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”.

Continue reading “Testing Your Grit: Tales Of Hacking In Difficult Situations”

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].

The Drones And Robots That Helped Save Notre Dame

In the era of social media, events such as the fire at Notre Dame cathedral are experienced by a global audience in real-time. From New York to Tokyo, millions of people were glued to their smartphones and computers, waiting for the latest update from media outlets and even individuals who were on the ground documenting the fearsome blaze. For twelve grueling hours, the fate of the 850 year old Parisian icon hung in the balance, and for a time it looked like the worst was inevitable.

The fires have been fully extinguished, the smoke has cleared, and in the light of day we now know that the heroic acts of the emergency response teams managed to avert complete disaster. While the damage to the cathedral is severe, the structure itself and much of the priceless art inside still remain. It’s far too early to know for sure how much the cleanup and repair of the cathedral will cost, but even the most optimistic of estimates are already in the hundreds of millions of dollars. With a structure this old, it’s likely that reconstruction will be slowed by the fact that construction techniques which have become antiquated in the intervening centuries will need to be revisited by conservators. But the people of France will not be deterred, and President Emmanuel Macron has already vowed his country will rebuild the cathedral within five years.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the men and women who risked their lives to save one of France’s most beloved monuments. They deserve all the praise from a grateful nation, and indeed, world. But fighting side by side with them were cutting-edge pieces of technology, some of which were pushed into service at a moments notice. These machines helped guide the firefighters in their battle with the inferno, and stood in when the risk to human life was too great. At the end of the day, it was man and not machine that triumphed over nature’s fury; but without the help of modern technology the toll could have been far higher.

Continue reading “The Drones And Robots That Helped Save Notre Dame”

Vampire Charger Is A Rugged Anything-to-5VDC Converter

USB sockets providing 5 VDC are so ubiquitous as a power source that just about any piece of modern portable technology can use them to run or charge. USB power is so common, in fact, that it’s easy to take for granted. But in an emergency or in the wake of a disaster, a working cell phone or GPS can be a life saver and it would be wise not to count on the availability of a clean, reliable USB power supply.

That’s where the Vampire Charger by [Matteo Borri] and [Lisa Rein] comes in. It is a piece of hardware focused on turning just about any source or power one might possibly have access to into a reliable source of 5 VDC for anything that can plug in by USB. This is much more than a DC-DC converter with a wide input range; when they say it is made to accept just about anything as an input, they mean it. Found a working power source but don’t know what voltage it is? Don’t know which wire is positive and which is negative? Don’t even know whether it’s AC or DC? Just hook up the alligator clips and let the Vampire Charger figure it out; when the light is green, the power’s clean.

The Vampire Charger was recently selected to move on to the final round of The Hackaday Prize, netting $1000 cash in the process. The next challenge (which will have another twenty finalists receiving $1000 each) is the Human-Computer Interface challenge. All you need to enter is an idea and some documentation, so dust off that project that’s been waiting for an opportunity, because here it is.

Disaster Area Communications With Cloud Gateways

2017, in case you don’t remember, was a terrible year for the Caribbean and Gulf coast. Hurricane Maria tore Puerto Rico apart, Harvey flooded Houston, Irma destroyed the Florida Keys, and we still haven’t heard anything from Saint Martin. There is, obviously, a problem to be solved here, and that problem is communications. Amateur radio only gets you so far, but for their Hackaday Prize entry, [Inventive Prototypes] is building an emergency communication system that anyone can use. It only needs a clear view of the sky, and you can use it to send SMS messages. It’s the PR-Holonet, and it’s something that’s already desperately needed.

The basis for the PR-Holonet is built around an Iridium satellite modem. To date, satellite communication is the best way to get a message out to the world without any infrastructure. It’ll work in the middle of the Sahara, the depths of the Amazon, and conveniently anywhere that was just hit by a category five hurricane.

Along with the Iridium modem, [Inventive Prototypes] is using standard, off-the-shelf equipment to turn that connection to a satellite network into something any smartphone can use. That means pulling out a Raspberry Pi, of course. But building a project for areas that were recently ravaged by hurricanes is no easy task. The enclosure it the key here, and [Inventive Prototypes] is using some great water-resistant, dust-proof junction boxes, solar panels, and a whole bunch of batteries to keep everything humming along. It’s a great project and something that was desperately needed a year ago.