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Hackaday Links: October 3, 2021

It’s one thing to speculate about what’s happening with the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, but it’s another to get an insider’s view on recent flight problems. As we previously reported, Ingenuity is starting to face a significant challenge, as a seasonal atmospheric pressure drop on Mars threatens to make the already rarefied air too thin to generate useful lift. Mission controllers tested the chopper at higher rotor speeds, and while that worked, later attempts to fly using that higher speed resulted in an abort. The article, written by one of the NASA/JPL engineers, is a deep dive into the problem, which occurred when Ingenuity sensed excessive wiggle in two of the servos controlling the rotor swashplate. The thought is that accumulated wear in the servos and linkages might be causing the problem; after all, Ingenuity has made thirteen flights so far, greatly exceeding the five flights originally programmed for it. Here’s hoping they can adapt and keep the helicopter flying, but whatever they do, it’ll have to wait a few weeks until Mars completes its conjunction and pops back out from behind the Sun.

With all the attention understandably paid to the recent 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, it’s easy to forget that barely a month after that day, a series of what appeared to be follow-on attacks started: the Anthrax Attacks. Members of Congress and media outlets were targeted via the mail with highly refined anthrax spores, leading to the deaths of five people, with dozens more injured and exposed to anthrax. IEEE Spectrum has an interesting article that goes into some of the technology that was rapidly deployed in an attempt to sanitize the mail, including electron beam and X-ray irradiation to kill any spores. The article also points out how this wasn’t the first time people were afraid of the mail; outbreaks of yellow fever in 1899 led to fumigation of the mail with sulfur, after perforating it with a wicked-looking paddle.

Attention PCB-design newbies — now’s your chance to learn the entire PCB design process from the ground up, with the guidance of industry professionals. TeachMePCB is back again this year, offering to teach you everything you need to know about properly laying out a PCB design in pretty much any EDA software you want. The course requires a two- to five-hour commitment every week for two months, after which you’ll have designed a PCB for a macropad using a Raspberry Pi Pico. The course facilitator is Mark Hughes from Royal Circuits, who did a great Hack Chat with us last year on PCB finishes. This seems like a great way to get up to speed on PCB design, so if you’re interested, act soon — 460 people are already signed up, and the deadline is October 10.

Some of us really love factory tours, no matter what the factory is making. All the better when the factory makes cool electronics stuff, and better still when it’s our friends at Adafruit showing us around their New York City digs. True, it’s a virtual tour, but it has pretty much become a virtual world over the last couple of years, and it’s still a great look inside the Adafruit factory. Hackaday got an in-person tour back in 2015, but we didn’t know their building used to be a Westinghouse radio factory. In fact, the whole area was once part of the famed “Radio Row” that every major city seemed to have from the 1920s to the 1960s. It’s good to get a look inside a real manufacturing operation, especially one that’s right in the heart of a city.

And finally, those with a fear of heights might want to avoid watching this fascinating film on the change-out of a TV transmitter antenna. The tower is over 1,500′ (450 m) tall, lofting an aging antenna over the flat Florida terrain. Most of the footage comes from body-mounted cameras on the riggers working the job, including the one very brave soul who climbed up the partially unbolted antenna to connect it to the Sikorsky S64 Skycrane helicopter. It’s a strange combination of a carefully planned and slowly executed ballet, punctuated by moments of frenetic activity and sheer terror. The mishap when releasing the load line after the new antenna was placed could easily have swept the whole rigging crew off the antenna, but luckily nobody was injured.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: October 3, 2021”

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Hackaday Links: June 13, 2021

When someone offers to write you a check for $5 billion for your company, it seems like a good idea to take it. But in the world of corporate acquisitions and mergers, that’s not always the case, as Altium proved this week when they rebuffed a A$38.50 per share offer from Autodesk. Altium Ltd., the Australian company whose flagship Altium Designer suite is used by PCB and electronic designers around the world, said that the Autodesk offer “significantly undervalues” Altium, despite the fact that it represents a 42% premium of the company’s share price at the end of last week. Altium’s rejection doesn’t close the door on ha deal with Autodesk, or any other comers who present a better offer, which means that whatever happens, changes are likely in the EDA world soon.

