For the past few years now we’ve covered a long-running battle between American farmers and the manufacturers of their farm machinery, over their right to repair, with particular focus on the agricultural giant John Deere. The manufacturer of the familiar green and yellow machinery that lies in the heart and soul of American farming has attracted criticism for using restrictive DRM and closed-source embedded software to lock down the repair of its products into the hands of its dealer network.
We last visited the Nebraska farmers a couple of years ago when they were working towards the bill reaching their legislature. The Bloomberg piece brings the saga up to date, with the Nebraska Farm Bureau failing to advance it, and the consequent anger from the farmers themselves. It’s interesting in its laying bare the arguments of the manufacturer, also for its looking at the hidden aspect of the value of the data collected by these connected machines.
It’s likely that the wider hardware hacker community and the farming community have different outlooks on many fronts, but in our shared readiness to dive in and fix things and now in our concern over right to repair we have a common purpose. Watching these stories at a distance, from the agricultural heartland of the European country where this is being written, it’s striking how much the farmers featured are the quintessential salt-of-the-earth Americans representing what much of America still likes to believe that it is at heart. If a company such as John Deere has lost those guys, something really must have gone wrong in the world of green and yellow machinery.
Second-hand farm machinery prices have made their way to the pages of Hackaday due to an ongoing battle between farmers and agricultural machinery manufacturers over who has the right to repair and maintain their tractors. The industry giant John Deere in particular uses the DMCA and end-user licensing agreements to keep all maintenance in the hands of their very expensive agents. It’s a battle we’ve reported on before, and continues to play out across the farmland of America, this time on the secondary market. Older models continue to deliver the freedom for owners to make repairs themselves, and the relative simplicity of the machines tends to make those repairs less costly overall.
Tractors built in the 1970s and 80s continue to be reliable and have the added perk of predating the digital shackles of the modern era. Aged-but-maintainable machinery is now the sweetheart of farm sales. It confirms a trend I’ve heard of anecdotally for a few years now, that relatively new tractors can be worth less than their older DMCA-free stablemates, and it’s something that I hope will also be noticed in the boardrooms. Perhaps this consumer rebellion can succeed against the DMCA where decades of activism and lobbying have evidently failed.
Two months after its surprise reveal at the 2019 East Coast RepRap Festival, the Prusa Mini has started shipping out to the first wave of early adopters. True to form, with the hardware now officially released to the public, the company has begun the process of releasing the design as open source. In their GitHub repository, owners can already find the KiCad files for the new “Buddy” control board and STLs for the machine’s printable parts.
But even so, not everyone feels that Prusa Research has made the Mini as “open” as its predecessors. Some concerned owners have pointed out that according to the documentation for the Buddy board, they’ll need to physically snap off a section of the PCB so they can flash custom firmware images via Device Firmware Upgrade (DFU) mode. Once this piece of the board has been broken off, which the documentation refers to as the Appendix, Prusa Research will no longer honor any warranty claims for the electronic components of the printer.
For the hardcore tinkerers out there, this news may come as something of a shock. Previous Prusa printers have enjoyed a fairly active firmware development community, and indeed, features that started out as user-developed modifications eventually made their way into the official upstream firmware. What’s more, certain hardware modifications require firmware tweaks to complete.
Prusa Research explains their stance by saying that there’s no way the company can verify the safety of community developed firmware builds. If thermal runaway protections have been disabled or otherwise compromised, the results could be disastrous. We’ve already seen it happen with other printers, so it’s hard to fault them for being cautious here. The company is also quick to point out that the installation of an unofficial firmware has always invalidated the printer’s warranty; physically breaking the board on the Mini is simply meant as a way to ensure the user understands they’re about to leave the beaten path.
How much support is a manufacturer obligated to provide to a user who’s modified their hardware? It’s of course an issue we’ve covered many times before. But here the situation is rather unique, as the user is being told they have to literally break a piece off of their device to unlock certain advanced functionality. If Prusa wanted to prevent users from running alternate firmware entirely they could have done so (or at least tried to), but instead they’ve created a scenario that forces the prospective tinkerer to either back down or fully commit.
