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Hackaday Links: August 15, 2021

Unless you’re in the market for a new car, household appliance, or game console, or if you’re involved in the manufacture of these things, chances are pretty good that the global semiconductor shortage hasn’t directly impacted you yet. But we hobbyists might be due for a comeuppance as the chip shortage starts to impact our corner of the market. We suppose it’s natural that supplies of the chips needed to build Arduinos and Raspberry Pis would start to dry up, as semiconductor manufacturers realign their resources to service their most lucrative markets. Still, it was all sort of abstract until now, but seeing dire quotes from the likes of Adafruit, Pololu, and Sparkfun about the long lead times they’re being quoted — some chips won’t be seen until 2023! — is disheartening. As are the reports of price gouging and even hoarding; when a $10 part can suddenly command $350, you know something has gone seriously wrong.

But have no fear — we’re certain the global chip shortage will have no impact on the planned 2027 opening of the world’s first space hotel. Voyager Station — once dubbed Von Braun Station but renamed for some reason — looks for all the world like Space Station V in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, or at least half of it. The thing is enormous — witness the Starship docked in the center hub, as well as the several dozen shuttle-like craft — escape pods, perhaps? — attached to the outer rim. The renders are imaginative, to say the least — the station looks very sleek, completely unfettered by such banalities as, say, solar panels. We get that a private outfit needs to attract deep-pocketed investors, and that one doesn’t do that by focusing on the technical details when they can sell a “premium experience”. But really, if you’re going to space, do you want basically the same look and feel as a premium hotel on Earth, just with a better view? Or would you rather feel like you’ve actually traveled to space?

Speaking of space, did you ever wonder what the first programmable calculator in space was? Neither did we, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t find this detailed story about the HP-65 that was sent up on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 pretty fascinating. The ASTP was the last hurrah of Apollo, and an often underappreciated engineering challenge. Linking up the two spacecraft safely was not trivial, and a fair number of burn calculations had to be made in orbit to achieve rendezvous and docking, as well as to maintain orbit. The HP-65, a programmable calculator that went for about $750 at the time (for the non-space-rated version, of course) had several programs loaded onto its removable magnetic cards, and the Apollo crew used it to verify the results calculated by the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC).

Facebook, a company that exists by providing people with a product they don’t need but now somehow can’t live without, is now dipping a toe into weird, weird waters: reverse-passthrough virtual reality. The idea, we take it, is that as users more widely adopt VR and integrate it into their daily lives, the VR headsets everyone will be wearing will make face-to-face contact more difficult. So what better way to solve that problem than by projecting a live image of the VR user’s eyes onto a screen outside the VR rig, for any and all to see? Pure genius, and not the least bit creepy. They’ve perhaps got a bit of work to go before achieving their goal of “seamless social connection between real and virtual worlds”.

And speaking of eyes, it’s good to know that developers are still hard at work keeping the most vital applications running at peak efficiency on today’s hardware. Yes, the venerable XEyes, a program for the X Window System on Unix-like operating systems that draws a pair of googly eyes on the screen to follow your mouse movements, has finally moved to version 1.2.0. It’s been 11 years since the 1.1.0 upgrade, so it was a long time coming. If you haven’t had the chance to play with XEyes, fear not — just about any Linux machine should be able to show you what you’ve been missing. Or, you know, you could even run it on a camera as the video below the break shows.

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Hackaday Links: July 18, 2021

Tell the world that something is in short supply, and you can bet that people will start reacting to that news in the ways that make the most sense to them — remember the toilet paper shortage? It’s the same with the ongoing semiconductor pinch, except that since the item in short supply is (arguably) more valuable than toilet paper, the behavior and the risks people are willing to take around it are even more extreme. Sure, we’ve seen chip hoarding, and a marked rise in counterfeit chips. But we’d imagine that this is the first time we’ve seen chip smuggling quite like this. The smuggler was caught at the Hong Kong-Macao border with 256 Core i7 and i9 processors, valued at about $123,000, strapped to his legs and chest. It reminds us more of “Midnight Express”-style heroin smuggling, although we have to say we love the fact that this guy chose a power of 2 when strapping these babies on.

