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Hackaday Links: June 30, 2024

A couple of weeks back we featured a story (third item) about a chunk of space jetsam that tried to peacefully return to Earth, only to find a Florida family’s roof rudely in the way. The 700-gram cylinder of Inconel was all that was left of a 2,360-kg battery pack that was tossed overboard from the ISS back in 2021, the rest presumably turning into air pollution just as NASA had planned. But the surviving bit was a “Golden BB” that managed to slam through the roof and do a fair amount of damage. At the time it happened, the Otero family was just looking for NASA to cover the cost of repairs, but now they’re looking for a little more consideration. A lawsuit filed by their attorney seeks $80,000 to cover the cost of repairs as well as compensation for the “stress and impact” of the event. This also seems to be about setting a precedent, since the Space Liability Convention, an agreement to which the USA is party, would require the space agency to cover damages if the debris had done damage in another country. The Oteros think the SLC should apply to US properties as well, and while we can see their point, we’d advise them not to hold their breath. We suppose something like this had to happen eventually, and somehow we’re not surprised to see “Florida Man” in the headlines.

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Danger Is My Middle Name

Last week, [Al Williams] wrote up a his experience with a book that provided almost too much detailed information on how to build a DIY x-ray machine for his (then) young soul to bear. He almost had to build it! Where the “almost” is probably both a bummer because he didn’t have an x-ray machine as a kid, but also a great good because it was a super dangerous build, of a typical sort for the 1950s in which it was published.

Part of me really loves the matter-of-factness with which “A Boy’s First Book of Linear Accelerators” tells you how you (yes you!) can build a 500 kV van der Graff generator. But at the same time, modern me does find the lack of safety precautions in many of these mid-century books to be a little bit spooky. Contrast this with modern books where sometimes I get the feeling that the publisher’s legal team won’t let us read about folding paper airplanes for fear of getting cut.

A number of us have built dangerous projects in our lives, and many of us have gotten away with it. Part of the reason that many of us are still here is that we understood the dangers, but I would be lying if I said that I always fully understood them. But thinking about the dangers is still our first and best line of defense. Humility about how well you understand all of the dangers of a certain project is also very healthy – if you go into it keeping an eye out for the unknown unknowns, you’re in better shape.

Safety isn’t avoiding danger, but rather minimizing it. When we publish dangerous hacks, we really try to at least highlight the most important hazards so that you know what to look out for. And over the years, I’ve learned a ton of interesting safety tricks from the comments and fellow hackers alike. My ideal, then, is the spirit of the 1950s x-ray book, which encourages you to get the hack built, but modernized so that it tells you where the dangers lie and how to handle them. If you’re shooting electrons, shouldn’t the book also tell you how to stay out of the way?

Car Driving Simulators For Students, Or: When Simulators Make Sense

There are many benefits to learning to fly an airplane, drive a racing car, or operate some complex piece of machinery. Ideally, you’d do so in a perfectly safe environment, even when the instructor decides to flip on a number of disaster options and you find your method of transportation careening towards the ground, or the refinery column you’re monitoring indicating that it’s mere seconds away from going critical and wiping out itself and half the refinery with it.

Still, we send inexperienced drivers in cars onto the roads each day as they either work towards getting their driving license, or have passed their driving exam and are working towards gaining experience. It is this inexperience with dangerous situations and tendency to underestimate them which is among the primary factors why new teenage drivers are much more likely to end up in crashes, with the 16-19 age group having a fatal crash nearly three times as high as drivers aged 20 and up.

After an initial surge in car driving simulators being used for students during the 1950s and 1960s, it now appears that we might see them return in a modern format.

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How Airplanes Mostly Stopped Flying Into Terrain And Other Safety Improvements

We have all heard the statistics on how safe air travel is, with more people dying and getting injured on their way to and from the airport than while traveling by airplane. Things weren’t always this way, of course. Throughout the early days of commercial air travel and well into the 1980s there were many crashes that served as harsh lessons on basic air safety. The most tragic ones are probably those with a human cause, whether it was due to improper maintenance or pilot error, as we generally assume that we have a human element in the chain of events explicitly to prevent tragedies like these.

