Hackaday Prize Entry: Pyrotechnics Sequencer with Wireless Control

[visualkev]’s friend was putting on his own fireworks show by lighting each one in turn, then running away. It occurred to [visualkev] that his friend wasn’t really enjoying the show himself because he was ducking for cover instead of watching the fun. Plus, it was kind of dangerous. Accordingly, he applied his hacker skills to the challenge by creating a custom fireworks sequencer.

He used a custom PCB from OSH Park with an ATMega328P controlling eight TPIC6C595 8-bit shift registers, which in turn trip the 64 relays connecting to the fireworks. A 5V regulator supplies the project from 5 5AA batteries, and he kept the wires neat with 8-wire ribbon cables.

Starting the sequence is a generic wireless remote — a cheapie from Walmart — allowing [visualkev]’s friend can launch the fireworks with one hand while working the barbecue tongs with the other.

The Bane of Aftermarket Car Alarms

The humble car alarm has been around almost as long as the car itself, first being developed by an unknown prisoner in Denver, circa 1913. To the security-conscious motorist, they make a lot of sense. The noise of a car alarm draws attention which is the last thing a would-be thief wants, and the in-built immobilizers generally stop the car being moved at all without a time-consuming workaround. Both are a great deterrent to theft.

It may then surprise you to know that I, dear readers, consider the aftermarket car alarm to be one of the most heinous devices ever fitted to the modern automobile. Combining the unholy trifecta of being poorly designed, cheaply made, and fitted by only the most untalented or uncaring people to wield a soldering iron, they are a blight that I myself refuse to accept.

It was my very own Mazda that suffered at the hands of a car alarm system. Two days after purchasing the car, the keyfob died, and thus the car would no longer start. My other car was already out of action due to bent valves, and I needed to get to work, so I figured as a competent hacker, I’d be able to quickly disable it.

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An Introduction to Solid State Relays

When we think of relays, we tend to think of those big mechanical things that make a satisfying ‘click’ when activated. As nice as they are for relay-based computers, there are times when you don’t want to deal with noise or the unreliability of moving parts. This is where solid-state relays (SSRs) are worth considering. They switch faster, silently, without bouncing or arcing, last longer, and don’t contain a big inductor.

Source Fotek SSR Specifications Sheet

An SSR consists of two or three standard components packed into a module (you can even build one yourself). The first component is an optocoupler which isolates your control circuit from the mains power that you are controlling. Second, a triac, silicon controlled rectifier, or MOSFET that switches the mains power using the output from the optocoupler. Finally, there is usually (but not always) a ‘zero-crossing detection circuit’. This causes the relay to wait until the current it is controlling reaches zero before shutting off. Most SSRs will similarly wait until the mains voltage crosses zero volts before switching on.

If a mechanical relay turns on or off near the peak voltage when supplying AC, there is a sudden drop or rise in current. If you have an inductive load such as an electric motor, this can cause a large transient voltage spike when you turn off the relay, as the magnetic field surrounding the inductive load collapses. Switching a relay during a peak in the mains voltage also causes an electric arc between the relay terminals, wearing them down and contributing to the mechanical failure of the relay.

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Knitting ALUs (and Flipdots)

[Irene Posch] is big into knitted fabric circuits. And while most of the textile circuits that we’ve seen are content with simply conducting enough juice to light an LED, [Irene]’s sights are set on knittable crafted arithmetic logic units (ALUs). While we usually think of transistors as the fundamental building-blocks of logic circuits, [Irene] has developed what is essentially a knit crochet relay. Be sure to watch the video after the break to see it in construction and in action.

The basic construction is a coil of conductive thread that forms an electromagnet, and a magnetic bead suspended on an axle so that it can turn in response to the field. To create a relay, a flap of knit conductive thread is attached to the bead, which serves as the pole for what’s essentially a fabric-based SPDT switch. If you’ve been following any of our relay-logic posts, you’ll know that once you’ve got a relay, the next step to a functioning computer is a lot of repetition.

