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Hackaday Links: January 3, 2021

Last week we featured a story on the new rules regarding drone identification going into effect in the US. If you missed the article, the short story is that almost all unmanned aircraft will soon need to transmit their position, altitude, speed, and serial number, as well as the position of its operator, likely via WiFi or Bluetooth. The FAA’s rule change isn’t sitting well with Wing, the drone-based delivery subsidiary of megacorporation Alphabet. In their view, local broadcast of flight particulars would be an invasion of privacy, since observers snooping in on Remote ID traffic could, say, infer that a drone going between a pharmacy and a neighbor’s home might mean that someone is sick. They have a point, but how a Google company managed to cut through the thick clouds of irony to complain about privacy concerns and the rise of the surveillance state is mind boggling.

Speaking of regulatory burdens, it appears that getting an amateur radio license is no longer quite the deal that it once was. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a $35 fee for new amateur radio licenses, license renewals, and changes to existing licenses, like vanity call signs. While $35 isn’t cheap, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s better than the $50 fee that the FCC was originally proposing. Still, it seems a bit steep for something that’s largely automated. In any case, it looks like we’re still good to go with our “$50 Ham” series.

Staying on the topic of amateur radio for a minute, it looks like there will be a new digital mode to explore soon. The change will come when version 2.4.0 of WSJT-X, the program that forms the heart of digital modes like WSPR and FT8, is released. The newcomer is called Q65, and it’s basically a follow-on to the current QRA64 weak-signal mode. Q65 is optimized for weak, rapidly fading signals in the VHF bands and higher, so it’s likely to prove popular with Earth-Moon-Earth fans and those who like to do things like bounce their signals off of meteor trails. We’d think Q65 should enable airliner-bounce too. We’ll be keen to give it a try whenever it comes out.

Look, we know it’s hard to get used to writing the correct year once a new one rolls around, and that time has taken on a relative feeling in these pandemic times. But we’re pretty sure it isn’t April yet, which is the most reasonable explanation for an ad purporting the unholy coupling of a gaming PC and mass-market fried foods. We strongly suspect this is just a marketing stunt between Cooler Master and Yum! Brands, but taken at face value, the KFConsole — it’s not a gaming console, it’s at best a pre-built gaming PC — is supposed to use excess heat to keep your DoorDashed order of KFC warm while you play. In a year full of incredibly stupid things, this one is clearly in the top five.

And finally, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our airline pilots, or at least a subset of them, aren’t seeing things. There has been a steady stream of reports from pilots flying in and out of Los Angeles lately of a person in a jetpack buzzing around. Well, someone finally captured video of the daredevil, and even though it’s shaky and unclear — as are seemingly all videos of cryptids — it sure seems to be a human-sized biped flying around in a standing position. The video description says this was shot by a flight instructor at 3,000 feet (914 meters) near Palos Verdes with Catalina Island in the background. That’s about 20 miles (32 km) from the mainland, so whatever this person is flying has amazing range. And, the pilot has incredible faith in the equipment — that’s a long way to fall in something with the same glide ratio as a brick.

Autodesk Blinks, Keeps STEP File Export In Free Version Of Fusion 360

Good news, Fusion 360 fans — Autodesk just announced that they won’t be removing support for STEP file exports for personal use licensees of the popular CAD/CAM platform after all.

As we noted last week, Autodesk had announced major changes to the free-to-use license for Fusion 360. Most of the changes, like the elimination of simulations, rolling back of some CAM features, and removal of generative design tools didn’t amount to major workflow disruptions for many hobbyists who have embraced the platform. But the loss of certain export formats, most notably STEP files, was a bone of contention and the topic of heated discussion in the makerverse. Autodesk summed up the situation succinctly in their announcement, stating that the reversal was due to “unintended consequences for the hobbyist community.”

While this is great news, bear in mind that the other changes to the personal use license are still scheduled to go into effect on October 1, while the planned change to limit the number of active projects will go into effect in January 2021. So while Fusion 360 personal use licensees will still have STEP files, the loss of other export file formats like IGES and SAT are still planned.

Autodesk Announces Major Changes To Fusion 360 Personal Use License Terms

Change is inevitable, and a part of life. But we’re told that nobody likes change. So logically, it seems we’ve proved nobody likes life. QED.

That may be a reach, but judging by the reaction of the Fusion 360 community to the announced changes to the personal use license, they’re pretty much hating life right now. The clear message from Autodesk is that Fusion 360 — the widely used suite of CAD and CAM software — will still offer a free-to-use non-commercial license for design and manufacturing work, with the inclusion of a few very big “buts” that may be deal-breakers for some people. The changes include:

  • Project storage is limited to 10 active and editable documents
  • Exports are now limited to a small number of file types. Thankfully this still includes STL files but alas, DXF, DWG, PDF exports are all gone
  • Perhaps most importantly to the makerverse, STEP, SAT, and IGES file types can no longer be exported, the most common files for those who want to edit a design using different software.
  • 2D drawings can now only be single sheet, and can only be printed or plotted
  • Rendering can now only be done locally, so leveraging cloud-based rendering is no longer possible
  • CAM support has been drastically cut back: no more multi-axis milling, probing, automatic tool changes, or rapid feeds, but support for 2, 2.5, and 3 axis remains
  • All support for simulation, generative design, and custom extensions has been removed

Most of these changes go into effect October 1, with the exception of the limit on active project files which goes into effect in January of 2021. We’d say that users of Fusion 360’s free personal use license would best be advised to export everything they might ever think they need design files for immediately — if you discover you need to export them in the future, you’ll need one of the other licenses to do so.

