Hackaday Links: May 17, 2020

Consider it the “Scarlet Letter” of our time. An MIT lab is developing a face mask that lights up to alert others when the wearer has COVID-19. The detection technology is based on sensors that were developed for the Ebola virus scare and uses fluorescently tagged DNA fragments freeze-dried onto absorbent strips built into the mask. The chemistry is activated by the moisture in the sputum expelled when the wearer coughs or sneezes while wearing the mask; any SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in the sputum bind to the strips, when then light up under UV. The list of problems a scheme like this entails is long and varied, not least of which is what would possess someone to willingly don one of these things. Still, it’s an interesting technology.

Speaking of intrusive expansions of the surveillance state, Singapore is apparently now using a Boston Dynamics Spot robot to enforce social-distancing rules in its public parks and gardens. The familiar four-legged, bright yellow dog-bot is carrying cameras that are relaying images of park attendees to some sort of image analysis program and are totally not capturing facial or personal data, pinky swear. If people are found to be violating the two-meter rule, Spot will bark out a prerecorded reminder to spread out a bit. How the system differentiates between people who live together who are out getting some fresh air and strangers who should be staying apart, and whether the operators of this have ever seen how this story turns out are open questions.

Those who lived through 9/11 in the United States no doubt remember the deafening silence that descended over the country for three days while every plane in the civil aviation fleet was grounded. One had no idea how much planes contributed to the noise floor of life until they were silenced. So too with the lockdown implemented worldwide to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, except with the sometimes dramatic reduction in pollution levels. We’ve all seen pictures where people suddenly realize that Los Angeles isn’t necessarily covered by an orange cloud of smog, and that certain mountain ranges are actually visible if you care to look. But getting some hard data is always useful, and these charts show just how much the pollution situation improved in a number of countries throughout the world after their respective lockdowns. For some cities, the official lockdown was a clear demarcation between the old pollution regime and the new, but for some, there was an obvious period before the lockdown was announced where people were obviously curtailing their activity. It’s always interesting pore over data like this and speculated what it all means.

While the in-person aspects of almost every conference under the sun have been canceled, many of them have switched to a virtual meeting that can at least partially make up for the full experience. And coming up next weekend is Virtually Maker Faire, in the slot where Bay Area Maker Faire would normally be offered. The call for makers ends today, so get your proposals in and sign up to attend.

And finally, there aren’t too many times in life you’ll get a chance to get to visualize a number so large that an Evil Empire was named for it. The googol, or 10100, was a term coined by the nine-year-old nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner when he asked the child for a good name for a really big number. To put the immensity of that number into perspective, The Brick Experiment Channel on YouTube put together an improbably long gear train using Lego pieces we’ve never seen before with a reduction ratio of 10103.4:1. The gear train has a ton of different power transmission elements in it, from plain spur gears to worm drives and even planetary gears. We found the 2608.5:1 harmonic gear particularly fascinating. There’s enough going on to keep even a serious gearhead entertained, but perhaps not for the 5.2×1091 years it’ll take to revolve the final gear once. Something, something, heat-death of the universe. [Ed note: prior art, which we were oddly enough thinking of fondly just a few days ago. Synchronicity!]

Detecting Water Before It’s Too Late

[mcu_nerd] is like any engineer, which is why his problem of an occasionally leaky water heater sure looks like a research project with no end in sight. Sure there’s probably a commercial product out there that can be had for half the cost and a few clicks of the mouse, but what’s the point in actually solving the problem?

His log starts with research into detecting low battery voltages. Then it was a quick exploration in designing low-power circuits. When the Flexible PCB contest came along, he realized that there was a chance to design a better electrode, and he ended up winning one of the vouchers; which is where he’s at now.

It’s definitely a work in progress, and if anything it’s just a quick five minute read and an opportunity to commiserate with another wayward soul. We do like his clever use of a tealite candle tin as both the second electrode and case for his water detection circuit. There are also some KiCad files and code.

Cut Through The Noise, See Tiny Signals

An oscilloscope is a handy tool for measuring signals of all kinds, but it’s especially useful if you want to measure something with a periodic component. Modern oscilloscopes have all kinds of features built-in that allow you sample a wide range of signals in the hundreds of megahertz, and make finding and measuring your signal pretty easy, provided you know which buttons to push. There are some advanced oscilloscope methods that go beyond the built-in features of even the best oscilloscopes, and [AM] has a tutorial on one of them.

