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Hackaday Links: March 10, 2024

We all know that we’re living in a surveillance state that would make Orwell himself shake his head, but it looks like at least one company in this space has gone a little rogue. According to reports, AI surveillance start-up Flock <<insert gratuitous “What the Flock?” joke here>> has installed at least 200 of its car-tracking cameras on public roads in South Carolina alone. That’s a serious whoopsie, especially since it’s illegal to install anything on state infrastructure without permission, which it appears Flock failed to obtain. South Carolina authorities are making a good show of being outraged about this, but it sort of rings hollow to us, especially since Flock now claims that 70% of the population (of the USA, we presume) is covered by their technology. Also, police departments across the country are in love with Flock’s service, which lets them accurately track the movements of potential suspects, which of course is everyone. No word on whether Flock will have to remove the rogue cameras, but we’re not holding our breath.

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Hackaday Links: June 19, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope has had a long and sometimes painful journey from its earliest conception to its ultimate arrival at Lagrange point L2 and subsequent commissioning. Except for the buttery-smooth launch and deployment sequence, things rarely went well for the telescope, which suffered just about every imaginable bureaucratic, scientific, and engineering indignity during its development. But now it’s time to see what this thing can do — almost. NASA has announced that July 12 will be “Image Release Day,” which will serve as Webb’s public debut. The relative radio silence from NASA on Webb since the mirror alignment was completed — apart from the recent micrometeoroid collision, of course — suggests the space agency has been busy with “first light” projects. So there’s good reason to hope that the first released images from Webb will be pretty spectacular. The images will drop at 10:30 AM EDT, so mark your calendars and prepare to be wowed. Hopefully.

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Hackaday Links: May 29, 2022

It looks like the ongoing semiconductor shortage isn’t getting any better, and if the recent spate of computer thefts from semi trucks is any indication, it’s only going to get worse. Thieves seem to be targeting the Freightliner Cascadia, probably the most popular heavy freight truck on the road in North America today, with “smash and grab” thefts targeting the CPC4, or Common Powertrain Control module. These modules are sitting ducks — they’re easy to locate and remove, the chip shortage has made legit modules nearly unobtanium from dealers, and the truck won’t run without them. That’s driven the black market price for a CPC up to $8,000 or more, making them a tempting target. And it’s not only individual trucks parked in truck stop lots that are being hit; gangs are breaking into trucking company lots and bricking dozens of trucks in short order. So the supply chain problem which started the semiconductor shortage caused the module shortage, which drives the thieves to steal modules and take trucks off the road, which only worsens the supply chain shortage that started the whole thing. Nice positive feedback loop.

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British Licence Plate Camera Fooled By Clothing

It’s a story that has caused consternation and mirth in equal measure amongst Brits, that the owners of a car in Surrey received a fine for driving in a bus lane miles away in Bath, when in fact the camera had been confused by the text on a sweater worn by a pedestrian. It seems the word “knitter” had been interpreted by the reader as “KN19 TER”, which as Brits will tell you follows the standard format for modern UK licence plate.

It gives us all a chance to have a good old laugh at the expense of the UK traffic authorities, but it raises some worthwhile points about the fallacy of relying on automatic cameras to dish out fines without human intervention. Except for the very oldest of cars, the British number plate follows an extremely distinctive high-contrast format of large black letters on a reflective white or yellow background, and since 2001 they have all had to use the same slightly authoritarian-named MANDATORY typeface. They are hardly the most challenging prospect for a number plate recognition system, but even when it makes mistakes the fact that ambiguous results aren’t subjected to a human checking stage before a fine is sent out seems rather chilling.

It also raise the prospect of yet more number-plate-related mischief, aside from SQL injection jokes and adversarial fashion, we can only imagine the havoc that could be caused were a protest group to launch a denial of service attack with activists sporting fake MANDATORY licence plates.

Header image, based on the work of ZElsb, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Smart Camera Based On Google Coral

As machine learning and artificial intelligence becomes more widespread, so do the number of platforms available for anyone looking to experiment with the technology. Much like the single board computer revolution of the last ten years, we’re currently seeing a similar revolution with the number of platforms available for machine learning. One of those is Google Coral, a set of hardware specifically designed to take advantage of this new technology. It’s missing support to work with certain hardware though, so [Ricardo] set out to get one working with a Raspberry Pi Zero with this smart camera build based around Google Coral.

The project uses a Google Coral Edge TPU with a USB accelerator as the basis for the machine learning. A complete image for the Pi Zero is available which sets most of the system up right away including headless operation and includes a host of machine learning software such as OpenCV and pytesseract. By pairing a camera to the Edge TPU and the Raspberry Pi, [Ricardo] demonstrates many of its machine learning capabilities with several example projects such as an automatic license plate detector and even a mode which can recognize whether or not a face mask is being worn, and even how correctly it is being worn.

For those who want to get into machine learning and artificial intelligence, this is a great introductory project since the cost to entry is so low using these pieces of hardware. All of the project code and examples are available on [Ricardo]’s GitHub page too. We could even imagine his license plate recognition software being used to augment this license plate reader which uses a much more powerful camera.

Digital License Plates Are Here, But Do We Need Them?

It’s a story as old as time: you need to swap between your custom license plates, but you can’t find a screwdriver and you’re already running late for a big meeting at the Business Factory. You called AAA to see if they could come out and do it for you, but as luck would have it something must be wrong with your phone because the line was disconnected as soon as you explained the situation. As if life in the First World couldn’t get any more difficult.

Luckily, a company called¬†Reviver Auto has come up with a thoroughly modern solution to this age old problem. Assuming you live in Arizona, California, and Michigan and are willing to pay $800 USD (plus a small monthly service fee), you can join the Rplate revolution! Less a license plate and more of a “cool-looking, multi-functional digital display and connected vehicle platform”, the Rplate will ensure you never again find yourself stuck on the side of the road with an unfashionable license plate.

What’s that? You’ve had the same license plate for years, possibly decades, and have never given it much thought? Well, in that case the Rplate might be sort of a tough sell. Did we mention that someday you might be able to display the current weather on it while your car is parked? Of course, if you can see the license plate you’re already outside, so…

This all might sound like an out of season April Fool’s joke, but as far as I can tell from reading the Reviver Auto site and watching their promotional videos, this is essentially the¬†value proposition of their line of Rplate digital license plates. There are some admittedly interesting potential extensions of the technology if they can convince other companies and systems to plug into their ecosystem, but given the cost of the Rplate and the few states in which it’s currently legal to use, that seems far from a given at this point.

But of course we’re fans of weird and wonderful technology here at Hackaday, so we should give this device a fair shake. On the surface it might seem to be a solution looking for a problem, but that’s often said of technology ahead of its time. So what exactly is the Rplate, how does it work, and where does it go from here?

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Traffic Camera Countermeasure

Don’t get us wrong, we drive very carefully as it’s the most dangerous thing we do on a regular basis. But even a careful driver can get caught by bad traffic and a red light camera. These are devices that monitor intersections. If you get caught in the middle when the light goes red they take a picture and you get a ticket in the mail. Well, that’s the way it used to be. This traffic camera countermeasure puts it to an end. As you can see, the noPhoto uses a flash of its own to overexpose traffic camera images.

The image above shows the prototype. The foil is reflecting a flash on either side onto the license plate using a flash sensor which acts as the trigger. According to the demo video after the break, the system can even defeat the pre-flash, and dual-photo types of cameras.

There are pretty tight restrictions on using lights on your vehicles (colors, placement, etc.). We wonder if this passes muster?

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