To be fair, it was pretty clear that changes to the personal use license were coming a while ago with the consolidation of paid-tier licenses almost a year ago, and the cloud-credit system that monetized rendering/simulation/generative design services happening on the Autodesk servers. Features removed from the free license in this week’s announcement remain in place for paid subscriptions as well as the educational and start-up license options.

The problem with these personal use licenses is that it’s easy to get used to them and think of them as de facto open-source licenses; changing the terms then ends up leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. To their credit, Autodesk is offering a steep discount on the commercial license right now, which might take some of the sting out of the changes.

Update 09-25-2020: Autodesk has announced that STEP file export will remain in the free version of Fusion 360

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Hackaday Links: May 3, 2020

In a sign of the times, the Federal Communications Commission has officially signed off on remote testing sessions for amateur radio licensing in the United States. Testing in the US is through the Volunteer Examiner Coordinator program, which allows teams of at least three Volunteer Examiners to set up in-person testing sessions where they proctor amateur radio licensing exams. The VEs take their jobs very seriously and take pride in offering exam sessions on a regular schedule, so when social distancing rules made their usual public testing venues difficult to access, many of them quickly pivoted to remote testing using teleconferencing applications. Here’s hoping that more VEs begin offering remote testing sessions.

Another aspect of life changed by COVID-19 and social distancing rules has been the simple pleasure of a trip to the museum. And for the museums themselves, the lack of visitors can be catastrophic, both in terms of fulfilling their educational and research missions and through the lack of income that results. To keep the flame alive in a fun way, Katrina Bowen from The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge has recreated her museum in loving detail in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. For being limited to what’s available in the game, Katrina did a remarkable job on the virtual museum; we especially like the Megaprocessor wallpaper. She even managed to work in that staple last stop of every museum, the gift shop.

To the surprise of few, “spatial computing” startup Magic Leap has announced that it is laying off half its workforce as it charts a new course. The company, which attracted billions in funding based on its virtual retinal display technology, apparently couldn’t sell enough of their Magic Leap One headsets to pay the bills. The company is swiveling to industrial users, which honestly seems like a better application for their retinal display technology than the consumer or gaming markets.

And finally, as if 2020 hasn’t been weird enough already, the Department of Defense has officially released videos of what it calls “unidentified aerial phenomena.” These videos, taken from the head-up displays of US Navy fighter jets, had previously been obtained by private parties and released to the public. Recorded between 2004 and 2015, the videos appear to show objects that are capable of extremely high-speed flight and tight maneuvers close to the surface of the ocean. We find the timing of the release suspicious, almost as if the videos are intended to serve as a distraction from the disturbing news of the day. We want to believe we’re not alone, but these videos don’t do much to help.

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Hackaday Links: April 5, 2020

Git is powerful, but with great power comes the ability to really bork things up. When you find yourself looking at an inscrutable error message after an ill-advised late-night commit, it can be a maximum pucker-factor moment, and keeping a clear enough head to fix the problem can be challenging. A little proactive social engineering may be in order, which is why Jonathan Bisson wrote git-undo, a simple shell script that displays the most common un-borking commands he’s likely to need. There are other ways to prompt yourself through Git emergencies, like Oh Shit, Git (or for the scatologically sensitive, Dangit Git), but git-undo has the advantage of working without an Internet connection.

Suddenly find yourself with a bunch of time on your hands and nothing to challenge your skills? Why not try to write a program in a single Tweet? The brainchild of Dominic Pajak, the BBC Micro Bot Twitter account accepts tweets and attempts to run them as BASIC programs on a BBC Microcomputer emulator, replying with the results of the program. It would seem that 280 characters would make it difficult to do anything interesting, but check out some of the results. Most are graphic displays, some animated, and with an unsurprising number of nods to 1980s pop culture. Some are truly impressive, though, like Conway’s Game of Life written by none other than Eben Upton.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing all sorts of cultural shifts, but we didn’t expect to see much change in the culture of a community that’s been notoriously resistant to change for over a century: amateur radio. One of the most basic facts of life in the amateur radio world is that you need a license to participate, with governments regulating the process. But as a response to the pandemic, Spain has temporarily lifted licensing requirements for amateur radio operators. Normally, an unlicensed person is only allowed to operate on amateur bands under the direct supervision of a licensed amateur. The rules change allows unlicensed operators to use a station without supervision and is intended to give schoolchildren trapped at home an educational experience. In another change, some countries are allowing special callsign suffixes, like “STAYHOME,” to raise awareness during the pandemic. And the boom in interest in amateur radio since the pandemic started is remarkable; unfortunately, finding a way to take your test in a socially distant world is quite a trick. Our friend Josh Nass (KI6NAZ) has some thoughts about testing under these conditions that you might find interesting.

