Hackaday Links: May 30, 2021

That collective “Phew!” you heard this week was probably everyone on the Mars Ingenuity helicopter team letting out a sigh of relief while watching telemetry from the sixth and somewhat shaky flight of the UAV above Jezero crater. With Ingenuity now in an “operations demonstration” phase, the sixth flight was to stretch the limits of what the craft can do and learn how it can be used to scout out potential sites to explore for its robot buddy on the surface, Perseverance.

While the aircraft was performing its 150 m move to the southwest, the stream from the downward-looking navigation camera dropped a single frame. By itself, that wouldn’t have been so bad, but the glitch caused subsequent frames to come in with the wrong timestamps. This apparently confused the hell out of the flight controller, which commanded some pretty dramatic moves in the roll and pitch axes — up to 20° off normal. Thankfully, the flight controller was designed to handle just such an anomaly, and the aircraft was able to land safely within five meters of its planned touchdown. As pilots say, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, so we’ll chalk this one up as a win for the Ingenuity team, who we’re sure are busily writing code to prevent this from happening again.

If wobbling UAVs on another planet aren’t enough cringe for you, how about a blind mechanical demi-ostrich drunk-walking up and down a flight of stairs? The work comes from the Oregon State University and Agility Robotics, and the robot in question is called Cassie, an autonomous bipedal bot with a curious, bird-like gait. Without cameras or lidar for this test, the robot relied on proprioception, which detects the angle of joints and the feedback from motors when the robot touches a solid surface. And for ten tries up and down the stairs, Cassie did pretty well — she only failed twice, with only one counting as a face-plant, if indeed she had a face. We noticed that the robot often did that little move where you misjudge the step and land with the instep of your foot hanging over the tread; that one always has us grabbing for the handrail, but Cassie was able to power through it every time. The paper describing how Cassie was trained is pretty interesting — too bad ED-209’s designers couldn’t have read it.

So this is what it has come to: NVIDIA is now purposely crippling its flagship GPU cards to make them less attractive to cryptocurrency miners. The LHR, or “Lite Hash Rate” cards include new-manufactured GeForce RTX 3080, 3070, and 3060 Ti cards, which will now have reduced Ethereum hash rates baked into the chip from the factory. When we first heard about this a few months ago, we puzzled a bit — why would a GPU card manufacturer care how its cards are used, especially if they’re selling a ton of them. But it makes sense that NVIDIA would like to protect their brand with their core demographic — gamers — and having miners snarf up all the cards and leaving none for gamers is probably a bad practice. So while it makes sense, we’ll have to wait and see how the semi-lobotomized cards are received by the market, and how the changes impact other non-standard uses for them, like weather modeling and genetic analysis.

Speaking of crypto, we found it interesting that police in the UK accidentally found a Bitcoin mine this week while searching for an illegal cannabis growing operation. It turns out that something that uses a lot of electricity, gives off a lot of heat, and has people going in and out of a small storage unit at all hours of the day and night usually is a cannabis farm, but in this case it turned out to be about 100 Antminer S9s set up on janky looking shelves. The whole rig was confiscated and hauled away; while Bitcoin mining is not illegal in the UK, stealing the electricity to run the mine is, which the miners allegedly did.

And finally, we have no idea what useful purpose this information serves, but we do know that it’s vitally important to relate to our dear readers that yellow LEDs change color when immersed in liquid nitrogen. There’s obviously some deep principle of quantum mechanics at play here, and we’re sure someone will adequately explain it in the comments. But for now, it’s just a super interesting phenomenon that has us keen to buy some liquid nitrogen to try out. Or maybe dry ice — that’s a lot easier to source.

Ingenuity Completes Fourth Flight On Mars, Gets A New Mission

It’s the same on Mars as it is here — just when you’re getting used to your job, the bosses go and change things up.

At least that’s our read on the situation at Jezero crater, where the Mars Ingenuity helicopter has just had its mission upgraded and extended. In a Friday morning press conference, the Ingenuity flight team, joined by members of the Perseverance team and some NASA brass, made the announcement that Ingenuity had earned an extra 30 sols of flight time, and would be transitioned from a mere “technology demonstrator” to an “operations demonstration” phase. They also announced Ingenuity’s fourth flight, which concluded successfully today, covering 266 meters and staying airborne for 117 seconds.

