Ask Hackaday: How Do You Prepare?

Last month, large parts of the southern United States experienced their coldest temperatures since the 1899 Blizzard. Some of us set new all-time lows, and I was right in the middle of the middle of it here in Southwestern Oklahoma. Since many houses in Texas and Oklahoma are heated with electricity, the power grids struggled to keep up with the demand. Cities in Oklahoma experienced some short-term rolling blackouts and large patches of the Texas grid were without power for several days. No juice, no heat.

In places where the power was out for an extended period of time, the water supply was potentially contaminated, and a boil order was in effect. Of course, this only works when the gas and power are on. In some places, the store shelves were empty, a result of panic buying combined with perishables spoiling without the power to keep them cold. For some, food and drinkable water was temporarily hard to come by.

There have been other problems, too. Houses in the south aren’t built for the extreme cold, and many have experienced frozen pipes, temporarily shutting off their water supply. In some cases, those frozen pipes break open, flooding the house once the water starts flowing again. For instance, here’s an eye-witness account of the carnage from The 8-bit Guy, who lives at ground zero in the DFW area.
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Quality Control, Done Anywhere

Modern society has brought us all kinds of wonders, including rapid intercontinental travel, easy information access, and decreased costs for most consumer goods thanks to numerous supply chains. When those supply chains break down as a result of a natural disaster or other emergency, however, the disaster’s effects can be compounded without access to necessary supplies. That’s the focus of Field Ready, a nonprofit that sets up small-scale manufacturing in places without access to supply chains, or whose access has been recently disrupted.

As part of this year’s Hackaday Prize, a each of our four nonprofit partners outline specific needs that became the targets of a design and build challenge. Field Ready was one of those nonprofits, and for the challenge they focused on quality control for their distributed manufacturing system. We took a look at Field Ready back in June to explore some of the unique challenges associated with their work, which included customers potentially not knowing that a product they procured came from Field Ready in the first place, leading to very little feedback on the performance of the products and nowhere to turn when replacements are needed.

The challenge was met by a dream team whose members each received a $6,000 microgrant to work full time on the project. The’ve just made their report on an easier way of tracking all of the products produced, and identifying them even for those not in the organization. As a result, Field Ready has a much improved manufacturing and supply process which allows them to gather more data and get better feedback from users of their equipment. Join us after the break for a closer look at the system and to watch the team’s presentation video.

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2020 Hackaday Prize Hack Chat With Majenta Strongheart

Join us on Wednesday, May 27 at noon Pacific for the 2020 Hackaday Prize Hack Chat with Majenta Strongheart!

It hardly seems possible, but the Hackaday Prize, the world’s greatest hardware design contest, is once more at hand. But the world of 2020 is vastly different than it was last year, and the challenges we all suddenly face have become both more numerous and more acute as a result. We’ve seen hackers rise to the challenges presented by the events of the last few months in unexpected ways, coming up with imaginative solutions and pressing the limits of what’s possible. What this community can do when it is faced with a real challenge is inspiring.

Now it’s time to take that momentum and apply it to some of the other problems the world is facing. For the 2020 Hackaday Prize, we’re asking you to throw your creativity at challenges in conservation, disaster response, assistive technology, and renewable resources. We’ve teamed up with leading non-profits in those areas, each of which has specific challenges they need you to address.

With $200,000 in prize money at stake, we’re sure you’re going to want to step up to the challenge. To help get you started, Majenta Strongheart, Head of Design and Partnerships at Supplyframe, will drop by the Hack Chat with all the details on the 2020 Hackaday Prize. Come prepared to pick her brain on what needs doing and how best to tackle the problems that the Prize is trying to address. And find out about all the extras, like the “Dream Team” microgrants, the wild card prize, and the community picks.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, May 27 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Testing Your Grit: Tales Of Hacking In Difficult Situations

What’s your work area like? Perhaps you’re mostly a software person, used to the carpeted land of cubicles or shared workspaces, with their stand-up desks and subdued lighting. Or maybe you’ve got a lab bench somewhere, covered with tools and instruments. You might be more of a workshop person, in a cavernous bay filled with machine tools and racks of raw material. Wherever you work, chances are pretty good that someone is paying good money to keep a roof over your head, keeping the temperature relatively comfortable, and making sure you have access to the tools and materials you need to get the job done. It’s just good business sense.

Now, imagine you’ve lost all that. Your cushy workspace has been stripped away, and you’ve got to figure out how to get your job done despite having access to nothing but a few basic tools and supplies and your own wits. Can you do it? Most of us would answer “Yes,” but how many of us have ever tested ourselves like that? Someone who has tested her engineering chops under difficult conditions — and continues to do so regularly — is Laurel Cummings, who stopped by the 2019 Hackaday Superconference to tell us all about her field-expedient life with a talk aptly titled, “When It Rains, It Pours”.