And finally, life goes on during all this societal disruption, and every new life deserves to be celebrated. And when Lauren Devinck made her appearance last month, her proud parents decided to send out unique birth announcement cards with a printed circuit board feature. The board is decorative, not functional, but adds a distinctive look to the card. The process of getting the boards printed was non-trivial; it turns out that free-form script won’t pass most design rule tests, and that panelizing them required making some compromises. We think the finished product is classy, but can’t help but think that a functional board would have really made a statement. Regardless, we welcome Lauren and congratulate her proud parents.

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Hackaday Links: March 22, 2020

Within the span of just two months, our world of unimaginable plenty and ready access to goods manufactured across the globe has been transformed into one where the bare essentials of life are hard to find at any price. The people on the frontline of the battle against COVID-19 are suffering supply chain pinches too, often at great risk to their health. Lack of proper personal protective equipment (PPE), especially face masks, is an acute problem, and the shortage will only exacerbate the problem as healthcare workers go down for the count. Factories are gearing up to make more masks, but in the meantime, the maker and hacker community can pitch in. FreeSewing, an open-source repository of sewing patterns, has a pattern for a simple face mask called the Fu that can be made quickly by an experienced threadworker. Efficacy of the masks made with that pattern will vary based on the materials used, obviously; a slightly less ad hoc effort is the 100 Million Mask Challenge, where volunteers are given a pattern and enough lab-tested materials to make 100 face masks. If you know how to sew, getting involved might make a difference.

As people around the world wrap their heads around the new normal of social distancing and the loss of human contact, there’s been an understandable spike in interest in amateur radio. QRZ.com reports that the FCC has recorded an uptick in the number of amateur radio licenses issued since the COVID-19 outbreak, and license test prep site HamRadioPrep.com has been swamped by new users seeking to prepare for taking the test. As we’ve discussed, the barrier for entry to ham radio is normally very low, both in terms of getting your license and getting the minimal equipment needed to get on the air. One hurdle aspiring hams might face is the cancellation of so-called VE testing, where Volunteer Examiners administer the written tests needed for each license class. Finding a face-to-face VE testing session now might be hard, but the VEs are likely to find a way to adapt. After all, hams were social distancing before social distancing was cool.

The list of public events that have been postponed or outright canceled by this pandemic is long indeed, with pretty much everything expected to draw more than a handful of people put into limbo. The hacking world is not immune, of course, with many high-profile events scuttled. But we hackers are a resourceful bunch, and the 10th annual Open Source Hardware Summit managed to go off on schedule as a virtual meeting last week. You can watch the nearly eight-hour livestream while you’re self-isolating. We’re confident that other conferences will go virtual in the near-term too rather than cancel outright.

And finally, if you’re sick of pandemic news and just want some escapist engineering eye candy, you could do worse than checking out what it takes to make a DSLR camera waterproof. We’ve honestly always numbered cameras as among the very least waterproof devices, but it turns out that photojournalists and filmmakers are pretty rough on their gear and expect it to keep working even so. The story here focuses (sorry) on Olympus cameras and lenses, which you’ll note that Takasu-san only ever refers to as “splash-proof”, and the complex system of O-rings and seals needed to keep water away from their innards. For our money, the best part was learning that lenses that have to change their internal volume, like zoom lenses, need to be vented so that air can move in and out. The engineering needed to keep water out of a vented system like that is pretty impressive.

The $50 Ham: Getting Your Ticket Punched

Today we start a new series dedicated to amateur radio for cheapskates. Ham radio has a reputation as a “rich old guy” hobby, a reputation that it probably deserves to some degree. Pick up a glossy catalog from DX Engineering or cruise their website, and you’ll see that getting into the latest and greatest gear is not an exercise for the financially challenged. And thus the image persists of the recent retiree, long past the expense and time required to raise a family and suddenly with time on his hands, gleefully adding just one more piece of expensive gear to an already well-appointed ham shack to “chew the rag” with his “OMs”.

Not a $50 ham. W9EVT’s shack. Source: QRZ.com

As I pointed out a few years back in “My Beef With Ham Radio”, I’m an inactive ham. My main reason for not practicing is that I’m not a fan of talking to strangers, but there’s a financial component to my reticence as well – it’s hard to spend a lot of money on gear when you don’t have a lot to talk about. I suspect that there are a lot of would-be hams out there who are turned off from the hobby by its perceived expense, and perhaps a few like me who are on the mic-shy side.

This series is aimed at dispelling the myth that one needs buckets of money to be a ham, and that jawboning is the only thing one does on the air. Each installment will feature a project that will move you further along your ham journey that can be completed for no more than $50 or so. Wherever possible, I’ll be building the project or testing the activity myself so I can pursue my own goal of actually using my license for a change.

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