Hackaday Links: April 26, 2020

Gosh, what a shame: it turns out that perhaps 2 billion phones won’t be capable of COVID-19 contact-tracing using the API that Google and Apple are jointly developing. The problem is that the scheme the two tech giants have concocted, which Elliot Williams expertly dissected recently, is based on Bluetooth LE. If a phone lacks a BLE chipset, then it won’t work with apps built on the contact-tracing API, which uses the limited range of BLE signals as a proxy for the physical proximity of any two people. If a user is reported to be COVID-19 positive, all the people whose BLE beacons were received by the infected user’s phone within a defined time period can be anonymously notified of their contact. As Elliot points out, numerous questions loom around this scheme, not least of which is privacy, but for now, something like a third of phones in mature smartphone markets won’t be able to participate, and perhaps two-thirds of the phones in developing markets are not compatible. For those who don’t like the privacy-threatening aspects of this scheme, pulling an old phone out and dusting it off might not be a bad idea.

We occasionally cover stories where engineers in industrial settings use an Arduino for a quick-and-dirty automation solution. This is uniformly met with much teeth-gnashing and hair-rending in the comments asserting that Arduinos are not appropriate for industrial use. Whether true or not, such comments miss the point that the Arduino solution is usually a stop-gap or proof-of-concept deal. But now the purists and pedants can relax, because Automation Direct is offering Arduino-compatible, industrial-grade programmable controllers. Their ProductivityOpen line is compatible with the Arduino IDE while having industrial certifications and hardening against harsh conditions, with a rich line of shields available to piece together complete automation controllers. For the home-gamer, an Arduino in an enclosure that can withstand harsh conditions and only cost $49 might fill a niche.

Speaking of Arduinos and Arduino accessories, better watch out if you’ve got any modules and you come under the scrutiny of an authoritarian regime, because you could be accused of being a bomb maker. Police in Hong Kong allegedly arrested a 20-year-old student and posted a picture of parts he used to manufacture a “remote detonated bomb”. The BOM for the bomb was strangely devoid of anything with wireless capabilities or, you know, actual explosives, and instead looks pretty much like the stuff found on any of our workbenches or junk bins. Pretty scary stuff.

If you’ve run through every binge-worthy series on Netflix and are looking for a bit of space-nerd entertainment, have we got one for you. Scott Manley has a new video that goes into detail on the four different computers used for each Apollo mission. We knew about the Apollo Guidance Computers that guided the Command Module and the Lunar Module, and the Launch Vehicle Digital Computer that got the whole stack into orbit and on the way to the Moon, but we’d never heard of the Abort Guidance System, a backup to the Lunar Module AGC intended to get the astronauts back into lunar orbit in the event of an emergency. And we’d also never heard that there wasn’t a common architecture for these machines, to the point where each had its own word length. The bit about infighting between MIT and IBM was entertaining too.

And finally, if you still find yourself with time on your hands, why not try your hand at pen-testing a military satellite in orbit? That’s the offer on the table to hackers from the US Air Force, proprietor of some of the tippy-toppest secret hardware in orbit. The Hack-A-Sat Space Security Challenge is aimed at exposing weaknesses that have been inadvertantly baked into space hardware during decades of closed development and secrecy, vulnerabilities that may pose risks to billions of dollars worth of irreplaceable assets. The qualification round requires teams to hack a grounded test satellite before moving on to attacking an orbiting platform during DEFCON in August, with prizes going to the winning teams. Get paid to hack government assets and not get arrested? Maybe 2020 isn’t so bad after all.

Industrial Robot Given New Life And Controller

We all think we could use a third arm from time to time, but when we actually play this thought experiment out in our heads we’ll eventually come to the same hurdle [caltadaniel] found, which is a lack of a controller. His third arm isn’t just an idea, though. It’s a Yaskawa industrial robot that he was able to source for pretty cheap, but it was missing a few parts that he’s been slowly replacing.

The robot arm came without a controller or software, but also without any schematics of any kind, so the first step was reverse engineering the wiring diagram to get an idea of what was going on inside the arm. From there some drivers were built for the servos, but the key to all of it is the homemade controller. The inverse kinematics math was done in Python and runs on an industrial PC. Once it was finally all put together [caltadaniel] had a functioning robotic arm for any task he could think of.

Interestingly enough, while he shows the robot brushing his teeth for him, he also set it up to flip the switch of a useless machine that exists only to turn itself off. There’s something surreal about a massive industrial-sized robotic arm being used to turn on a $20 device which will switch itself back off instantly, but the absurdity is worth a watch.

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Giving An Industrial Push Button USB, Elegantly

[Glen]’s project sounds perfectly straightforward: have a big industrial-style push button act as a one-key USB keyboard. He could have hacked something together in any number of ways, but instead he decided to create a truly elegant solution. His custom PCB mates to the factory parts perfectly, and the USB cable between the button and the computer even fits through the button enclosure’s lead hole.

It turns out that industrial push buttons have standardized components which can be assembled in an almost LEGO-like manner, with components mixed and matched to provide different switch actions, light indicators, and things of that nature. [Glen] decided to leverage this feature to make his custom PCB (the same design used in his one-key keyboard project) fit just like a factory component. With a 3D printed adapter, the PCB locks in just like any other component, and even lines up with the lead hole in the button’s enclosure for easy connecting of the USB cable.