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Hackaday Links: April 25, 2021

There’s much news from the Jezero Crater on Mars this week, and all of it was good. Not only did the Ingenuity helicopter make history by making the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet, it made a second longer, more complex flight just a couple of days later. This time, the autonomous rotorwing craft flew to a higher altitude than the maiden flight, hovered for a bit longer, and made a lateral move before landing safely again on the surface. Three more flights of increasing complexity (and risk) are scheduled over the next two weeks, with the next set to happen early Sunday morning. I have to admit that even though the Ingenuity tech demonstration seemed a little like a publicity stunt when I first heard about it, especially when compared to the Perseverance’s main mission of searching for evidence of life on Mars, the Ingenuity team’s successes have made a believer out of me.

Speaking of technology demonstrations, NASA fired up the MOXIE experiment aboard Perseverance for the first time. Intended to explore the possibility of producing oxygen from the thin carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment made about 5.4 grams of oxygen total at a rate of about 6 grams an hour. We detailed the technology MOXIE uses, called solid-oxide electrolysis, which depends on a scandium-stabilized zirconium oxide ceramic electrolyte to strip the oxygen from superheated carbon dioxide using an electric current. Should the technology prove itself over the planned total of ten MOXIE runs over the next few months, a scaled up version of the device could someday land on Mars and produce the estimated 55 metric tons of oxygen needed to fuel a return trip from a crewed mission.

By now we’ve all heard about the global semiconductor shortage, or perhaps felt the pinch ourselves while trying to procure parts for a build. It’s easy to count the crunch as yet another follow-on from the COVID-19 shutdowns and the logistics woes the pandemic begat, so one might have hope that with lockdowns easing up around the world, the shortage will soon be over as manufacturers ramp up production. But not so fast — it looks like the machines needed to make the chips are the latest victims of the shortage. According to Nikkei Asia, wire bonding machines, wafer dicers, and laser drilling machines are all in short supply, with orders for new machines booked out for a year. Like toilet paper this time last year, chip makers are hoarding machines, ordering 50 or 100 of them at a time, in the hopes of having enough to meet production goals. And when machines are available, travel restrictions are making it difficult to get on-site installation and support from factory reps. The bottom line — this isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

We all know the Stack Overflow memes, and few of us who are being honest haven’t squirmed a bit when thinking about just how screwed we’d be without being able to copy a bit of code to get us past that rough part in a project. But just how often do people copy code from Stack Overflow? Quite a lot, actually, if SO’s analysis of the use of copy commands on their pages is to be believed. For two weeks, SO monitored the number of times the Ctrl-C (or Command-C, if that’s your jam) key combination was pressed. They toted up over 40 million copies, most often from the answers to questions and almost always from the code blocks within them. We suppose none of this is exactly unexpected — memes are memes for a reason, after all — but what we found surprising is that one in four visitors to Stack Overflow copied something within five minutes of loading a page. Being charitable, we’d say the speed with which coders accept someone else’s work is an indication that maybe they were almost at an answer themselves and just needed a little reminder. On the other hand, it could be a sign of separation driving them to get something working.

And finally, while we know we’ve recommended videos from Grady at Practical Engineering recently, we couldn’t help but plug another of his videos as a must-watch. This time, Grady tackles the Suez Canal blockage, and he presents it in the same dispassionate, informed way that he previously handled the engineering roots of the Texas blackouts. If you think the Ever Given grounding was just a case of poor seamanship, think again — Grady makes a compelling case for possible hydrodynamic causes of the incident, including “squatting” and the bank effect. He also speculates on the geotechnical forces that held the ship fast, in the process of which he helpfully introduces the concept of dilatancy and how it explains the way your feet seem to “dry out” a zone around them as you walk across the beach.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: April 25, 2021”

The Wright Stuff: First Powered Flight On Mars Is A Success

When you stop to think about the history of flight, it really is amazing that the first successful flight the Wright brothers made on a North Carolina beach to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon spanned a mere 66 years. That we were able to understand and apply the principles of aerodynamics well enough to advance from delicate wood and canvas structures to rockets powerful enough to escape from the gravity well that had trapped us for eons is a powerful testament to human ingenuity and the drive to explore.

Ingenuity has again won the day in the history of flight, this time literally as the namesake helicopter that tagged along on the Mars 2020 mission has successfully flown over the Red Planet. The flight lasted a mere 40 seconds, but proved that controlled, powered flight is possible on Mars, a planet with an atmosphere that’s as thin as the air is at 100,000 feet (30 km) above sea level on Earth. It’s an historic accomplishment, and the engineering behind it is worth a deeper look.

