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November 17 2019

How To Design A BGA breakout Module

Surface mount devices can take some adjusting to for hackers primarily used to working with through-hole components. Despite this, the lure of the hottest new parts has enticed even the most reticent to learn to work with the technology. Of course, time rolls on and BGA parts bring further difficulties. [Nate] from SparkFun worked on the development of the RedBoard Artemis, and broke down the challenges involved.

The RedBoard Artemis is an Arduino-compatible devboard built around the Ambiq Apollo3 chip. In addition to packing Bluetooth and 1 MB of Flash, it’s also capable of running TensorFlow models and using tiny amounts of power. The chip comes in an 81-Ball Grid Array at 0.5mm pitch, which meant SparkFun’s usual PCB fabrication methods weren’t going to cut it.

An initial run of prototype boards was run using 4 layers, blind and buried vias, and other fancy tricks to break out all the necessary signals. While this worked well, it was expensive and inefficient. The only part of the board that needed such fabrication was around the chip itself; the rest of the board could be produced with cheaper 2-layer methods. To improve this for mass production, instead, an SMD module was created to house the Apollo3, which could then be dropped into new designs on cheaper boards as necessary.

[Nate] does a great job of explaining the engineering involved, as well as sharing useful tips for others going down a similar path. So far, this is just part 1, with future posts promising to cover the RF shield design and FCC certification process. [Nate] has always been keen to share his wisdom, and we can’t wait to see what comes next!

FieldKit is the Grand Prize winner of the 2019 Hackaday Prize

FieldKit, an open-source, modular sensor system for conducting research in harsh environments has just been named the Grand Prize winner of the 2019 Hackaday Prize. The award for claiming the top place and title of “Best Product” in this nine-month global engineering initiative is $125,000. Five other top winners and five honorable mentions were also named during this evening’s Hackaday Prize Ceremony, held during the Hackaday Superconference in Pasadena, California.

This year’s Hackaday Prize focused on product development. From one good idea and a working prototype, entrants were encouraged to iterate on their UX, industrial design, ergonomics, software, and mechanical plans as they worked toward a product that is both manufacturable and meets the needs of the user it has been designed for. Out of twenty finalists, the top eleven are covered below. Over $200,000 in cash prizes have been distributed as part of this year’s initiative where thousands of hardware hackers, makers, and artists compete to build a better future.

Best Product: FieldKit

FieldKit is the Grand Prize winner of the 2019 Hackaday Prize. This versatile, ruggedized sensor suite is designed for research projects in difficult environments. By striking a balance between custom-designed sensors and off-the-shelf systems, FieldKit addresses issues of cost and availability by embracing a modular concept — both hardware and software — and making the designs open source. Named “Best Product”, FieldKit receives a $125,000 award for taking the top spot in this year’s Prize.

Conducting scientific research shouldn’t require that you also have a background in electrical and computer engineering. FieldKit has done extensive UX/UI testing so that the hardware is simple to set up using modules for your sensor and communication needs, along with a website, app, and export options that make collecting and utilizing the data an intuitive and frustration-free experience. As an open source project, researchers who design their own custom hardware modules are invited to also share those designs for the benefits of others.

3D Printed Prosthesis with CV, BCI and EMG

This prosthetic arm has a mind of its own, capable of assisting the user beyond rudimentary motion. By embedding a camera in the palm of the prosthesis, Computer Vision is used to identify objects and choose from the stored grip methods. When trying to grip a beverage can, the CV system will identify it and adjust the wrist angle to keep it aligned as the angle of the arm changes during the reaching movements. The hardware design is modular and other inputs include Electromyography and BCI. Recognized for Best Concept, this project is awarded a cash prize of $10,000.

DLT One – A Damn Linux Tablet!

While some are still waiting for the age of the Linux desktop, this project moves past that and achieves an open design for a Linux-based tablet. Goals of the project focus on sidestepping the OS lock-in present in many consumer tablets, and delivering a hardware design that is both repairable and upgradable — traits currently absent in all consumer tablets. Recognized for Best Design, this project is awarded a cash prize of $10,000.

