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Hackaday Links: May 15, 2022

It may be blurry and blotchy, but it’s ours. The first images of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy were revealed this week, and they caused quite a stir. You may recall the first images of the supermassive black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy from a couple of years ago: spectacular images that captured exactly what all the theories said a black hole should look like, or more precisely, what the accretion disk and event horizon should look like, since black holes themselves aren’t much to look at. That black hole, dubbed M87*, is over 55 million light-years away, but is so huge and so active that it was relatively easy to image. The black hole at the center of our own galaxy, Sagittarius A*, is comparatively tiny — its event horizon would fit inside the orbit of Mercury — a much closer at only 26,000 light-years or so. But, our black hole is much less active and obscured by dust, so imaging it was far more difficult. It’s a stunning technical achievement, and the images are certainly worth checking out.

Another one from the “Why didn’t I think of that?” files — contactless haptic feedback using the mouth is now a thing. This comes from the Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie-Mellon and is intended to provide an alternative to what ends up being about the only practical haptic device for VR and AR applications — vibrations from off-balance motors. Instead, this uses an array of ultrasonic transducers positioned on a VR visor and directed at the user’s mouth. By properly driving the array, pressure waves can be directed at the lips, teeth, and tongue of the wearer, providing feedback for in-world events. The mock game demonstrated in the video below is a little creepy — not sure how many people enjoyed the feeling of cobwebs brushing against the face or the splatter of spider guts in the mouth. Still, it’s a pretty cool idea, and we’d like to see how far it can go.

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Bend It Like (Sonar) Beacon With A Phased Array

Ultrasonic transducers are incredible, with them you can detect distances, as well as levitate and peer through objects. They can emit and receive ultrasonic soundwaves (typically above 18khz) and just like all waves, they can be steered via a phased array. [Bitluni] was trying to accurately measure distances but found the large field of view of the sensor was just too imprecise, so he made a phased array of transducers.

The inspiration came from a Hackaday Supercon talk from 2019 about phased arrays. [Bitluni] walks through an excellent explanation of how the array works with a bucket of water and his finger, as well as a separate simulation. By changing the phase offset of the different array members, the beam can effectively be steered as interference muffs the undesired waves. Using a set of solenoids, he created a test bench to validate his idea in a medium he could see; water. The solenoids fire a single pulse into the water creating a wave. You can see the wave move in the correct direction in the water, which validates the concept. A simple PCB sent off to a fab house with a stencil offers a surface to solder the transducers and drivers onto. An ESP32 drives the 8 PWM signals that go to the transmitters and reads in the single receiver via a small amplifier. Still not content to let the idea be unproven, he sets up the receiver on his CNC gantry and plots the signal strength at different points, yielding beautiful “heat maps.”
bitluni's heatmap for his sonar array

It sweeps a 60-degree field in front of it at around 1-3 frames per second. As you might imagine, turning sound wave reflections into distance fields is a somewhat noisy affair. He projects the sonar display on top of what we can see in the camera and it is fun to see the blobs line up in the correct spot.

We noticed he built quite a few boards, perhaps in the future, he will scale it up like this 100 transducer array? Video after the break.

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Directional Antenna 3-Way

If you read old antenna books, you’ll probably see the idea of phased vertical antennas. These use certain lengths of coax to control the phase of a signal going to three verticals in a triangular configuration. Depending on the phasing, you can cause the array of antennas to be directional in one of three directions. [DX Commander] designed a very modern version of this antenna and shows the theory behind it in a recent video that you can see below.

It seems another ham built the antenna and a control box for it which he’s sent to [DX Commander] although he hasn’t set it up yet to create an 80 meter directional antenna. We’ll be interested in seeing how it works in practice.

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Ultrasonic spirit writing

Ultrasonic Array Powers This Halloween Spirit Writer

The spooky season is upon us, and with it the race to come up with the geekiest way to scare the kids. Motion-activated jump-scare setups are always a crowd-pleaser, but kind of a cheap thrill in our opinion. So if you’re looking for something different for your Halloween scare-floor, you might consider “spirit writing” with ultrasound.

The idea that [Dan Beaven] has here is a variation on the ultrasonic levitation projects we’ve seen so many of over the last couple of years. While watching bits of styrofoam suspended in midair by the standing waves generated by carefully phased arrays of ultrasonic transducers is cool, [Dan] looks set to take the concept to the next level. Very much still a prototype, the setup has a 256-transducer matrix suspended above a dark surface. Baking powder is sprinkled over the writing surface to stand in for dust, which is easily disturbed by the sound waves reflecting off the hard surface. The array can be controlled to make it look like an unseen hand is tracing out a design in the dust, and the effect is pretty convincing. We’d have chosen “REDRUM” rather than a pentagram, but different strokes.

