Distributed Air Quality Monitoring via Taxi Fleet

When [James] moved to Lima, Peru, he brought his jogging habit with him. His morning jaunts to the coast involve crossing a few busy streets that are often occupied by old, smoke-belching diesel trucks. [James] noticed that his throat would tickle a bit when he got back home. A recent study linking air pollution to dementia risk made him wonder how cities could monitor air quality on a street-by-street basis, rather than relying on a few scattered stations. Lima has a lot of taxis, so why wire them up with sensors and monitor the air quality in real-time?

This taxi data logger’s chief purpose is collect airborne particulate counts and illustrate the pollution level with a Google Maps overlay. [James] used a light-scattering particle sensor and a Raspi 3 to send the data to the cloud via Android Things. Since the Pi only has one native UART, [James] used it for the particle sensor and connected the data-heavy GPS module through an FTDI serial adapter. There’s also a GPS to locate the cab and a temperature/humidity/pressure sensor to get a fuller environmental picture.

Take a ride past the break to go on the walk through, and stick around for the testing video if you want to drive around Lima for a bit. Interested in monitoring your own personal air quality? Here’s a DIY version that uses a dust sensor.

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Pogo Pin Serial Adapter Thing

A few weeks ago, I was working on a small project of mine, and I faced a rather large problem. I had to program nearly five hundred badges in a week. I needed a small programming adapter that would allow me to stab a few pads on a badge with six pogo pins, press a button, and move onto the next badge.

While not true for all things in life, sometimes you need to trade quality for expediency. This is how I built a terrible but completely functional USB to serial adapter to program hundreds of badges in just a few hours.

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Fixing Fake FTDIs

If you know where to go on the Internet, you can pick up an FTDI USB to Serial adapter for one dollar and sixty-seven cents, with free shipping worldwide. The chip on this board is an FTDI FT232RL, and costs about two dollars in quantity. This means the chips on the cheap adapters are counterfeit. While you can buy a USB to serial adapter with a legitimate chip, [Syonyk] found a cheaper solution: buy the counterfeit adapters, a few genuine chips, and rework the PCB. It’s brilliant, and an excellent display of desoldering prowess.

Why is [Syonyk] replacing non-genuine chips with the real FTDI? The best reason is FTDIgate Mk. 1, where the official FTDI driver for Windows detected non-genuine chips and set the USB PID to zero. This bricked a whole bunch of devices, and was generally regarded as a bad move. FTDIgate Mk. 2 was a variation on a theme where the FTDI driver would inject garbage data into a circuit if a non-genuine part was found. This could also brick devices. Notwithstanding driver issues, the best reason for swapping out fake chips for real ones is the performance at higher bit rates; [Syonyk] is doing work at 3 Mbps, and the fake chips just don’t work that fast.

To replace the counterfeit chip, [Syonyk] covered the pins in a nice big glob of solder, carefully heated both sides of the chip, and slid the offending chip off when everything was molten. A bit of solder braid, and the board was ready for the genuine chip.

With the new chip, the cheap USB to serial adapter board works perfectly, although anyone attempting to duplicate these efforts might want to look into replacing the USB mini port with a USB micro port.

Modular Tap-Dancing Robot Can Shuffle Ball Change

Electromechanical solenoids are pretty cool devices. Move some current through an electromagnet and you can push a load around or pull it. If you’re MIT student [Lining Yao], you can use them to dance. [Lining] built TapBot, a re-configurable set of tap-dancing robots that are both modular and modern. She even rolled her own solenoids.

The one with the eye stalk is the bridge, and it’s connected to a computer over FTDI. The other nodes attach to the bridge and each other with small magnets that are designed to flip around freely to make the connections. These links are just physical, though. The nodes must also be connected with ribbon cables.

Each of the nodes is controlled by an ATtiny45 and has a MOSFET to drive the solenoid at 8-12 V. [Lining] snapped a small coin magnet to the end of each solenoid slug to provide a bigger surface area that acts like a tap shoe. TapBot can be programmed with one of several pre-built tap patterns, and these can be combined to make new sequences. The curtain goes up after the break.

There are other ways to make things dance, like muscle wire. Check out this whiteboard pen that uses nitinol to dance to Duke Nukem.