Speaking of big money, let’s say you’ve pulled off a few chip heists without getting caught, and have retired from the smuggling business. What is one to do with the ill-gotten gains? Apparently, there’s a big boom in artifacts from the early days of console gaming, so you might want to start spreading some money around there. But you’d better prepare to smuggle a lot of chips: last week, an unopened Legend of Zelda cartridge for the NES sold for $870,000 at auction. Not to be outdone, two days later someone actually paid $1.56 million for a Super Mario 64 cartridge, this time apparently still in the tamperproof container that displayed it on a shelf somewhere in 1996. Nostalgia can be an expensive drug.

And it’s not just video games that are commanding high prices these days. If you’ve got a spare quarter million or so, why not bid on this real Apollo Guidance Computer and DSKY? The AGC is a non-flown machine that was installed in LTA-8, the “lunar test article” version of the Landing Module (LM) that was used for vacuum testing. If the photos in the auction listing seem familiar, it’s with good reason: this is the same AGC that was restored to operating condition by Carl Claunch, Mike Stewart, Ken Shiriff, and Marc Verdiell. Sotheby’s estimates the value at $200,000 to $300,000; in a world of billionaire megalomaniacs with dreams of space empires, we wouldn’t be surprised if a working AGC went for much, much more than that.

Meanwhile, current day space exploration is going swimmingly. Just this week NASA got the Hubble Space Telescope back online, which is great news for astronomers. And on Mars, the Ingenuity helicopter just keeps on delivering during its “operations demonstration” mission. Originally just supposed to be a technology demonstration, Ingenuity has proven to be a useful companion to the Perseverance rover, scouting out locations of interest to explore or areas of hazard to avoid. On the helicopter’s recent ninth flight, it scouted a dune field for the team, providing photographs that showed the area would be too dangerous for the rover to cross. The rover’s on-board navigation system isn’t great at seeing sand dunes, so Ingenuity’s images are a real boon to mission planners, not to mention geologists and astrobiologists, who are seeing promising areas of the ancient lakebed to explore.

And finally, most of us know all too well how audio feedback works, and all the occasions to avoid it. But what about video feedback? What happens when you point a camera that a screen displaying the image from the camera? Fractals are what happens, or at least something that looks a lot like fractals. Code Parade has been playing with what he calls “analog fractals”, which are generated just by video feedback and not by computational means. While he’d prefer to do this old school with analog video equipment, it easy enough to replicate on a computer; he even has a web page that lets you arrange a series of virtual monitors on your screen. Point a webcam at the screen, and you’re off on a fractal journey that constantly changes and shifts. Give it a try.

Ask Hackaday: How Is The Chip Shortage Affecting You?

Some friends of mine are designing a new board around the STM32F103 microcontroller, the commodity ARM chip that you’ll find in numerous projects and on plenty of development boards. When the time came to order the parts for the prototype, they were surprised to find that the usual stockholders don’t have any of these chips in stock, and more surprisingly, even the Chinese pin-compatible clones couldn’t be found. The astute among you may by now have guessed that the culprit behind such a commodity part’s curious lack of availability lies in the global semiconductor shortage.

A perfect storm of political unintended consequences, climate-related crises throttling Taiwanese chip foundries and shutting down those in the USA, and faulty pandemic recovery planning, has left the chipmakers unable to keep up with the demand from industries on the rebound from their COVID-induced slump. Particularly mentioned in this context is the automotive industry, which has seen plants closing for lack of chips and even models ditching digital dashboards for their analogue predecessors.

Chips on order everywhere on the Mouser website.
Chips on order everywhere on the Mouser website.

The fall-out from all this drama in the world’s car factories has filtered down through all levels that depend upon semiconductors; as the carmakers bag every scrap of chip fab capacity that they can, so in turn have other chip customers scrambled to keep their own supply lines in place. A quick scan for microcontrollers through distributors like Mouser or Digi-Key finds pages and pages of lines on back-order or out of stock, with those lines still available being largely either for niche applications, unusual package options, or from extremely outdated product lines. The chances of scoring your chosen chip seem remote and most designers would probably baulk at trying to redesign around an ancient 8-bit part from the 1990s, so what’s to be done?

