Ask Hackaday: What Good Is A Robot Dog?

It is said that Benjamin Franklin, while watching the first manned flight of a hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris in 1783, responded when questioned as to the practical value of such a thing, “Of what practical use is a new-born baby?” Dr. Franklin certainly had a knack for getting to the heart of an issue.

Much the same can be said for Spot, the extremely videogenic dog-like robot that Boston Dynamics has been teasing for years. It appears that the wait for a production version of the robot is at least partially over, and that Spot (once known as Spot Mini) will soon be available for purchase by “select partners” who “have a compelling use case or a development team that [Boston Dynamics] believe can do something really interesting with the robot,” according to VP of business development Michael Perry.

The qualification of potential purchasers will certainly limit the pool of early adopters, as will the price tag, which is said to be as much as a new car – and a nice one. So it’s not likely that one will show up in a YouTube teardown video soon, so until the day that Dave Jones manages to find one in his magic Australian dumpster, we’ll have to entertain ourselves by trying to answer a simple question: Of what practical use is a robotic dog?

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Hackaday Links: July 21, 2019

Ordering a PCB used to be a [Henry Ford]-esque experience: pick any color you like, as long as it’s green. We’ve come a long way in the “express yourself” space with PCBs, with slightly less than all the colors of the rainbow available, and some pretty nice silkscreening options to boot. But wouldn’t it be nice to get full-color graphics on a PCB? Australian company Little Bird thinks so, and they came up with a method to print graphics on a board. The results from what looks like a modified inkjet printer are pretty stunning, if somewhat limited in application. But I bet you could really make a splash with these in our Beautiful Hardware contest.

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing has come and gone with at least as much fanfare as it deserves. Part of that celebration was Project Egress, creation of a replica of the Columbia crew hatch from parts made by 44 hackers and makers. Those parts were assembled on Thursday by [Adam Savage] at the National Air and Space Museum in an event that was streamed live. A lot of friends of Hackaday were in on the build and were on hand, like [Fran Blanche], [John Saunders], [Sophy Wong], and [Estefannie]. The Smithsonian says they’ll have a recording of the stream available soon, so watch this space if you’re interested in a replay.

From the “Don’t try this at home” department, organic chemist [Derek Lowe] has compiled a “Things I won’t work with” list. It’s real horror show stuff that regales the uninitiated with all sorts of chemical nightmares. Read up on chlorine trifluoride, an oxidizer of such strength that it’s hypergolic with anything that even approaches being fuel. Wet sand? Yep, bursts into flames on contact. Good reading.

Continuing the safety theme, machinist [Joe Pieczynski] offers this lathe tip designed to keep you in possession of a full set of fingers. He points out that the common practice of using a strip of emery cloth to polish a piece of round stock on either a wood or metal lathe can lead to disaster if the ends of the strip are brought into close proximity, whereupon it can catch and act like a strap wrench. Your fingers don’t stand a chance against such forces, so watch out. [Joe] doesn’t share any gory pictures of what can happen, but they’re out there. Only the brave need to Google “degloving injury.” NSFL – you’ve been warned.

On a happier note, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to print water-clear parts on a standard 3D printer? Sure it would, but the “clear” filaments and resins all seem to result in parts that are, at best, clearish. Industrial designer [Eric Strebel] has developed a method of post-processing clear SLA prints. It’s a little wet sanding followed by a top coat of a super stinky two-part urethane clearcoat. Fussy work, but the results are impressive, and it’s a good technique to file away for someday.

Blacksmithing For The Uninitiated: Hammer And Tongs

Regular readers will recognise this as the third part of a series exploring blacksmithing for those who have perhaps always fancied having a go but have never quite known where to start. It’s written from a position of the unusual experience of having grown up around a working forge, my dad may now be retired but he has a blacksmith specialising in architectural ironwork.

So far in this series we’ve looked in detail at the hearth and anvil that you might find in a typical forge, and delivered some pointers as to where you might look to find or even construct your own.Those are the signature pieces of equipment you’ll find in a forge, but with them alone you can still not be a blacksmith.

