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Hackaday Links: March 27, 2022

Remember that time back in 2021 when a huge container ship blocked the Suez Canal and disrupted world shipping for a week? Well, something a little like that is playing out again, this time in the Chesapeake Bay outside of the Port of Baltimore, where the MV Ever Forward ran aground over a week ago as it was headed out to sea. Luckily, the mammoth container ship isn’t in quite as narrow a space as her canal-occluding sister ship Ever Given was last year, so traffic isn’t nearly as impacted. But the recovery operation is causing a stir, and refloating a ship that was drawing 13 meters when it strayed from the shipping channel into a muddy-bottomed area that’s only about 6 meters deep is going to be quite a feat of marine engineering. Merchant Marine YouTuber Chief MAKOi has a good rundown of what’s going on, and what will be required to get the ship moving again.

With the pace of deep-space exploration increasing dramatically of late, and with a full slate of missions planned for the future, it was good news to hear that NASA added another antenna to its Deep Space Network. The huge dish antenna, dubbed DSS-53, is the fourteenth dish in the DSN network, which spans three sites: Goldstone in California; outside of Canberra in Australia; and in Madrid, where the new dish was installed. The 34-meter dish will add 8% more capacity to the network; that may not sound like much, but with the DSN currently supporting 40 missions and with close to that number of missions planned, every little bit counts. We find the DSN fascinating, enough so that we did an article on the system a few years ago. We also love the insider’s scoop on DSN operations that @Richard Stephenson, one of the Canberra operators, provides.

Does anybody know what’s up with Benchy? We got a tip the other day that the trusty benchmarking tugboat model has gone missing from several sites. It sure looks like Sketchfab and Thingiverse have deleted their Benchy files, while other sites still seem to allow access. We poked around a bit but couldn’t get a clear picture of what’s going on, if anything. If anyone has information, let us know in the comments. We sure hope this isn’t some kind of intellectual property thing, where you’re going to have to cough up money to print a Benchy.

Speaking of IP protections, if you’ve ever wondered how far a company will go to enforce its position, look no further than Andrew Zonenberg’s “teardown” of an anti-counterfeiting label that Hewlett Packard uses on their ink cartridges. There’s a dizzying array of technologies embedded inside what appears to be a simple label. In addition to the standard stuff, like the little cuts that make it difficult to peel a tag off one item and place it on another — commonly used to thwart “price swapping” retail thefts — there’s an almost holographic area of the label. Zooming in with a microscope, the color-shifting image appears to be made from tiny hexagonal cells that almost look like the pixels in an e-ink display. Zooming in even further, the pixels offer an even bigger (smaller) surprise. Take a look, and marvel at the effort involved in making sure you pay top dollar for printer ink.

And finally, we got a tip a couple of weeks ago on a video about jerry cans. If that sounds boring, stop reading right now — this one won’t reach you. But if you’re even marginally interested in engineering design and military history, make sure you watch this video. What is now known to the US military as “Can, Gasoline, Military 5-Gallon (S/S by MIL-C-53109)” and colloquially known as the NATO jerry can, started life as the Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister, a 20-liter jug whose design addresses a long list of specifications, from the amount of liquid it could contain to how the cans would be carried. The original could serve as a master class in good design, and some of the jugs that were built in the 1940s are still in service and actively sought by collectors of militaria. Cheap knockoffs are out there, of course, but after watching this video, we’ve developed a taste for jerry cans that only the original will sate.

Hackers Beware: Shenzhen Is Closing

If you’re among those of us with immediate plans for a PCB or parts order from China, watch out – Shenzhen just recently got put on a week-long lockdown. Factories, non-essential stores and public places are closed, and people are required to spend time at home – for a city that makes hardware thrive, this sounds like a harsh restriction. Work moves to remote where possible, but some PCB fabs and component warehouses might not be at our service for at least a week.