Axiom: 100+kW Motor Controller

Jumping in to provide a non-proprietary option for high-power motor control, Axiom is capable of driving 100-kW-class 3-phase motors. Able to provide 300 A at 400 V, Axiom is a formidable open-source option for use in electric vehicles. The control of the hardware is assigned to an ice40 FPGA using an open source toolchain, making this truly one controller to rule them all. If the standard functionality doesn’t suit your needs, the flexibility of the FPGA can be plied to meet the specification you desire. Recognized for Best Production, this project is awarded a cash prize of $10,000.

Knobo: A Keyboard for Learning Braille

For a visually impaired people the ability to read Braille can unlock better employment opportunities, higher incomes, and greater engagement in reading as a hobby. But learning Brille remains a tripping point throughout the world. Knobo is a USB Braille peripheral with a goal of increasing Braille literacy. Knobo uses the six bits of a Braille character to help practice learning the characterset to a point where they can then transition to a full Braille keyboard or other traditional Braille writer. Recognized for Best Benchmark, this project is awarded a cash prize of $10,000.

SmallKat: An adorable dynamics oriented robot cat

SmallKat is designed to get a platform for advanced robotics into the hands of people who will be developing the world’s next evolution of robots. This is a dynamic robotics platform that gathers feedback about its own motion and possesses the processing capabilities to correct for problems in real time. It’s the kind of thing that keeps a robot on its feet rather than in a pile on the floor and SmallKat lets students get their feet under them when it comes to building robots that can walk. Recognized for Best Communication, this project is awarded a cash prize of $10,000.

Honorable Mentions:

One project in each category of this year’s Hackaday Prize was also selected to receive an honorable mention. Each of these entries is awarded a $3,000 cash prize for their accomplishments.

Congratulations to all who entered the 2019 Hackaday Prize. As the manufacturing sectors of the world have begun to open up to individuals and small teams, you are building a roadmap to get from the prototyping workbench to the production line. This lets more people level up and gives their good ideas the chance to make a wider impact. Together, we can grow the engineering community and help one another Build Something that Matters.

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Behind the Scenes of the 2019 Superconference Badge

If you count yourself among the several hundred of our closest friends that have joined us at Supplyframe HQ for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, then by now you’ll have your hands on one of this year’s incredible FPGA badges. It should come as no surprise that an incredible amount of time and effort went into developing and manufacturing this exceptionally unique piece of hardware; the slick gadget in your hands today took nearly an entire year to develop, and work continued on it until very literally the last possible moment.

Badge designer Jeroen Domburg (aka Sprite_TM), Hackaday staff, and a team of dedicated volunteers were still putting the final touches on these ambitious devices less than 24 hours before they were distributed to the first wave of Superconference attendees. Naturally, that’s not exactly how things were supposed to go. But when you’ve got a group of people that want to push the envelope and build something truly incredible, convincing them to actually stop working can be a challenge in itself.

In fact, development of the badge is still ongoing. Fixes and improvements are being made to the software even as you read this, and if you haven’t already, you should upgrade your badge to make sure you’ve got the latest and greatest from our international team of wizards. We all know that conference badges have an unfortunate habit of languishing on the shelf and collecting dust, but the 2019 Superconference badge was built to challenge you for longer than just one weekend. Consider yourself warned: for every Supercon badge that gets tossed in a drawer come Monday, Sprite_TM will shed a single tear.

After the break, come along as we turn back the clock and take a look at the last minute dash to get 500+ badges programmed and ready to go before the doors opened for the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

Some Assembly Required

It certainly sounded easy enough. The assembled badges had already arrived at Supplyframe HQ, they just needed to be unpacked, get a fresh set of batteries installed, go through a quick hardware check, and then finally get programmed. Unwrapping each badge and slotting a pair of AA batteries in it wasn’t difficult work of course, but it was enough to keep a few volunteers busy for a good chunk of the morning.