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Quad Serial Adapter

Despite concerted efforts to kill them, serial ports are alive and well, especially in embedded system. True, most of them end in a USB port, these days, but there’s still a lot of gear with a DE-9 (it isn’t a DB-9, despite the common use of the word) or a TTL-serial port lurking around. [James Fowkes] got tired of managing a bunch of USB to serial adapters, so he decided to build his own FT4232 breakout board that would provide four serial ports from a USB connection.

The small board has transmit and receive LEDs for each port along with EMI and ESD protection on the USB port. The ports are all TTL serial, serving the modern hacker, and the 3.3V pins are 5V tolerant.

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Adafruit Interviews The CEO Of FTDI

When it comes to electronic hobbyists and EEs, there is no company that deserves a few raised eyebrows than FTDI. They made their name with USB converter chips, namely USB to serial chips that are still very popular today. So popular, in fact, that clones of these chips are frequently found in the $2 Arduinos from China, and other very low-cost devices. A little more than a year ago, a few clever people noticed FTDI drivers were bricking these counterfeit chips by setting the USB PID to 0000. The Internet reacted to this move and FTDI quickly backed down from that position. The Windows driver was fixed, for about a year until the same shenanigans were found again.

Adafruit recently sat down with [Fred Dart], CEO of FTDI, giving us all the first facts and figures that aren’t from people frustrated with Windows’ automatically updated drivers. The most interesting information from [Fred Dart] is how FTDI first found these counterfeit chips, what FTDI chips are being counterfeited, and how many different companies are copying these chips.

The company first realized they were being cloned when they couldn’t reproduce results of a Chinese-made ‘FTDI’ USB to RS232 cable that behaved strangely. A sample of the cables were shipped to FTDI and after inspecting the chip inside, FTDI found it was a clone with a significantly different architecture than a genuine chip.

So far, the counterfeiters appear to only be counterfeiting the SSOP version of the FT232RL and occasionally the older FT232BL chip. From what FTDI has seen, there appears to be only one or two companies counterfeiting chips.

As the CEO of FTDI, [Fred] has a few insights into what can be done to stop counterfeiters in China. The most important is to trademark the logo. This isn’t just the logo for a webpage, but one that can be laser etched onto the plastic package of the chip. US Customs has been very amenable to identifying counterfeit components, and this has led to several shipments being destroyed. Legal action, however, is a bit hard in China, and FTDI is dealing with a gang that counterfeits more than FTDI chips; there’s a high likelihood this gang was responsible for the fake Prolific PL23o3 chips a few years ago.

As far as FTDI bricking counterfeit chips is concerned, [Fred Dart] wasn’t silent on the issue, he merely wasn’t asked the question and didn’t bring it up himself.

FTDI Drivers Break Fake Chips, Again

Just over a year ago, FTDI, manufacturers of the most popular USB to serial conversion chip on the market, released an update to their drivers that bricked FTDI clones. Copies of FTDI chips abound in the world of cheap consumer electronics, and if you’ve bought an Arduino for $3 from a random online seller from China, you probably have one of these fake chips somewhere in your personal stash of electronics.

After a year, we have the latest update to FTDI gate. Instead of bricking fake chips, the latest FTDI drivers will inject garbage data into a circuit. Connecting a fake FTDI serial chip to a computer running the latest Windows driver will output “NON GENUINE DEVICE FOUND!”, an undocumented functionality that may break some products.

FTDI gate mk. 1 merely bricked fake and clone chips, rendering them inoperable. Because fakes and clones of these chips are extremely common in the supply chain, and because it’s very difficult to both tell them apart and ensure you’re getting genuine chips, this driver update had the possibility to break any device using one of these chips. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, FTDI backed down from their ‘intentional bricking’ stance, and Microsoft removed the driver responsible with a Windows update. Still, the potential for medical and industrial devices to fail because of a random driver update was very real.

The newest functionality to the FTDI driver released through a Windows update merely injects unwanted but predictable data into the serial stream. Having a device spit out “NON GENUINE DEVICE FOUND!” won’t necessarily break a device, but it is an undocumented feature that could cause some devices to behave oddly. Because no one really knows if they have genuine FTDI chips or not – this undocumented feature could cause problems in everything from industrial equipment to medical devices, and of course in Arduinos whose only purpose is to blink a LED.

Right now, the only option to avoid this undocumented feature is to either use Linux or turn off Windows Update. Since the latter isn’t really a great idea, be prepared constantly roll back the FTDI driver to a known good version.