Such things typically involve commercially sensitive information so we understand not all readers will be able to respond, but we’d like to ask the question: how has the semiconductor shortage affected you? We’ve heard tales of unusual choices being made to ship a product with any microcontroller that works, of hugely overpowered chips replacing commodity devices, and even of specialist systems-on-chip being drafted in to fill the gap. In a few years maybe we’ll feature a teardown whose author wonders why a Bluetooth SoC is present without using the radio functions and with a 50R resistor replacing the antenna, and we’ll recognise it as a desperate measure from an engineer caught up in 2021’s chip shortage.

So tell us your tales from the coalface in the comments below. Are you that desperate engineer scouring the distributors’ stock lists for any microcontroller you can find, or has your chosen device remained in production? Whatever your experience we’d like to know what the real state of the semiconductor market is, so over to you!

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Hackaday Links: May 16, 2021

With the successful arrival of China’s first Mars lander and rover this week, and the relatively recent addition of NASA’s Perseverance rover and its little helicopter sidekick Ingenuity, Mars has collected a lot of new hardware lately. But while the new kids on the block are getting all the attention, spare a thought for the reliable old warhorse which has been plying Gale Crater for the better part of a decade now — Curiosity. NASA has been driving the compact-car-sized rover around Mars for a long time now, long enough to rack up some pretty severe damage to its six highly engineered wheels, thanks to the brutal Martian rocks. But if you think Curiosity will get sidelined as its wheels degrade, think again — the rover’s operators have a plan to continue surface operations that includes ripping off its own wheels if necessary. It’s a complex operation that would require positioning the wheel over a suitable rock and twisting with the steering motor to peel off the outer section of the wheel, leaving a rim to drive around on. JPL has already practiced it, but they predict it won’t be necessary until 2034 or so. Now that’s thinking ahead.

With all the upheaval caused by the ongoing and worsening semiconductor shortage, it might seem natural to expect that manufacturers are responding to market forces by building new fabs to ramp up production. And while there seems to be at least some movement in that direction, we stumbled across an article that seems to give the lie to the thought that we can build our way out of the crisis. It’s a sobering assessment, to say the least; the essence of the argument is that 20 years ago or so, foundries thought that everyone would switch to the new 300-mm wafers, leaving manufacturing based on 200-mm silicon wafers behind. But the opposite happened, and demand for chips coming from the older 200-mm wafers, including a lot of the chips used in cars and trucks, skyrocketed. So more fabs were built for the 200-mm wafers, leaving relatively fewer fabs capable of building the chips that the current generation of phones, IoT appliances, and 5G gear demand. Add to all that the fact that it takes a long time and a lot of money to build new fabs, and you’ve got the makings of a crisis that won’t be solved anytime soon.

From not enough components to too many: the Adafruit blog has a short item about XScomponent, an online marketplace for listing your excess inventory of electronic components for sale. If you perhaps ordered a reel of caps when you only needed a dozen, or if the project you thought was a done deal got canceled after all the parts were ordered, this might be just the thing for you. Most items offered appear to have a large minimum quantity requirement, so it’s probably not going to be a place to pick up a few odd parts to finish a build, but it’s still an interesting look at where the market is heading.

Speaking of learning from the marketplace, if you’re curious about what brands and models of hard drives hold up best in the long run, you could do worse than to look over real-world results from a known torturer of hard drives. Cloud storage concern Backblaze has published their analysis of the reliability of the over 175,000 drives they have installed in their data centers, and there’s a ton of data to pick through. The overall reliability of these drives, which are thrashing about almost endlessly, is pretty impressive: the annualized failure rate of the whole fleet is only 0.85%. They’ve also got an interesting comparison of HDDs and SSDs; Backblaze only uses solid-state disks for boot drives and for logging and such, so they don’t get quite the same level of thrash as drives containing customer data. But the annualized failure rate of boot SDDs is much lower than that of HDDs used in the same role. They slice and dice their data in a lot of fun and revealing ways, including by specific brand and model of drive, so check it out if you’re looking to buy soon.

And finally, you know that throbbing feeling you get in your head when you’re having one of those days? Well, it turns out that whether you can feel it or not, you’re having one of those days every day. Using a new technique called “3D Amplified Magnetic Resonance Imaging”, or 3D aMRI, researchers have made cool new videos that show the brain pulsating in time to the blood flowing through it. The motion is exaggerated by the imaging process, which is good because it sure looks like the brain swells enough with each pulse to crack your skull open, a feeling which every migraine sufferer can relate to. This reminds us a bit of those techniques that use special algorithms to detects a person’s heartbeat from a video by looking for the slight but periodic skin changes that occurs as blood rushes into the capillaries. It’s also interesting that when we spied this item, we were sitting with crossed legs, watching our upper leg bounce slightly in time with our pulse.

