Hackaday Podcast 032: Meteorite Snow Globes, Radioactive Ramjet Rockets, Autonomous Water Boxes, And Ball Reversers

Hackaday Editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams recorded this week’s podcast live from Chaos Communication Camp, discussing the most interesting hacks on offer over the past week. I novel locomotion news, there’s a quadcopter built around the coanda effect and an autonomous boat built into a plastic storage bin. The radiation spikes in Russia point to a nuclear-powered ramjet but the idea is far from new. Stardust (well… space rock dust) is falling from the sky and it’s surprisingly easy to collect. And 3D-printed gear boxes and hobby brushless DC motors have reached the critical threshold necessary to mangle 20/20 aluminum extrusion.

Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!

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Uncovering The Echo Dot’s Hidden USB Port

If you upgraded to Amazon’s latest Echo Dot, you might have been surprised to find that the diminutive voice assistant had shed its USB port. Earlier models of the Dot used a garden variety micro USB port for power, which hackers eventually figured out also provided a helpful way to snoop around inside the device’s firmware. The fact that the USB port was deleted on the latest Echo Dot in favor of a simple barrel connector for power was seen by some as a sign that Amazon was trying to keep curious owners out of their hardware.

But as [Brian Dorey] shows, all they did was put a bump in the road. While they removed the external USB connector, the traces for it are still on the board waiting to be accessed. Even better, it turns out the USB data lines are connected to the test points located on the bottom of the Dot. All you need is a simple breakout that will connect through the existing opening in the device’s case, and you’ve got your USB port back.

So what can you do with USB on the Echo Dot? Well, not much right now. [Brian] found that the Dot shows up as a Mediatek device under Linux using lsusb, and fastboot can see it and even confirms the presence of a locked bootloader. It’s going to take some work from the community to see how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.

Even if you’re not interested in restoring its USB port, [Brian] has uncovered a wealth of fascinating hardware information about the Echo Dot during his deep-dive. He’s mapped out many of the test points located throughout the device’s PCBs, and found a few interesting points that might be worth further investigation. For example, he found that driving one of the pins high would trigger the Dot to mute its microphones; which could be useful for anyone looking to cover Alexa’s ears.

[Brian] first cracked open the Echo Dot last month, after scoring one for cheap during Amazon’s Prime Day sale. It looks like he’s making fairly rapid progress on unraveling the mysteries of this popular gadget, and we’re very interested in seeing where this research takes us.

Taking A Peek Inside Amazon’s Latest Dot

Like a million or so other people, [Brian Dorey] picked up a third generation Echo Dot during Amazon’s big sale a couple weeks ago. Going for less than half its normal retail price, he figured it was the perfect time to explore Amazon’s voice assistant offerings. But the low price also meant that he didn’t feel so bad tearing into the thing for our viewing pleasure.

By pretty much all accounts, the Echo Dot line has been a pretty solid performer as far as corporate subsidized home espionage devices go. They’re small, fairly cheap, and offer the baseline functionality that most people expect. While there was nothing precisely wrong with the earlier versions of the Dot, Amazon has used this latest revision of the device to give the gadget a more “premium” look and feel. They’ve also tried to squeeze a bit better audio out of the roughly hockey puck sized device. But of course, some undocumented changes managed to sneak in there as well.

For one thing, the latest version of the Dot deletes the USB port. Hackers had used the USB port on earlier versions of the hardware to try and gain access to the Android (or at least, Amazon’s flavor of Android) operating system hiding inside, so that’s an unfortunate development. On the flip side, [Brian] reports there’s some type of debug header on the bottom of the device. A similar feature allowed hackers to gain access to some of Amazon’s other voice assistants, so we’d recommend hopeful optimism until told otherwise.

The Echo Dot is powered by a quad-core Mediatek MT8516BAAA 64-bit ARM Cortex-A35 processor and the OS lives on an 8GB Samsung KMFN60012M-B214 eMMC. A pair of Texas Instruments LV320ADC3101 ADCs are used to process the incoming audio from the four microphones arranged around the edge of the PCB, and [Brian] says there appears to be a Fairchild 74LCX74 flip-flop in place to cut the audio feed when the user wants a bit of privacy.

Of course, the biggest change is on the outside. The new Dot is much larger than the previous versions, which means all the awesome enclosures we’ve seen for its predecessor will need to be reworked if they want to be compatible with Amazon’s latest and greatest.

State Of The Art Big Mouth Alexa Bass

Hackers seem intent on making sure the world doesn’t forget that, for a brief shining moment, everyone thought Big Mouth Billy Bass was a pretty neat idea. Every so often we see a project that takes this classic piece of home decor and manages to shoehorn in some new features or capabilities, and with the rise of voice controlled home automation products from the likes of Amazon and Google, they’ve found a new ingredient du jour when preparing stuffed bass.

