You Wouldn’t Download A Nuclear Reactor, But Could You?

By pretty much any metric you care to use, the last couple of decades has been very good for the open source movement. There was plenty of pushback in the early days, back when the only people passionate about the idea were the Graybeards in the IT department. But as time went on, more and more developers and eventually companies saw the benefit of sharing what they were working on. Today, open source is effectively the law of the land in many fields, and you don’t have to look far to find the community openly denouncing groups who are keeping their source under lock and key.

The open source submarine that won 2017 Hackaday Prize.

In the last few years, we’ve even seen the idea gain traction in the hardware field. While it’s not nearly as prevalent as opening up the software side of things, today it’s not uncommon to see hardware schematics and PCB design files included in project documentation. So not only can you download an open source operating system, web browser, and office suite, but you can also pull down all the information you need to build everything from a handheld game system to an autonomous submarine.

With so many projects pulling back the curtain, it’s not unreasonable to wonder where the limits are. There’s understandably some concerns about the emerging field of biohacking, and anyone with a decent 3D printer can download the files necessary to produce a rudimentary firearm. Now that the open source genie is out of the bottle, it seems there’s precious little that you can’t download from your favorite repository.

Scratching an exceptionally surprising entry off that list is Transatomic, who late last year uploaded the design for their TAP-520 nuclear reactor to GitHub. That’s right, now anyone with git, some uranium, and a few billion dollars of seed money can have their very own Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). Well, that was the idea at least.

So six months after Transatomic dumped a little under 100 MB worth of reactor documentation on GitHub, is the world any closer to forkable nuclear power? Let’s find out.

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The Solderdoodle Open Source Iron Rides Again

Over the last year or so, cordless portable soldering irons have become all the rage. In fact, at this point a good number of Hackaday readers out there have likely traded in their full-size AC irons for a DC iron that’s only slightly larger than a pen. But before the big boom in portable irons, in the ye olden days of 2014, we brought you word of the open source Solderdoodle created by [Isaac Porras]. Based upon the Weller BP645 and featuring a 3D printed case, the DIY iron was designed to be charged from a standard USB port.

Now, [Isaac] is back with an updated version he calls the Solderdoodle Plus. It’s still based on the heating element from the Weller BP645, but now boasts twice the power, an improved 3D printed case, an intuitive touch-based user interface, and even some LED blinkenlights for good measure. As with the original Solderdoodle the hardware and software for the device are open source and you’re invited to build your own, though kits are also available through an already fully-funded Kickstarter campaign.

[Isaac] says that the temperature control functions on traditional corded soldering irons waste energy due to the large thermal mass they have to bring up to temperature. But with less thermal mass and a system of variable duty cycle pulsed power, he says the Solderdoodle Plus can do the same work as an old-school 60 watt iron while only consuming 10 watts. This allows the iron to maintain a constant 500°C for over an hour on the dual internal Panasonic NCR18500A lithium-ion batteries, and means you can charge it up with nothing more exotic than a micro USB cable.

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Open Hardware Board For Robust USB Power Monitoring

We’ve all seen the little USB power meters that have become popular since nearly every portable device has adopted some variation of USB for charging. Placed between the power source and the device under test, they allow you to see voltage and current in real time. Perfect for determining how long you’ll be able to run a USB powered device on batteries, or finding out if a USB power supply has enough current to do the business.

[Jonas Persson] liked the idea of these cheap little gadgets, but wanted something a bit more scientific. His design, which he refers to as UPM, is essentially a “smart” version of those ubiquitous USB gadgets. Instead of just showing the data on a little LCD screen, it can now be viewed on the computer and analyzed. His little gadget even allows you to cut power to the device under test, potentially allowing for automated testing of things such as inrush current.

Essentially the UPM works in much the same way as the simple USB meters: one side of the device goes towards the upstream power source, and the device under test plugs into the other side. Between the two devices is a 16 bit ADC and differential amplifier which measures the voltage and current. There’s a header on the board which connects to the ADC if you wanted to connect the UPM to an external microcontroller or other data logging device.

But most likely you would be using the internal microcontroller to analyze the output of the ADC over I2C, which [Jonas] very cleverly connected to the upstream port with an integrated USB hub. One side of the hub goes off to the device being tested, and the other to the microcontroller. So the host device will see both the UPM’s integrated microcontroller and the target device at the same time. From there, you can use the ncurses user interface to monitor and control the device in real-time.

While the hardware looks more or less finished, [Jonas] has some more plans for the software side of UPM, including support for remote control and monitoring over TCP/IP as well as robust logging capabilities. This is definitely a very interesting project, and we’re excited to see it develop further.

In the past we’ve seen homebrew USB power meter builds, and even commercial offerings which boasted computer-based logging and analysis, so it was only a matter of time before somebody combined them into one.

