With laser cutters and 3D printers in our arsenal as well as the global toy shop of mass-produced parts and single-board computers, building a robotic project has almost never been easier. In times past though, there was more of a challenge, with a computer likely meaning a chunky desktop model and there being no plethora of motors at low prices, a robot arm required more ingenuity. [Marius Taciuc] shares with us an arm he built from the most minimal of parts back in 2003, and it’s a beautiful exercise in creative reuse.
The arm itself uses metal and FR4 for its structure, and borrows extensively from cassette tape mechanisms for motors and gears. The stronger motor for the forearm is a geared unit from a heating system, and to control all this, a relay board is hooked up to a computer’s parallel port. This last assembly is particularly ingenious, having no optocouplers handy he made his own by coupling LEDs to metal can transistors with their lids removed.
The arm was entered in a competition, and he relates a tale with which we’ll all be familiar — at the critical moment, it didn’t work. Fortunately a last-minute accidental covering of the board with a floppy disk solved the problem, as it turned out that enough light was leaking into those home-made optocouplers to trigger them. The prize was won not just on the strength of the arm, but on his explanation of the lessons learned along the way.
Given how fast technology is progressing, some consumer gadgets lend themselves to being replaced every few years. Mobile phones are a particularly good example of a device that you probably won’t want to hold onto for more than 4 years or so, with TVs not far behind them. On the other hand, something like a home alarm system can stay in the fight for decades. As long as it still goes off when somebody tries to pop a window, what more do you need?
Well if you’re like [Brett Laniosh], you might want the ability to arm the system and check its current status from your phone. But instead of getting a whole new system, he decided to upgrade his circa 1993 Gardiner Gardtec 800 alarm with an ESP32. As it so happens, the original panel has an expansion connector which he was able to tap into without making any modifications to the alarm itself. If you’ve got a similar panel, you might even be able to use his source code and circuit schematics to perform your own modification.
Now we know what you’re thinking. Surely there’s a risk involved when trusting an ESP32 connected to the Internet with the ability to disarm your home alarm system. [Brett] has considered this, and made sure that the web server running on the microcontroller can only be accessed from the local network. If he does want to connect from beyond WiFi range, he does so through a VPN. In other words, his code is never directly exposed to the wilds of the Internet and is always hiding behind some kind of encryption.
The WiFi connection allows [Brett] to arm and disarm the alarm system remotely, check if it’s been triggered, and reset it if necessary, all from his smartphone. But he’s also added in a 433 MHz receiver so he can use simple handheld fobs to arm the system if he doesn’t want to go through the phone. Even if you dropped out the Internet connectivity, this alone is a pretty nice upgrade.
Strolling around a park, pedestrian zone, or tourist area in any bigger city is rarely complete without encountering the sound of a barrel organ — the perfect instrument if arm stamina and steady rotation speed are your kind of musical skills. Its less-encountered cousin, and predecessor of self-playing pianos, is the barrel piano, which follows the same playing principle: a hand-operated crank rotates a barrel, and either pins located on that barrel, or punched paper rolls encode the strings it should pluck in order to play its programmed song. [gabbapeople] thought optocouplers would be the perfect alternative here, and built a MIDI barrel piano with them.
Keeping the classic, hand-operated wheel-cranking, a 3D-printed gear mechanism rolls a paper sheet over a plexiglas fixture, but instead of having holes punched into it, [gabbapeople]’s piano has simple markings printed on them. Those markings are read by a set of Octoliner modules mounted next to each other, connected to an Arduino. The Octoliner itself has eight pairs of IR LEDs and phototransistors arranged in a row, and is normally used to build line-following robots, so reading note markings is certainly a clever alternative use for it.
Each LED/transistor pair represents a dedicated note, and to prevent false positives from neighboring lines, [gabbapeople] 3D printed little collars to isolate each of the pairs. Once the signals are read by the Arduino, they’re turned into MIDI messages to send via USB to a computer running any type of software synthesizer. And if your hands do get tired, you can also crank it with a power drill, as shown in the video after the break, along with a few playback demonstrations.
It’s always fun to see a modern twist added to old-school instruments, especially the ones that aren’t your typical MIDI controllers, like a harp, a full-scale church organ, or of course the magnificently named hurdy-gurdy. And for more of [gabbapeople]’s work, check out his split-flip weather display.
Over the years we’ve seen several attempts at adding Internet connectivity to the lowly wired doorbell. Generally, these projects aim to piggyback on the existing wiring, bells, and buttons rather than replace them entirely. Which invariably means at some point the AC wiring is going to need to interface with a DC microcontroller. This is often where things get interesting, as it seems everyone has a different idea on how best to bridge these two systems.
