The Future Of Fritzing Is Murky At Best

Fritzing is a very nice Open Source design tool for PCBs, electrical sketches, and schematics for designers and artists to move from a prototype to real hardware. Over the years, we’ve seen fantastic projects built with Fritzing. Fritzing has been the subject of books, lectures, and educational courses, and the impact of Fritzing has been huge. Open up a book on electronics from O’Reilly, and you’ll probably see a schematic or drawing created in Fritzing.

However, and there’s always a however, Fritzing is in trouble. The project is giving every appearance of having died. You can’t register on the site, you can’t update parts, the official site lacks HTTPS, the Twitter account has been inactive for 1,200 days, there have been no blog posts for a year, and the last commit to GitHub was on March 13th. There are problems, but there is hope: [Patrick Franken], one of the developers of Fritzing and the president of the PCB firm Aisler which runs the Fritzing Fab, recently gave a talk at FOSDEM concerning the future of Fritzing. (That’s a direct FTP download, so have fun).

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Open Source LIDAR Lets You Get Down To The Nitty Gritty

If you’re unfamiliar with LIDAR, you might have noticed it sounds a bit like radar. That’s no accident – LIDAR is a backronym standing for “light detection and ranging”, the word having initially been created as a combination of “light” and “radar”. The average person is most likely to have come into contact with LIDAR at the business end of a police speed trap, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Unruly is the open source LIDAR project you’ve been waiting for all along.

Unlike a lot of starter projects, LIDAR isn’t something you get into with a couple of salvaged LEDs and an Arduino Uno. We’re talking about measuring the time it takes light to travel relatively short distances, so plenty of specialised components are required. There’s a pulsed laser diode, and a special hypersensitive avalanche photodiode that operates at up to 130 V. These are combined with precision lenses and filters to ensure operation at the maximum range possible. Given that light can travel 300,000 km in a second, to get any usable resolution, a microcontroller alone simply isn’t fast enough to cut it here. A specialized  time-to-digital converter (TDC) is used to time how long it takes the light pulse to return from a distant object. Unruly’s current usable resolution is somewhere in the ballpark of 10 mm – an impressive feat.

It’s a complicated project, requiring the utmost attention to detail to get any results at all. The team behind Unruly have done a great job of both designing and documenting the project. It’s great to see an open source LIDAR package in the wild, giving hackers more options than just the pre-baked commercial modules on the market. We can’t wait to see where the project goes next.

For more on LIDAR, check out last week’s Hackaday podcast – we cover Unruly, as well as a handful of other standout projects in the field.

ULX3S: An Open-Source Lattice ECP5 FPGA PCB

The hackers over at Radiona.org, a Zagreb Makerspace, have been hard at work designing the ULX3S, an open-source development board for LATTICE ECP5 FPGAs. This board might help make 2019 the Year of the Hacker FPGA, whose occurrence has been predicted once again after not quite materializing in 2018. Even a quick look at the board and the open-source development surrounding it hints that this time might be different.

Bottom side of ULX3S PCB

The ULX3S was developed primarily as an educational tool for undergraduate-level digital logic classes. As such, it falls into the “kitchen sink” category of FPGA boards, which include a comprehensive suite of peripherals and devices for development, as opposed to more bare-bones FPGA breakouts. The board includes 32 MB SDRAM, WiFi via an ESP-32 (supporting over-the-air update), a connector for an SPI OLED display, USB, HDMI, a microSD slot, eight channels of 12-bit ADC (1 MS/s), a real-time-clock, 56 GPIO pins, six buttons, 11 LEDs, and an onboard antenna for 433 MHz FM/ASK. This seems like a great set of I/Os for both students and anyone else starting FPGA development.

