Hackaday Links: May 23, 2021

The epicenter of the Chinese electronics scene drew a lot of attention this week as a 70-story skyscraper started wobbling in exactly the way skyscrapers shouldn’t. The 1,000-ft (305-m) SEG Plaza tower in Shenzhen began its unexpected movements on Tuesday morning, causing a bit of a panic as people ran for their lives. With no earthquakes or severe weather events in the area, there’s no clear cause for the shaking, which was clearly visible from the outside of the building in some of the videos shot by brave souls on the sidewalks below. The preliminary investigation declared the building safe and blamed the shaking on a combination of wind, vibration from a subway line under the building, and a rapid change in outside temperature, all of which we’d suspect would have occurred at some point in the 21-year history of the building. Others are speculating that a Kármán vortex Street, an aerodynamic phenomenon that has been known to catastrophically impact structures before, could be to blame; this seems a bit more likely to us. Regardless, since the first ten floors of SEG Plaza are home to one of the larger electronics markets in Shenzhen, we hope this is resolved quickly and that all our friends there remain safe.

In other architectural news, perched atop Building 54 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge for the last 55 years has been a large, fiberglass geodesic sphere, known simply as The Radome. It’s visible from all over campus, and beyond; we used to work in Kendall Square, and the golf-ball-like structure was an important landmark for navigating the complex streets of Cambridge. The Radome was originally used for experiments with weather radar, but fell out of use as the technology it helped invent moved on. That led to plans to remove the iconic structure, which consequently kicked off a “Save the Radome” campaign. The effort is being led by the students and faculty members of the MIT Radio Society, who have put the radome to good use over the years — it currently houses an amateur radio repeater, and the Radio Society uses the dish within it to conduct Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) microwave communications experiments. The students are serious — they applied for and received a $1.6-million grant from Amateur Radio Digital Communications (ARDC) to finance their efforts. The funds will be used to renovate the deteriorating structure.

Well, this looks like fun: Python on a graphing calculator. Texas Instruments has announced that their TI-84 Plus CE Python graphing calculator uses a modified version of CircuitPython. They’ve included seven modules, mostly related to math and time, but also a suite of TI-specific modules that interact with the calculator hardware. The Python version of the calculator doesn’t seem to be for sale in the US yet, although the UK site does have a few “where to buy” entries listed. It’ll be interesting to see the hacks that come from this when these are readily available.

Did you know that PCBWay, the prolific producer of cheap PCBs, also offers 3D-printing services too? We admit that we did not know that, and were therefore doubly surprised to learn that they also offer SLA resin printing. But what’s really surprising is the quality of their clear resin prints, at least the ones shown on this Twitter thread. As one commenter noted, these look more like machined acrylic than resin prints. Digging deeper into PCBWay’s offerings, which not only includes all kinds of 3D printing but CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, and even injection molding services, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify keeping those capabilities in-house, even for the home gamer. Although with what we’ve learned about supply chain fragility over the last year, we don’t want to give up the ability to make parts locally just yet.

And finally, how well-calibrated are your fingers? If they’re just right, perhaps you can put them to use for quick and dirty RF power measurements. And this is really quick and really dirty, as well as potentially really painful. It comes by way of amateur radio operator VK3YE, who simply uses a resistive dummy load connected to a transmitter and his fingers to monitor the heat generated while keying up the radio. He times how long it takes to not be able to tolerate the pain anymore, plots that against the power used, and comes up with a rough calibration curve that lets him measure the output of an unknown signal. It’s brilliantly janky, but given some of the burns we’ve suffered accidentally while pursuing this hobby, we’d just as soon find another way to measure RF power.

The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna

On July 4th, 1976, as Americans celebrated the country’s bicentennial with beer and bottle rockets, a strong signal began disrupting shortwave, maritime, aeronautical, and telecommunications signals all over the world. The signal was a rapid 10 Hz tapping that sounded like a woodpecker or a helicopter thup-thupping on the roof. It had a wide bandwidth of 40 kHz and sometimes exceeded 10 MW.

This was during the Cold War, and plenty of people rushed to the conclusion that it was some sort of Soviet mind control scheme or weather control experiment. But amateur radio operators traced the mysterious signal to an over-the-horizon radar antenna near Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) and they named it the Russian Woodpecker. Here’s a clip of the sound.

The frequency-hopping Woodpecker signal was so strong that it made communication impossible on certain channels and could even be heard across telephone lines when conditions were right. Several countries filed official complaints with the USSR through the UN, but there was no stopping the Russian Woodpecker. Russia wouldn’t even own up to the signal’s existence, which has since been traced to an immense antenna structure that is nearly half a mile long and at 490 feet, stands slightly taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This imposing steel structure stands within the irradiated forest near Pripyat, an idyllic town founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers. Pictured above is the transmitter, also known as Duga-1, Chernobyl-2, or Duga-3 depending on who you ask. Located 30 miles northeast of Chernobyl, on old Soviet maps the area is simply labeled Boy Scout Camp. Today, it’s all within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

It was such a secret that the government denied it’s existence, yet was being heard all over the world. What was this mammoth installation used for?

Continue reading “The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna”

Ultrasonic Sonar Detects Hidden Objects

While early scientists and inventors famously underestimated the value of radar, through the lens of history we can see how useful it became. Even though radar uses electromagnetic waves to detect objects, the same principle has been used with other propagating waves, most often sound waves. While a well-known use of this is sonar, ultrasonic sensors can also be put to use to make a radar-like system.

