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Hackaday Links: August 1, 2021

Amateur radio operators have a saying: When all else fails, there’s ham radio. And that’s true, at least to an extent — knock out the power, tear down the phone lines, and burn up all the satellites in orbit, and there will still be hams talking about politics on 40 meters. The point is, as long as the laws of physics don’t change, hams will figure out a way to send and receive messages. In honor of that fact, the police in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, India, make it a point to exchange messages with their headquarter using Morse code once a week. The idea is to maintain a backup system, in case they can’t get a message through any other way. It’s a good idea, especially since they rotate all their radio operators through the Sunday morning ritual. We can’t imagine that most emergency services dispatchers would be thrilled about learning Morse, though.

Just because you’re a billionaire with a space company doesn’t mean you’re an astronaut. At least that’s the view of the US Federal Aviation Administration, which issued guidelines pretty much while Jeff Bezos and his merry band of cohorts were floating about above the 100-km high Kármán line in a Blue Origin “New Shepard” rocket. The FAA guidelines make it clear that those making the trip need to have actually done something to qualify as an astronaut, by “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” That’s good news to the “Old Shepard”, who clearly was in control of “Freedom 7” during the Mercury program. But the Bezos brothers, teenager Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” group of women who trained to be NASA astronauts but never got to fly, were really just along for the ride, as the entire flight was automated. It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve been to space and you haven’t, of course, but they can’t officially call themselves astronauts. This goes to show that even billionaires can just be ballast too.

Good news, everyone — if you had anything that was being transported aboard the Ever Given, your stuff is almost there. The Suez Canal-occluding container ship finally made it to its original destination in Rotterdam, approximately four months later than originally predicted.  After plugging up the vital waterway for six days last March, the ship along with her cargo and her crew were detained in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, perhaps the coolest sounding body of water in the world next to the Dead Sea. Legal squabbling ensued at that point, all the while rendering whatever was in the 20,000-odd containers aboard the ship pretty much pointless. We’d imagine that even with continuous power, whatever was in the refrigerated containers must be pretty nasty by now, so there’s probably a lot of logistics and clean-up left to sort out.

I have to admit that I have a weird love of explosive bolts. I don’t know what it is, but the idea of fasteners engineered to fail in a predictable way under the influence of pyrotechnic charges just tickles something in me. I mean, I even wrote a whole article on the subject once. So when I came across this video explaining how the Space Shuttles were held to the launch pad, I really had to watch it. Surprisingly, the most interesting part of this story was not the explosive aspect, but the engineering problem of supporting the massive vehicle on the launch pad. For as graceful as the Shuttles seemed once they got into orbit, they really were ungainly beasts, especially strapped to the external fuel tank and booster. The scale of the eight frangible nuts used to secure the boosters to the pad is just jaw-dropping. We also liked the idea that NASA decided to catch the debris from the explosions in a container filled with sand.

A One-Transistor Ham Transmitter Anyone Can Build

What attracts a lot of people to amateur radio is that it gives you the ability to make your own gear. Scratch-building hams usually start by making their own antennas, but eventually, the itch to build one’s own radio must be scratched. And building this one-transistor transmitter is just about the simplest way to dive into the world of DIY radio.

Of course, limiting yourself to eight components in total entails making some sacrifices, and [Kostas (SV3ORA)]’s transmitter is clearly a study in compromise. For starters, it’s only a transmitter, so you’ll need to make other arrangements to have a meaningful conversation. You’ll also have to learn Morse code because the minimalist build only supports continuous-wave (CW) mode, although it can be modified for amplitude modulation (AM) voice work.

The circuit is flexible enough that almost any part can be substituted and the transmitter will still work. Most of the parts are junk-bin items, although the main transformer is something you’ll have to wind by hand. As described, the transformer not only provides feedback to the transistor oscillator, but also has a winding that powers an incandescent pilot lamp, and provides taps for attaching antennas of different impedances — no external tuner needed. [SV3ORA] provides detailed transformer-winding instructions and shows the final build, which looks very professional and tidy. The video below shows the rig in action with a separate receiver providing sidetone; there’s also the option of using one of the WebSDR receivers sprinkled around the globe to verify you’re getting out.

This little transmitter looks like a ton of fun to build, and we may just try it for our $50 Ham series if we can find all the parts. Honestly, the hardest to come by might be the variable capacitor, but there are ways around that too.

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Key That Morse With Little More Than Your Laptop

If you look at the computer in front of you, it will have an array of input devices. A keyboard and mouse, a touch screen, maybe a microphone, or even a gamepad. Each of them will have its moment to shine, and you’ll probably have put some effort into their selection. But when it comes to a computer, almost anything connected to it can be an input device in some form, as long as it provides some form of machine readable parameter.

Consider your laptop: it knows when its lid is closed such that it can put itself to sleep. Even that can be used as an input device with a little ingenuity, as [veggiedefender] has done with “open and shut“, a Morse keyer using opening and closing the laptop lid as its key.

