Hackaday Links: November 17, 2019

Friday, November 15, 2019 – PASADENA. The 2019 Hackaday Superconference is getting into high gear as I write this. Sitting in the Supplyframe HQ outside the registration desk is endlessly entertaining, as attendees pour in and get their swag bags and badges. It’s like watching a parade of luminaries from the hardware hacking world, and everyone looks like they came ready to work. The workshops are starting, the SMD soldering challenge is underway, and every nook and cranny seems to have someone hunched over the amazing Hackaday Superconference badge, trying to turn it into something even more amazing. The talks start on Saturday, and if you’re not one of the lucky hundreds here this weekend, make sure you tune into the livestream so you don’t miss any of the action.

The day when the average person is able to shoot something out of the sky with a laser is apparently here. Pablo, who lives in Argentina, has beeing keeping tabs on the mass protests going on in neighboring Chile. Huge crowds have been gathering regularly over the last few weeks to protest inequality. The crowd gathered in the capital city of Santiago on Wednesday night took issue with the sudden appearance of a police UAV overhead. In an impressive feat of cooperation, they trained 40 to 50 green laser pointers on the offending drone. The videos showing the green beams lancing through the air are quite amazing, and even more amazing is the fact that the drone was apparently downed by the lasers. Whether it was blinding the operator through the FPV camera or if the accumulated heat of dozens of lasers caused some kind of damage to the drone is hard to say, and we’d guess that the drone was not treated too kindly by the protestors when it landed in the midsts, so there’s likely not much left of the craft to do a forensic analysis, which is a pity. We will note that the protestors also trained their lasers on a police helicopter, an act that’s extremely dangerous to the human pilots which we can’t condone.

In news that should shock literally nobody, Chris Petrich reports that there’s a pretty good chance the DS18B20 temperature sensor chips you have in your parts bin are counterfeits. Almost all of the 500 sensors he purchased from two dozen vendors on eBay tested as fakes. His Github readme has an extensive list that lumps the counterfeits into four categories of fake-ness, with issues ranging from inaccurate temperature offsets to sensors without EEPROM that don’t work with parasitic power. What’s worse, a lot of the fakes test almost-sorta like authentic chips, meaning that they may work in your design, but that you’re clearly not getting what you paid for. The short story to telling real chips from the fakes is that Maxim chips have laser-etched markings, while the imposters sport printed numbers. If you need the real deal, Chris suggests sticking with reputable suppliers with validated supply chains. Caveat emptor.

A few weeks back we posted a link to the NXP Homebrew RF Design Challenge, which tasked participants to build something cool with NXP’s new LDMOS RF power transistors. The three winners of the challenge were just announced, and we’re proud to see that Razvan’s wonderfully engineered broadband RF power amp, which we recently featured, won second place. First place went to Jim Veatch for another broadband amp that can be built for $80 using an off-the-shelf CPU heatsink for thermal management. Third prize was awarded to a team lead by Weston Braun, which came up with a switch-mode RF amp for the plasma cavity for micro-thrusters for CubeSats, adorably named the Pocket Rocket. We’ve featured similar thrusters recently, and we’ll be doing a Hack Chat on the topic in December. Congratulations to the winners for their excellent designs.

The Final Days Of The Fire Lookouts

For more than a century, the United States Forest Service has employed men and women to monitor vast swaths of wilderness from isolated lookout towers. Armed with little more than a pair of binoculars and a map, these lookouts served as an early warning system for combating wildfires. Eventually the towers would be equipped with radios, and later still a cellular or satellite connection to the Internet, but beyond that the job of fire lookout has changed little since the 1900s.

Like the lighthouse keepers of old, there’s a certain romance surrounding the fire lookouts. Sitting alone in their tower, the majority of their time is spent looking at a horizon they’ve memorized over years or even decades, carefully watching for the slightest whiff of smoke. The isolation has been a prison for some, and a paradise for others. Author Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 in a lookout tower on Desolation Peak in Washington state, an experience which he wrote about in several works including Desolation Angels.

But slowly, in a change completely imperceptible to the public, the era of the fire lookouts has been drawing to a close. As technology improves, the idea of perching a human on top of a tall tower for months on end seems increasingly archaic. Many are staunchly opposed to the idea of automation replacing human workers, but in the case of the fire lookouts, it’s difficult to argue against it. Computer vision offers an unwavering eye that can detect even the smallest column of smoke amongst acres of woodland, while drones equipped with GPS can pinpoint its location and make on-site assessments without risk to human life.