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Silicon Carbide Chips Can Go To Hell

IEEE Spectrum had an interesting read about circuits using silicon carbide as a substrate. [Alan Mantooth] and colleagues say that circuits based on this or some other rugged technology will be necessary for missions to Venus, which they liken to hell. That might seem like hyperbole, but at about 460C with an atmosphere full of sulphuric acid, maybe it isn’t such a stretch. When the Soviets sent Venera 13 to Venus, it was able to send data for just over two hours before it was gone. You’d hope 40 years later we could do better.

Silicon carbide is a semiconductor made with an even mix of silicon and carbon. The resulting components can operate for at least a year at 500C. This high-temperature operation has earned them a place in solar energy and other demanding applications.  [Alan], with the University of Arkansas along with colleagues from the KTH Royal Insitute of Technology in Stockholm are building test circuits aimed at developing high-temperature radios for use in environments like the one found on Venus.

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Hackaday Links: April 25, 2021

There’s much news from the Jezero Crater on Mars this week, and all of it was good. Not only did the Ingenuity helicopter make history by making the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet, it made a second longer, more complex flight just a couple of days later. This time, the autonomous rotorwing craft flew to a higher altitude than the maiden flight, hovered for a bit longer, and made a lateral move before landing safely again on the surface. Three more flights of increasing complexity (and risk) are scheduled over the next two weeks, with the next set to happen early Sunday morning. I have to admit that even though the Ingenuity tech demonstration seemed a little like a publicity stunt when I first heard about it, especially when compared to the Perseverance’s main mission of searching for evidence of life on Mars, the Ingenuity team’s successes have made a believer out of me.

Speaking of technology demonstrations, NASA fired up the MOXIE experiment aboard Perseverance for the first time. Intended to explore the possibility of producing oxygen from the thin carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment made about 5.4 grams of oxygen total at a rate of about 6 grams an hour. We detailed the technology MOXIE uses, called solid-oxide electrolysis, which depends on a scandium-stabilized zirconium oxide ceramic electrolyte to strip the oxygen from superheated carbon dioxide using an electric current. Should the technology prove itself over the planned total of ten MOXIE runs over the next few months, a scaled up version of the device could someday land on Mars and produce the estimated 55 metric tons of oxygen needed to fuel a return trip from a crewed mission.

By now we’ve all heard about the global semiconductor shortage, or perhaps felt the pinch ourselves while trying to procure parts for a build. It’s easy to count the crunch as yet another follow-on from the COVID-19 shutdowns and the logistics woes the pandemic begat, so one might have hope that with lockdowns easing up around the world, the shortage will soon be over as manufacturers ramp up production. But not so fast — it looks like the machines needed to make the chips are the latest victims of the shortage. According to Nikkei Asia, wire bonding machines, wafer dicers, and laser drilling machines are all in short supply, with orders for new machines booked out for a year. Like toilet paper this time last year, chip makers are hoarding machines, ordering 50 or 100 of them at a time, in the hopes of having enough to meet production goals. And when machines are available, travel restrictions are making it difficult to get on-site installation and support from factory reps. The bottom line — this isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.

We all know the Stack Overflow memes, and few of us who are being honest haven’t squirmed a bit when thinking about just how screwed we’d be without being able to copy a bit of code to get us past that rough part in a project. But just how often do people copy code from Stack Overflow? Quite a lot, actually, if SO’s analysis of the use of copy commands on their pages is to be believed. For two weeks, SO monitored the number of times the Ctrl-C (or Command-C, if that’s your jam) key combination was pressed. They toted up over 40 million copies, most often from the answers to questions and almost always from the code blocks within them. We suppose none of this is exactly unexpected — memes are memes for a reason, after all — but what we found surprising is that one in four visitors to Stack Overflow copied something within five minutes of loading a page. Being charitable, we’d say the speed with which coders accept someone else’s work is an indication that maybe they were almost at an answer themselves and just needed a little reminder. On the other hand, it could be a sign of separation driving them to get something working.

