Hackaday Links: May 23, 2021

The epicenter of the Chinese electronics scene drew a lot of attention this week as a 70-story skyscraper started wobbling in exactly the way skyscrapers shouldn’t. The 1,000-ft (305-m) SEG Plaza tower in Shenzhen began its unexpected movements on Tuesday morning, causing a bit of a panic as people ran for their lives. With no earthquakes or severe weather events in the area, there’s no clear cause for the shaking, which was clearly visible from the outside of the building in some of the videos shot by brave souls on the sidewalks below. The preliminary investigation declared the building safe and blamed the shaking on a combination of wind, vibration from a subway line under the building, and a rapid change in outside temperature, all of which we’d suspect would have occurred at some point in the 21-year history of the building. Others are speculating that a Kármán vortex Street, an aerodynamic phenomenon that has been known to catastrophically impact structures before, could be to blame; this seems a bit more likely to us. Regardless, since the first ten floors of SEG Plaza are home to one of the larger electronics markets in Shenzhen, we hope this is resolved quickly and that all our friends there remain safe.

In other architectural news, perched atop Building 54 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge for the last 55 years has been a large, fiberglass geodesic sphere, known simply as The Radome. It’s visible from all over campus, and beyond; we used to work in Kendall Square, and the golf-ball-like structure was an important landmark for navigating the complex streets of Cambridge. The Radome was originally used for experiments with weather radar, but fell out of use as the technology it helped invent moved on. That led to plans to remove the iconic structure, which consequently kicked off a “Save the Radome” campaign. The effort is being led by the students and faculty members of the MIT Radio Society, who have put the radome to good use over the years — it currently houses an amateur radio repeater, and the Radio Society uses the dish within it to conduct Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) microwave communications experiments. The students are serious — they applied for and received a $1.6-million grant from Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC) to finance their efforts. The funds will be used to renovate the deteriorating structure.

Well, this looks like fun: Python on a graphing calculator. Texas Instruments has announced that their TI-84 Plus CE Python graphing calculator uses a modified version of CircuitPython. They’ve included seven modules, mostly related to math and time, but also a suite of TI-specific modules that interact with the calculator hardware. The Python version of the calculator doesn’t seem to be for sale in the US yet, although the UK site does have a few “where to buy” entries listed. It’ll be interesting to see the hacks that come from this when these are readily available.

Did you know that PCBWay, the prolific producer of cheap PCBs, also offers 3D-printing services too? We admit that we did not know that, and were therefore doubly surprised to learn that they also offer SLA resin printing. But what’s really surprising is the quality of their clear resin prints, at least the ones shown on this Twitter thread. As one commenter noted, these look more like machined acrylic than resin prints. Digging deeper into PCBWay’s offerings, which not only includes all kinds of 3D printing but CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, and even injection molding services, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify keeping those capabilities in-house, even for the home gamer. Although with what we’ve learned about supply chain fragility over the last year, we don’t want to give up the ability to make parts locally just yet.

And finally, how well-calibrated are your fingers? If they’re just right, perhaps you can put them to use for quick and dirty RF power measurements. And this is really quick and really dirty, as well as potentially really painful. It comes by way of amateur radio operator VK3YE, who simply uses a resistive dummy load connected to a transmitter and his fingers to monitor the heat generated while keying up the radio. He times how long it takes to not be able to tolerate the pain anymore, plots that against the power used, and comes up with a rough calibration curve that lets him measure the output of an unknown signal. It’s brilliantly janky, but given some of the burns we’ve suffered accidentally while pursuing this hobby, we’d just as soon find another way to measure RF power.

MIT Prints Robots With Lasers

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) wants to convert laser cutters into something more. By attaching a head to a commercial laser cutter and adding software, they combine the functions of a cutter, a conductive printer, and a pick and place system. The idea is to enable construction of entire devices such as robots and drones.

The concept, called LaserFactory, sounds like a Star Trek-style replicator, but it doesn’t create things like circuit elements and motors. It simply picks them up, places them, and connects them using silver conductive ink. You can get a good idea of how it works by watching the video below.

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3D Printing An Ion Propulsion System

As much as we love Star Trek, we have to admit there are some continuity problems. For example, in Spock’s Brain, the alien-of-the-week’s ion drive gave Scotty engineering envy. However, in The Menagerie, the computer identifies a Starfleet shuttlecraft as having ion propulsion. Either way, ion propulsion is real and NASA has toyed with it for ages and many satellites use it for maintaining orbit. Now researchers from MIT and the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies 3D printed tiny ion engines.

