Alexa, Hack My TV

If you have an Alexa, one of the best things you can buy to go with it is a Harmony Hub remote. Sure, you get a universal remote to control all your home theater equipment, but you’ll hardly use it because the Alexa can virtually push the Harmony buttons for you. The negative word in this paragraph, though, is “buy.” The Harmony Hub isn’t inexpensive. Fortunately [Michael Higginis] has you covered. He has an ESP8266 universal remote that you can control with Alexa. You can see a video of setting the system up below.

On the one hand, the idea is fairly simple. An ESP8266 has plenty of horsepower to read and recreate IR codes. However, we were very impressed with the web portal used to configure the device and integrating it with Alexa is a neat trick.

Continue reading “Alexa, Hack My TV”

Twin Pis for Remote Computer Management

Sometimes you have a whole bunch of computers that you need to work with, and having a keyboard, monitor, and mouse for each one becomes too much to deal with. There are a multitude of solutions to this problem, but [Fmstrat] went the hacker route, and built their own.

The build is a rather unique way of controlling PCs remotely, but it does the job. A Raspberry Pi 3 is pressed into service as the core of the operation. It’s accessible over IP for remote control. Video is captured from the controlled machines through the combination of an HDMI-to-S-Video adapter and an analog video capture card plugged into the Pi. Keystrokes are sent in a roundabout way, first sent to a Pi Zero over a USB-to-Serial adapter. From there, the Pi acts as an emulated mouse and keyboard to the PC under control.

One caveat of remotely controlling computers over a network is that if things go pearshaped, it can become necessary to power cycle the machine. [Fmstrat] deals with this by fitting a relay board to the Pi 3, which is connected to the reset buttons of the machines under control.

It may not be the quickest, easiest, or industry standard way of controlling remote computers, but it works. [Fmstrat] tells us this build was primarily designed to get around the fact that there aren’t any decent cheap IP-KVM systems, and consumer motherboards don’t support the IPMI standard that would otherwise be useful here.

We particularly like the hard-wired relays for rebooting a machine – great for when a network dropout is stopping Wake-on-LAN packets from achieving their goal. While the conversion of HDMI outputs into analog video for capture is unusual and somewhat costly on a per-machine basis, it’s functional and gives the system the ability to work with any machine capable of outputting a basic analog video signal. With the Pi Zero keyboard emulation and analog video capture, we could see this being used with everything from modern computers to vintage 80s hardware. If you’ve ever needed to control an Amiga 2000 remotely for whatever reason, this could be the way to do it.

We’ve seen plenty of other KVM builds over the years, too – like this low-cost HDMI switcher.

Cheap RC Truck Mod Is Slightly Risky Fun

The world of RC can be neatly split into two separate groups: models and toys. The RC models are generally big, complex, and as you’d imagine, more expensive. On the other hand, the RC toys are cheap and readily available. While not as powerful or capable as their more expensive siblings, they can often be a lot of fun; especially since the lower costs means a crash doesn’t put too big of a ding into to your wallet.

With his latest mod, [PoppaFixIt] has attempted to bridge the gap between toy and model by sticking a considerably overpowered battery into a $10 RC truck from Amazon. He reports greatly improved performance from his hacked together truck, but anyone looking to replicate his work should understand the risks before attempting to hack up their own version.

The principle is pretty simple; the truck is designed to run on two AA batteries, providing 3 volts. But by swapping the AAs out for a 3.7 volt 1S LiPo of the type that’s used in small airplanes and quadcopters, you can get an instant boost in power. As a happy side effect, the LiPo batteries are also rechargeable and fairly cheap, so you won’t have to keep burning through alkaline AAs.

The mod itself is a basic job that only requires a few bucks in parts, and for which [PoppaFixIt] has helpfully provided Amazon links. Essentially you just crack open the truck, solder a JST connector pigtail to the positive and negative traces on the PCB, and then pop a hole in the roof to run the new battery wires out.

Right about now the RC purists are probably screaming obscenities at their displays, and not without reason. As fun as these supercharged little trucks are to drive, there are a number of real issues here which need to be mentioned.

First, while the motor will probably be alright with a bit higher voltage running through them, the gears won’t be liking it one bit. In fact, [PoppaFixIt] even mentions they shredded a few gears when they tried to take one off-road. The second issue is that since these vehicles were not designed with LiPo batteries in mind, there’s no low voltage cutoff to prevent over discharge. If you aren’t careful, a setup like this will cook those cute little batteries in short order. But hey, at least it’s all cheap.