There were reports this week of a massive explosion and fire at a Chinese polysilicon plant — sort of. A number of cell phone videos have popped up on YouTube and elsewhere that purport to show the dramatic events unfolding at a plant in Xinjiang province, with one trade publication for the photovoltaic industry reporting that it happened at the Hoshine Silicon “997 siloxane” packing facility. They further reported that the fire was brought under control after about ten hours of effort by firefighters, and that the cause is under investigation. The odd thing is that we can’t find a single mention of the incident in any of the mainstream media outlets, even five full days after it purportedly happened. We’d have figured the media would have been all over this, and linking it to the ongoing semiconductor shortage, perhaps erroneously since the damage appears to be limited to organic silicone production as opposed to metallic silicon. But the company does supply something like 17% of the world’s supply of silicon metal, so anything that could potentially disrupt that should be pretty big news.

It’s always fun to see “one of our own” take a project from idea to product, and we like to celebrate such successes when they come along. And so it was great to see the battery-free bicycle tire pressure sensor that Hackaday.io user CaptMcAllister has been working on make it to the crowdfunding stage. The sensor is dubbed the PSIcle, and it attaches directly to the valve stem on a bike tire. The 5-gram sensor has an NFC chip, a MEMS pressure sensor, and a loop antenna. The neat thing about this is the injection molding process, which basically pots the electronics in EDPM while leaving a cavity for the air to reach the sensor. The whole thing is powered by the NFC radio in a smartphone, so you just hold your phone up to the sensor to get a reading. Check out the Kickstarter for more details, and congratulations to CaptMcAllister!

We’re saddened to learn of the passing of Dale Heatherington last week. While the name might not ring a bell, the name of his business partner Dennis Hayes probably does, as together they founded Hayes Microcomputer Products, makers of the world’s first modems specifically for the personal computer market. Dale was the technical guru of the partnership, and it’s said that he’s the one who came up with the famous “AT-command set”. Heatherington only stayed with Hayes for seven years or so before taking his a $20 million share of the company and retiring, which of course meant more time and resources to devote to tinkering with everything from ham radio to battle bots. ATH0, Dale.

Feeling The KiCad 6 Electricity

In 2018, when KiCad Version 5 modernized the venerable 4.X series, it helped push KiCad to become the stable and productive member of the open source EDA landscape that we know today. It has supported users through board designs both simple and complex, and like a tool whose handle is worn into a perfect grip, it has become familiar and comfortable. For those KiCad users that don’t live on the bleeding edge with nightly builds it may not be obvious that the time of version 6 is nearly upon us, but as we start 2021 it rapidly approaches. Earlier this month [Peter Dalmaris] published a preview of the changes coming version 6 and we have to admit, this is shaping up to be a very substantial release.

Don’t be mistaken, this blog post may be a preview of new KiCad features but the post itself is extensive in its coverage. We haven’t spent time playing with this release yet so we can’t vouch for completeness, but with a printed length of nearly 100 pages it’s hard to imagine [Peter] left anything out! We skimmed through the post to extract a few choice morsels for reproduction here, but obviously take a look at the source if you’re as excited as we are. Continue reading “Feeling The KiCad 6 Electricity”

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Hackaday Links: March 15, 2020

Just a few weeks ago in the Links article, we ran a story about Tanner Electronics, the Dallas-area surplus store that was a mainstay of the hacker and maker scene in the area. At the time, Tanner’s owners were actively looking for a new, downsized space to move into, and they were optimistic that they’d be able to find something. But it appears not to be, as we got word this week from James Tanner that the store would be shutting its doors after 40 years in business. We’re sad to see anyone who’s supported the hardware hacking scene be unable to make a go of it, especially after four decades of service. But as we pointed out in “The Death of Surplus”, the center of gravity of electronics manufacturing has shifted dramatically in that time, and that’s changed the surplus market forever. We wish the Tanner’s the best of luck, and ask those in the area to stop by and perhaps help them sell off some of their inventory before they close the doors on May 31.

Feel like getting your inner Gollum on video but don’t know where to begin? Open source motion capture might be the place to start, and Chordata will soon be here to help. We saw Chordata as an entry in the 2018 Hackaday Prize; they’ve come a long way since then and are just about to open up their Kickstarter. Check out the video for an overview of what Chordata can do.