[Dan] obviously has a long way to go before this is ready for the big night, but the proof-of-concept is sound. While we wait for the finished product, we’ll just file this away as a technique that might have other applications. SMD components are pretty small and light, after all — perhaps an ultrasonic pick-and-place? In which case, sonic tweezers might be just the thing.

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Hackaday Links: July 4, 2021

With rescue and recovery efforts at the horrific condo collapse in Florida this week still underway, we noted with interest some of the technology being employed on the site. Chief among these was a contribution of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), whose secretive Unit 9900 unveiled a 3D imaging system to help locate victims trapped in the rubble. The pictures look very much like the 3D “extrusions” that show up on Google Maps when you zoom into a satellite view and change the angle, but they were obviously built up from very recent aerial or satellite photos that show the damage to the building. The idea is to map where parts of the building — and unfortunately, the building’s occupants — ended up in the rubble pile, allowing responders to concentrate their efforts on the areas most likely to hold victims. The technology, which was developed for precision targeting of military targets, has apparently already located several voids in the debris that weren’t obvious to rescue teams. Here’s hoping that the system pays off, and that we get to learn a little about how it works.

Radio enthusiasts, take note: your hobby may just run you afoul of authorities if you’re not careful. That seems to be the case for one Stanislav Stetsenko, a resident of Crimea who was arrested on suspicion of treason this week. Video of the arrest was posted which shows the equipment Stetsenko allegedly used to track Russian military aircraft on behalf of Ukraine: several SDR dongles, a very dusty laptop running Airspy SDR#, an ICOM IC-R6 portable communications receiver, and various maps and charts. In short, it pretty much looks like what I can see on my own desk right now. We know little of the politics around this, but it does give one pause to consider how non-technical people view those with technical hobbies.

If you could choose a superpower to suddenly have, it really would take some careful consideration. Sure, it would be handy to shoot spider webs or burst into flames, but the whole idea of some kind of goo shooting out of your wrists seems gross, and what a nuisance to have to keep buying new clothes after every burn. Maybe just teaching yourself a new sense, like echolocation, would be a better place to start. And as it turns out, it’s not only possible for humans to echolocate, but it’s actually not that hard to learn. Researchers used a group of blind and sighted people for the test, ranging in age from 21 to 79 years, and put them through a 10-week training program to learn click-based echolocation. After getting the basics of making the clicks and listening for the returns in an anechoic chamber, participants ran through a series of tasks, like size and orientation discrimination of objects, and virtual navigation. The newly minted echolocators were also allowed out into the real world to test their skills. Three months after the study, the blind participants had mostly retained their new skill, and most of them were still using it and reported that it had improved their quality of life.

As with everything else he’s involved with, Elon Musk has drawn a lot of criticism for his Starlink satellite-based internet service. The growing constellation of satellites bothers astronomers, terrestrial ISPs are worried the service will kill their business model, and the beta version of the Starlink dish has been shown to be flakey in the summer heat. But it’s on equipment cost where Musk has taken the most flak, which seems unfair as the teardowns we’ve seen clearly show that the phased-array antenna in the Starlink dish is being sold for less than it costs to build. But still, Musk is assuring the world that Starlink home terminals will get down in the $250 to $300 range soon, and that the system could have 500,000 users within a year. There were a couple of other interesting insights, such as where Musk sees Starlink relative to 5G, and how he’s positioning Starlink to provide backhaul services to cellular companies.

Well, this is embarrassing. Last week, we mentioned that certain unlucky users of an obsolete but still popular NAS device found that their data had disappeared, apparently due to malefactors accessing the device over the internet and forcing a factory reset. Since this seems like something that should require entering a password, someone took a look at the PHP script for the factory restore function and found that a developer had commented out the very lines that would have performed the authentication:

    function get($urlPath, $queryParams=null, $ouputFormat='xml'){
//        if(!authenticateAsOwner($queryParams))
//        {
//            header("HTTP/1.0 401 Unauthorized");
//            return;
//        }

It’s not clear when the PHP script was updated, but support for MyBook Live was dropped in 2015, so this could have been a really old change. Still, it was all the hacker needed to get in and wreak havoc; interestingly, the latest attack may be a reaction to a three-year-old exploit that turned many of these devices into a botnet. Could this be a case of hacker vs. hacker?

