Hackaday Podcast 069: Calculator Controversy, Socketing SOIC, Metal On The Moon, And Basking In Bench Tools

Hackaday editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams march to the beat of the hardware hacking drum as they recount the greatest hacks to hit the ‘net this week. First up: Casio stepped in it with a spurious DMCA takedown notice. There’s a finite matrix of resistors that form a glorious clock now on display at CERN. Will a patio paver solve your 3D printer noise problems? And if you ever build with copper clad, you can’t miss this speedrun of priceless prototyping protips.

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Now Even Your Business Card Can Run Linux

It takes a lot of work to get a functional PCB business card that’s thin, cheap, and robust enough to be practical. If you can even blink a few LEDs on the thing and still hand them out with a straight face, you’ve done pretty well for yourself. So you can imagine our surprise when [George Hilliard] wrote in to tell us about his $3 business card computer that boots into a functioning Linux environment. If this were a bit closer to April, we might have figured it was just a joke…

Of course it helps that, as an embedded systems engineer, [George] literally does this kind of thing for a living. Which isn’t to say it was easy, but at least he keeps close enough tabs on the industry to find a suitable ARM solution at a price that makes sense, namely the Allwinner F1C100s. This diminutive chip offers both RAM and CPU in a single package, which greatly simplifies the overall design and construction of the card.

With a root filesystem that weighs in at just 2.4 MB, the environment on the card is minimal to say the least. There’s no networking, limited I/O, and forget about running any heavy software. But it does boot in about six seconds, and [George] managed to pack in a MicroPython interpreter and a copy of the classic Unix dungeon crawler rogue.

Oh yeah, and it also has his resume and some samples of his photography onboard. It is, after all, a business card. All the user has to do is plug it into the USB port of their computer and wait for the virtual serial port to pop up that will let them log into the system running on the card. It also shows up as a USB Mass Storage device for recipients who might not be quite as adept at the command line.

In addition to the high-level documentation for this project, [George] has also prepared a deeper write-up that goes into more technical detail for anyone who might be looking to follow in his footsteps. Thanks to all of the source code that he’s made available, it should be a lot easier for the next person to get their own disposable pocket computer up and running.

We’ve seen all manner of electronic business cards over the years, but never anything quite like this. Which, of course, is quite the point. If you’re ever given a business card that doubles as a computer running a full-fledged operating system on it, you aren’t likely to forget it anytime soon.

Worn Out EMMC Chips Are Crippling Older Teslas

It should probably go without saying that the main reason most people buy an electric vehicle (EV) is because they want to reduce or eliminate their usage of gasoline. Even if you aren’t terribly concerned about your ecological footprint, the fact of the matter is that electricity prices are so low in many places that an electric vehicle is cheaper to operate than one which burns gas at $2.50+ USD a gallon.

Another advantage, at least in theory, is reduced overal maintenance cost. While a modern EV will of course be packed with sensors and complex onboard computer systems, the same could be said for nearly any internal combustion engine (ICE) car that rolled off the lot in the last decade as well. But mechanically, there’s a lot less that can go wrong on an EV. For the owner of an electric car, the days of oil changes, fouled spark plugs, and the looming threat of a blown head gasket are all in the rear-view mirror.

Unfortunately, it seems the rise of high-tech EVs is also ushering in a new era of unexpected failures and maintenance woes. Case in point, some owners of older model Teslas are finding they’re at risk of being stranded on the side of the road by a failure most of us would more likely associate with losing some documents or photos: a disk read error.

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The Linux Throwie: A Non-Spacefaring Satellite

Throwies occupy a special place in hardware culture — a coin cell battery, LED, and a magnet that can be thrown into an inaccessible place and stick there as a little beacon of colored light. Many of us will fondly remember this as a first project. Alas, time marches inevitably on, and launching cheerful lights no longer teaches me new skills. With a nod to those simpler times, I’ve been working on the unusual idea of building a fully functional server that can be left in remote places and remain functional, like a throwie (please don’t actually throw it). It’s a little kooky, yet should still deliver a few years of occasional remote access if you leave it somewhere with sunlight.

A short while ago, I described the power stages for this solar-powered, cloud accessible Linux server. It only activates on demand, so a small solar cell and modest battery are sufficient to keep the whole show running.