That’s the point where [Ben Brooks] found himself not so long ago. While researching the best way to tap into the 20 VAC pumping through his doorbells, he found a forum post where somebody was experimenting with optocouplers. As is unfortunately so often the case, the forum thread never really had a conclusion, and it wasn’t clear if the original poster ever figured it out.
[Ben] liked the idea though, so he thought he would give it a shot. But before investing in real optocouplers, he created his own DIY versions to use as a proof of concept. He put a standard LED and photoresistor together with a bit of black tape, and connected the LED to the doorbell line with a resistor. Running the LED on 60 Hz AC meant it was flickering rapidly, but for the purposes of detecting if there was voltage on the line, it worked perfectly.
Wanting something slightly more professional for the final product, [Ben] eventually evolved his proof of concept to include a pair of 4N35s, a custom PCB, and a 3D printed enclosure. Powered by a Particle Xenon, the device uses IFTTT to fire off smartphone notifications and blink the lights in the house whenever somebody pushes the bell.
When we are concerned with the accurate reproduction of a signal, distortion and noise are the enemy that engineers spend a great deal of time eliminating wherever possible. However, humans being the imperfect creatures that we are, we sometimes desire a little waviness and grain in our media – typically of the analog variety, as the step changes of digital distortion can be quite painful. Tired of Instagram filters and wanting to take a different approach, [Patrick Pedersen] built the OptoGlitch – a hardware solution for analog distortion.
The concept of operation is simple – pixel values of a digital image are sent out by varying the intensity of an LED, and are then picked up by a photoresistor and redigitized. The redigitized image then bears a variety of distortion and noise effects due to the imperfect transmission process.
In the OptoGlitch hardware, the LED and photoresistor are intentionally left open to ambient light to further allow noise and distortion to happen during the transmission process. A variety of calibration methods are used to avoid the results being completely unrecognizable, and there are various timing and sampling parameters that can be used to alter the strength of the final effect.
Arduino 101 is getting an LED to flash. From there you have a world of options for control, from MOSFETs to relays, solenoids and motors, all kinds of outputs. Here, we’re going to take a quick look at some inputs. While working on a recent project, I realized the variety of options in sensing something as simple as whether a light is on or off. This is a fundamental task for any system that reacts to the world; maybe a sensor that detects when the washer has finished and sends a text message, or an automated chicken coop that opens and closes with the sun, or a beam break that notifies when a sister has entered your sacred space. These are some of the tools you might use to sense light around you.
Sometimes the best way to learn about a technology is to just build something yourself. That’s what [Dan] did with his DIY optoisolator. The purpose of an optoisolator is to allow two electrical systems to communicate with each other without being electrically connected. Many times this is done to prevent noise from one circuit from bleeding over into another.
[Dan] built his incredibly simple optoisolator using just a toilet paper tube, some aluminum foil, an LED, and a photo cell. The electrical components are mounted inside of the tube and the ends of the tube are sealed with foil. That’s all there is to it. To test the circuit, he configured an Arduino to send PWM signals to the LED inside the tube at various pulse widths. He then measured the resistance on the other side and graphed the resulting data. The result is a curve that shows the LED affects the sensor pretty drastically at first, but then gets less and less effective as the frequency of the signal increases.
[Dan] then had some more fun with his project by testing it on a simple temperature controller circuit. An Arduino reads a temperature sensor and if the temperature rises above a certain value, it turns on a fan to cool the sensor off again. [Dan] first graphed the sensor data with no fan hooked up. He only used ambient air to cool things down. The resulting graph is a pretty smooth curve. Next he hooked the fan up and tried again. This time the graph went all kinds of crazy. Every time the fan turned on, it created a bunch of electrical noise that prevented the Arduino from getting an accurate analog reading of the temperature sensor.
The third test was to remove the motor circuit and move it to its own bread board. The only thing connecting the Arduino circuit to the fan was a wire for the PWM signal and also a common ground. This smoothed out the graph but it was still a bit… lumpy. The final test was to isolate the fan circuit from the temperature sensor and see if it helped the situation. [Dan] hooked up his optoisolator and tried again. This time the graph was nice and smooth, just like the original graph.
While this technology is certainly not new or exciting, it’s always great to see someone learning by doing. What’s more is [Dan] has made all of his schematics and code readily available so others can try the same experiment and learn it for themselves.