Dexter Robotic Arm Wins The 2018 Hackaday Prize

Dexter, an open-source, high-precision, trainable robotic arm has just been named the Grand Prize winner of the 2018 Hackaday Prize. The award for claiming the top place in this nine-month global engineering initiative is $50,000. Four other top winners were also named during this evening’s Hackaday Prize Ceremony, held during the Hackaday Superconference in Pasadena, California.

This year’s Hackaday Prize featured challenges with five different themes. Entrants were asked to show their greatest Open Hardware Design, to build a Robotics Module, to design a Power Harvesting Module, to envision a Human Computer Interface, or to invent a new Musical Instrument. Out of 100 finalists, the top five are covered below. Over $200,000 in cash prizes have been distributed as part of this year’s initiative where thousands of hardware hackers, makers and artists compete to build a better future.

Dexter: High Precision Robotic Arm

Dexter is the Grand Prize winner of the 2018 Hackaday Prize. This remarkable robotic arm design brings many aspects of high-end automation to an open source design which you can utilize and adapt for your own needs. In addition to impressive precision, the design is trainable — you can move the joints of the arm and record the motion for playback.

The image here shows position data from one arm being moved by a human, controlling another arm in real time. Each joint utilizes a clever encoder design made up of a wheel with openings for UV sensors. Sensing is more than merely “on/off”. It tracks the change in light intensity through each opening for even greater granularity. The parallel nature of an FPGA is used to process this positioning data in real time.

Hack a $35 Wearable to Build Mental Health Devices

Manufacturing custom electronics is a tricky, costly, and time-consuming process. What if you could sidestep most of that by starting with a powerful, proven consumer good that is modified to your specifications? This project takes existing fitness trackers and customizes the hardware and software to become sensor suites for mental health research. Dig into this one and see how they can help patients become aware of unconscious behaviors (like trichotillomania which is compulsive hair pulling) and change them over time.

Portal Point Generator

This project focuses on an alternative power source for times when traditional infrastructure is not functioning or simply not available. You may be familiar with generators made using DC motors. The Portal Point Generator replicates that simplicity, but goes beyond with instructions for building the generator itself for far greater efficiency. A winding jig is used to make the coils which are placed inside of the 3D printed generator parts along with permanent magnets to complete the build. Here you can see it in testing as a wind generator in Antarctica, but it is easily adapted to other applications like using water wheels.


There is a body of research that suggest a link between cardiac cycle and anxiety-producing visuals; you may have a different emotional reaction to the things you see based on what part of a heartbeat is occurring when your brain process information from your eyes. This could have profound implications in areas like PTSD research. EmotiGlass uses LCD screens to selectively block the wearer’s vision. This can be synchronized with heat beat, avoiding the instant where a negative emotional response is most likely. Think of them as 3D shutter glasses for mental health research.

PR-Holonet: Disaster Area Emergency Comms

Recovering from natural disasters is an enormous challenge. The infrastructure that supports the community is no longer in place and traditional communications simply cease to exist. PR-Holonet was inspired by the recovery process after hurricanes in Puerto Rico. It leverages the availability of commercial electronics, solar power sources, and enclosures to build a communications system that can be deployed and operated without the need for specialized training. Once in place, local devices using WiFi can utilize text-based communications transferred via satellite.

Congratulations to all who entered the 2018 Hackaday Prize. Taking time to apply your skill and experience to making the world better is a noble pursuit. It doesn’t end with the awarding of a prize. We have the ability to change lives by supporting one another, improving on great ideas, and sharing the calling to Build Something that Matters.

The New, Improved Open Hardware Certification Program

Today at the Open Hardware Summit at MIT, OSHWA, the Open Source Hardware Association has announced a huge revision to the Open Hardware certification process. The goal here is to design a better platform for creating Open Hardware.

While all hardware already certified as Open Hardware will remain Open Hardware, this revamp of the ‘hub’ of the certification process is greatly improved. There’s a new website. There are learning modules telling everyone what it means to be Open Source hardware. There are community examples — real-life walk-throughs of projects that have already been created. There’s a streamlined certification process, and an improved listing of Open Hardware projects.

But Why A Certification Program?

While Open Source in the world of software is easily defined, it is effectively a hack of copyright law; all software is closed by default, and an Open Source software license is merely that; a license for anyone to use it, with the various restrictions and philosophical battles. Hardware, on the other hand, is big-O Open by default. The code used to program an FPGA is covered by copyright, but the circuit itself isn’t. The firmware on your Arduino project is covered by Open Source software licenses, but the physical implementation of your Fritzing picture isn’t.

In the absence of a legal framework to truly make an Open Hardware license work, the only other option is a certification program. The current Open Source Hardware certification program launched in 2016, and has since seen hundreds of projects certified from dozens of countries. It is, by any measure, a remarkable success. The people who make hardware are certifying that their work complies with community-set standards, and all of these projects are registered.

