Self-Powered Sun Tracker Takes a Cue from NASA Solar Probe

Getting a solar array to track the sun has always been an interesting problem, and it has led to some complicated solutions. Controllers that use GPS and servos seem to be much in favor these days, but as this NASA-inspired sun tracker shows, the task needn’t be overly complex.

It’s pretty obvious from the video below that [NightHawkInLight]’s solar tracker is just a proof-of-concept for now, but it certainly shows promise. It’s based on NASA’s sun-skimming Parker Solar Probe, which uses sensors at the rear of the probe to maneuver the craft to keep sunlight from peeking around the sides of the shield. [NightHawkInLight]’s design simplifies that scheme even more, by using solar cells as the four sensors. The cells, mounted behind a solar shade, are directly connected to small gear motors that control azimuth and elevation. When a cell sees the sun, it powers the motor that moves the panel the right way to occlude the sun again, thereby cutting power to the motor.

[NightHawkInLight] mentions the obvious problem of what happens when the sun comes up and the array is pointing the complete opposite direction after the previous sunset, but we’re still not sure his solution – a larger array with tracking cells mounted further apart – will work. We’re also not sure how it will scale to larger arrays that need bigger motors to move. We’ve seen such arrays handled with more complicated trackers, of course, but we hope the simplicity of this design can be made practical for real-world use.

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Real Time Satellite Tracker Shows You What’s Going Over Your Head

Whilst modern technology relies heavily on satellites, it’s easy to forget they’re there; after all, it’s hard to comprehend mostly-invisible lumps of high-density tech whizzing around above you at ludicrous speeds. Of course, it’s not hard to comprehend if you’ve built a real-time satellite tracker which displays exactly what’s in orbit above your head at any given time. [Paul Klinger]’s creation shows the position of satellites passing through a cylinder of 200 km radius above the tracker.

Each layer of LEDs represents a specific band of altitude, whilst the colour of the LEDs and text on the screen represent the type of object. The LEDs themselves are good old WS2812b modules, soldered to a custom PCB and mounted in a 3D-printed stand. The whole thing is a really clean build and looks great – you can see it in action in the video after the break

On the software side, a Raspberry Pi is in charge, running Python which makes use of pyorbital for some of the heavy lifting. The data is taken from, who provide a handy API. All the code is on the project GitHub, which also includes the 3D print and PCB files.

[Paul] answers questions in the reddit thread, and gives more detail in this reddit comment. The project was inspired by one of our favorite sites:

Some of the satellites the device displays are de-commisioned and inactive. Space junk is a significant problem, one which can only be tackled by a space garbage truck.

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This Is Your Solution For Open Source Motion Tracking

The HTC Vive Tracker adds real-world objects to your virtual world. While these real-world objects in virtual environments are now mostly limited to a Nintendo Zapper for a Duck Hunt clone and a tennis racket, the future is clear: we’re going to be playing Duck Hunt and Wii Sports while wearing headsets. The future is so bright, it burns.

Of course, with any piece of neat computing hardware, there’s an opportunity for building an Open Source clone. That’s what [Drix] is doing with his Hackaday Prize entry. He’s created an Open Source Vive Tracker. It’s called the HiveTracker, and it is right now the best solution for tracking objects in a 3D space.

After a few missteps with ultrasonic and magnetic approaches, the team decided to piggyback on the HTC Vive lighthouses. These two base stations scan a laser beam across the room, first vertically, then horizontally. It’s an incredible piece of technology that [Alan Yates] talked about at the 2016 Hackaday Superconference.

While most microcontrollers don’t operate fast enough to see these laser sweeps, the team behind the HiveTracker found one microcontroller, with Bluetooth, and a feature called ‘PPI’. This programmable peripheral interconnect is kinda, sorta like a cross-bar, but designed for more real-time control of applications. With the right software, the team behind the HiveTracker was able to detect the lighthouses and send position and orientation data back to a computer.

This is a stupendous amount of work, and the results are remarkable. You can check out the video below and see that, yes, this is a real, Open Source Vive Tracker.

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Turning A Tile Into A Car Tracker

A Tile is a small Bluetooth device which you can put on your keychain, for example, so that you can find your keys using an app on your phone. Each Tile’s battery life expectancy is one year and after that year you’re expected to trade it in at a discount for a new one. Right away your hacker senses are tingling and you know what’s coming.

Hacked tile with buck converter
Hacked tile with buck converter

[Luis Rodriguez] had switched to Samsung SmartThings and had accumulated box of these Tiles with dead batteries. So he decided a fun project would be to put a Tile in his wife’s car to track it. Given that it’s using Bluetooth, the range isn’t great for car tracking, but the Tile’s app can network with other user’s apps to widen the search area.

Since the Tile’s battery was dead, he cracked it open and soldered wires to its power terminals. He then found a handy 12 volt source in the car and added a DC to DC buck converter to step the voltage down to the Tile’s 3 volts. Finding a home for the hacked tracker was no problem for [Luis]. He was already using an ODB-II dongle for a dash cam so he tapped into the 12 V rail on that.

You’ll be surprised what you can find by hacking these small tracking devices. Here’s an example of hacking of a fitness tracker with all sorts of goodies inside.

Our thanks to [Maave] for tipping us off about this hack.

Tiny Transmitter Tracks Targets

It is a staple of spy movies. The hero — or sometimes the bad guy — sticks a device never any bigger than an Alka Seltzer to a vehicle or a person and then tracks it anywhere it goes in the world. Real world physics makes it hard to imagine a device like that for a lot of reasons. Tiny power supplies mean tiny lifetime and low power. Tiny antennas and low power probably add up to short range. However, [Tom’s] project maybe as close as you can get to a James Bond-style tracker. You can see a video of the device, below.

The little transmitter is smaller than a thumbnail — not counting the antenna and the battery — and draws very little current (180 uA). As you might expect, the range is not great, but [Tom] says with a Yagi and an RTL-SDR he can track the transmitter on 915 MHz for about 400 meters.

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Inside an Amateur Bugging Device

[Mitch] got interested in the S8 “data line locator” so he did the work to tear into its hardware and software. If you haven’t seen these, they appear to be a USB cable. However, inside the USB plug is a small GSM radio that allows you to query the device for its location, listen on a tiny microphone, or even have it call you back when it hears something. The idea is that you plug the cable into your car charger and a thief would never know it was a tracking device. Of course, you can probably think of less savory uses despite the warning on Banggood:

Please strictly abide by the relevant laws of the state, shall not be used for any illegal use of this product, the consequences of the use of self conceit.

We aren’t sure what the last part means, but we are pretty sure people can and will use these for no good, so it is interesting to see what they contain.

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GPS Tracker Gets SMS Upgrade

In May of 2000, then-President Bill Clinton signed a directive that would improve the accuracy of GPS for anyone. Before this switch was flipped, this ability was only available to the military. What followed was an onslaught of GPS devices most noticeable in everyday navigation systems. The large amount of new devices on the market also drove the price down to the point where almost anyone can build their own GPS tracking device from scratch.

The GPS tracker that [Vadim] created makes use not just of GPS, but of the GSM network as well. He uses a Neoway M590 GSM module for access to the cellular network and a NEO-6 GPS module. The cell network is used to send SMS messages that detail the location of the unit itself. Everything is controlled with an ATmega328P, and a lithium-ion battery and some capacitors round out the fully integrated build.

[Vadim] goes into great detail about how all of the modules operate, and has step-by-step instructions on their use that go beyond what one would typically find in a mundane datasheet. The pairing of the GSM and GPS modules seems to go match up well together, much like we have seen GPS and APRS pair for a similar purpose: tracking weather balloons.