Teardown: D50761 Aircraft Quick Access Recorder

Everyone’s heard of the “black box”. Officially known as the Flight Data Recorder (FDR), it’s a mandatory piece of equipment on commercial aircraft. The FDR is instrumental in investigating incidents or crashes, and is specifically designed to survive should the aircraft be destroyed. The search for the so-called “black box” often dominates the news cycle after the loss of a commercial aircraft; as finding it will almost certainly be necessary to determine the true cause of the accident. What you probably haven’t heard of is a Quick Access Recorder (QAR).

While it’s the best known, the FDR is not the only type of recording device used in aviation. The QAR could be thought of as the non-emergency alternative to the FDR. While retrieving data from the FDR usually means the worst has happened, the QAR is specifically designed to facilitate easy and regular access to flight data for research and maintenance purposes. Its data is stored on removable media and since the QAR is not expected to survive the loss of the aircraft it isn’t physically hardened. In fact, modern aircraft often use consumer-grade technology such as Compact Flash cards and USB flash drives as storage media in their QAR.

Through the wonders of eBay, I recently acquired a vintage Penny & Giles D50761 Quick Access Recorder. This was pulled out of an aircraft which had been in service with the now defunct airline, Air Toulouse International. Let’s crack open this relatively obscure piece of equipment and see just what goes into the hardware that airlines trust to help ensure their multi-million dollar aircraft are operating in peak condition.

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SENSEation Shows The Importance of Good Physical Design

Sensor network projects often focus primarily on electronic design elements, such as architecture and wireless transmission methods for sensors and gateways. Equally important, however, are physical and practical design elements such as installation, usability, and maintainability. The SENSEation project by [Mario Frei] is a sensor network intended for use indoors in a variety of buildings, and it showcases the deep importance of physical design elements in order to create hardware that is easy to install, easy to maintain, and effective. The project logs have an excellent overview of past versions and an analysis of what worked well, and where they fell short.

One example is the power supply for the sensor nodes. Past designs used wall adapters to provide constant and reliable power, but there are practical considerations around doing so. Not only do power adapters mean each sensor requires some amount of cable management, but one never really knows what one will find when installing a node somewhere in a building; a power outlet may not be nearby, or it may not have any unoccupied sockets. [Mario] found that installations could take up to 45 minutes per node as a result of these issues. The solution was to move to battery power for the sensor nodes. With careful power management, a node can operate for almost a year before needing a recharge, and removing any cable management or power adapter meant that installation time dropped to an average of only seven minutes.

That’s just one example of the practical issues discovered in the deployment of a sensor network in a real-world situation, and the positive impact of some thoughtful design changes in response. The GitHub repository for SENSEation has all the details needed to reproduce the modular design, so check it out.

‘SHE BON’ is an Artful, Wearable, Sensual, Sensing Platform

SHE BON (that’s the French bon, or “good”) is an ambitious project by [Sarah Petkus] that consists of a series of wearable electronic and mechanical elements which all come together as a system for a single purpose: to sense and indicate female arousal. As a proponent of increased discussion and openness around the topic of sexuality, [Sarah]’s goal is to take something hidden and turn it into something obvious and overt, while giving it a certain artful flair in the process.

The core of the system is a wearable backpack in the shape of a heart, from which all other sensors and feedback elements are connected. A lot of thought has gone into the design of the system, ensuring that the different modules have an artistic angle to their feedback while also being comfortable to actually wear, and [Sarah] seems to have a knack for slick design. Some of the elements are complete and some are still in progress, but the system is well documented with a clear vision for the whole. It’s an unusual and fascinating project, and was one of the finalists selected in the Human Computer Interface portion of the 2018 Hackaday Prize. Speaking of which, the Musical Instrument Challenge is underway, so be sure check it out!

Create Your Own ESP8266 Shields

The ESP8266 has become incredibly popular in a relatively short time, and it’s no wonder. Cheap as dirt, impressively powerful, Arduino-compatible, and best of all, includes Wi-Fi right out of the box. But for all its capability and popularity, it’s still lagging behind the Arduino in at least one respect. Namely, the vast collection of add-on “Shields” which plug into the Arduino to add everything from breadboards to GPS receivers.

Until such time as the free market decides to pick up the pace and start making standardized shields for the various ESP8266 development boards, it looks as if hackers are going to have to pick up the slack. [Rui Santos] has put together a very detailed step-by-step guide on the creation of a simple shield for the popular Wemos D1 Mini board, which should give you plenty of inspiration for spinning up your own custom add-on modules.

