New Part Day: A RISC-V CPU For Eight Dollars

RISC-V is the new hotness, and companies are churning out code and announcements, but little actual hardware. Eventually, we’re going to get to the point where RISC-V microcontrollers and SoCs cost just a few bucks. This day might be here, with Seeed’s Sipeed MAix modules. it’s a RISC-V chip you can buy right now, the bare module costs eight US dollars, there are several modules, and it has ‘AI’.

Those of you following the developments in the RISC-V world may say this chip looks familiar. You’re right; last October, a seller on Taobao opened up preorders for the Sipeed M1 K210 chip, a chip with neural networks. Cool, we can ignore some buzzwords if it means new chips. Seeed has been busy these last few months, and they’re now selling modules, dev boards, and peripherals that include a camera, mic array, and displays. It’s here now, and you can buy one. If it seems a little weird for Seeed Studios to get their hands on this, remember: the ESP8266 just showed up on their web site one day a few years ago. Look where we are with that now.

The big deal here is the Sipeed MAix-I module with WiFi, sold out because it costs nine bucks. Inside this module is a Kendryte K210 RISC-V CPU with 8MB of on-chip SRAM and a 400MHz clock. This chip is also loaded up with a Neural Network Processor, an Audio Processor with support for eight microphones, and a ‘Field Programmable IO array’, which sounds like it’s a crossbar on the 48 GPIOs on the chip. Details and documentation are obviously lacking.

In addition to a chip that’s currently out of stock, we also have the same chip as above, without WiFi, for a dollar less. It’ll probably be out of stock by the time you read this. There’s a ‘Go Suit’ that puts one of these chips in an enclosure with a camera and display, and there’s a microphone array add-on. There’s a binocular camera module if you want to play around with depth sensing.

The first time we heard of this chip, it was just a preorder on Taobao. It told us two things: RISC-V chips are coming sooner than we expected, and you can do preorders on Taobao. Seeed has a history of bringing interesting chips to the wider world, and if you want a RISC-V chip right now, here you go. Just be sure to tell us what you did with it.

Tiny Cheap ARM Boards Get WiFi

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the value of putting tiny WIFi-enabled microcontrollers on a module that costs a dollar or two. Those smart light bulbs in your house probably have an ESP8266 in them, and you can build a WiFi-enabled anything with one of these chips for next to no money. Now there’s a new module that takes the design philosophy of, ‘a reasonably powerful microcontroller, on a module, that does WiFi’ to its logical conclusion. It’s the W600 module from Seeed Studios. It’s got an ARM Cortex-M3, it’s FCC and CE certified, it’s got WiFi, and it’s cheap. This is what the people want, so somebody’s got to give it to them.

This product seems to be the followup and/or refinement of the Air602 WiFi Development board released by Seeed late last year. While the module itself grew a few more castellated pins and an RF can, the other specs look to be the same. Compared to the ESP-8266, which this module is obviously competing against, the Air600 is more than capable of pulling its own weight with five GPIO pins that do PWM, a decent amount of Flash, and all the WiFi support you could want.

The W600 is part of an entire family of boards, with the module itself readily available, but there’s also a few breakout boards that add connections for power and serial, a bigger breakout board that’s trying really hard to forget the pin misalignment of the Arduino Uno, and since this is Seeed, a board that connects to everything via Grove connectors. What’s a Grove connector? It’s power, ground, and either I2C or serial over a connector I couldn’t buy the last time I checked.

The W600 and its family of boards will be shipping shortly — China is shutting down for two weeks soon, after all — and there are plans for support for the Arduino IDE, Micropython, and an SDK for the tool chain of your choice.

Is the ESP8266 still the go-to for putting WiFi? Probably. But here’s some more competition.

Ask Hackaday: What Color Are Your PCBs?

A decade ago, buying a custom-printed circuit board meant paying a fortune and possibly even using a board house’s proprietary software to design the PCB. Now, we all have powerful, independent tools to design circuit boards, and there are a hundred factories in China that will take your Gerbers and send you ten copies of your board for pennies per square inch. We are living in a golden age of printed circuit boards, and they come in a rainbow of colors. This raises the question: which color soldermask is most popular, which is most desirable, and why? Seeed Studio, a Chinese PCB house, recently ran a poll on the most popular colors of soldermask. This was compared to their actual sales data. Which PCB color is the most popular? It depends on who you ask, and how you ask it.
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New Part Day: Very Cheap LIDAR

Self-driving cars are, apparently, the next big thing. This thought is predicated on advancements in machine vision and cheaper, better sensors. For the machine vision part of the equation, Nvidia, Intel, and Google are putting out some interesting bits of hardware. The sensors, though? We’re going to need LIDAR, better distance sensors, more capable CAN bus dongles, and the equipment to tie it all together.