If I Had A Hammer…

An array of hammers of different weights and types.
An array of hammers of different weights and types.

Given an anvil, a hearth, and a vat of water to quench hot work in, and you’re almost set for your forge, but not quite. Most of a modern blacksmith’s workshop is the standard metalworking assortment of welders and angle grinders, but there is a set of tools that remain essential for blacksmithing alone. Your hammers are what connect you to the work, and can be as individual as the preferences of the blacksmiths themselves. There is no “right” answer to the question of what hammer you should use, instead you should use the one that works best for you. I instinctively favour a round-faced ball-peen hammer  because that’s what my dad mostly used, but for example my Dutch friends use square faced cross-peen hammers. Blacksmiths will often make their own hammers to suit their needs, for example my dad made more than one using the high-quality steel of vehicle half-shafts as a starting point. Hardening them is a specialist skill in its own right, and I remember quite a few experiments before he perfected it.

It may well be stating the obvious, but the weight of the hammer influences how much energy it can impart to the work, and in turn the size of work that can be done. Casting an eye over my dad’s hammers the three workaday weights were 2 pound, 3 pound, and 4 pound (roughly 1 kg, 1.5 kg, and 2 kg), allowing a variety from fine work to heavier hitting of larger pieces. In a recent project, making a mediaeval nail, I selected an unsubtle lump hammer to draw out the larger square stock, and a much smaller one to finish it up, create the fine point, and relatively thin head. These are only a subsection of the hammers at his disposal though, like most blacksmiths he has a variety for all tasks, up to sledgehammers. I have frequently taken my turn either holding a piece with tongs while he used a sledgehammer, or on the sledgehammer myself.

Tongs, for Hot Gripping Moments

A selection of tongs, including some designed for very specific tasks. Our thanks to [Igor Nikolic] for making this picture possible.
A selection of tongs, including some designed for very specific tasks. Our thanks to [Igor Nikolic] for making this picture possible.
The constant companion to a blacksmith’s hammer is a pair of tongs. These can be bought from blacksmith’s suppliers, but making a pair can be a task within the reach of most smiths. Two identical sides are made from pieces of stock, with long thin handles, a flat piece to form the hinge, and whatever jaw piece is required. It feels like cheating to form the hole for the hinge on a drill press rather than on the anvil with a punch, but riveting it with a short piece of bar is a straightforward enough process. Blacksmiths will have a huge array of tongs with different jaws for specific jobs, built up over years as jobs demand it. If you cast your mind back to the Finnish smith pictured halfway down the first installment of this series, you’ll find several racks of tongs. A later episode of this series will look at making a set of tongs, though we can’t promise in advance the quality of the finished article.

Keeping yourself clean, safe, and not on fire

My usual forging attire of steel toecap workboots, spark-resistant overalls, and blacksmith's leather apron. The forge is outside Hack42 hackerspace, Arnhem, and is set up a bit too low for me. Photo: (c) Martina Short, used here with permission.
My usual forging attire of steel toecap workboots, spark-resistant overalls, and blacksmith’s leather apron. The forge is outside Hack42 hackerspace, Arnhem, and the anvil is set up a bit too low for me. Photo: © Martina Short, used here with permission.

A final moment for today should be spent on the subject of protective equipment. The hazards of blacksmithing are relatively uncomplicated, but some basic protective clothing is still very much worth having. The most obvious hazard is heat, you will be working in a noisy environment with red hot metal and fire. Though you will generate fewer sparks than you’d expect, I have a blacksmith’s leather apron and a set of fire-resistant overalls. Both of these are readily available from blacksmith’s supply stores, and are well worth the investment. There are also a lot of heavy and sharp items involved, not to mention hot particles on the floor. For that reason I also have a set of steel-toecapped workboots rated for hot particles. They aren’t the most elegant of footwear, but they have saved me from a few nasty moments.