This ultrasonic radar project is from [mircemk] who uses a small ultrasonic distance sensor attached to a rotating platform. A motor rotates it around a 180-degree field-of-view and an Arduino takes and records measurements during its trip. It interfaces with an application running on a computer which shows the data in real-time and maps out the location of all of the objects around the sensor. With some upgrades to the code, [mircemk] is also able to extrapolate objects hidden behind other objects as well.

While the ultrasonic sensor used in this project has a range of about a meter, there’s no reason that this principle couldn’t be used for other range-finding devices to extend its working distance. The project is similar to others we’ve seen occasionally before, but the upgrade to the software to allow it to “see” around solid objects is an equally solid upgrade.

Alfred Jones Talks About The Challenges Of Designing Fully Self-Driving Vehicles

The leap to self-driving cars could be as game-changing as the one from horse power to engine power. If cars prove able to drive themselves better than humans do, the safety gains could be enormous: auto accidents were the #8 cause of death worldwide in 2016. And who doesn’t want to turn travel time into something either truly restful or alternatively productive?

But getting there is a big challenge, as Alfred Jones knows all too well. The Head of Mechanical Engineering at Lyft’s level-5 self-driving division, his team is building the roof racks and other gear that gives the vehicles their sensors and computational hardware. In his keynote talk at Hackaday Remoticon, Alfred Jones walks us through what each level of self-driving means, how the problem is being approached, and where the sticking points are found between what’s being tested now and a truly steering-wheel-free future.

Check out the video below, and take a deeper dive into the details of his talk.

Continue reading “Alfred Jones Talks About The Challenges Of Designing Fully Self-Driving Vehicles”

The Battle For Arecibo Has Been Lost

It is with a heavy heart that we must report the National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to dismantle the Arecibo Observatory. Following the failure of two support cables, engineers have determined the structure is on the verge of collapse and that the necessary repairs would be too expensive and dangerous to conduct. At the same time, allowing the structure to collapse on its own would endanger nearby facilities and surely destroy the valuable research equipment suspended high above the 300 meter dish. Through controlled demolition, the NSF hopes to preserve as much of the facility and its hardware as possible.

Section of the Arecibo Message

When the first support cable broke free back in August, we worried about what it meant for the future of this unique astronomical observatory. Brought online in 1963 as part of a Cold War project to study how ICBMs behaved in Earth’s upper atmosphere, the massive radio telescope is unique in that it has the ability to transmit as well as receive. This capability has been used to produce radar maps of distant celestial objects and detect potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids.

In 1974, it was even used to broadcast the goodwill of humankind to any intelligent lifeforms that might be listening. Known as the “Arecibo Message”, the transmission can be decoded to reveal an assortment of pictograms that convey everything from the atomic numbers of common elements to the shape of the human body. The final icon in the series was a simple diagram of Arecibo itself, so that anyone who intercepted the message would have an idea of how such a relatively primitive species had managed to reach out and touch the stars.

There is no replacement for the Arecibo Observatory, nor is there likely to be one in the near future. The Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China is larger than Arecibo, but doesn’t have the crucial transmission capability. The Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California can transmit, but as it’s primarily concerned with communicating with distant spacecraft, there’s little free time to engage in scientific observations. Even when it’s available for research, the largest dish in the Goldstone array is only 1/4 the diameter of the reflector at Arecibo.

Just last week we wondered aloud whether a nearly 60 year old radio telescope was still worth saving given the incredible advancements in technology that have been made in the intervening years. Now, unfortunately, we have our answer.

Affordable Ground-Penetrating Radar

While you might think of radar pointing toward the skies, applications for radar have found their way underground as well. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is a tool that sends signals into the earth and measures their return to make determinations about what’s buried underground in much the same way that distant aircraft can be located or identified by looking for radar reflections. This technology can also be built with a few common items now for a relatively small cost.

This is a project from [Mirel] who built the system around a Arduino Mega 2560 and antipodal Vivaldi antennas, a type of directional antenna. Everything is mounted into a small cart that can be rolled along the ground. A switch attached to the wheels triggers the radar at regular intervals as it rolls, and the radar emits a signal and listens to reflections at each point. It operates at a frequency range from 323 MHz to 910 MHz, and a small graph of what it “sees” is displayed on an LCD screen that is paired to the Arduino.

Using this tool allows you to see different densities of materials located underground, as well as their depths. This can be very handy when starting a large excavation project, detecting rock layers or underground utilities before digging. [Mirel] made all of the hardware and software open-source for this project, and if you’d like to see another take on GPR then head over to this project which involves a lot of technical discussion on how it works.

Recognizing Activities Using Radar

Caring for the elderly and vulnerable people while preserving their privacy and independence is a challenging proposition. Reaching a panic button or calling for help may not be possible in an emergency, but constant supervision or camera surveillance is often neither practical nor considerate. Researchers from MIT CSAIL have been working on this problem for a few years and have come up with a possible solution called RF Diary. Using RF signals, a floor plan, and machine learning it can recognize activities and emergencies, through obstacles and in the dark. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it builds on previous research by CSAIL.

The RF system used is effectively frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) radar, which sweeps across the 5.4-7.2 GHz RF spectrum. The limited resolution of the RF system does not allow for the recognition of most objects, so a floor plan gives information on the size and location of specific features like rooms, beds, tables, sinks, etc. This information helps the machine learning model recognize activities within the context of the surroundings. Effectively training an activity captioning model requires thousands of training examples, which is currently not available for RF radar. However, there are massive video data sets available, so researchers employed a “multi-modal feature alignment training strategy” which allowed them to use video data sets to refine their RF activity captioning model.

There are still some privacy concerns with this solution, but the researchers did propose some improvements. One interesting idea is for the monitored person to give an “activation” signal by performing a specified set of activities in sequence.

Continue reading “Recognizing Activities Using Radar”