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Hackaday Links: April 18, 2021

More bad news from Mars this week, and this time not just from Perseverance. Last week the eagerly anticipated first flight of the helicopter Ingenuity was delayed for a couple of days after failing a full-speed spin-up test of its rotors. That appears to have been a bigger deal than initially thought, as it required a significant rewrite of the helicopter’s software. That meant testing, of course, and subsequent upload to the UAV, which at 174 million miles away takes a bit of doing. The good news is that they were able to complete the full-speed rotor test without the full program upload, so we’re one step closer to flight, which may take place as early as Monday morning.

Meanwhile, over at Elysium Planitia, the Mars InSight lander has troubles of its own. The geophysical laboratory, which has been trying to explore the inner structure of Mars since landing in 2018, entered an “emergency hibernation” state this week because of a lack of sufficient power generation. Unlike the radioisotope-powered Perseverance rover, InSight relies on a pair of solar panels for its electricity, and those panels are being obscured by Martian dust. The panels normally get blown clean by Martian winds, but things have been calm lately and the dust has really built up. If this seems like deja vu all over again, it’s probably because a planet-wide dust storm is what killed the plucky Opportunity rover back in 2018. Here’s hoping the wind picks up a little and InSight can get back to work.

Funny what crops up in one’s newsfeed, especially when one is responsible for putting out content that populates others’ newsfeeds. We recently took a look at the dangers of “zinc fever”, a flu-like illness that can crop up after inhaling gasses produced by molten zinc. That resulted in stumbling across an article from last year about mild steel welding fumes being classified as a human carcinogen. This comes from the Health and Safety Executive, a UK government agency concerned with workplace health issues. The release is an interesting read, and it suggests that mild steel fumes can cause not only lung cancer but kidney cancer. The announcement is mainly concerned with British workplaces, of course, but there are some interesting tidbits in there, such as the fact that welding fumes make dust particles so small that they can reach down into the very lowest reaches of lungs, the alveoli where gas exchange occurs. It’s enough to make one invest in PAPR or some kind of fume extractor.

For those of a certain vintage, our first computer was probably something that bore little resemblance to a PC or laptop. It was likely a single-board affair or something like a C64, and acquiring the essential bit of hardware usually left little in the budget for a proper monitor. Little 12″ B&W TVs were a dime a dozen, though, and easily — if grainily — enlisted into service as a monitor by way of an RF modulator. To recreate a little of that magic with modern hardware, Hackaday contributor Adam Zeloof came up with the PiMod Zero, an RF-modulator hat for the Raspberry Pi Zero that turns the component video into an NTSC analog signal. He’s open-sourced the design files, or there’s a CrowdSupply campaign for those who prefer to buy.

And finally, if you somehow traveled back in time to the 1940s with a laptop, how long would it have taken you to crack the Enigma code? Longer than you think, at least according to Dr. Mike Pound over at Computerphile, who released a fascinating video on how Enigma worked and what it took for Turing and the gang at Bletchley to crack the code. We knew some of the details of Enigma’s workings before seeing this video, but Mike’s explanation was really good. And, his explanation of the shortcut method he used to decode an Enigma message made the whole process clearer to us than it’s ever been. Interesting stuff.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: April 18, 2021”

Hackaday Links: April 11, 2021

Bad news, Martian helicopter fans: Ingenuity, the autonomous helicopter that Perseverance birthed onto the Martian surface a few days ago, will not be taking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet today as planned. We’re working on a full story so we’ll leave the gory details for that, but the short version is that while the helicopter was undergoing a full-speed rotor test, a watchdog timer monitoring the transition between pre-flight and flight modes in the controller tripped. The Ingenuity operations team is going over the full telemetry and will reschedule the rotor test; as a result, the first flight will occur no earlier than Wednesday, April 14. We’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Anyone who has ever been near a refinery or even a sewage treatment plant will have no doubt spotted flares of waste gas being burned off. It can be pretty spectacular, like an Olympic torch, but it also always struck us as spectacularly wasteful. Aside from the emissions, it always seemed like you could at least try to harness some of the energy in the waste gasses. But apparently the numbers just never work out in favor of tapping this source of energy, or at least that was the case until the proper buzzword concentration in the effluent was reached. With the soaring value of Bitcoin, and the fact that the network now consumes something like 80-TWh a year, building portable mining rigs into shipping containers that can be plugged into gas flaring stacks at refineries is now being looked at seriously. While we like the idea of not wasting a resource, we have our doubts about this; if it’s not profitable to tap into the waste gas stream to produce electricity now, what does tapping it to directly mine Bitcoin really add to the equation?

