Hands On: Bus Pirate 5

If you’ve been involved with electronics and hardware hacking for awhile, there’s an excellent chance you’ve heard of the Bus Pirate. First introduced on the pages of Hackaday back in 2008 by creator Ian Lesnet, the open hardware multi-tool was designed not only as away to easily tap into a wide array of communication protocols, but to provide various functions that would be useful during hardware development or reverse engineering. The Bus Pirate could talk to your I2C and SPI devices, while also being able to measure frequencies, check voltages, program chips, and even function as a logic analyzer or oscilloscope.

Bus Pirate 3, circa 2012

The Bus Pirate provided an incredible number of tools at a hobbyist-friendly price, and it wasn’t long before the device became so popular that it achieved a milestone which only a few hardware hacking gadgets can boast: its sales started to get undercut by cheap overseas clones. Of course, as an open hardware device, this wasn’t really a problem. If other companies wanted to crank out cheap Bus Pirates, that’s fine. It freed Ian up to research a next-generation version of the device.

But it turns out that was easier said than done. It’s around this point that the Bus Pirate enters what might be considered its Duke Nukem Forever phase. It took 15 years to release the sequel to 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D because the state-of-the-art in video games kept changing, and the developers didn’t want to be behind the curve. Similarly, Ian and his team spent years developing and redeveloping versions of the Bus Pirate that utilized different hardware platforms, such as the STM32 and ICE40 FPGA. But each time, there would be problems sourcing components, or something newer and more interesting would be released.

But then in 2021 the Raspberry Pi Pico hit the scene, and soon after, the bare RP2040 chip. Not only were the vast I/O capabilities of the new microcontroller a perfect fit for the Bus Pirate, but the chip was cheap and widely available. Finally, after years of false starts, the Bus Pirate 5 was born.

I was able to grab one of the first all-new Bus Pirates off the production line in January, and have been spending the last week or so playing around with it. While there’s definitely room for improvement on the software side of things, the hardware is extremely promising, and I’m very excited to be see how this new chapter in the Bus Pirate story plays out.

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Two pairs of boards described in the article, with toggle switches and RCA jacks, shown interconnected, LEDs on all four boards lit up.

Boards For Playful Exploration Of Digital Protocols

Teaching people efficiently isn’t limited to transmitting material from one head to another — it’s also about conveying the principles that got us there. [Mara Bos] shows us a toolkit (Twitter,
nitter link
) that you can arm your students with, creating a small playground where, given a set of constraints, they can invent and figure communication protocols out on their own.

This tool is aimed to teach digital communication protocols from a different direction. We all know that UART, I2C, SPI and such have different use cases, but why? Why are baud rates important? When are clock or chip select lines useful? What’s the deal with the start bit? We kinda sorta figure out the answers to these on our own by mental reverse-engineering, but these things can be taught better, and [Mara] shows us how.

Gently guided by your observations and insights, your students will go through defining new and old communication standards from the ground up, rediscovering concepts like acknowledge bits, bus contention, or even DDR. And, as you point out that the tricks they just discovered have real-world counterparts, you will see the light bulb go on in their head — realizing that they, too, could be part of the next generation of engineers that design the technologies of tomorrow.

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Reverse Engineering The TEC-06 Battery Tester

[Syonyk] read that you could solder a few wires to a TEC-06 battery capacity tester, connect it to a TTL serial adapter, and it would interface with some Windows software via a serial port. You can buy it already enabled for serial, but since he had the non-connected version, he was interested in trying it. Not only did it work, but he took the time to reverse engineer the protocol and made a detailed write up about his findings and how he attacked the problem.

Around here, we never need an excuse to reverse engineer anything. But [Synonyk] mentions that he didn’t like using Windows-only software from China. If he wants it on Linux, or if Windows compatibility breaks with a new version, or if the software has spyware in it, he wants to be able to continue using the device. Of course, he also admits — and we get it — that he just enjoys doing it, too.

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