So how did Prusa integrate this unusual feature into their brand new 32-bit control board? Perhaps more importantly, how is this going to impact those who want to hack their printers? Let’s find out.
Making a copy of a purchased game used to be as simple as copying a disk. As the game industry grew, so did fear of revenue loss which drove investment in countermeasures. These mainly consisted of preventing the easy duplication of magnetic diskettes, or having users jump through tiresome hoops like entering specific words from the printed manual. These measures rarely posed much of a challenge to the dedicated efforts of crackers, but the copy protection in the classic 80s game Dungeon Master for the Atari ST and Amiga was next-level. It implemented measures that went well beyond its contemporaries, and while it was eventually defeated, it took about a year to happen. In an era where games were cracked within days or even hours of release, that was remarkable.
Dungeon Master was a smash hit at the time, and while the details of its own brand of what we would now call DRM may not be new, this video presentation by [Modern Vintage Gamer] (YouTube link) does a wonderful job of stepping through everything it did, and begins with an informative tour of copy protection efforts of the era for context.
When you think of a software defined radio (SDR) setup, maybe you imagine an IC or two, maybe feeding a computer. You probably don’t think of a vacuum tube. [Mirko Pavleski] built a one-tube shortwave SDR using some instructions from [Burkhard Kainka] which are in German, but Google Translate is good enough if you want to duplicate his feat. You can see a video of [Mirko’s] creation, below.
The build was an experiment to see if a tube receiver could be stable enough to receive digital shortwave radio broadcasts. To avoid AC line hum, the radio is battery operated and while the original uses an EL95 tube, [Mirko] used an EF80.
Modern agricultural equipment has come a long way, embracing all kinds of smart features and electronic controls. While some manufacturers would prefer to be the sole gatekeepers of the access to these advanced features, that hasn’t stopped curious and enterprising folks from working on DIY solutions. One such example is this self-steering tractor demo by [Coffeetrac], which demonstrates having a computer plot and guide a tractor through an optimal coverage pattern.
A few different pieces needed to come together to make this all work. At the heart of it all is [Coffeetrac]’s ESP32-based Autosteer controller, which is the hardware that interfaces to the tractor and allows for steering and reading sensors electronically. AgOpenGPS is the software that reads GPS data, interfaces to the Autosteer controller, and tells equipment what to do; it can be thought of as a mission planner.
[Coffeetrac] put it all together with everything controlled by a tablet mounted in the tractor’s cab. The video is embedded below, complete with a “cockpit view” via webcam right alongside the plotted course and sensor data.
Amazon might not be happy about it, but at least part of the success of their Fire TV Stick was due to the large hacking and modification scene that cropped up around the Android-powered device. A quick search on YouTube for “Fire Stick Hack” will bring up a seemingly endless array of videos, some with millions of views, which will show viewers how to install unofficial software on the little media dongle. Now it looks like their latest media device, the Fire TV Cube, is starting to attract the same kind of attention.
The team at [Exploitee.rs] has recently taken the wraps off their research which shows the new Fire TV Cube can be rooted with nothing more than an Arduino and an HDMI cable you’re willing to cut apart. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than just that, but between the video they’ve provided and their WiKi, it looks like all the information is out there for anyone who wants to crack open their own Cube. Just don’t be surprised if it puts you on the Amazon Naughty List.
The process starts by putting the device’s Amlogic S905Z into Device Firmware Upgrade (DFU) mode, which is done by sending the string “boot@USB” to the board over the HDMI port’s I2C interface. That’s where the HDMI cable comes in: you can cut into one and wire it right up to your Arduino and run the sketch [Exploitee.rs] has provided to send the appropriate command. Of course, if you want to get fancy, you could use an HDMI breakout board instead.
With the board in DFU mode in you gain read and write access to the device’s eMMC flash, but that doesn’t exactly get you in because there’s still secure boot to contend with. But as these things tend to go, the team was able to identify a second exploit which could be used in conjunction with DFU mode to trick the device into disabling signature verification. Now with the ability to run unsigned code on the Fire TV Cube, [Exploitee.rs] implemented fastboot to make it easier to flash their custom rooted firmware images to the hardware.