Where we left off, I had a solar cell that could charge a battery, and provide regulated 12 V and 5 V output. For it to be a functional device, there are three high level problems to solve:

  1. It must be possible to set up the device without direct physical access
  2. You must be able to remotely turn it on and off as needed.
  3. It needs to be accessible from the Internet.

The funny thing is, this hardware reminds me of a satellite. Of course it’s not meant to go into space, but I do plan to put it somewhere not easy to get to again, it runs off of solar power, and there’s a special subsystem (ESP8266) to tend the power, check for remote activation, and turn the main computer (Raspberry Pi 3) on and off as necessary. This sounds a lot like space race tech, right?

As I have a bit more code than usual to share with you today, I’ll discuss the most interesting parts, and provide links to the full firmware files at the end of the article.

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Introduce Yourself To A PocketBeagle With BaconBits

The PocketBeagle single-board computer is now a few months old, and growing fast like its biological namesake. An affordable and available offering in the field of embedded Linux computing, many of us picked one up as an impulse buy. For some, the sheer breadth of possibilities can be paralyzing. (“What do I do first?”) Perhaps a development board can serve as a starting point for training this young puppy? Enter the BaconBits cape.

When paired with a PocketBeagle, everything necessary to start learning embedded computing is on hand. It covers the simple basics of buttons for digital input, potentiometer for analog input, LEDs for visible output. Then grow beyond the basics with an accelerometer for I²C communication and 7-segment displays accessible via SPI. Those digging into system internals will appreciate the USB-to-serial bridge that connects to PocketBeagle’s serial console. This low-level communication will be required if any experimentation manages to (accidentally or deliberately) stop PocketBeagle’s standard USB network communication channels.

BaconBits were introduced in conjunction with the E-ALE (embedded apprentice Linux engineer) training program for use in hands-on modules. The inaugural E-ALE session at SCaLE 16X this past weekend had to deal with some last-minute hiccups, but the course material is informative and we’re confident it’ll be refined into a smooth operation in the near future. While paying for the class will receive built hardware and in-person tutorials to use it, all information – from instructor slides to the BaconBits design – is available on Github. Some of us will choose to learn by reading the slides, others will want their own BaconBits for independent experimentation. And of course E-ALE is not the only way to learn more about PocketBeagle. Whichever way people choose to go, the embedded Linux ecosystem will grow, and we like the sound of that!

JeVois Machine Vision Camera Nails Demo Mode

JeVois is a small, open-source, smart machine vision camera that was funded on Kickstarter in early 2017. I backed it because cameras that embed machine vision elements are steadily growing more capable, and JeVois boasts an impressive range of features. It runs embedded Linux and can process video at high frame rates using OpenCV algorithms. It can run standalone, or as a USB camera streaming raw or pre-processed video to a host computer for further action. In either case it can communicate to (and be controlled by) other devices via serial port.

But none of that is what really struck me about the camera when I received my unit. What really stood out was the demo mode. The team behind JeVois nailed an effective demo mode for a complex device. That didn’t happen by accident, and the results are worth sharing.

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PogoPlug Hacking: A Step By Step Guide To Owning The Device

[Films By Kris Hardware] has started quite an interesting YouTube series on hacking and owning a PogoPlug Mobile v4. While this has been done many times in the past, he gives a great step by step tutorial. The series so far is quite impressive, going into great detail on how to gain root access to the device through serial a serial connection.

PogoPlugs are remote-access devices sporting ARM processor running at 800 MHz, which is supported by the Linux Kernel.  The version in question (PogoPlug Mobile v4) have been re-purposed in the past for things like an inexpensive PBX, an OpenWrt router and even a squeezebox replacement. Even if you don’t have a PogoPlug, this could be a great introduction to hacking any Linux-based consumer device.

So far, we’re at part three of what will be an eight-part series, so there’s going to be more to learn if you follow along. His videos have already covered how to connect via a serial port to the device, how to send commands, set the device up, and stop it calling home. This will enable the budding hacker to make the PogoPlug do their bidding. In this age of the cheap single-board Linux computer, hacking this type of device may be going out of style, but the skills you learn here probably won’t any time soon.

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