What does [Glen] use the big button for? Currently he has two applications: one provides a simple, one-button screen lock on a Linux box running a virtual machine at his place of work. It first disengages the keyboard capture of the virtual machine, then engages the screen lock on the host. The other inserts a poop emoji into Microsoft documents. Code and PCB design files for [Glen]’s small keyboards are available on GitHub.

Forbes Says The Raspberry Pi Is Big Business

Not that it’s something the average Hackaday reader is unaware of, but the Raspberry Pi is a rather popular device. While we don’t have hard numbers to back it up (extra credit for anyone who wishes to crunch the numbers), it certainly seems a day doesn’t go by that there isn’t a Raspberry Pi story on the front page. But given that a small, cheap, relatively powerful, Linux computer was something the hacking community had dreamed of for years, it’s hardly surprising.

But how popular is the Raspberry Pi among people who don’t necessarily spend their free time reading weird black-background websites? Well, according to a recent article in Forbes, the Pi has been spotted putting in an honest days work all over the world. From factories to garbage trucks, everyone’s favorite Linux computer has come a long a way from its humble beginnings. How does it feel knowing a $35 computer has a longer resume than you do?

Unfortunately, the Forbes article doesn’t have the sort of deep technical details we’re used to around these parts. The fact that the article opens by describing the Raspberry Pi as a “stripped-down circuit board covered with metal pins and squares” should tell you all you need to know about the overlap between Forbes and Hackaday readers, but we think author [Parmy Olson] still tells an story interesting regardless.

So where has the Pi been seen punching a clock? At Sony, for a start. The consumer electronics giant has been installing Pis in several of their factories to monitor various pieces of equipment. They record everything from temperature to vibration and send that to a centralized server using an in-house developed protocol. Some of the Pis are even equipped with cameras which feed into computer vision systems to keep an eye out for anything unusual.

[Parmy] also describes how the Raspberry Pi is being used in Africa to monitor the level of trash inside of garbage bins and automatically dispatch a truck to come pick it up for collection. In Europe, they’re being used to monitor the health of fueling stations for hydrogen powered vehicles. All over the world, businesses are realizing they can build their own monitoring systems for as little as 1/10th the cost of turn-key systems; with managers occasionally paying for the diminutive Linux computers out of their own pocket.

The impact the Pi has had on the hardware world is difficult to overstate. It’s redefined the status quo for single board computers, and with the platform continuing to evolve, there’s no sign its incredible journey is slowing down anytime soon.

[Thanks to Itay for the tip.]

Shape Shifting Structures Work With Magnets

In The Dark Knight, Lucius Fox shows Bruce Wayne a neat bit of memory weave fabric. In its resting state, it is a light, flexible material, but when an electrical current is applied, it pops into a pre-programmed shape. That shape could be a tent or a bat-themed paraglider. Science has not caught up to Hollywood in this regard, but the concept has been demonstrated in a material which increases its rigidity up to 318% within one second when placed in a magnetic field. Those numbers do not mean a lot by themselves, but increasing rigidity in a reversible, non-chemical way is noteworthy.

The high-level explanation is that hollow tubes are 3D printed and filled with magnetorheological fluid which becomes more viscous in the presence of a magnet because the ferrous suspended particles bunch up to form chains instead of sliding over one another. Imagine a bike tire filled with gel, and when you need a little extra traction the tire becomes softer, but when you are cruising on a paved trail, the tire becomes as hard as a train wheel to reduce friction. That could be darn handy in more places than building a fast bike.

The DIN Rail And How It Got That Way

Unless you’ve spent some time in the industrial electrical field, you might be surprised at the degree of integration involved in the various control panels needed to run factories and the like. Look inside any cabinet almost anywhere in the world, and you’ll be greeted by rows of neat plastic terminal blocks, circuit breakers, signal conditioners, and all manner of computing hardware from programmable logic controllers right on to Raspberry Pis and Arduinos.

A well-crafted industrial control panel can truly be a thing of beauty. But behind all the electrical bits in the cabinet, underneath all the neatly routed and clearly labeled wires, there’s a humble strip of metal that stitches it all together: the DIN rail. How did it come to be, and why is it so ubiquitous?

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Tables Are Turned As Robots Assemble IKEA Furniture

Hackaday pages are rife with examples of robots being built with furniture parts. In this example, the tables are turned and robots are the masters of IKEA pieces. We are not silly enough to assume that these robots unfolded the instructions, looked at one another, scratched their CPUs, and began assembling. Of course, the procedure was preordained by the programmers, but the way they mate the pegs into the ends of the cross-members is a very human thing to do. It reminds us of finding a phone charging socket in the dark. This kind of behavior is due to force feedback which tell the robots when a piece is properly seated which means that they can use vision to fit the components together without sub-millimeter precision.

All the hardware used to make the IKEA assembler is publicly available, and while it may be out of the typical hacker price range, this is a sign of the times as robots become part of the household. Currently, the household robots are washing machines, smart speakers, and 3D printers. Ten years ago those weren’t Internet connected machines so it should be no surprise if robotic arms join the club of household robots soon. Your next robotics project could be the tipping point that brings a new class of robots to the home.

Back to our usual hijinks, here is a robot arm from IKEA parts and a projector built into a similar lamp. or a 3D printer enclosed in an IKEA cabinet for a classy home robot.

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