I do not have any face protection specifically for blacksmithing, but depending on the work in hand there may be some sparks created. A polycarbonate face shield rated for hot particles should be available from any safety equipment supplier, and shouldn’t cost too much, and is an essential thing to own if you are doing any grinding or rotary wire brushing. Beyond that, there are also leather gloves designed for handling hot metal. I don’t use them because I prefer the feel of  the hammer directly and am happy to use a pair of tongs to hold hot pieces of steel.

We’ve taken you through the basic workshop equipment of a blacksmith over the last few episodes of this series, and you should now have a basic idea of the safety kit you would be well advised to own. From this foundation we’ll next take you into the forge and start looking at a few blacksmithing techniques and simple projects, and along the way we’ll see some of the materials involved, too.

Ask Hackaday: Get The Lead Out Or Not?

For most of the history of industrial electronics, solder has been pretty boring. Mix some lead with a little tin, figure out how to wrap it around a thread of rosin, and that’s pretty much it. Sure, flux formulations changed a bit, the ratio of lead to tin was tweaked for certain applications, and sometimes manufacturers would add something exotic like a little silver. But solder was pretty mundane stuff.

Source: RoHS Guide

Then in 2003, the dull gray world of solder got turned on its head when the European Union adopted a directive called Restriction of Hazardous Substances, or RoHS. We’ve all seen the little RoHS logos on electronics gear, and while the directive covers ten substances including mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, it has been most commonly associated with lead solder. RoHS, intended in part to reduce the toxicity of an electronic waste stream that amounts to something like 50 million tons a year worldwide, marked the end of the 60:40 alloy’s reign as the king of electrical connections, at least for any products intended for the European market, when it went into effect in 2006.

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Saving Your Vision From Super Glue In The Eyes

Super glue, or cyanoacrylate as it is formally known, is one heck of a useful adhesive. Developed in the 20th century as a result of a program to create plastic gun sights, it is loved for its ability to bond all manner of materials quickly and effectively. Wood, metal, a wide variety of plastics — super glue will stick ’em all together in a flash.

It’s also particularly good at sticking to human skin, and therein lies a problem. It’s bad enough when it gets on your fingers. What happens when you get super glue in your eyes?

Today, we’ll answer that. First, with the story of how I caught an eyeful of glue. Following that, I’ll share some general tips for when you find yourself in a sticky situation.

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Sound-Triggered Eye Protection For The Forgetful Among US

Eyes are fragile things. They tend to fail under extreme heat, pressure, and are easily damaged by flying objects. Enterprising humans have developed a wide range of eye protection solutions, but most only work when the user remembers to put them on. [gocivici] had just such a problem, forgetting to put his safety glasses back on when working. Naturally, the solution was found through hacking.

The build starts with a regular baseball cap. [gocivici] fitted an Arduino nano, which is connected to a small microphone. The Arduino uses the microphone to determine the sound level in the room. Above a certain trigger level, the Arduino triggers a servo to move protective glasses into place in front of the wearer’s eyes, protecting them from flying shrapnel from whatever they may be working on.

It’s a fun build, that obviously still has the pitfall that you’re going to get hurt if you forget to wear your magic hat for the day. Another approach could be putting your multimeter display in your goggles so you never want to take them off in the first place. Video after the break.

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Preventing Embedded Fails With Watchdogs

Watchdog timers are an often overlooked feature of microcontrollers. They function as failsafes to reset the device in case of a software failure. If your code somehow ends up in an infinite loop, the watchdog will trigger. This is a necessity for safety critical devices. If the firmware in a pacemaker or a aircraft’s avionics system gets stuck, it isn’t going to end well.

In this oldie-but-goodie, [Jack Ganssle] provides us with a great write up on watchdog timers. This tells the story of a failed Clementine spacecraft mission that could have been saved by a watchdog, and elaborates on the design and implementation of watchdog techniques.

If you’re designing a device that needs to be able to handle unexpected failures, this article is definitely worth a read. [Jack] explains a lot of traps of using these devices, including why internal watchdogs can’t always be trusted and what features make for a great watchdog.

Thanks to [Jan] for the tip!