What would you do if you discovered that your new clothes dryer was responsible for a gigabyte or more of traffic on your internet connection every day? We suppose in this IoT world, such things are to be expected, but a gig a day seems overly chatty for a dryer. The user who reported this over on the r/smarthome subreddit blocked the dryer at the router, which was probably about the only realistic option short of taking a Dremel to the WiFi section of the dryer’s control board. The owner is in contact with manufacturer LG to see if this perhaps represents an error condition; we’d actually love to see a Wireshark dump of the data to see what the garrulous appliance is on about.

As often happens in our wanderings of the interwebz to find the very freshest of hacks for you, we fell down yet another rabbit hole that we thought we’d share. It’s not exactly a secret that there’s a large number of “Star Trek” fans in this community, and that for some of us, the way the various manifestations of the series brought the science and technology of space travel to life kick-started our hardware hacking lives. So when we found this article about a company building replica Tricorders from the original series, we followed along with great interest. What we found fascinating was not so much the potential to buy an exact replica of the TOS Tricorder — although that’s pretty cool — but the deep dive into how they captured data from one of the few remaining screen-used props, as well as how the Tricorder came to be.

And finally, what do you do if you have 3,281 drones lying around? Obviously, you create a light show to advertise the launch of a luxury car brand in China. At least that’s what Genesis, the luxury brand of carmaker Hyundai, did last week. The display, which looks like it consisted mostly of the brand’s logo whizzing about over a cityscape, is pretty impressive, and apparently set the world record for such things, beating out the previous attempt of 3,051 UAVs. Of course, all the coverage we can find on these displays concentrates on the eye-candy and the blaring horns of the soundtrack and gives short shrift to the technical aspects, which would really be interesting to dive into. How are these drones networked? How do they deal with latency? Are they just creating a volumetric display with the drones and turning lights on and off, or are they actually moving drones around to animate the displays? If anyone knows how these things work, we’d love to learn more, and perhaps even do a feature article.

Spacing Out: StarShip Explodes (Again), Passenger Space Flight, Space Bugs, Astronaut Bone, And Martian Water

This time I promise I only have a couple of stories from Elon Musk’s company. SpaceX’s latest Starship test launch ended in another explosion, proving that space hardware remains hard to get right. We’ll keep watching as they keep launching, and it can’t be long until they’ve ironed out all the problems. Meanwhile there’s brighter news from the company’s Crew Dragon, a modified version of the capsule with the forward docking ring replaced by a transparent dome is planned for launch in September with the company’s first flight carrying civilian passengers. It’s doubtless unwelcome news for Virgin Galactic, whose suborbital passenger flights are edging closer to reality with the unveiling of their first SpaceShip III craft. Finally, a Falcon 9 upper stage broke up on re-entry over the northwestern USA, giving observers on the ground a spactacular show.

Spectacular view of the Falcon 9 debris. Via Lu Jerz

Meanwhile up there in orbit there have been found on the ISS some strains of bacteria previously unknown to scientists on Earth, but it’s not yet time to panic about Mutant Bugs From Space. It seems these bacteria are of a type that is essential in the growing of plants, so it’s likely they originally hitched a ride up with one of the several plant-growing experiments that have taken place over the station’s lifetime. Staying on the ISS, astronauts visiting the station have been at the centre of a recently published study looking at loss of bone density over long periods in space. The bone experts found that bone density could still be lost despite the astronauts’ in-flight exercise programs, and concluded that exercise regimes pre-flight should be taken into account for future in-orbit exercise planning.

Further away from Earth, the ESA Mars Express satellite has been used for a multi-year study of water loss to space from the Martian atmosphere. The ESA scientists identified the seasonal mechanism that leads to the planet’s upper atmosphere having an excess of water and in particular the effect of the periodic planet-wide dust storms on accelerating water loss, but failed to account for the water that they estimate Mars must have lost over its history. From a study of water-created surface features they can estimate how much liquid the planet once had, yet the atmospheric losses fail to account for it all. Has it disappeared underground? More studies are required before we’ll have an answer.

The exciting news over the coming days will no doubt be the Ingenuity Martian helicopter, which we have seen slowly unfolding itself prior to unloading from the belly of the Perseverence rover. If all goes according to plan the little craft will be set down before the rover trundles off to a safe distance, and the historic flight will take place on April 8th. We’ll be on the edges of our seats, and no doubt you will be, too.