The engine is about the size of a dime and, like all ion engines, produces tiny amounts of thrust. In fact, the researchers liken it to half the weight of one sesame seed from a hamburger bun. However, in space, these tiny thrusts add up and over time can produce significant acceleration.

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3D Printable Cloth Takes Advantage Of Defects

Normally, a 3D printer that under extrudes is a bad thing. However, MIT has figured out a way to deliberately mix full extrusions with under extruded layers to print structures that behave more like cloth than normal 3D printed items. The mesh-like structure apparently doesn’t require any modification to a normal 3D printer, just different software to create special code sequences to create the material.

Called DefeXtiles, [Jack Forman] is producing sheets and complex structures that appear woven. The process is known as “blob-stretch” because of the way the plastic makes blobs connected by fine filaments of plastic.

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Recognizing Activities Using Radar

Caring for the elderly and vulnerable people while preserving their privacy and independence is a challenging proposition. Reaching a panic button or calling for help may not be possible in an emergency, but constant supervision or camera surveillance is often neither practical nor considerate. Researchers from MIT CSAIL have been working on this problem for a few years and have come up with a possible solution called RF Diary. Using RF signals, a floor plan, and machine learning it can recognize activities and emergencies, through obstacles and in the dark. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it builds on previous research by CSAIL.

The RF system used is effectively frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) radar, which sweeps across the 5.4-7.2 GHz RF spectrum. The limited resolution of the RF system does not allow for the recognition of most objects, so a floor plan gives information on the size and location of specific features like rooms, beds, tables, sinks, etc. This information helps the machine learning model recognize activities within the context of the surroundings. Effectively training an activity captioning model requires thousands of training examples, which is currently not available for RF radar. However, there are massive video data sets available, so researchers employed a “multi-modal feature alignment training strategy” which allowed them to use video data sets to refine their RF activity captioning model.

There are still some privacy concerns with this solution, but the researchers did propose some improvements. One interesting idea is for the monitored person to give an “activation” signal by performing a specified set of activities in sequence.

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The Astronomical Grit Of Ronald McNair

There is more than one way to lead a successful life. Some people have all the opportunity in the world laid out before them, and it never does them any good. Others have little more than the determination and desire they’ve dredged up within themselves, and that grit turns out to be the abrasive that smooths the path ahead.

Ronald McNair succeeded despite poverty, racism, and an education system designed to keep Black people down. He became an accidental revolutionary at the age of nine, when he broke the color barrier in his small South Carolina town via the public library. This act of defiance in pursuit of education would set the course for his relatively short but full life, which culminated in his career as a Space Shuttle mission specialist.

Rule-Breaker with a Slide Rule

Ronald McNair was born October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, the second of three sons, to Pearl and Carl McNair. His mother was a teacher, and encouraged his love of reading. Ronald’s father, Carl was an auto mechanic who never finished high school and always regretted it. Though the family was poor, Ron grew up surrounded by books, music, and support.

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DIY Baby MIT Cheetah Robot

3D printers have become a staple in most makerspaces these days, enabling hackers to rapidly produce simple mechanical prototypes without the need for a dedicated machine shop. We’ve seen many creative 3D designs here on Hackaday and [jegatheesan.soundarapandian’s] Baby MIT Cheetah Robot is no exception. You’ve undoubtedly seen MIT’s cheetah robot. Well, [jegatheesan’s] hack takes a personal spin on the cheetah robot and his results are pretty cool.

The body of the robot is 3D printed making it easy to customize the design and replace broken parts as you go. The legs are designed in a five-bar linkage with two servo motors controlling each of the four legs. An additional servo motor is used to rotate an HC-SR04, a popular ultrasonic distance sensor, used in the autonomous mode’s obstacle avoidance mechanism. The robot can also be controlled over Bluetooth using an app [jegatheesan] developed in MIT App Inventor.

Overall, the mechanics could use a bit of work — [jegatheesan’s] baby cheetah probably won’t outpace MIT’s robot any time soon — but it’s a cool hack and we’re looking forward to a version 3. Maybe the cheetah would make a cool companion bot?

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