The New, Improved Interface for the Certification Program

While the core of the Open Hardware Certification program hasn’t changed, the user interface — the ‘killer app’ of a directory of Open Hardware projects — has. According to the press release put out by OSHWA ahead of the announcement, “The revamped website consolidates a broad range of information about open source hardware onto a single site. To maximize comprehension for people pursuing certification for their own hardware, important documentation and licensing concepts are illustrated with specific existing examples from the registry. An improved directory and search function makes it easy to find hardware that matches a broad range of criteria.”

Compared to last week’s version of OSHWA’s website, this is a huge improvement. Now, you can easily find information about what it means to make Open Hardware. The complete directory of Open Hardware projects isn’t just a spreadsheet on a webpage anymore, you can actually search for projects now. This is a huge improvement to the Open Hardware certification program, and we can’t wait to see how this new platform will be used.

You can check out the rest of the Open Hardware Summit over on the livestream.

The Exquisite Badges Of Open Hardware Summit

The past few years have been all about electronic conference badges and this year is no different. Right now, we’re setting up at the Open Hardware Summit at MIT, and this year’s badge is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s a WiFi and Bluetooth-enabled e-paper badge, individually programmed for every attendee. The 2018 Open Hardware Summit badge is a work of art, and it was all created over on

This board is based on the ESP trINKet designed by [Mike Rankin] with additional hardware design from [Alex Camilo]. The badge is based around the ESP32-wroom-32 module with a 2.13 inch e-paper display with a resolution of 250 x 122 pixels. To this, the badge adds an I2C accelerometer and support for add-ons. There’s also pads for an SD card holder — a soldering challenge, if you will — and few additional pads for bits and bobs.

But a badge is nothing without software, and that’s where this really gets good. The ESP32 module is a powerhouse, capable of emulating NES games or serving as a file server. Here, the stock configuration of the badge is rather simplistic: you can start a WiFi AP, log onto a web page, and change the name displayed on the badge. You can also start an FTP server, which is where things get really fun. Drop an application on that FTP server, and you can run Micro Python.

The badge is great, but the programming jig is awesome

The boards were made through OSH Park, and Screaming Circuits took care of the assembly. Anyone who has ever built a badge will tell you it isn’t the assembly that gets you — it’s the programming and provisioning. This is especially true since the Open Hardware Summit badge is distributed with the attendee’s names already preloaded. That’s a few hundred badges, all with unique firmware. This is a nightmare by any definition.

However, there’s always a good solution to a problem, and [Drew] from OSH Park showed me the best programming jig I’ve ever seen during the Summit pre-game at Artisan’s Asylum.

What you’re looking at is a 3D printed box loaded up with a touch-screen display, a Raspberry Pi Zero W, and a few pogo pins. This Raspberry Pi does all the heavy lifting by connecting to the Internet, pulling down the current version of the firmware, and loading that firmware onto the badge. There are a few more options thanks to the touch-screen interface, including provisioning all the badges with the names of the attendees — this can be done by reading a list of attendees and uploading the next one to the badge in the jig. All of this is wrapped up with a nice laser-cut cover that securely holds each badge exactly where it needs to be for the pogo pins to make contact.

This is, without question, the best programming jig I’ve seen. Any badge makers out there should take note: this is how you program a few hundred badges. The badge, itself, is great and just as this post is published there will be hundreds of eager hackers futzing about with this remarkable piece of hardware. If you want to check out the current progress of the badge hacking, check out the updates on Twitter

A Fully Open Source Raspberry Pi Synthesizer

Have you ever seen something and instantly knew it was something you wanted, even though you weren’t aware it existed a few seconds ago? That’s how we felt when we received a tip about Zynthian, a fully open source (hardware and software) synthesizer. You can buy the kit online directly from the developers, or build your own from scratch using their documentation and source code. With a multitude of filters, effects, engines, and essentially unlimited upgrade potential, they’re calling it a “Swiss Army Knife of Synthesis”. We’re inclined to agree.

At the most basic level, the Zynthian is a Raspberry Pi 3 with a touch screen, a few rotary encoders, a dedicated sound card, and MIDI support. Software wise the biggest feature is arguably the real-time Linux kernel for the lowest latency possible. There’s also a custom web interface so you can control the Zynthian from another machine on the network if you want. As a matter of course, it also includes a wide array of pre-installed audio packages to experiment and create with.

Kits are offered at various prices from $420 USD for the top of the line model down to unpopulated PCBs for a few bucks. We like that they broke things down this way; allowing users of various skill (and or patience) to pay what they want. If you just want to buy the custom boards and roll your own case and Pi solution, you can do that.

If you want to go all in, you can build one entirely from scratch as well. Everything from the CAD files for the case to their custom rotary encoder library is completely open (most licensed under GPL v3) for anyone to use however they see fit. There’s even a page in the wiki for listing hardware which isn’t officially supported by the project, but remain as options for those looking to cut their own path.

Synthesizers are a fairly popular hacker project, from Google’s AI-powered version to single chip exercises in frugality. If you want to learn even more about the fine line between digital noise and music, check out this fantastic series by our very own [Elliot Williams].

[Thanks to Mynasru for the tip.]

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