The ULX3S supports members of the Lattice ECP5 FPGA family, ranging from the 12F (12 k LUTs) to the 85F (84 k LUTs). What can you do with this much FPGA horsepower? Have a look at the long list of examples curated in the ULX3S Links repo. There, you’ll find code from retro-computing to retro-gaming, the usual LED and HDMI demos, and even Linux running on a mor1kx OpenRISC core. Maybe the most interesting links in the repo, however, are those that show how to program the FPGA with a completely open-source toolchain. Proprietary toolchains are the last link keeping some vendor’s FPGAs from wider adoption in the OSHW community, and it’s great to see people chipping away at them.

The board itself is completely open-source. In the GitHub repo, you’ll find the KiCAD 5 design files for the PCB released under an MIT-style license. Even more impressive is the advice in the README, which not only welcomes independent production of the boards, but gives some solid advice on dealing with PCBA vendors during manufacture. Our own advice is to do the right thing and offer the developers a cut if you decide to independently market this board, even though you aren’t required to by the license. If want one, but don’t want to manufacture your own, you can contact the developers using the email or gitter links at the bottom of the ULX3S page: they’re currently doing a small production run.

The Radiona Org folks have created a few videos showcasing example code. Check out how the on-board ESP-32 runs a web server that can load bitstreams into the FPGA (in this case for some retro-gaming), after the break.

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Open Source Company Gives Us A Peek At Financial Innards

Here at Hackaday we are willing to bet that in a universe free of all monetary constraints, many of our readers would leave their day jobs in order to pursue their hardware hobbies full time. Obviously this is only practical for a lucky minority of people (for a wide variety of reasons) but we’re willing to bet that a significant stumbling block is figuring how to do it in the first place. You quit your job, but then what? If more information about starting and sustaining small hardware business’ was available more people would take the plunge to start one. There are software companies with salary transparency but this is only part of the picture and we can’t think of many hardware companies that offer the same. What we really want is to get an image of the entire business end to end; from suppliers to COGS to salary. And we want to see it for hardware.

Years ago the first and second Hackaday Prizes captured an entrant named FarmBot whose goal was to build open source robotic farming equipment to make it easier for anyone to grow their own food. A few successful Kickstarters and years later they’ve been shipped multiple versions of the Genesis and Genesis XL robotic farming system and have a sustainable business! And now they’ve decided to open source their business operations too. Suffice to say, this provides quite an uncommon view into the guts of what makes a small open source hardware business tick. Let’s take a closer look!

There is a wealth of information exposed in the company documentation; it’s as though they took their internal wiki and made it public, which we suppose is exactly what happened. The most interesting part for our readers might be the statistics page that tracks costs and quantities for their products. This is where the magic lives. You can use to it see that so far they’ve sold 124 Genesis XL machines at an average selling price of $3,834.34 for $475,458.30 of revenue (it cost $187,200 to build their run of 200 machines). You can also see that each machine has 1,415 parts and takes about 25 hours to assemble. This page is where the true guts of the business live.

Everything else is here too. Here’s where you can learn about what vendors FarmBot uses use logistics, or power, or web infrastructure monitoring. And this is the page with the infamous salary calculation formulas if you want to guess what you’d make as an employee. Then there’s a bunch of boring but important stuff. Fulfillment processes live here, and the consumables they use to support that fulfillment are listed here (with costs!).

One reason we enjoy open source so much is that it affords a wonderful opportunity for people to learn instead of keeping the important parts of a product or process perpetually under wraps. We’re hoping that documentation like this becomes more prevalent and foster an explosion of small hardware companies to follow it.

Lenses For DIY Augmented Reality Will Get a Bit Less Unobtainable

You may remember that earlier this year Leap Motion revealed Project North Star, a kind of open-source reference design for an Augmented Reality (AR) headset. While it’s not destined to make high scores in the fashion department, it aims to be hacker-friendly and boasts a large field of view. There’s also an attractive element of “what you see is what you get” when it comes to the displays and optical design, which is a good thing for hackability. Instead of everything residing in a black box, the system uses two forward-facing displays (one for each eye) whose images are bounced off curved reflective lenses. These are essentially semitransparent mirrors which focus the images properly while also allowing the wearer to see both the displays and the outside world at the same time. This co-existence of both virtual and real-world visuals are a hallmark of Augmented Reality.

