Teardown: BilBot Bluetooth Robot

Historically, the subject of our January teardown has been a piece of high-tech holiday lighting from the clearance rack; after all, they can usually be picked up for pocket change once the trucks full of Valentine’s Day merchandise start pulling up around the back of your local Big Box retailer. But this year, we’ve got something a little different.

Today we’re looking at the BilBot Bluetooth robot, which over the holidays was being sold at Five Below for (you guessed it) just $5 USD. These were clearly something the company hoped to sell a lot of, with stacks of the little two-wheeled bots in your choice of white and yellow livery right by the front door. With wireless control from your iOS or Android device, and intriguing features like voice command, I’d be willing to bet they managed to move quite a few of these at such a low price.

For folks like us, it can be hard to wrap our minds around a product like this. It must have a Bluetooth radio, some kind of motor controller, and of course the motors and gears themselves. Yet they can sell it for the price of a budget hamburger and still turn a profit. If you wanted to pick up barebones robotics platform, with just a couple gear motors and some wheels, it would cost more than that. The economies of scale are a hell of a thing.

Which made me wonder, could hackers take advantage of this ultra-cheap robot for our own purposes? It’s pretty much a given that the software for this robot will be terrible, and that whatever control electronics live inside it will be marginal at best. But what if we write those off and just look at the BilBot as a two-wheeled platform to carry our own electronics? It’s certainly worth $5 to find out.

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Old Cisco WAN Card Turned FPGA Playground

Many of us think of FPGAs as some new cutting edge technology, but the fact of the matter is that they’ve been around for quite some time. They’ve just traditionally been used in hardware that’s too expensive for us lowly hackers. A case in point is the Cisco HWIC-3G-CDMA WAN card. A decade ago these would have been part of a router valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, but today they can be had for less than $10 USD on eBay. At that price, [Tom Verbeure] thought it would be worth finding out if they could be repurposed as generic FPGA experimentation devices.

So as not to keep you in suspense, the short answer is a resounding yes. In the end, all [Tom] had to do was figure out what voltages the HWIC-3G-CDMA was expecting on the edge connector, and solder a 2×5 connector onto the helpfully labeled JTAG header. Once powered up and connected to the computer, Intel’s Quartus Programmer software immediately picked up the board’s Cyclone II EP2C35F484C8 chip. The blinking LEDs seen in the video after the break serve as proof that these bargain bin gadgets are ripe for hacking.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. After studying the rest of the components on the board, [Tom] eventually came to the conclusion that the HWIC-3G-CDMA has no means of actually storing the FPGA’s bitstream. Presumably it was provided by the router itself during startup. If you just want to keep the board tethered to your computer for experimenting, that’s not really a big deal. But if you want to use it in some kind of project, you’ll need to include a microcontroller capable of pushing the roughly 1 MB bitstream into the FPGA to kick things off.

It might not be as easy to get up and running as the 2019 Hackaday Superconference badge, but it’s certainly a lot easier to get your hands on.

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Build This Handy Leak Detector For $1.02

You’ve probably noticed that modern life has become rather complicated, and the projects we cover here on Hackaday have not been immune to the march of progress. We certainly aren’t complaining, but we’ll admit to the occasional wistful daydream of returning to the days when the front page of Hackaday looked more MacGyver than Microsoft.

Which is precisely why this hacked together water alarm from [dB] is so appealing. Dubbed the “SqueakyLeaks”, this gadget started its life as a simple wireless intruder alarm from the Dollar Tree. When the magnet got far enough from the battery-powered base, a 90 dB warble would kick in and let you know somebody had opened a window or a door they shouldn’t have.

But with a little rewiring and two Canadian pennies serving as contacts, the alarm has been converted to a water detector that can be placed around potential leaky appliances like the water heater or in areas where you want to be alerted to water accumulation such as sumps. They’re basically “set and forget”, as [dB] says the three LR44 batteries used in the alarms should last about two years. Though with a BOM of $1.02 CAD, it’s probably cheaper to just make multiples and throw them out when the batteries die. Continue reading “Build This Handy Leak Detector For $1.02”

TréPhonos Calls Up History In Houston

Houston’s historic third ward, aka “The Tre,” is ripe rife with history, and some of that history is digitally preserved and accessible through an art installation in the form of repurposed payphones. We love payphones for obvious reasons and seeing them alive and kicking warms our hearts. Packing them with local history checks even more boxes. Twenty-four people collaborated to rebuild the three phones which can be seen in the video after the break, including three visual artists, three ambassadors, and eighteen residents who put their efforts into making the phones relevant not only to the ward but specifically to the neighborhood. One phone plays sound clips from musicians who lived or still live in the ward, another phone has spoken word stories, and the third has field recordings from significant locations in The Tre.

Each phone is powered by a solar cell and a USB battery pack connected to a Teensy with an audio adapter board, and a 20 watt amplifier. Buttons 1-9 play back recorded messages exclusive to each phone, star will record a message, and zero will play back the user-recorded message. Apps for smart phones are easy for young folks to figure out but the payphones ensure that these time capsules can be appreciated by people of any age, regardless of how tech savvy they are and that is wise as well as attractive. The coin return lever and coin slot also have associated sound clips unlike regular payphones so the artists get extra credit.