At one point, the United States Forest Service operated more than 5,000 permanent fire lookout towers, but today that number has dwindled into the hundreds. As this niche job fades even farther into obscurity, let’s take a look at the fire lookout’s most famous tool, and the modern technology poised to replace it.

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Hackaday Links: August 11, 2019

By the time this goes to press, DEFCON 27 will pretty much be history. But badgelife continues, and it’d be nice to have a way of keeping track of all the badges offered. Martin Lebel stepped up to the challenge with a DEF CON 27 badgelife tracker. He’s been tracking the scene since March, and there are currently more than 170 badges, tokens, and shitty add-ons listed. Gotta catch ’em all!

Nice tease, Reuters. We spotted this story about the FAA signing off on beyond-visual-line-of-sight, or BVLOS, operation of a UAV. The article was accompanied by the familiar smiling Amazon logo, leading readers to believe that fleets of Amazon Prime Air drones would surely soon darken the skies with cargoes of Huggies and Tide Pods across the US. It turns out that the test reported was conducted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks along an oil pipeline in the Last Frontier state, and was intended to explore medical deliveries and pipeline surveillance for the oil industry. The only mention of Amazon was that the company reported they’d start drone deliveries in the US “in months.” Yep.

Ever wonder what it takes to get your widget into the market? Between all the testing and compliance requirements, it can be a real chore. NathanielĀ tipped us off to a handy guide written by his friend Skippy that goes through the alphabet soup of agencies and regulations needed to get a product to market – CE, RoHS, WEEE, LVD, RED, CE for EMC. Take care of all that paperwork and you’ll eventually get a DoC and be A-OK.

A French daredevil inventor made the first crossing of the English Channel on a hoverboard on Sunday. Yes, we know it’s not an “actual” hoverboard, but it’s as close as we’re going to get with the physics we have access to right now, and being a stand-upon jet engine powered by a backpack full of fuel, it qualifies as pretty awesome. The report says it took him a mere 20 minutes to make the 22-mile (35-km) crossing.


We had a grand time last week around the Hackaday writing crew’s secret underground lair with this delightful Hackaday-Dilbert mashup-inator. Scroll down to the second item on the page and you’ll see what appears to be a standard three-panel Dilbert strip; closer inspection reveals that the text has been replaced by random phrases scraped from a single Hackaday article. It looks just like a Dilbert strip, and sometimes the text even makes sense with what’s going on in the art. We’d love to see the code behind this little gem. The strip updates at each page load, so have fun.

And of course, the aforementioned secret headquarters is exactly what you’d picture – a dark room with rows of monitors scrolling green text, each with a black hoodie-wearing writer furiously documenting the black arts of hacking. OpenIDEO, the “open innovation practice” of global design company IDEO, has issued a challenge to “reimagine a more compelling and relatable visual language for cybersecurity.” In other words, no more scrolling random code and no more hoodies. Do you have kinder, gentler visual metaphors for cybersecurity? You might win some pretty decent prizes for your effort to “represent different terms and ideas in the cybersecurity space in an accessible and compelling way.”

Automate The Freight: Autonomous Delivery Hits The Mainstream

It should come as no surprise that we here at Hackaday are big boosters of autonomous systems like self-driving vehicles. That’s not to say we’re without a healthy degree of skepticism, and indeed, the whole point of the “Automate the Freight” series is that economic forces will create powerful incentives for companies to build out automated delivery systems before they can afford to capitalize on demand for self-driving passenger vehicles. There’s a path to the glorious day when you can (safely) nap on the way to work, but that path will be paved by shipping and logistics companies with far deeper pockets than the average commuter.

So it was with some interest that we saw a flurry of announcements in the popular press recently regarding automated deliveries. Each by itself wouldn’t be worthy of much attention; companies are always maneuvering to be seen as ahead of the curve on coming trends, and often show off glitzy, over-produced videos and well-crafted press releases as a low-effort way to position themselves as well as to test markets. But seeing three announcements at one time was unusual, and may point to a general feeling by manufacturers that automated deliveries are just around the corner. Plus, each story highlighted advancements in areas specifically covered by “Automate the Freight” articles, so it seemed like a perfect time to review them and perhaps toot our own horn a bit.

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Unconventional Drone Uses Gas Thrusters For Control

You’ve got to hand it to [Tom Stanton] – he really thinks outside the box. And potentially outside the atmosphere, to wit: we present his reaction control gas thruster-controlled drone.