A serious setback to the aspiring AR hacker has been the fact that while the design is open, the lenses absolutely are not off the shelf components. [Smart Prototyping] aims to change that, and recently announced in a blog post that they will be offering Project North Star-compatible reflective lenses. They’re in the final stages of approving manufacture, and listed pre-orders for the lenses in their store along with downloadable 3D models for frames.

When Leap Motion first announced their open-source AR headset, we examined the intruiguing specifications and the design has since been published to GitHub.  At the time, we did note that the only option for the special lenses seemed to be to CNC them and then spring for a custom reflective coating.

If the lenses become affordable and mass-produced, that would make the design much more accessible. In addition, anyone wanting to do their own experiments with near-eye displays or HUDs would be able to use the frame and lenses as a basis for their own work, and that’s wonderful.

Maze Generator Keeps Plotter (and Kids) Busy

We can tell that [Jon Howell] is our kind of guy. After updating his vintage 1985 Hewlett-Packard plotter with WiFi and the ability to load SVG files, he obviously needed to find a bunch of stuff to run off with it. Gotta justify those hacks somehow. So he doubled down and decided support a hack with another hack by writing a maze generator to keep his plotter well fed. He was kind enough to unleash his creation on an unsuspecting Internet as an open source project, and now we all can benefit from a couple of reams worth of mazes.

The generator itself is written in Java, and should work on whatever operating system your box happens to be running thanks to the *nix and Windows wrapper scripts [Jon] provides. To create a basic maze, one simply needs to provide the script with the desired dimensions and the paper size. You can define the type of paper with either standard sizes (such as --paper a4) or in the case of a plotter with explicit dimensions (--paper 36x48in).

If you aren’t a big fan of right angles, there’s support for changing the internal geometry of the maze to use a hexagonal or triangle grid. You can even pass the program a black and white PNG “mask” which it will use as the boundaries for the maze itself, allowing for personalized puzzles of whatever shape catches your fancy. [Jon] even ran the Wrencher though his software, leading to the creation of a maze which we can neither confirm nor deny will be making an appearance on our Christmas cards this year.

Whether you need to prove to your significant other that the hours you spent fiddling with your plotter are well spent, or an easy way to entertain the junior humans in your life, you can thank [Jon] for your solution.

Replace Legacy CNC PCs With A Gerbil

There are lots of laser cutters and other CNC machines available for a decent price online, but the major hurdle to getting these machines running won’t be the price or the parts. It’s usually the controller PC, which might be running Windows XP or NT if you’re lucky, but some of them are still using IBM XT computers from the ’80s. Even if the hardware in these machines is working, it might be impossible to get the software, and even then it will be dated and lacking features of modern computers. Enter the Super Gerbil.

[Paul] was able to find a laser cutter with one of these obsolete controllers, but figured there was a better way to getting it running again. As the name suggests, it uses GRBL, a G-Code parser and CNC controller software package that was originally made to run on an 8-bit AVR microcontroller, but [Paul] designed the Super Gerbil to run on a 32 bit ARM platform. He also added Z-axis control to it, so it now sports more degrees of freedom than the original software.

By way of a proof of concept, once he was finished building the Super Gerbil he ordered a CNC machine from China with an obsolete controller and was able to get it running within a day. As an added bonus, he made everything open so there are no license fees or cloud storage requirements if you want to use his controller. [Paul] also has a Kickstarter page for this project as well. Hopefully controllers haven’t been the only thing stopping you from getting a CNC machine for your lab, though, but if they have you now have a great solution for a 3040 or 3020 CNC machine’s controller, or any other CNC machine you might want to have. Continue reading “Replace Legacy CNC PCs With A Gerbil”