The method used here is called phase-senstitive detection, and allows tiny signals to be found within noise, even if the magnitude of the noise is hundreds of times greater than the signal itself. Normally this wouldn’t be possible, but by shifting the signal out of the DC range and giving it some frequency content, and then using a second channel on the oscilloscope to measure the frequency content of the source and triggering the oscilloscope on the second channel, the phase of the measured signal can be sifted out of the noise and shown clearly on the screen.

In [AM]’s example, he is measuring the intensity of a laser using a photodiode with a crude amplifier, but even with the amplifier it’s hard to see the signal in the noise. By adding a PWM-like signal to the power source of the laser and then syncing it up with the incoming signal from the photodiode, he can tease out the information he needs. It’s eally a fascinating concept, and if you fancy yourself a whiz with an oscilloscope this is really a tool you should have in your back pocket.  If you’re new to this equipment, we do have a primer on some oscilloscope basics, too.

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Detect Elevated Carbon Monoxide (Levels)

The molar mass of carbon monoxide (CO) is 28.0, and the molar mass of air is 28.8, so CO will rise in an ambient atmosphere. It makes sense to detect it farther from the ground, but getting a tall ladder is not convenient and certainly doesn’t make for fast deployment. What do you do if you don’t care for heights and want to know the CO levels in a gymnasium or a tall foyer? Here to save the day, is the Red Balloon Carbon Monoxide Detector.

Circuit.io generates the diagram and code to operate the CO sensor and turn a healthy green light to a warning red if unsafe levels are detected. The user holds the batteries, Arduino, and light while a red balloon lifts the sensor up to fifteen feet, or approximately five three meters. It is an analog sensor which needs some time to warm up so it pays to be warned about that wire length and startup.

Having a CO sentinel is a wise choice for this odorless gas.

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Object Detection, With TensorFlow

Getting computers to recognize objects has been a historically difficult problem in computer science, but with the rise of machine learning it is becoming easier to solve. One of the tools that can be put to work in object recognition is an open source library called TensorFlow, which [Evan] aka [Edje Electronics] has put to work for exactly this purpose.

His object recognition software runs on a Raspberry Pi equipped with a webcam, and also makes use of Open CV. [Evan] notes that this opens up a lot of creative low-cost detection applications for the Pi, such as setting up a camera that detects when a pet is waiting at the door to be let inside or outside, counting the number of bees entering and exiting a beehive, or monitoring parking spaces at an office.

This project uses a number of other toolkits as well, including Protobuf. It also makes extensive use of Python scripts, but if you’re comfortable with that and you have an application for computer vision, [Evan]’s tutorial will get you started.

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Add Broken Tool Detection To Your CNC Mill

A tool breaking in the midst of a CNC machining operation is always a disaster. Not only do you have a broken tool (no small expense), but if the program continues to run there is a good chance it’ll end up ruining your part too. In particularly bad cases, it’s even possible to for this to damage the machine itself. However, if the breakage is detected soon enough, the program can be stopped in time to salvage the part and avoid damage to your machine.

Many new machining centers have the ability to automatically detect tool breaks, but this is a feature missing from older machines (and inexpensive modern machines). To address this issue, [Wiley Davis] came up with a process for adding broken tool detection to an older Haas mill. The physical modifications are relatively minor: he simply added a limit switch wired to the existing (but unused) M-Function port on the Haas control board. This port is used to expand the functionality of the machine, but [Wiley] didn’t need it anyway.

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Minecraft Sword Lights Up When Nearby Friends

With All Hallow’s Eve looming close, makers have the potential to create some amazing costumes we’ll remember for the rest of the year. If you’re a fan of the hugely addict-*cough* popular game Minecraft, perhaps you’ve considered cosplaying as your favorite character skin, but lacked the appropriate props. [Graham Kitteridge] and his friends have decided to pay homage to the game by making their own light-up Minecraft swords.

These swords use 3D-printed and laser-cut parts, designed so as to hide the electronics for the lights and range finder in the hilt. Range finder? Oh, yes, the sword uses an Arduino Uno-based board to support NewPixels LEDs and a 433Mhz radio transmitter and receiver for ranged detection of other nearby swords that — when they are detected — will trigger the sword to glow. Kind of like the sword Sting, but for friendlies. Continue reading “Minecraft Sword Lights Up When Nearby Friends”