This is the cheapest LIDAR we’ve ever seen. The RPLIDAR is a new product from Seeed Studios, and it’s an affordable LIDAR for everyone. $400 USD gets you one module, and bizarrely $358 USD gets you two modules. Don’t ask questions — this price point was unheard of a mere five years ago.

Basically, this LIDAR unit is a spinning module connected to a motor via a belt. A laser range finder is hidden in the spinny bits and connected to a UART and USB interface through a slip ring. Mount this LIDAR unit on a robot, apply power, and the spinny bit does its thing at about 400-500 RPM. The tata that comes out includes distance (in millimeters), bearing (in units of degrees), quality of the measurement, and a start flag once every time the head makes a revolution. If you’ve never converted polar to cartesian coordinates, this is a great place to start.

Although self-driving cars and selfie drones are the future, this part is probably unsuitable for any project with sufficient mass or velocity. The scanning range of this LIDAR is only about 6 meters and insufficient for retrofitting a Toyota Camry with artificial intelligence. That said, this is a cheap LIDAR that opens the door to a lot of experimentation ranging from small robots to recreating that one Radiohead video.

Algorithm Turns PCBs Into Art

Many of us have held a circuit board up to a strong light to get a sense for how many layers of circuitry it might contain. [alongruss] did this as well, but, unlike us, he saw art.

We’ve covered some art PCBs before. These, for the most part, were about embellishing the traces in some way. They also resulted in working circuits. [alongruss]’s work focuses more on the way light passes through the FR4: the way the silkscreen adds an interesting dimension to the painting, and how the tin coating reflects light.

To prove out and play with his algorithm he started with GIMP. He ran the Mona Lisa through a set of filters until he had layers of black and white images that could be applied to the layers of the circuit board. He ordered a set of boards from Seeed Studio and waited.

They came back a success! So he codified his method into Processing code. If you want to play with it, take a look at his GitHub.

Fight That Tesla Envy With A Tablet Dash For Your Car

[Aykut Çelik] uses some strong words to describe how he feels about his VW Polo’s current radio set-up. Words like, “useless,” are bandied about. What is a modern man supposed to do with a car that doesn’t have built-in navigation or Bluetooth connectivity with phones? Listen to the radio? There are actual (mostly) self driving cars on the road now. No, [Aykut] moves forward, not backwards.

To fix this horrendous shortcoming in his car’s feature package, he set out to install a tablet in the dash. His blog write-up undersells the amount of work that went into the project, but the video after the break rectifies this misunderstanding. He begins by covering the back of a face-down Samsung tablet with a large sheet of plastic film. Next he lays a sheet of fiberglass over the tablet and paints it with epoxy until it has satisfactorily clung to the back of the casing. Afterwards comes quite a bit of work fitting an off-the-shelf panel display mount to the non-standard hardware. He eventually takes it to a local shop which does the final fitting on the contraption.

The electronics are a hodgepodge of needed parts: An amplifier, to replace the one that was attached to the useless husk of the prior radio set; a CAN shield for an Arduino, so that he could still use the steering wheel buttons; and a Bluetooth shield, so that the Arduino could talk to the tablet. Quite a bit of hacking happened, and the resulting software is on GitHub.

The final assembly went together well. While it’s no Tesla console. It does get over the air updates whenever he feels like writing them. [Aykut] moves forward with the times.

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BeagleBone Green Hands-On: Lower Price, Same Horsepower

Although the BeagleBone Green was announced at the Bay Area Maker Faire last May, there hasn’t been much said about it on the usual forums and IRC channels. Now, it’s finally out and I got my hands on one of them. Through a cooperation between the BeagleBoard foundation and Seeed Studios, the best small Linux board for doing real work with small Linux boards is now cheaper, a little more modern, and green.

The BeagleBone Green is an update to the venerable BeagleBone Black, the dev board based on a TI ARM Cortex-A8. It’s an extremely capable machine with a few interesting features that make it the perfect device for embedded applications. With the BeagleBone Green, the BB Black gets a small hardware refresh and a drastic reduction in price. If you want to do real work on a Linux board, this is the one to get. Check out the review below for everything that’s been updated, everything that’s the same, and why this is one of the most interesting developments in small Linux boards in recent memory.

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