Then we started running into issues. On some badges the display was only partially operable, but we quickly found that re-seating the ribbon cable seemed to resolve the issue. The battery holders on some badges were installed upside down, several dodgy power switches were discovered, and a few simply wouldn’t power on. Pretty soon there was a box full of badges that needed further diagnostics, and by the time Supercon kicked off, there were still a handful of badges that hadn’t been revived. But in the end we managed to get approximately 95% of them to pass our initial QC.

While the badges were getting powered up and checked out, a separate group of workers had the unenviable task of removing the blank “cartridge” and tiny speaker from their respective shipping packages and combining them in their own ESD bag. Not wanting to force such mind-numbing work on anyone else, this particularly loathsome task was handled largely by the Hackaday Editors. So the next time you see an article you dislike on the site, just take a few deep breaths and imagine us plucking hundreds of tiny speakers out of their foam packing trays you can see to the left side of this photo.

The Flash Cart Shuffle

The three stages of badge flashing.

In a perfect world, the software for the badges would have been pre-installed when the hardware was assembled. But from critical issues like image artifacts when connecting the badge to HDMI displays to making the LEDs flash when you clear a line in the built-in Tetris clone, there were a myriad of changes still being made even as the badges were all lined up and ready to get flashed. Once everyone was satisfied with where their respective software components were, we immediately started programming.

Being a technical audience, you’re probably wondering how we manually flashed all of these badges. JTAG? USB? No, Sprite_TM had a better idea than that. His vision was always to allow the badge to be updated from a specially prepared “flash cart”. With one of these cartridges slotted in, the badge simply needed to be turned on to begin the flashing process. No wires to connect, no computer required. Each person on the assembly line was given two of these magic cartridges and a box of badges to work their way through, and once you got the rhythm down, you’d have the first badge flashed and bagged up just as the second one was ready to go.

Now It’s Your Turn

With the knowledge that the 2019 Superconference badge in your possession was literally passed around by a large chunk of the Hackaday staff before it ended up in your stylish black tote, we hope you’ll do us proud. The badge was specifically designed to make the exciting world of FPGAs as approachable as possible, and there’s no shortage of folks wandering the halls of Supercon (staff or otherwise) who will be happy to get you started. Even if you can’t finish your project this weekend, the official Supercon chat has turned into a hive mind of ambitious badge hackers that will be more than happy to welcome a few new members to the fold after we all begin heading for home come Monday.

But no matter what you do, just remember to have fun and keep an open mind. The badge in your hand is without question the shape of things to come, and more than anything else, we hope it proves to be a useful tool as you tackle the next generation of electronic hacking.

Making Models with Lasers

Good design starts with a good idea, and being able to flesh that idea out with a model. In the electronics world, we would build a model on a breadboard before soldering everything together. In much the same way that the industrial designer [Eric Strebel] makes models of his creations before creating the final version. In his latest video, he demonstrates the use of a CO2 laser for model making.

While this video could be considered a primer for using a laser cutter, watching some of the fine detail work that [Eric] employs is interesting in the way that watching any master craftsman is. He builds several cubes out of various materials, demonstrating the operation of the laser cutter and showing how best to assemble the “models”. [Eric] starts with acrylic before moving to wood, cardboard, and finally his preferred material: foam core. The final model has beveled edges and an interior cylinder, demonstrating many “tricks of the trade” of model building.

Of course, you may wish to build models of more complex objects than cubes. If you have never had the opportunity to use a laser cutter, you will quickly realize how much simpler the design process is with high-quality tools like this one. It doesn’t hurt to have [Eric]’s experience and mastery of industrial design to help out, either.

November 16 2019

The Ultimate Hacker’s Compact 4WD!

If you’ve spent any time at one of the larger European hacker camps over the last few years you’ll have seen the invasion of little electric vehicles sporting hoverboard motors as an all-in-one propulsion system. German hackers, in particular, have incorporated them into the iconic Bobby Car children’s toy, and ca be seen whizzing around looking slightly incongruous as adults perched on transport designed for five-year-olds.