Presented as a written tutorial as well as a two part video, this guide covers everything from developing and testing your circuit on a breadboard to designing your PCB in KiCad and sending it off for fabrication. The end result is a professional looking PCB that matches the footprint of the stock D1 Mini and adds a DS18B20 temperature sensor, PIR motion detector, photoresistor, and some screw down terminals.

[Rui] goes on to show how you can utilize the new sensors shield via a web interface hosted on the ESP8266, and even wraps the whole thing up in a 3D printed enclosure. All worthwhile skills to check out if you’re looking to produce more cohesive finished products.

If you’re looking for a similar project for the ESP32, [Rui] has you covered there as well. You may also be interested in the series of ESP8266 tutorials we recently highlighted.

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Raspberry Pi as 433 MHz to MQTT Gateway

Many low-cost wireless temperature and humidity sensors use a 433 MHz transmitter to send data back to their base stations. This is a great choice for the manufacturer of said devices because it’s simple and the radios are cheap, but it does limit what we as the consumer can do with it a bit. Generally speaking, you won’t be reading data from these sensors on your computer unless you’ve got an SDR device and some experience with GNU Radio and reading the Nexus protocol.

But [Aquaticus] has developed a very comprehensive piece of software that should make integrating these type of sensors into your home automation system much easier, as long as you’ve got a spare Raspberry Pi lying around. Called nexus433, it uses a cheap 433 MHz receiver connected to the Pi’s GPIO pins to receive data from environmental sensors using the popular Nexus communication protocol. A few known compatible sensors are listed in the project documentation, one of which can be had for as little as $5 USD shipped.

In addition to publishing the temperature, humidity, and battery level values from the sensors to MQTT, it even tracks connection quality for each individual sensor and when they go on and offline. To be sure, this is no simple hack. In nexus433, [Aquaticus] has created a mature Linux service with enough flexibility that you shouldn’t have any problems working it into your automation setup, whether it’s Home Assistant or something you’ve put together yourself.

We’ve seen a number of home automation hacks using these ubiquitous 433 MHz radios,  from controlling them with an ESP8266 to hacking a popular TP-LINK router into a low-cost home automation hub.

Hackaday Belgrade: Luka Mustafa on Exploiting IoT Niches

Ecology is a strange discipline. At its most basic, it’s the study of how living things interact with their environment. It doesn’t so much seek to explain how life works, but rather how lives work together. A guiding principle of ecology is that life finds a way to exploit niches, subregions within the larger world with a particular mix of resources and challenges. It’s actually all quite fascinating.

But what does ecology have to do with Luka Mustafa’s talk at the 2018 Hackaday Belgrade Conference? Everything, as it turns out, and not just because Luka and his colleagues put IoT tools on animals and in their environments to measure and monitor them. It’s also that Luka has found a fascinating niche of his own to exploit, one on the edge of technology and ecology. As CEO of Institute IRNAS, a non-profit technology development group in Slovenia, Luka has leveraged his MEng degree, background in ham radio, and interest in LoRaWAN and other wide-area radio networks to explore ecological niches in ways that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago, let alone in the days when animal tracking was limited by bulky radio collars.

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Move Aside Mercury: Measuring Temperature Accurately with an RTD

Temperature is one of the most frequently measured physical quantities, and features prominently in many of our projects, from weather stations to 3D printers. Most commonly we’ll see thermistors, thermocouples, infrared sensors, or a dedicated IC used to measure temperature. It’s even possible to use only an ordinary diode, leading to some interesting techniques.

Often we only need to know the temperature within a degree Celsius or two, and any of these tools are fine. Until fairly recently, when we needed to know the temperature precisely, reliably, and over a wide range we used mercury thermometers. The devices themselves were marvels of instrumentation, but mercury is a hazardous substance, and since 2011 NIST will no longer calibrate mercury thermometers.

A typical Pt100 RTD probe

Luckily, resistance temperature detectors (RTDs) are an excellent alternative. These usually consist of very thin wires of pure platinum, and are identified by their resistance at 0 °C. For example, a Pt100 RTD has a resistance of 100 Ω at 0 °C.

An accuracy of +/- 0.15 °C at 0 °C is typical, but accuracies down to +/- 0.03 °C are available. The functional temperature range is typically quite high, with -70 °C to 200 °C being common, with some specialized probes working well over 900 °C.

It’s not uncommon for the lead wires on these probes to be a meter or more in length, and this can be a significant source of error. To account for this, you will see that RTD probes are sold in two, three, and four wire configurations. Two-wire configurations do not account for lead wire resistance, three-wire probes account for lead resistance but assume all lead wires have the same resistance, and four-wire configurations are most effective at eliminating this error.

In this article we’ll be using a 3-wire probe as it’s a good balance between cost, space, and accuracy. I found this detailed treatment of the differences between probe types useful in making this decision.

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