Hackaday Links: November 29, 2020

While concerns over COVID-19 probably kept many a guest room empty this Thanksgiving, things were a little different aboard the International Space Station. The four-seat SpaceX Crew Dragon is able to carry one more occupant to the orbiting outpost than the Russian Soyuz, which has lead to a somewhat awkward sleeping arrangement: there are currently seven people aboard a Station that only has six crew cabins. To remedy the situation, Commander Michael Hopkins has decided to sleep inside the Crew Dragon itself, technically giving himself the most spacious personal accommodations on the Station. This might seem a little hokey, but it’s actually not without precedent; when the Shuttle used to dock with the ISS, the Commander would customarily sleep in the cockpit so they would be ready to handle any potential emergency.

Speaking of off-world visitation, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft is nearly home after six years in space. It won’t be staying long though, the deep-space probe is only in the neighborhood to drop off a sample of material collected from the asteroid Ryugu. If all goes according to plan, the small capsule carrying the samples will renter the atmosphere and land in the South Australian desert on December 6th, while Hayabusa2 heads back into the black for an extended mission that would have it chasing down new asteroids into the 2030s.

Moving on to a story that almost certainly didn’t come from space, a crew from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently discovered a strange metal monolith hidden in the desert. While authorities were careful not to disclose the exact coordinates of the object, it didn’t take Internet sleuths long to determine its location, in part thanks to radar data that allowed them to plot the flight path of a government helicopters. Up close inspections that popped up on social media revealed that the object seemed to be hollow, was held together with rivets, and was likely made of aluminum. It’s almost certainly a guerrilla art piece, though there are also theories that it could have been a movie or TV prop (several productions are known to have filmed nearby) or even some kind of military IR/radar target. We may never know for sure though, as the object disappeared soon after.

Even if you’re not a fan of Apple, it’s hard not to be interested in the company’s new M1 chip. Hackers have been clamoring for more ARM laptops and desktops for years, and with such a major player getting in the game, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing less luxurious brands taking the idea seriously. After the recent discovery that the ARM version of Ubuntu can run on the new M1 Macs with a simple virtualization layer, it looks like we won’t have to wait too long before folks start chipping away at the Walled Garden.

In the market for a three phase servo controller? A reader who’s working on a robotics project worth as much as a nice house recently wrote in to tell us about an imported driver that goes for just $35. Technically it’s designed for driving stepper motors, but it can also (somewhat inefficiently) run servos. Our informant tells us that you’d pay at least $2,000 for a similar servo driver from Allen-Bradley, so the price difference certainly seems to make up for the hit in performance.

Finally, some bittersweet news as we’ve recently learned that Universal Radio is closing. After nearly 40 years, proprietors Fred and Barbara Osterman have decided it’s time to start winding things down. The physical store in Worthington, Ohio will be shuttered on Monday, but the online site will remain up for awhile longer to sell off the remaining stock. The Ostermans have generously supported many radio clubs and organizations over the years, and they’ll certainly be missed. Still, it’s a well-deserved retirement and the community wishes them the best.

The Voice Recognition Typewriter

Typewriters with voice recognition have existed for over one hundred years; they were called secretaries. Robots are taking all the jobs now, and finally dictation and typing is a job that can be handled by a computer. [Zip Zaps] used an old Smith Corona typewriter to automate the process of turning dictation into print. Like a secretary hunched over an anachronistic IBM Selectric in the first season of Mad Men, this robot will take dictation and accept the overt sexism of a 1960s Manhattan ad agency.

Instead of the machinations of a few biological actuators, this typewriter is controlled with an array of servos driven by Pololu Maestro servo controller. There are twelve servos that move a small actuator down onto the keys, and another twelve servos that move the others above the correct row of the keyboard. The carriage return lever is actuated by a stepper motor, linear rail, and giant plastic lever.

While a robot that can use a typewriter is impressive, the real trick is getting it to take dictation. [Zip Zaps] used the built-in voice recognition found in Windows for this, streaming characters over a serial port to the Arduino-based electronics.

Does it work? Yes, surprisingly it does. Is it useful? Well, typewriters naturally have a cleaner, more analog tone about them, and you can’t replicate the typing experience of an old Smith Corona typewriter with a digital format. This build is just the natural extension of what digital electronics are capable of these days, and we look forward to seeing someone with this amazing device in our local Starbucks.

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A Tiny Servo Motor Controller

If you’re building a moving thing with a microcontroller, you’ll probably want to throw a servo controller in the mix. Driving a servo or two with a microcontroller takes away valuable cycles that just babysit the servo, making sure all the PWM signals are in sync. The thing is, most servo controllers are a massive overkill, and you don’t need that much to control a few servos over a UART. The proof of this is an attiny13 servo controller over on hackaday.io.

[arief] developed his tiny servo controller around one of the tiniest microcontrollers – the ATtiny13. This chip has just 1kB of Flash and 64 Bytes of RAM, but that’s enough to keep a few servos going and listen in to a UART for commands to drive the servo.

The construction of this servo controller board is simple enough – just a single sided board, microcontroller, and a few headers, caps, and resistors. Commands are sent to the ATtiny through a half duplex UART we covered before, with servos responding to simple serial commands.

If you’re building a robot army, this is the board to make. You’re going to need a high-powered controller to take over the world, but there’s no need to bog down that controller by babysitting a few servos.

This Animatronic Hand Is So Metal

According to his Instructables profile, [bwebby] wants to make cool stuff in the special effects industry. We think he has a pretty good chance at it based on the animatronic hand he built.

The finger segments are made from copper pipe. They are connected to each other and to the sheet metal palm with tiny hinges and superglue. That stuff inside the finger segments is epoxy putty. It keeps the ends of the tendons made from bicycle gearing cable firmly attached to the fingertip segments, and provides a channel through the rest of the fingers. These cables run through 50mm aluminium tubes that are set in a sheet metal forearm, and they connect to high-torque servos mounted on a piece of MDF. [bwebby] used a Pololu Mini Maestro to control the servos using the board’s native USB interface and control software.

Watch [bwebby] run through some movements and try out the grip after the break. If you want to make an animatronic hand but aren’t ready for this type of undertaking, you could start with an approach closer to puppetry.

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Walk Your Pet Robot

Anyone who’s ever tried to build a bipedal robot will quickly start pulling their own hair out. There are usually a lot of servos involved, and controlling them all in a cohesive way is frustrating to say the least. [Mark] had this problem while trying to get his robot to dance, and to solve it he built a control system for a simple bipedal robot that helps solve this problem.

[Mark]’s robot has six servo motors per leg, for a total of 12 degrees of freedom. Commands are sent to the robot with an RC radio, and the control board that he built, called the Smart Servo Controller, receives the signals and controls the servos appropriately. There are 14 outputs for servos, operating at 12 bits and 50 Hz each, as well as 8 input channels.┬áThe servo controller can be programmed on a computer with user-selectable curves for various behaviors for each of the servos on the project. This eliminates the need to write cumbersome programs for simple robot movements, and it looks like it does a pretty good job!

Full disclosure: [Mark] currently has this project up on Kickstarter, but it is a unique take on complex robot control that could help out in a lot of different ways. Since you don’t need to code anything, it could lower the entry barrier for this type of project, possibly opening it up to kids or school projects. Beyond that, even veterans of these types of projects could benefit by not having to do as much brute-force work to get their creations up and moving around!

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