Among the worst pilot errors we find the phenomenon of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), which usually sees the pilot losing track of his bearings due to a variety of reasons before a usually high-speed and fatal crash. When it comes to keeping airplanes off the ground until they’re at their destination, here ground proximity warning systems (GPWS) and successors have added a layer of safety, along with stall warnings and other automatic warning signals provided by the avionics.

With the recent passing of C. Donald Bateman – who has been credited with designing the GPWS – it seems like a good time to appreciate the technology that makes flying into the relatively safe experience that it is today.

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Ejector Seats: The Rocket Chairs That Save Lives

Once upon a time, escaping an aircraft was a tricky business. You had to unstrap yourself, fling open a heavy glass canopy, and try to wrench yourself out of a small opening without getting smacked by the tail or chopped up by the propeller. Many pilots failed this difficult task, to the tragic loss of their lives.

Eventually, the human cost was heavy enough and militaries grew strained at having to train new pilots to replace the experienced ones lost to accidents and enemy fire. The ejection seat was developed to make escaping a plane as simple as tucking yourself in and pulling a big red handle. Let’s dive in and learn how it came to be.

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Robots: How The Pros Keep Them Safe

Robotic safety standards are designed for commercial bots, but amateur robot builders should also consider ideas like the keepout zone where a mobile robot isn’t permitted to go or how to draw out the safety perimeter space for your experimental robot arm. After all, that robot arm won’t stop crushing your fingers because you built it yourself. So, it is worth looking at the standards for industrial robots, even if your aim is fun rather than profit.

The basics of this for fixed robots like robot arms are defined in the standard R15-06. You don’t need to read the full text (because it costs $325 and is *incredibly* tedious to read), but the Association for Advancing Automation has a good background on the details. The bottom line is to ensure that a user can’t reach into an area that the robot arm might move to and provide a quick and easy way to disable the motors if someone does reach in.

Robots that move, called Industrial Mobile Robots (IMRs) or Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) bring in a whole new set of problems, though, because they are designed to move around under their own control and often share space with humans. For them, the standard is called R15.08. The AGV network has a good guide to the details, but again, it boils down to two things: make sure the robot is keeping an eye on its surroundings and that it can stop quickly enough to avoid injury.

Just How Dodgy Are Cheap USB Chargers Anyway?

Aside from apparently having both the ability to reproduce on their own and simultaneously never being around when you need one, USB chargers seem innocuous enough. The specs are simple: convert mains voltage to 5 volts, and don’t kill anyone while doing it. Both specs are typically met by most designs, but judging by [DiodeGoneWild]’s latest USB charger teardown, the latter only just barely, and with a whole lot of luck.

The sad state of plug-in USB power supplies is one of [DiodeGoneWild]’s pet gripes, and deservedly so. Most USB chargers cram a lot of electronics into a mighty small volume, and are built to a price point, meaning that something has to give in the design. In the case of the two units he tears apart in the video below, it’s pretty clear where the compromises are. Neither unit met the specs on the label in terms of current supplied and voltage regulation, even the apparently more capable quick charger, which is the first to go under the knife. The PCB within holds some alarming surprises, like the minimal physical isolation between the mains part of the circuit and the low-voltage section, but the real treat is the Schottky diode that gets up to 170°C under full load. Safety tip: when you smell plastic burning, throw the thing out.

The second charger didn’t fare any better; although it didn’t overheat, that’s mainly because it shut itself off before it could deliver a fraction of its rated 1 amp output. The PCB construction was shoddy in the extreme, with a squiggly trace standing in for a proper fuse and a fraction of a millimeter separation between primary and secondary traces. The flyback transformer was a treat, too; who doesn’t want to rely on a whisper-thin layer of cheap lacquer to keep mains voltage out of your phone?

All in all, these designs are horrible, and we have to thank [DiodeGoneWild] for the nightmares we’ll have whenever we plug into one of these things from now on. On the other hand, this was a great introduction to switch-mode power supply designs, and what not to do with our own builds. Continue reading “Just How Dodgy Are Cheap USB Chargers Anyway?”