The software for GNU/Linux distributions is a surprisingly accessible set of shell scripts that attach themselves to ACPI events surrounding the lid switch. In use it seems a little cumbersome, but we suspect its real value is not in repeatedly slammin the lid to produce Morse text input. Instead with many lid switches being magnetic reed switches an operator could simply wear a ring with a magnet and tap out their text every bit as quickly as they could using a traditional key.

We like the idea, and could see it being popular among radio amateurs. It’s a theme we’ve visited before with a more traditional key, and if you’d love to try but don’t know any Morse then perhaps this may help you learn.

Thanks [Kickaxe] for the tip.

Header image: Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Machine Learning System Uses Images To Teach Itself Morse Code

Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to learn a new language is immersion: just throw someone into a situation where they have no choice, and they’ll learn by context. Militaries use immersion language instruction, as do diplomats and journalists, and apparently computers can now use it to teach themselves Morse code.

The blog entry by the delightfully callsigned [Mauri Niininen (AG1LE)] reads like a scientific paper, with good reason: [Mauri] really seems to know a thing or two about machine learning. His method uses curated training data to build a model, namely Morse snippets and their translations, as is the usual approach with such systems. But things take an unexpected turn right from the start, as [Mauri] uses a Tensorflow handwriting recognition implementation to train his model.

Using a few lines of Python, he converts short, known snippets of Morse to a grayscale image that looks a little like a barcode, with the light areas being the dits and dahs and the dark bars being silence. The first training run only resulted in about 36% accuracy, but a subsequent run with shorter snippets ended up being 99.5% accurate. The model was also able to pull Morse out of a signal with -6 dB signal-to-noise ratio, even though it had been trained with a much cleaner signal.

Other Morse decoders use lookup tables to convert sound to text, but it’s important to note that this one doesn’t. By comparing patterns to labels in the training data, it inferred what the characters mean, and essentially taught itself Morse code in about an hour. We find that fascinating, and wonder what other applications this would be good for.

Thanks to [Gordon Shephard] for the tip.

Blue Pill Makes Cheap But Powerful Morse Tutor

[W8BH] attended a talk by another ham, [W8TEE] that showed a microcontroller sending and receiving Morse code. He decided to build his own, and documented his results in an 8 part tutorial. He’s using the Blue Pill board and the resulting device sends code with paddles, sends canned text, provides an LCD with a rotary knob menu interface, and even has an SD card for data storage.

All the code is on GitHub. If you are interested in Morse code or in learning how to write a pretty substantial application using the Blue Pill and the Arduino IDE (or any other similar processor), this is a great exposition that is also a practical tool.

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Imitating Art In Life With A Reverse-Engineered Tattoo

In general, tattoo artists are not electrical engineers. That’s fine; the world needs both professions. But when you need a circuit designed, you’re better off turning to an EE rather than a tattoo artist. And you certainly don’t want an EE doing your new ink. Disaster lies that way.

Surprisingly, [Missa]’s tattoo of a heart-shaped circuit turned out at least to be plausible design, even if it’s not clear what it’s supposed to do. So her friend [Jeremy Elson] took up the challenge to create a circuit that looked like the tattoo while actually doing something useful. He had to work around the results of tattoo artistic license, like sending traces off to the board’s edge and stranding surface-mount components without any traces. The artist had rendered an 8-pin DIP device, albeit somewhat proportionally challenged, so [Jeremy] went with an ATtiny85, threw on a couple of SMD resistors and a cap, and placed two LEDs for the necessary blinkenlights. Most of the SMDs are fed from traces on the back of the board that resurface through vias, and a small coin cell hidden on the back powers it. One LED blinks “Happy Birthday [Missa]” in Morse, while the other blinks prime numbers from 2 to 23 – we’ll assume this means it was [Missa]’s 23rd birthday.

There’s a surprising amount of crossover between the worlds of electronics and tattooing. We’ve featured functional temporary tattoo circuits, prison-expedient tattoo guns, and even a CNC tattoo machine.

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EBay Modules And Custom PCBs Make A Plug And Play Ham Transceiver

Many of us have fond memories of our introduction to electronics through the “200-in-1” sets that Radio Shack once sold, or even the more recent “Snap Circuits”-style kits. Most of eventually us move beyond these kits to design our circuits; still, there’s something to be said for modular designs. This complete amateur radio transceiver is a great example of that kind of plug and play construction.

The rig is the brainchild of [jmhrvy1947], who set out to build a complete transceiver using mostly eBay-sourced modules. Some custom PCBs are used, but those are simple boards that can be etched and drilled easily. The transceiver is only for continuous-wave (CW) use, which would normally mean you’d need to know Morse, but thanks to some clever modifications to open-source apps like Quisk and FLDigi, Morse can be received and sent directly from the desktop. That will no doubt raise some hackles, but we think it’s a great way to learn code. The rig is QRP, or low power, transmitting only 100 mW with the small power amp shown. Adding eBay modules can jack that up to a full 100 Watts, which also requires adding a 12-volt power supply, switchable low-pass filters, a buck-boost converter, and some bandpass filters for band selection. It ends up looking very experimental, but it works well enough to make contacts.

We really like the approach here, and the fact that the rig can be built in stages. That makes it a perfect project for our $50 Ham series, which just kicked off. Perhaps we’ll be seeing it again soon.

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