Before anyone gets too excited, [Tom] isn’t building drones for use in a vacuum, although we can certainly see a use case for such devices. This is more of a hybrid affair, with counter-rotating props mounted in a centrally located duct providing the lift and the yaw control. Flanking that is a triangular frame supporting three two-liter soda bottle air reservoirs, each of which supplies a down-firing nozzle at each apex of the triangle. Solenoid valves control the flow of compressed air from the bottles to the nozzles, providing thrust to stabilize the roll and pitch axes. As there aren’t many off-the-shelf flight control systems set up for reaction control, [Tom] had to improvise thruster control; an Arduino watches the throttle signals normally sent to a drone’s motors and fires the solenoids when they get to a preset threshold. It took some tuning, but [Tom] was eventually able to get a stable, untethered hover. And he’s right – the RCS jets do sound amazing when they’re firing, as long as the main motors are off.

This looks as though it has a lot of potential, and we’d love to see it developed more. It reminds us a bit of this ducted-prop drone, another great example of stretching conventional drone control concepts to the limit.

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Designing A Drone To Fire From A Grenade Launcher

You might think that tiny autonomous drones that can be fired out of a standard 40 mm grenade launcher for rapid deployment would be the kind of thing the military would love to get their hands on. Which is true, of course, and a number of companies are working on the idea for police and military applications. But [Glytch] thinks the technology could also be used for search and rescue operations, so he’s working on creating a version for us civilians.

During his presentation “3D Printing Canister-Launchable Drones for City-Scale Wardriving” at the 2019 CircleCityCon, [Glytch] gave an overview of his progress towards creating a small fixed-wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that can be built even by those of us who don’t have the budgets of a three letter government agency. He’s not at the point where he can do a test launch just yet, but the design is coming along nicely, and we’re extremely interested in seeing where it goes from here.

The only way you’re fitting a winged aircraft into the bore of a 40 mm launcher is by folding it up, and so far, that’s where [Glytch] has directed most of his efforts. The wings of his UAV will use a rigid leading edge that folds flat until deployment. When in flight mode, ripstop nylon attached between the body of the drone and the leading edge will be pulled taught to form the actual wing surface; think of it sort of like a bat’s wing. A similar trick will be used for the two control surfaces at the rear of the craft.

Internally, the UAV is using all off-the-shelf components which [Glytch] hopes will keep it cheap enough that they could eventually be mass produced. As he explained in a recent YouTube video, the motor, speed controller, receiver, and flight controller, are all the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a small RC quadcopter. To make it easier to manage the UAV in the field, the batteries and payload will be housed in a detachable nose cone; allowing the user to rapidly configure the hardware for different missions.

Right now, [Glytch] says the biggest obstacle keeping his drone out of the air is finding a foldable propeller with the specific characteristics he requires. Unable to find anything commercially available, he’s currently looking into designing it himself and having it 3D printed on an SLA machine. He also needs to design a sabot to hold the drone as it travels through the barrel of the launcher. Incidentally, he’s currently testing his design with an Airsoft grenade launcher, as he doesn’t want to wade through the paperwork involved in getting the real deal.

[Glytch] is no stranger to the world of high-tech UAVs. The “Watch Dog” inspired hacking drone he created last year was a huge hit, and he’s recently been working on a HD video and telemetry link over WiFi with the Raspberry Pi Zero for his flying creations.

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2019 Cornell Cup Winners Include Autonomous Boat, Flapping UAV, And Leaping Rover

For college-aged engineers and designers, finding a problem they’re truly passionate about early on could very well set the trajectory for an entire career. This is precisely the goal of the Cornell Cup, a competition that tasks applicants with solving a real-world problem in a unique and interesting way. From what we saw this is definitely working, as teams showed up with ornithopter-based quadcopters, robotic dinghies, forest fire sniffers, and high-jumping rovers.

With such an open ended approach, individual entries have a tendency to vary wildly, running the gamut from autonomous vehicles to assistive technology. No team feels pressured to pursue a project they aren’t truly invested in, and everyone’s the better for it.

Given such lofty goals, Hackaday was proud to sponsor the 2019 Cornell Cup. Especially as it so closely aligns with the product design focus of this year’s Hackaday Prize. Designing something which solves a real-world problem is definitely part of the formula when the goal is to reach large scale production. And after seeing the entries first-hand during the Finals at Kennedy Space Center, we think every one of them would be a fantastic entry into the Hackaday Prize.

I don’t envy the judges who ultimately had to narrow it down to just a few teams to take home their share of the nearly $20,000 awarded. Join me after the break for a closer look at the projects that ended up coming out on top.

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