It might be puzzling to hear that the amount of cases resulting in closures is as low as 121, for a city of 12.6 million people. The zero-tolerance policy towards COVID has been highly effective for the city, with regular testing, adhered-to masking requirements and vaccinations – which is how we’ve been free to order any kinds of boards and components we needed throughout the past two years. In fact, 121 cases in one day is an unprecedented number for Shenzhen, and given their track record and swift reaction, it is reasonable to expect the case count dropping back to the regular (under 10 cases per day) levels soon.

Not all manufacturing facilities are located in Shenzhen, either. Despite what certain headlines might have you believe, supply chain shortages aren’t a certainty from here. A lot of the usual suspects like PCBWay and JLCPCB are merely reporting increased lead times as they reallocate resources, and while some projects are delayed for now, a lot of fabs you’d use continue operating with minor delays at most. SeeedStudio has its operations impacted more severely, and your Aliexpress orders might get shipped a bit later than usual – but don’t go around calling this a Chinese New Year v2 just yet. For those who want to keep a closer eye on the situation and numbers, the [Shenzhen Pages] Twitter account provides from-the-ground updates on the situation.

Wondering how your supply chain might be affected? We’ve talked about this way back in February 2020, addressing then-warranted worries that Chinese New Year would grow into a longer disruption than planned due to COVID becoming into a factor to manage. If you’re yet to discover the significance of Shenzhen, books have been written on this marvellous city, where you can build a successful hardware company in a week’s time. We’ve even had a meetup there once!

Header image: Charlie fong, CC BY-SA 4.0.

There’s More In A Cardboard Box Than What Goes In The Cardboard Box

The cardboard box is ubiquitous in our society. We all know what makes up a cardboard box: corrugated paper products, glue, and some work. Of course cardboard boxes didn’t just show up one day, delivered out of nowhere by an overworked and underpaid driver. In the video below the break, [New Mind] does a deep dive into the history of the cardboard box and much more.

Starting back in the 19th century, advancements in the bulk processing of wood into pulp made paper inexpensive. From there, cardboard started to take its corrugated shape. Numerous advancements around Europe and the US happened somewhat independently of each other, and by 1906 a conglomerate was formed to get the railroads to approve cardboard for use on cargo trains.

By then though, cardboard was still in its infancy. Further advancements in design, manufacturing, and efficiency have turned the seemingly low tech cardboard box into a high tech industry that’s heavy on automation and quality control. It’ll certainly be difficult to think of cardboard boxes the same.

There also numerous ways for a hacker to re-use cardboard, be it in template making, prototyping, model making, and more. Of course, corrugation isn’t just for paper. If corrugated plastic floats your boat, you might be interested in this boat that floats due to corrugated plastic.

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Automate The Freight: Autonomous Ships Look For Their Niche

It is by no means an overstatement to say that life as we know it would grind to a halt without cargo ships. If any doubt remained about that fact, the last year and a half of supply chain woes put that to bed; we all now know just how much of the stuff we need — and sadly, a lot of the stuff we don’t need but still think we do — comes to us by way of one or more ocean crossings, on vessels specialized to carry everything from shipping containers to bulk liquid and solid cargo.

While the large and complex vessels that form the backbone of these globe-spanning supply chains are marvelous engineering achievements, they’re still utterly dependent on their crews to make them run efficiently. So it’s not at all surprising to learn that some shipping lines are working on ways to completely automate their cargo ships, to reduce their exposure to the need for human labor. On paper, it seems like a great idea — unless you’re a seafarer, of course. But is it a realistic scenario? Will shipping companies realize the savings that they apparently hope for by having fleets of unmanned cargo vessels plying the world’s oceans? Is this the right way to automate the freight?

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Roll-on/roll-off vessel docking

RORO Vessels: Driving Cars Across The Ocean

YouTube does a pretty good job of making itself a target for criticism, but one thing you can say about their algorithms: when they work, they really work. Case in point, the other day I found a suggestion in my feed for a very recent video about salvaging a shipwreck. I can’t begin to guess what combination of view history and metadata Google mined to come to the conclusion that I’d be interested in this video, but they hit the nail on the head.