[Ben Eagan] has recently completed his entry into the Pantheon of animatronic fish projects, and while we’ll stop short of saying the world needed another Alexa-enabled fish on the wall, we’ve got to admit that he’s done a slick job of it. Rather than trying to convince Billy’s original electronics to play nice with others, he decided to just rip it all out and start from scratch. The end result is arguably one of the most capable Billy Bass updates we’ve come across, if you’re willing to consider flapping around on the wall an actual capability in the first place.

The build process is well detailed in the write-up, and [Ben] provides many pictures so the reader can easily follow along with the modification. The short version of the story is that he cuts out the original control board and wires the three motors up to an Arduino Motor Driver Shield, and when combined with the appropriate code, this gives him full control over Billy’s mouth and body movements. This saved him the trouble of figuring out how to interface with the original electronics, which is probably for the better since they looked rather crusty anyway.

From there, he just needed to give the fish something to get excited about. [Ben] decided to connect the 3.5 mm audio jack of an second generation Echo Dot to one of the analog pins of the Arduino, and wrote some code that can tell him if Amazon’s illuminated hockey puck is currently yammering on about something or not. He even added a LM386 audio amplifier module in there to help drive Billy’s original speaker, since that will now be the audio output of the Dot.

A decade ago we saw Billy reading out Tweets, and last year we presented a different take on adding an Alexa “brain” to everyone’s favorite battery powered fish. What will Billy be up to in 2029? We’re almost too scared to think about it. Continue reading “State Of The Art Big Mouth Alexa Bass”

Water Level Sensors, Alexa In A Fish, And Modular Synths During World Create Day

On Saturday we saw a flood of interesting hacks come to life as more than 100 community organized meetups were held for World Create Day. Thank you to all of the organizers who made these events possible, and for everyone who decided to get together and hack.

Students Learning Hardware Design in Islamabad, Pakistan

The students at LearnOBots took on a slew of great projects during World Create Day like a smart medicine dispenser, electronics that control mains appliances, parking sensors, and a waste bin that encourages you to feed it. The group did a wonderful job of showing off their event by publishing several updates with pictures, stories, and video presentations from all the students. Nice work!


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Echo Dot Finds Swanky New Home In Art Deco Speaker

The phrase “They don’t make them like they used to” is perhaps best exemplified by two types of products: cars and consumer electronics. Sure, the vehicles and gadgets we have now are so advanced that they may as well be classified as science-fiction when compared to their predecessors, but what about that style. Our modern hardware can rarely hold a candle to the kind of gear you used to be able to buy out of the “Sears, Roebuck and Company” catalog.

So when [Democracity] came into possession of a wickedly retro art deco speaker, it’s no surprise he saw it as a perfect opportunity to bring some of that old school style into the 21st century by rebuilding it with an Amazon Echo Dot at its core. The fact that the original device was a speaker and not a full radio made the conversion much easier, and will have everyone trolling yard sales for months trying to find a donor speaker to build their own.

To start the process, [Democracity] popped the panels off and ripped out what was left of the speaker’s paper cone and coil. In a stroke of luck, the opening where the driver used to go was nearly the perfect size to nestle in the Echo Dot. With a 3D printed cradle he found on Thingiverse and a liberal application of epoxy, the Dot could get snapped into the speaker like it was always meant to be there.

[Democracity] then picked up some absolutely gorgeous speaker cloth on eBay and hot glued it to the inside of the panels. What was presumably the volume knob was pulled out of the bottom and turned out to be a perfect place to run the Dot’s USB cable out of.

A lesser man would have called this project completed, but [Democracity] knows that no hack is truly complete without the addition of multicolored blinking LEDs. With the RGB LED strips installed inside, the light is diffused through the cloth panels and creates a pleasing subtle effect. You can almost imagine a couple of vacuum tubes glowing away inside there. Judging by the final product, it’s no surprise [Democracity] has a fair bit of experience dragging audio equipment kicking and screaming into the modern era.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an old piece of audio equipment get a high-tech transfusion, and isn’t even the first time we’ve seen the Dot used to do it. But it’s certainly the one we’d most like to see sitting on our shelf.

That’s No Moon! That’s A Virtual Assistant

[Wisecracker] likes how the Amazon Echo Dot works, but he doesn’t like how they sound or how they resemble hockey pucks. A little 3D printing, though, and he transformed the Dot into a credible Death Star. That doesn’t sound very friendly, we guess, so he calls it Alex-Star.

What makes it work is the Death Star’s “superlaser” — the weapon operated by a console that looks suspiciously like some studio video equipment — happens to be about the size and shape of a two-inch speaker. [Wisecracker] added a slot to let the sound out of the second speaker. You can see the thing in action in the video below.

Continue reading “That’s No Moon! That’s A Virtual Assistant”