Did we say that we love payphones? Yes, yes we did. The very first post on Hackday was for a redbox and that got the ball rolling.

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You Bring It, This Blings It: Retrofitting A Hot Foil Stamping Machine

Hot foil stamping is a method often used to embellish and emboss premium print media. It’s used on things like letterhead and wedding invitations to add a touch of luxury. The operation is actually quite simple, where a custom die is heated, pressed into a heat transfer foil, and then transferred on to the print media. Some of the very first manuscripts used gold leaf embossing to decorate intricate calligraphy. You can also see it often used to decorate the sides of religious texts.

Professional foil stamping machines are often pricey and the cheaper ones you can get from eBay are usually poorly made. [Lindsay Wilson] found this out when he purchased a low-cost hot foil stamping machine that was too difficult to use reliably. It got shelved for years until he had another hot foil stamping project. This time he was prepared. He took the machine apart and robust-ified it by attaching it to a heavy-duty arbor press. He also retrofit the heating assembly with his own temperature controller to improve the accuracy for the foils he wanted to use.

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PostMarketOS Saves Old Smartphones

Modern smartphones, even the budget models, are extremely impressive pieces of technology. Powerful ARM processors, plenty of RAM, and an incredible number of sensors and radios are packed into a device that in some cases are literally given away for free when you sign up for a service plan. Unfortunately manufacturers are not obligated to keep up with software updates, and while the hardware may be willing to keep on fighting, the user is often pushed to upgrade due to perennially outdated software. Even if you aren’t the kind of person to be put off by using a phone that doesn’t have the latest and greatest OS, the lack of software security updates pose a clear threat in a world where mobile devices are increasingly targeted by attackers.

But what if the operating system on your phone worked more like the on one your computer? That’s the dream of postmarketOS, a Linux distribution created by [Oliver Smith] that is designed to be installed on outdated (mostly Android) smartphones and tablets. He’s recently made a comprehensive blog post about the state of the project a little over 6 months since it started, and we have to say things are looking very impressive so far.

One of the key goals of postmarketOS is to avoid the fragmented nature of previous attempts at replacing Android with a community-developed operated system. By avoiding binary blobs and focusing on getting the mainline Linux kernel running on as much as the hardware as possible, there’s no need to make different forks and releases for each supported device. By unifying the OS as much as far as it can be, an upstream update can be pushed to all devices running postmarketOS regardless of their make and model, just like with traditional Linux distributions.

The blog post shows two things very clearly: that the community is extremely excited and dedicated to the prospect of running what is essentially desktop Linux on old smartphones and tablets, and that postmarketOS still has a long way to go. In these early days, many devices aren’t what could be considered “daily drivers” by most standards. In fact, the blog post mentions that they’ve decided to abandon the term “supported” when talking about devices, and make no claims beyond the fact that they will boot.

Still, incredible progress is being made on everything from mainline kernel development to getting standard Linux desktops such as Gnome, MATE and XFCE4 running. Work has also been done on the backend process of compiling and packaging up components of the operating system itself, promising to speed up development times even for those who don’t have a beefy machine they can dedicate to compiling. The blog post ends with a helpful list of things the reader can do to help support postmarketOS, ranging from making your own t-shirts to porting to new hardware.

At Hackaday we’ve seen our fair share of hackers and makers re-purposing old smartphones and tablets, keeping them out of the landfills they would almost certainly end up in otherwise. A project that aims to make it even easier to hack these cheap and incredibly useful devices is music to our ears.

X-Ray Imaging Camera Lens Persuaded To Join Micro Four Thirds Camera

Anyone who is into photography knows that the lenses are the most expensive part in the bag. The larger the aperture or f-stop of the lens, the more light is coming in which is better for dimly lit scenes. Consequently, the price of the larger glass can burn a hole in one’s pocket. [Anthony Kouttron] decided that he could use a Rodenstock TV-Heligon lens he found online and adapt it for his micro four-third’s camera.

The lens came attached to a Fischer Imaging TV camera which was supposedly part of the Fluorotron line of systems used for X-ray imaging. We find [Anthony’s] exploration of the equipment, and discovery of previous hacks by unknown owners, to be entertaining. Even before he begins machining the parts for his own purposes, this is an epic teardown he’s published.

Since the lens was originally mounted on a brass part, [Anthony Kouttron] knew that it would be rather easy to machine the custom part to fit standardized lens adapters. He describes in detail the process for cleaning out the original mount by sanding, machining and threading it. Along the way you’ll enjoy his tips on dealing with a part that, instead of being a perfect circle on the outside, had a formidable mounting tab (which he no longer needed) protruding from one side.

The video after the break shows the result of shooting with a very shallow depth of field. For those who already have a manual lens but lack the autofocus motor, a conversion hack works like a charm as well.

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