If you are more interested in control than power, you may want to check out the previous hacks we’ve featured. Seems like these little RC trucks are the platform of choice for hackers who want to get stuff moving on the cheap.

Earth Rovers Explore Our Own Planet

While Mars is currently under close scrutiny by NASA and other space agencies, there is still a lot of exploring to do here on Earth. But if you would like to explore a corner of our own planet in the same way NASA that explores Mars, it’s possible to send your own rover to a place and have it send back pictures and data for you, rather than go there yourself. This is what [Norbert Heinz]’s Earth Explorer robots do, and anyone can drive any of the robots to explore whatever locations they happen to be in.

A major goal of the Earth Explorer robot is to be easy to ship. This is a smaller version of the same problem the Mars rovers have: how to get the most into a robot while having as little mass as possible. The weight is kept to under 500g, and the length, width, and height to no more than 90cm combined. This is easy to do with some toy cars modified to carry a Raspberry Pi, a camera, and some radios and sensors. After that, the robots only need an interesting place to go and an Internet connection to communicate with Mission Control.

[Norbert] is currently looking for volunteers to host some of these robots, so if you’re interested head on over to the project page and get started. If you’d just like to drive the robots, though, you can also get your rover fix there as well. It’s an interesting project that will both get people interested in exploring Earth and in robotics all at the same time. And, if you’d like to take the rover concept beyond simple exploration, there are other machines that can take care of the same planet they explore.

Continue reading “Earth Rovers Explore Our Own Planet”

In-Band Signaling: Quindar Tones

So far in this brief series on in-band signaling, we looked at two of the common methods of providing control signals along with the main content of a transmission: DTMF for Touch-Tone dialing, and coded-squelch systems for two-way radio. For this installment, we’ll look at something that far fewer people have ever used, but almost everyone has heard: Quindar tones.

Continue reading “In-Band Signaling: Quindar Tones”

Video Streaming Like Your Raspberry Pi Depended On It

The Raspberry Pi is an incredibly versatile computing platform, particularly when it comes to embedded applications. They’re used in all kinds of security and monitoring projects to take still shots over time, or record video footage for later review. It’s remarkably easy to do, and there’s a wide variety of tools available to get the job done.

However, if you need live video with as little latency as possible, things get more difficult. I was building a remotely controlled vehicle that uses the cellular data network for communication. Minimizing latency was key to making the vehicle easy to drive. Thus I set sail for the nearest search engine and begun researching my problem.

My first approach to the challenge was the venerable VLC Media Player. Initial experiments were sadly fraught with issues. Getting the software to recognize the webcam plugged into my Pi Zero took forever, and when I did get eventually get the stream up and running, it was far too laggy to be useful. Streaming over WiFi and waving my hands in front of the camera showed I had a delay of at least two or three seconds. While I could have possibly optimized it further, I decided to move on and try to find something a little more lightweight.

Continue reading “Video Streaming Like Your Raspberry Pi Depended On It”

We Dig This LEGO Excavator Conversion

[Frank] was lucky enough to score a bucket wheel excavator LEGO set as a birthday present, and we won’t lie – we’re jealous. However, out of the box, the kit is somewhat limited; there is only one motor to animate the entire machine and it can’t be fully remote controlled. But don’t worry — [Frank] set out to change that (Google Translation).

The first part of the build was to add motors to control the different functions of the excavator. One motor was added for each of the two tracks to allow the machine to drive forwards, backwards, and turn. Two more motors were added to raise and lower the digging buckets, and spin the tower. Finally, the original motor was left in place to turn the conveyor.

With that done, [Frank] then used a Raspberry Pi 3 to control all the hardware, being sure to house the new electronics in LEGO for an original look. The Raspberry Pi might be a lot of muscle to simply control a few motors, but it made it quick and easy for [Frank] to implement a Wiimote as a controller over Bluetooth. You can check out a couple demo videos in his most recent update.

It’s a great project, and we’d love to see the Raspberry Pi put to good use by allowing control over the Internet so we can dig in the sand over lunch breaks. We’ve seen some great LEGO hacks before, like this method of modifying cheap gear motors to work with LEGO parts.