[Peter Pötzi] has created just such an electric Bobby Car, and his one is particularly well-executed with a 3D-printed steering column extender and four motors for full 4WD rather than the usual two. A steering wheel-mounted display has a neat enclosure, and is fed SPI from the ESP32 that runs the show via an RJ45 patch cable. Many of these builds use hoverboard motor controllers with hacked firmware, but this one instead takes a set of off-the-shelf VESCs. Control comes via a set of Xbox 360 trigger buttons mounted to the underside of the steering wheel.

The result is typically self-contained as are all the Bobby Car builds, with the added bonus of the extra power of four motors rather than two. We’re not so sure that 4WD gives it off-road capabilities though, but having seen these vehicles perform some nifty maneuvers in the past perhaps it’ll lend extra traction on corners.

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2019 Superconference is Streaming Live Right Now!

Perhaps Pasadena is a bit too far from home, or maybe you waited a few milliseconds longer than you should have and missed the tickets when they went on sale. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the vast majority of Hackaday readers won’t be able to join us at the 2019 Superconference. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, you’ll still be able to see the incredible talks we’ve got lined up.

Starting at 10 AM Pacific on both Saturday and Sunday, the live stream will allow you to virtually attend the ultimate hardware conference in glorious high definition. Many of the talks this year have a specific focus on FPGAs (and we’ve got an incredible badge to match), but you’ll also see presentations on subjects such as hacking quantum key distribution systems, the creation of free-form circuit sculptures, debugging PCBs with augmented reality, and using Peltier coolers for fermentation. Saturday evening we’ll reveal the winner of the Hackaday Prize live on stage, and come Sunday you can unwind with a look at the best and brightest badge hacks from the weekend.

We won’t lie to you, there’s more going on at Supercon than we can possibly fit into a live video stream. At an event where nearly every flat surface will be playing host to somebody fiddling with a piece of interesting hardware, there’s only so much you can do vicariously. If anyone knows how you can take part in the SMD Soldering Challenge over the Internet, we’re all ears. Whether you’ll be with us in corporeal form or otherwise, don’t forget to join the official 2019 Hackaday Superconference Chat and use the #supercon hashtag on your social media time sink of choice.

The Book Of Dreams Brings Back All Your Memories

The retro-facing side of British social media has been abuzz for the last few days with a very neat piece of marketing form the catalogue retailer Argos: they’ve digitised all their catalogues since 1975 and put them online. While this contains a cross-section of over four decades’ styles, fads, and ephemera, it also gives the browser a fascinating look at a host of retrotechnology from a contemporary viewpoint rather than through the rose-tinted glasses of 2019. It may not be a hack, but we guarantee you’ll spend a while browsing it!

The 1975 edition as you might expect doesn’t have any computers, as the Altair 8800 probably wasn’t intended for the British retail market. There’s a feeling of a byegone era about to implode as we see typewriters, though the few calculators do give a hint of what is to come even if they do include slide rules and a couple of Olivetti mechanical models. Even the electronic digital watch is too much of a novelty to yet grace these pages. Entertainment is all analogue, with plenty of vinyl and cassette, plus the very 8-track player we did a teardown on a while back.

It's difficult to explain in 2019 how mind-blowing seeing one of these for the first time was. It’s difficult to explain in 2019 how mind-blowing seeing one of these for the first time was.

By 1977 not much has changed as for the most part we’re still in the analogue world of 1970s Britain, but a few hints are there of what is to come. TV games have made an appearance, though only as single-game Pong style consoles rather than what we’d recognise as a console. That would wait until 1979, with the Atari 2600 appearing alongside the Texas Instruments Speak and Spell in the toy section rather than alongside the televisions. There they are again in 1980, joined by the Milton Bradley BigTrak for fans of programmable toys, and in 1981 by the Mattel Intellivision.

Surprisingly 1982 is not all about the Sinclair ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, instead we see the first computer with a keyboard and it may be a name you’ve never heard of. The Philips G7000 was the European name for the Magnavox Odyssey, which was a relatively venerable four years old by the time Argos had it. If this is unexpected then perhaps it relates to how home computers were sold in the early 1980s, with more traditional retail outlets such as the WH Smiths newsagent having exclusive deals with manufacturers and selling them to parents as an education aid rather than to children as a toy. While we’re in 1982, it’s worth noting the brief appearance of CB radios as the CB boom was on a definite downslope.