Another big name in the open-source movement has been forced out of the organization he co-founded. Eric S. Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar and co-founder and former president of the Open Source Initiative has been removed from mailing lists and banned from communicating with the group. Raymond, known simply as ESR, reports that this was in response to “being too rhetorically forceful” in his dissent from proposed changes to OSD, the core documents that OSI uses to determine if software is truly open source. Nobody seems to be saying much about the behavior that started the fracas.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the newly emerged SARS-CoV-2 virus, has been spreading across the globe, causing panic and claiming lives. It’s not without its second-order effects either, of course, as everything from global supply chains to conferences and meetings have been disrupted. And now, coronavirus can be blamed for delaying the ESA/Russian joint ExoMars mission. The mission is to include a Russian-built surface platform for meteorological and biochemical surveys, plus the ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover. Program scientists are no longer able to travel and meet with their counterparts to sort out issues, severely crimping productivity and forcing the delay. Social distancing and working from home can only take you so far, especially when you’re trying to get to Mars. We wonder if NASA’s Perseverance will suffer a similar fate.

Speaking of social distancing, if you’ve already decided to lock the doors and hunker down to wait out COVID-19, you’ll need something to keep you from going stir crazy. One suggestion: learn a new skill, like PCB design. TeachMePCB is offering a free rigid PCB design course starting March 28. If you’re a newbie, or even if you’ve had some ad hoc design experience, this could be a great way to productively while away some time. And if that doesn’t work for you, check out Bartosz Ciechanowski’s Gears page. It’s an interactive lesson on why gears look like they do, and the math behind power transmission. Ever wonder why gear teeth have an involute shape? Bartosz will fix you up.

Stay safe out there, everyone. And wash those hands!

Review: Testdriving LibrePCB Shows That It’s Growing Up Fast

There are a host of PCB CAD tools at the disposal of the electronic designer from entry-level to multi-thousand-dollar workstation software. It’s a field in which most of the players are commercial, and for the open-source devotee there have traditionally been only two choices. Both KiCad and gEDA are venerable packages with legions of devoted fans, but it is fair to say that they both present a steep learning curve for newcomers. There is however another contender in the world of open-source PCB CAD, in the form of the up-and-coming LibrePCB.

This GPL-licensed package has only been in development for a few years. LibrePCB brought out its first official release a little over a year ago, and now stands at version 0.1.3 with builds for GNU/Linux, Windows, MacOS, and FreeBSD. It’s time to download it and run it through its paces, to see whether it’s ready to serve its purpose.

Continue reading “Review: Testdriving LibrePCB Shows That It’s Growing Up Fast”

KiCad Action Plugins

The last two years has been a particularly exciting time for KiCad, for users, casual contributors, and for the core developers too. Even so, there are many cool new features that are still in process. One bottleneck with open-source development of complex tools like KiCad is the limited amount of time that developers can devote for the project. Action plugins stand to both reduce developer load and increase the pace of development by making it easier to add your own functionality to the already extensible tool.

Sometime around version 4.0.7 (correct us if we’re wrong), it was decided to introduce “action plugins” for KiCad, with the intention that the larger community of contributors can add features that were not on the immediate road map or the core developers were not working on. The plugin system is a framework for extending the capabilities of KiCad using shared libraries. If you’re interested in creating action plugins, check out documentation at KiCad Plugin System and Python Plugin Development for Pcbnew. Then head over to this forum post for a roundup of Tutorials on python scripting in pcbnew, and figure out how to Register a python plugin inside pcbnew Tools menu. Continue reading “KiCad Action Plugins”

Flexible PCBs Hack Chat With OSH Park

Join us Thursday at noon Pacific time for the Flexible PCBs Hack Chat with Drew and Chris from OSH Park!
Note the different day from our usual Hack Chat schedule!
Printed circuit boards have been around for decades, and mass production of them has been an incalculable boon to the electronics industry. But turning the economics of PCB production around and making it accessible to small-scale producers and even home experimenters is a relatively recent development, and one which may have an even broader and deeper impact on the industry in the long run.

And now, as if professional PCBs at ridiculous prices weren’t enough, the home-gamer now has access to flexible PCBs. From wearables to sensor applications, flex PCBs have wide-ranging applications and stand to open up new frontiers to the hardware hacker. We’ve even partnered with OSH Park in the Flexible PCB Contest, specifically to stretch your flexible wings and get you thinking beyond flat, rigid PCBs.

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 Thursday, May 23 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 Thursday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.