Starlink Satellite Dish X-Rayed To Unlock RF Magic Inside

When [Kenneth Keiter] took apart his Starlink dish back in November, he did his best to explain the high-level functionality of the incredibly complex device in a video posted to his YouTube channel. It was a fascinating look at the equipment, but by his own admission, he wasn’t the right person to try and explain the nuances of how the phased array actually functioned. But he knew who could do the technology justice, which is why he shipped the dismembered dish over to [Shahriar Shahramian] of The Signal Path.

Don’t be surprised if you can’t quite wrap your head around his detailed analysis after your first viewing. You’ll probably have a few lingering questions after the second re-watch as well. But that’s OK, as [Shahriar] still has a few of his own. Even after cutting out a section of the dish and putting it under an X-ray, it’s still not completely clear how the SpaceX engineers managed to cram everything into such a tidy package. Though there seems to be no question that the $500 price for the early-access hardware is an absolute steal, all things considered.

The layered antenna works on multiple frequencies.

Most of the video is spent examining the stacked honeycomb construction of the phased antenna array, which as expected, holds a number of RF secrets if you know what to look for. Put simply, there’s no such thing as an insignificant detail to the trained eye. From the carefully sized injection molded spacer sheet that keeps the upper array a specific distance from the RF4-like radome, to the almost microscopic holes that have been bored through each floating patch to maintain equalized air pressure through the stack up, [Shahriar] picks up on fascinating details which might otherwise seem like arbitrary design decisions.

But a visual inspection will only get you so far. Eventually [Shahriar] has to cut out a slice of the PCB so he can fit it into the X-ray machine, but don’t feel too bad, the dish was long dead before he got his hands on it. While he hasn’t yet completed his full analysis, an initial examination indicates that each large IC and the eight chips surrounding it make up a 16 channel beam forming module. Each channel is further split into two RX and TX pairs, which provides the necessary right and left hand polarization. That said, he admits there’s some room for interpretation and that further work would be necessary before any hard conclusions could be made.

Between this RF analysis and the initial overview provided by [Kenneth], we’ve already learned a lot more about this device than many might have expected considering how rare and expensive the hardware is. While we admit it’s not immediately clear what kind of hijinks hardware hackers could get into once this device is fully understood, we’re certainly eager to find out.

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Literally Tearing Apart A SpaceX Starlink Antenna

While SpaceX’s constellation of Starlink satellites is nowhere near its projected final size, the company has enough of the birds zipping around in low Earth orbit to start a limited testing period they call the Better Than Nothing Beta. If you’re lucky enough to get selected, you have to cough up $500 for the hardware and another $100 a month for the service. Despite the fairly high bar for getting your hands on one, [Kenneth Keiter] decided to sacrifice his Starlink dish to the teardown Gods.

We say sacrifice because [Kenneth] had to literally destroy the dish to get a look inside. It doesn’t appear that you can realistically get into the exceptionally thin antenna array without pulling it all apart, thanks in part to preposterous amount of adhesive that holds the structural back plate onto the PCB. The sky-facing side of the phased array, the key element that allows the antenna to track the rapidly moving Starlink satellites as they pass overhead, is also laminated to a stack-up comprised of plastic hexagonal mesh layers, passive antenna elements, and the outer fiberglass skin. In short, there are definitely no user-serviceable parts inside.

The dish hides many secrets under its skin.

Beyond attempting to analyze the RF magic that’s happening inside the antenna, [Kenneth] also takes viewers through a tour of some of the more recognizable components of the PCB; picking out things like the Power over Ethernet magnetics, a GPS receiver, some flash storage, and the H-Bridge drivers used to control the pan and tilt motors in the base of the dish.

It also appears that the antenna is a self-contained computer of sorts, complete with ARM processor and RAM to run the software that aims the phased array. Speaking of which, it should come as no surprise to find that not only are the ICs that drive the dizzying array of antenna elements the most numerous components on the PCB, but that they appear to be some kind of custom silicon designed specifically for SpaceX.

In short, there’s still plenty we don’t know about how this high-tech receiver actually works. While [Kenneth] does a respectable job of trying to make sense of it all, and we admire the dedication required to rip apart such a rare and expensive piece of kit, it’s still going to be awhile before the hacker community truly masters the tech that SpaceX is putting into their ambitions global Internet service.

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