How does [Irene] plan to display the results of a computation? On knit-and-bead flipdot displays, naturally. Combining the same electromagnet and bead arrangement with beads that are painted white on one side and black on the other yields a human-readable one-bit display. We have an unnatural affinity for flipdot displays, and making the whole thing out of fabric-store components definitely flips our bits.

Anyway, [Irene Posch] is a textile-tech artist who you should definitely be following if you have any interest in knittable computers. Have you seen anything else like this? Thanks [Melissa] for the awesome tip!

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Single Board Relay Computer

We all know you can build a computer out of relays, and if you’re a regular reader of Hackaday, you’ve probably seen a few. Actually designing and fabricating a computer built around relays is another thing entirely, and an accomplishment that will put you right up there with the hardware greats.

The newest inductee of the DIY microcomputer hall of fame is [Jhallen]. He’s built a microcomputer ‘trainer’ out of relays. It’s got more click and clack than the Tappet family, and is a work of art rendered in DPDT relays.

The biggest consideration in designing a relay computer is the memory. You can implement a CPU in a few dozen relays, but even a small amount of memory is still hundreds of additional components. In this computer, [Jhallen] is sort of cheating. The memory is implemented as 256 32-bit words on a microcontroller alongside a controller for the front panel. The CPU is still all relays, with support for self-modifying code, a bunch of instructions for conditional jumps, and an ‘increment and jump if not equal to zero’ instruction.

Below, you can check out a very in-depth video of the relay computer in action, starting off with some satisfying click and clack of Euclid’s algorithm and a demonstration of the variable clock rate. The video goes on to demonstrate the assembly language of the relay computer itself and a bit of the overall architecture. This is really one of the most educational demo videos for vintage computing we’ve ever seen.

[Jhallen] assembled a few of these boards and he’s selling some of the extras. If you have $600, you can pick one up over on Tindie (standard Hackaday / Tindie disclosure statement). Considering the amount of soldering required to assemble this board, we’re going to guess that’s a very fair price.
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Relay Computer: You Can Hear It Think

Modern digital computers have complex instruction sets that runs on state-of-the-art ALUs which in turn are a consequence of miniaturized logic gates that are built with tiny transistors. These tiny transistors are essentially switches. You could imagine replacing with electromagnetic relays, and get what is called a relay computer. If you can imagine it, someone’s done it. In this case, [jhallenworld].

The Z3 was the first working programmable, fully automatic digital computer designed by Konrad Zuse. The board employs modern semiconductor devices such as memory and microcontrollers, however, the CPU is all relays. A hexadecimal keyboard allows for program entry and a segment display allows tracking the address and data. The program is piped into serial to the parallel decoder and fed to the CPU where the magic happens. Since the core is electromechanical it is possible to connect the output to peripherals such as a bell as demonstrated near the end of the video.

This project is a good balance of retro and modern to be useful to anyone interested in mechanical computers and should be a lot of fun for the geek kind. Hacking this computer to modify the instruction set should be equally rewarding and a good exercise for students of computing theory.

There is a SourceForge page dedicated to the project with the details on the project including the instruction set and architecture. Check out the video below and if you are inspired by the project, be sure to check out the [Clickity Clack]’a Videos on designing a relay computer bit by bit.

Switching: from Relays to Bipolar Junction Transistors

How many remote controls do you have in your home? Don’t you wish all these things were better integrated somehow, or that you could add remote control functionality to a random device? It’s a common starting point for a project, and a good learning experience for beginners.

A common solution we’ve seen applied is to connect a relay in parallel to all the buttons we want to press. When the relay is triggered, for example by your choice of microcontroller, it gets treated as a button press. While it does work, relays are not really the ideal solution for the very low current loads that we’re dealing with in these situations.

As it turns out, there are a few simple ways to solve this problem. In this article, we’re going to focus on using common bipolar junction transistors instead of relays to replace physical switches. In short, how to add transistors to existing electronics to control them in new ways.

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