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Austere Engineering Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, January 22 at noon Pacific for the Austere Engineering Hack Chat with Laurel Cummings!

For most of us, building whatever it is that needs building is something that occurs in relative comfort and abundance. Sure, there are cold workshops and understocked parts bins to deal with, but by and large, we’re all working in more or less controlled environments where we can easily get to the tools and materials we need to complete the job.

But not all engineering is done under such controlled conditions. Field operations often occur miles from civilization, and if whatever you need is not in the back of the truck, it might as well not exist. At times like this, the pressure is on to adapt, improvise, and overcome to get the job done, especially if people’s lives and well-being are at stake.

All of this is familiar territory for Laurel Cummings, an electrical engineer and an associate at Building Momentum, a technology development and training concern based in Virginia. Her job is to get out in the field and work with the company’s mainly military and corporate clients and help them deal with the challenges of austere environments, including disaster response efforts.

From a North Carolina beach ravaged by Hurricane Florence to the deserts of Kuwait, Laurel has had to think her way out of more than a few sticky situations. Join us as we discuss what it takes to develop and deploy field-expedient solutions under less-than-ideal situations, learn how to know when good enough is good enough, and maybe even hear a few war stories too.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, January 22 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

 

Zombies Ate Your Neighbors? Tell Everyone Through LoRa!

As popular as the post-apocalyptic Zombie genre is, there is a quite unrealistic component to most of the stories. Well, apart from the whole “the undead roaming the Earth” thing. But where are the nerds, and where is all the apocalypse-proof, solar-powered tech? Or is it exactly this lack of tech in those stories that serves as incentive to build it in the first place? Well, maybe it doesn’t have to be the end of the world to seek for ways to cope with a collapse of our modern communication infrastructure either. Just think of natural disasters — an earthquake or hurricane causing a long-term power outage for example. The folks at [sudomesh] tackle exactly this concern with their fully open source, off-grid, solar-powered, LoRa mesh network, Disaster Radio.

The network itself is built from single nodes comprising of a battery-backed solar panel, a LoRa module, and either the ESP8266 or ESP32 for WiFi connectivity. The idea is to connect to the network with your mobile phone through WiFi, therefore eliminating any need for additional components to actually use the network, and have the nodes communicate with each other via LoRa. Admittedly, LoRa may not be your best choice for high data rates, but it is a good choice for long-range communication when cellular networks aren’t an option. And while you can built it all by yourself with everything available on [sudomesh]’s GitHub page, a TTGO ESP32 LoRa module will do as well.

If the idea itself sounds familiar, we did indeed cover similar projects like HELPER and Skrypt earlier this year, showing that LoRa really seems to be a popular go-to for off-grid communication. But well, whether we really care about modern communication and helping each other out when all hell breaks loose instead of just primevally defending our own lives is of course another question.

Collapse OS, An OS For When The Unthinkable Happens

Decades of post-apocalyptic Hollywood movies have taught us that once all the trappings of our civilisation have been stripped away, it’s going to be kinda cool. We’re all going to wear slightly dusty looking 1980s motorcycling gear, and we’re going to drive really cool cars. Except of course Mad Max is fantasy, and the reality is likely to be unspeakbly grim. The future [Virgil Dupras] is anticipating is not a post-nuclear wasteland though, instead he’s trying to imagine what access to computing might look like in a world where the global supply chain has broken down. His solution is CollapseOS, an operating system designed for resilience and self-replication, that runs upon the minimal hardware of an 8-bit Z80.

It’s a pretty basic operating system so brace yourself if you are expecting a 64-bit fully multithreading kernel. Instead, you’re looking at a kernel, an assembler, and a text editor. One of the stated aims is that it can compile assembly language for a wide range of target CPUs, but it does not make it clear whether this means the OS itself will support those platforms. The self-replication is a fascinating feature though.

It’s an interesting question: what computing hardware would be available to the would-be hacker in a world in which all parts must be scavenged? The Z80 and other processors like it fit the bill admirably in one sense as it is possible to create a working computer using them with fairly minimal tools and knowledge, but we can’t help wondering whether the days when almost any electronic junk pile would contain one are now past. So what other easily accessible computing platforms might be created from post-apocalyptic junk in 2019? Remember, with no laptop and IDE you can’t just put an Arduino bootloader on that ATmega328 you desoldered from an old thermostat. As always the comments are open.

Image: Damicatz [CC BY 2.5].