Tensions High After Second Failed Cable At Arecibo

Today we’re sad to report that one of the primary support cables at the Arecibo Observatory has snapped, nudging the troubled radio telescope closer to a potential disaster. The Observatory’s 300 meter reflector dish was already badly in need of repairs after spending 60 years exposed to the elements in Puerto Rico, but dwindling funds have made it difficult for engineers to keep up. Damage from 2017’s Hurricane Maria was still being repaired when a secondary support cable broke free and smashed through the dish back in August, leading to grave concerns over how much more abuse the structure can take before a catastrophic failure is inevitable.

The situation is particularly dire because both of the failed cables were attached to the same tower. Each of the remaining cables is now supporting more weight than ever before, increasing the likelihood of another failure. Unless engineers can support the dish and ease the stress on these cables, the entire structure could be brought down by a domino effect; with each cable snapping in succession as the demands on them become too great.

Workers installing the reflector’s mesh panels in 1963.

As a precaution the site has been closed to all non-essential personnel, and to limit the risk to workers, drones are being used to evaluate the dish and cabling as engineers formulate plans to stabilize the structure until replacement cables arrive. Fortunately, they have something of a head start.

Back in September the University of Central Florida, which manages the Arecibo Observatory, contacted several firms to strategize ways they could address the previously failed cable and the damage it caused. Those plans have now been pushed up in response to this latest setback.

Unfortunately, there’s still a question of funding. There were fears that the Observatory would have to be shuttered after Hurricane Maria hit simply because there wasn’t enough money in the budget to perform the relatively minor repairs necessary. The University of Central Florida stepped in and provided the funding necessary to keep the Observatory online in 2018, but they may need to lean on their partner the National Science Foundation to help cover the repair bill they’ve run up since then.

The Arecibo Observatory is a unique installation, and its destruction would be an incredible blow for the scientific community. Researchers were already struggling with the prospect of repairs putting the powerful radio telescope out of commission for a year or more, but now it seems there’s a very real possibility the Observatory may be lost. Here’s hoping that teams on the ground can safely stabilize the iconic instrument so it can continue exploring deep space for years to come.

Patience Beats Rage-Quit In Shattered Xbox Controller Repair

There are negative-one hacks to this project. Someone lost at their game, lost their temper, then raged at their Xbox controller with some horsepower. The result is that [Taylor Burley] gets a free controller with a non-responsive joystick out of the deal, and since he had nothing to lose, he decided to heat up the iron and bring the controller back to life.

The majority of the project is told in pictures and through the narration in the video below. In removing the joystick, [Taylor] opts for the technique of doping the connections with fresh solder (we assume containing lead for easier melting) before reaching for the desoldering wick. The diagnosis stage is brief because when the joystick lifts away, the PCB falls apart into two separate pieces! The next step was to glue the two halves together with cyanoacrylate to get into the nooks and crannies, then epoxy to provide structure. Solder bridges were not going to jump that gap, so he used 30ga wire and attached it wherever he could scrape away some solder mask. Best of all, it worked when he reattached the joystick. Job well done.

Xbox controllers are not a scarce commodity, so people do not spend their idle hours fixing them, but not many people can claim experience. Maybe someday the stakes will be higher and he will have the courage to repair vintage electronics. We won’t rant on how things aren’t built to last, and how we don’t train people to fix things. Today, we want to focus on someone who used their time to repair and learn.

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See The Damage 250-Pound Combat Robots Get

Combat robots have been a thing for a while, but we don’t normally get a close look at the end results of the sort of damage they can both take and deal out. [Raymond Ma] spent time helping out with season four of BattleBots and wrote about the experience, as well as showed several pictures of the kind of damage 250-pound robots can inflict upon each other. We’ve embedded a few of them here, but we encourage you to read [Raymond]’s writeup and see the rest for yourself.

The filming for a season of BattleBots is done in a relatively short amount of time, which means the pacing and repair work tends to be more fast and furious than slow and thoughtful. [Raymond] says that it isn’t uncommon for bots, near the end of filming, to be held together with last-minute welds, wrong-sized parts, and sets of firmly-crossed fingers. This isn’t because the bots themselves are poorly designed or made; it’s because they can get absolutely wrecked by the forces at play.

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Walk It Off, Healing Robots

For many of us, our first robots, or technical projects, were flimsy ordeals built with cardboard, duct tape, and high hopes. Most of us grow past that scene, and we learn to work supplies which require more than a pair of kitchen scissors. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Iowa State University have made a material which goes beyond durable, it can heal itself when wounded. To a small robot, a standard hole puncher is a dire assailant, but the little guy in the video after the break keeps hopping around despite a couple of new piercings.

The researcher’s goal is to integrate this substance into bio-inspired robots which may come to harm in the field. Fish-like robots could keep swimming after a brush with a bit of coral or a curious predator. Robot snakes could keep slithering after a fall or a gravel road.

Of course, robotic simulacrums are not the only ones who can benefit from healing circuitry. Satellites are prey to punctures from errant space debris.

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Modernizing Puerto Rico’s Grid

After two massive hurricanes impacted Puerto Rico three months ago, the island was left with extensive damage to its electrical infrastructure. Part of the problem was that the infrastructure was woefully inadequate to withstand a hurricane impact at all. It is possible to harden buildings and infrastructure against extreme weather, and a new plan to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid will address many of these changes that, frankly, should have been made long ago.

Among the upgrades to the power distribution system are improvements to SCADA systems. SCADA allows for remote monitoring and control of substations, switchgear, and other equipment which minimizes the need for crews to investigate problems and improves reliability. SCADA can also be used for automation on a large scale, in addition to the installation of other autonomous equipment meant to isolate faults and restore power quickly. The grid will get physical upgrades as well, including equipment like poles, wire, and substations that are designed and installed to a more rigorous standard in order to make them more wind- and flood-tolerant. Additional infrastructure will be placed underground as well, and a more aggressive tree trimming program will be put in place.

The plan also calls for some 21st-century improvements as well, including the implementation of “micro grids”. These micro grids reduce the power system’s reliance on centralized power plants by placing small generation facilities (generators, rooftop solar, etc) in critical areas, like at hospitals. Micro grids can also be used in remote areas to improve reliability where it is often impractical or uneconomical to service.

While hurricanes are inevitable in certain parts of the world, the damage that they cause is often exacerbated by poor design and bad planning. Especially in the mysterious world of power generation and distribution, a robust infrastructure is extremely important for the health, safety, and well-being of the people who rely on it. Hopefully these steps will improve Puerto Rico’s situation, especially since this won’t be the last time a major storm impacts the island.