And finally, while we know we’ve recommended videos from Grady at Practical Engineering recently, we couldn’t help but plug another of his videos as a must-watch. This time, Grady tackles the Suez Canal blockage, and he presents it in the same dispassionate, informed way that he previously handled the engineering roots of the Texas blackouts. If you think the Ever Given grounding was just a case of poor seamanship, think again — Grady makes a compelling case for possible hydrodynamic causes of the incident, including “squatting” and the bank effect. He also speculates on the geotechnical forces that held the ship fast, in the process of which he helpfully introduces the concept of dilatancy and how it explains the way your feet seem to “dry out” a zone around them as you walk across the beach.

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Hackaday Links: February 21, 2021

Well, that was quite a show! The Perseverance rover arrived on Mars Thursday. Don’t tell the boss, but we spent the afternoon watching the coverage in the house on the big TV rather than slaving away in the office. It was worth it; for someone who grew up watching Jules Bergman and Frank Reynolds cover the Apollo program and the sometimes cheesy animations provided by NASA, the current coverage is pretty intense. A replay of the coverage is available – skip to about the 1:15:00 mark to avoid all the filler and fluff preceding the “Seven Minutes of Terror” main event. And not only did they safely deliver the package, but they absolutely nailed the landing. Perseverance is only about 2 km away from the ancient river delta it was sent to explore for signs of life. Nice shooting!

We’re also being treated to early images from Jezero crater. The first lowish-rez shots, from the fore and after hazard cameras, popped up just a few seconds after landing — the dust hadn’t even settled yet! Some wags complained about the image quality, apparently without thinking that the really good camera gear was stowed away and a couple of quick check images with engineering cameras would be a good idea while the rover still had contact with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Speaking of which, the HiRISE camera on the MRO managed to catch a stunning view of Perseverance’s descent under its parachute; the taking of that photo is an engineering feat all by itself. But all of this pales in comparison to a shot from one of the down-looking cameras in the descent stage, show Perseverance dangling from the skycrane just before touchdown. It was a really good day for engineering.

Would that our Earthly supply chains were as well-engineered as our Martian delivery systems. We’ve been hearing of issues all along the electronics supply chain, impacting a wide range of industries. Some of the problems are related to COVID-19, which has sickened workers staffing production and shipping lines. Some, though, like a fire at the AKM semiconductor plant in Japan, have introduced another pinch point in an already strained system. The fire was in October, but the impact on the manufacturer depending on the plant’s large-scale integration (LSI) and temperature-compensated crystal oscillators (TCXO) products is only just now being felt in the amateur radio market. The impact is likely not limited to that market, though — TCXOs pop up lots of gear, and the AKM plant made LSI chips for all kinds of applications.

What do you get when you combine a 3D-printer, a laser cutter, a CNC router, and a pick-and-place robot? Drones that fly right off the build plate, apparently. Aptly enough, it’s called LaserFactory, and it comes from MITs Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. By making different “bolt-on” tools for a laser cutter, the CSAIL team has combined multiple next-generation manufacturing methods in one platform. The video below shows a drone frame being laser-cut from acrylic, to which conductive silver paste is added by an extruder. A pick-and-place head puts components on the silver goo, solders everything together with a laser, and away it goes. They also show off ways of building up 3D structures, both by stacking up flat pieces of acrylic and by cutting and bending acrylic in situ. It’s obviously still just a proof of concept, but we really like the ideas presented here.

And finally, as proof that astronomers can both admit when they’re wrong and have fun while doing so, the most remote object in the Solar System has finally received a name. The object, a 400-km diameter object in a highly elliptical orbit that takes it from inside the orbit of Neptune to as far as 175 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, is officially known as 2018 AG37. Having whimsically dubbed the previous furthest-known object “Farout,” astronomers kept with the theme and named its wayward sister “Farfarout.” Given the rapid gains in technology, chances are good that Farfarout won’t stay the Sun’s remotest outpost for long, and we fear the (Far)nout trend will eventually collapse under its own weight. We therefore modestly propose a more sensible naming scheme, perhaps something along the lines of “Farthest McFaraway.” It may not scale well, but at least it’s stupid.