uncharted territory for primary education most everywhere. I’m sure you can also think of other ways to help out locally. If so, don’t hesitate to tell us your success stories.

For the rest: simply washing your hands, staying healthy, and not passing the virus on to others is a quietly heroic act that we think shouldn’t be overlooked. Thanks.

This article is part of the Hackaday.com newsletter, delivered every seven days for each of the last 212 weeks or so. It also includes our favorite articles from the last seven days that you can see on the web version of the newsletter.

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This Week In Security: Working From Home Edition

As the world sits back and waits for Coronavirus to pass, the normally frantic pace of security news has slowed just a bit. Google is not exempt, and Chrome 81 has been delayed as a result. Major updates to Chrome and Chrome OS are paused indefinitely, but security updates will continue as normal. In fact, Google has verified that the security related updates will be packaged as minor updates to Chrome 80.

Chinese Viruses Masquerading as Chinese Viruses

Speaking of COVID-19, researchers at Check Point Research stumbled upon a malware campaign that takes advantage of the current health scare. A pair of malicious RTF documents were being sent to various Mongolian targets. Created with a tool called “Royal Road“, these files target a set of older Microsoft Word vulnerabilities.

This particular attack drops its payload in the Microsoft Word startup folder, waiting for the next time Word is launched to run the next stage. This is a clever strategy, as it would temporarily deflect attention from the malicious files. The final payload is a custom RAT (Remote Access Trojan) that can take screenshots, upload and download files, etc.

While the standard disclaimer about the difficulty of attribution does apply, this particular attack seems to be originating from Chinese intelligence agencies. While the Coronavirus angle is new, this campaign seems to stretch back to 2017.
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The Corona Clock

Schools are closed here in Germany until after Easter vacation, and that means that our almost-six-year-old son Max is staying at home with us. The good news is that my wife and I work from home anyway, so it’s not too stressful as long as he can look after himself for eight hours per day. The bad news is that there’s no way a kindergarten kid can take care of himself for such long stretches, and we don’t want to just park him in front of the boob tube. At least there’s two of us.

The new stay-at-home life has required some adjustment, but for at least the first five days (and counting) it’s working out pretty darn well. One trick: my wife came up with the idea of a visual schedule to help Max divide his day up into kindergarten-sized chunks, and then we added an LED strip behind it to turn it into a linear clock of sorts. And we did it with stuff we had lying around the house.

Granted, it’s not a super deep hacky-hack, and some of you out there could probably get it done with a handful of 555 timers. But it was quick, gets the job done, and heck, with NTP sync, it’s the most accurate kiddie clock in the world! So those of you out there who are stuck like we are, trying to balance childcare and working from home, here’s a quick project that can increase familial harmony while giving you an excuse to order more LED strips.

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3D Printed Parts Keep Respirators Operational During COVID-19 Epidemic

COVID-19 can seem like a paper tiger, when looking at bare mortality rates. The far greater problem is the increase in fatalities as health systems are stretched to the limit. With thousands of patients presenting all at once, hospitals quickly run out of beds and resources and suddenly, normally survivable conditions become life threatening. One Italian hospital found themselves in such a position, running out of valves for a critical respirator device needed to save their patients. Supplies were running out – but additive manufacturing was able to save the day.

The original part, left, with its 3D-printed replacement.

While the article uses the term “reanimation device”, it’s clear we’re talking about respirators here, necessary to keep patients alive during respiratory distress. The valve in question is a plastic part, one which likely needs to be changed over when the device is used with each individual patient to provide a sterile flow of air. After the alarm was raised by Nunzia Vallini, a local journalist, a ring around of the 3D printing community led to a machine being sent down to the hospital and the parts being reproduced. Once proven to work, things were stepped up, with another company stepping in to produce the parts in quantity with a high-quality laser fusion printer.

It’s a great example of 3D printers being used to produce actual useful parts, and of the community coming together to do vital lifesaving work. We’ve seen the technology come in clutch in the medical field before, too. Stay safe out there, and live to hack another day.

Thanks to [Jarno Burger], [LuigiBrotha], and [Michael Hartmann] for the tips!