But more importantly, their algorithmic assessment of my interests must have been a goldmine to them — or it could have been if I didn’t have a minefield of ad blockers protecting me — because I fell down a rabbit hole that led me to a bunch of interesting videos. As it turns out, the shipwreck in that first video was of a cargo ship that was carrying thousands of brand-new automobiles, which were all destroyed in the fire and subsequent capsizing of a “roll-on/roll-off” (RORO) vessel off the coast of Georgia (the state, not the country) in 2019.

Thus began my journey into RORO vessels, on which automobiles and other bulky cargo are transported around the world. And while my personal assessment of the interests of Hackaday readers probably is not as finely tuned as Google’s algos, I figured there’s a better than decent chance that people might enjoy tagging along too.

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The World’s First Autonomous Electric Cargo Ship Is Due To Set Sail

Maritime shipping is big business, with gigantic container ships responsible for moving the vast majority of the world’s goods from point A to points B, C and D. Of course, there’s a significant environmental impact from all this activity, something ill befitting the cleaner, cooler world we hope the future will be. Thus, alternatives to the fossil fuel burning ships of old must be found. To that end, Norwegian company Yara International has developed a zero-emission ship by the name of Yara Birkeland, which aims to show the way forward into a world of electric, autonomous sea transport. 

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Hackaday Links: August 1, 2021

Amateur radio operators have a saying: When all else fails, there’s ham radio. And that’s true, at least to an extent — knock out the power, tear down the phone lines, and burn up all the satellites in orbit, and there will still be hams talking about politics on 40 meters. The point is, as long as the laws of physics don’t change, hams will figure out a way to send and receive messages. In honor of that fact, the police in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, India, make it a point to exchange messages with their headquarter using Morse code once a week. The idea is to maintain a backup system, in case they can’t get a message through any other way. It’s a good idea, especially since they rotate all their radio operators through the Sunday morning ritual. We can’t imagine that most emergency services dispatchers would be thrilled about learning Morse, though.

Just because you’re a billionaire with a space company doesn’t mean you’re an astronaut. At least that’s the view of the US Federal Aviation Administration, which issued guidelines pretty much while Jeff Bezos and his merry band of cohorts were floating about above the 100-km high Kármán line in a Blue Origin “New Shepard” rocket. The FAA guidelines make it clear that those making the trip need to have actually done something to qualify as an astronaut, by “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” That’s good news to the “Old Shepard”, who clearly was in control of “Freedom 7” during the Mercury program. But the Bezos brothers, teenager Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” group of women who trained to be NASA astronauts but never got to fly, were really just along for the ride, as the entire flight was automated. It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve been to space and you haven’t, of course, but they can’t officially call themselves astronauts. This goes to show that even billionaires can just be ballast too.

Good news, everyone — if you had anything that was being transported aboard the Ever Given, your stuff is almost there. The Suez Canal-occluding container ship finally made it to its original destination in Rotterdam, approximately four months later than originally predicted.  After plugging up the vital waterway for six days last March, the ship along with her cargo and her crew were detained in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, perhaps the coolest sounding body of water in the world next to the Dead Sea. Legal squabbling ensued at that point, all the while rendering whatever was in the 20,000-odd containers aboard the ship pretty much pointless. We’d imagine that even with continuous power, whatever was in the refrigerated containers must be pretty nasty by now, so there’s probably a lot of logistics and clean-up left to sort out.

I have to admit that I have a weird love of explosive bolts. I don’t know what it is, but the idea of fasteners engineered to fail in a predictable way under the influence of pyrotechnic charges just tickles something in me. I mean, I even wrote a whole article on the subject once. So when I came across this video explaining how the Space Shuttles were held to the launch pad, I really had to watch it. Surprisingly, the most interesting part of this story was not the explosive aspect, but the engineering problem of supporting the massive vehicle on the launch pad. For as graceful as the Shuttles seemed once they got into orbit, they really were ungainly beasts, especially strapped to the external fuel tank and booster. The scale of the eight frangible nuts used to secure the boosters to the pad is just jaw-dropping. We also liked the idea that NASA decided to catch the debris from the explosions in a container filled with sand.