For 1983 the home computer cat is well and truly out of the bag. Mattel, Commodore, and Texas Instruments are all there alongside the earlier consoles, which have melted away in 1984 as the ZX Spectrum and Atari 600 join the line-up. We are a world away from the first catalogue nearly a decade earlier, and the world will never be the same again. Succeeding years bring us through the history of home computers and consoles, dive into any of the catalogues and you’ll find them alongside the VHS video recorders and Eternal Beau breadbins.

Browsing this archive will provide a lot of readers with a chance to look again at the tech they had in their youth or wished they’d had in their youth. As a writer it’s been a particularly interesting journey not only through products once lusted after, but those from a decade earlier which arrived for repair or teardown by a teenaged hardware hacker. This has taken an hour of browsing through the pages to compile, don’t blame us if they occupy a similar proportion of your time too!

Sow Your Seed Efficiently With This Multi-Way Drop Seeder

Anyone who has ever had to propagate small plants from seed will know that efficiently sowing seed can be a difficult process. Getting a consistent number of seed in each point while achieving any sort of speed is almost impossible, and as a result it becomes a tedious process. If only there were some means by which it could be automated, perhaps a way to do a whole tray at once!

Fortunately [Michael Ratcliffe] is at hand, with his tray-sized drop seeder. It consists of two sheets of acrylic each with a grid of holes, offset from each other by able to be brought into alignment with a lever. Seed is shaken over the upper surface until all the holes contain some, and then the lever is operated allowing it to drop through into the soil below. There is a matching dibber if required to push the required grid of holes in the soil.

It’s a simple yet ingenious gadget that genuinely will make the lives of horticulturalists a lot easier, even though it might not be perfect for all types of seed. He’s created a video which we’ve placed below the break, and should you wish to create the dibber we’ve already covered it.

Speeding Up IOTA Proof Of Work Using FPGAs

Blockchain has existed as a concept since the early 1990s, but keeping a distributed ledger for IoT transactions wasn’t widely implemented until IOTA developed Tangle. The blockchain company was initially founded as a hardware startup and pivoted to work on transactional settlement for IoT. The Tangle, their distributed ledger architecture based on a directed acyclic graph (DAG) works as a “blockchain without the blocks and the chain”.

As its name implies, the Tangle is a web of transactions that references its past two transactions and a subsection of other transactions. Rather than miners and stakers being responsible for overall consensus, all active participants are involved in the approval of transactions. The transaction process requires the client to sign with their private keys, select two random unconfirmed transactions to be referenced, and perform proof-of-work.

The proof-of-work has an unfortunately high difficulty as you might expect. The process is similar to finding a nonce in Bitcoin mining, although the difficulty is set at a lower threshold due to the transactions running on lower-power nodes. Even so, since IOTA transactions commonly occur on small embedded platforms this can take several minutes to complete, a relatively long time considering these are mere transactions.

Since Curl-P81 hashes should be computed in parallel, they can’t be computed efficiently on general purpose CPUs. The PiDiver 1.3, [Thomas Pototschnig]’s port of the IOTA Reference Implementation (IRI) PearlDiver, performs searches for nonces. Because it runs on FPGAs, it is able to speed up the proof-of-work by a factor of more than 140 when compared to a Raspberry Pi. The FPGA is able to calculate one round of the hash in a single clock cycle, and a complete hash in 85 cycles (as well as testing for a valid nonce). Seven parallel hashes can be calculated at once, giving 15.8MHash/s at a frequency of 188MHz. The proof-of-work takes ~300ms on the FPGA when compared to 90s on a Raspberry Pi, so this is a significant improvement in speed.

Since the project is open source, the core can be used by IRI for creating a modified version of their PearlDiver.  The board can be used as a Raspberry Pi HAT, although it can also be connected via USB to work without the Pi.

While this doesn’t address the security concerns of using IOTA with personal IoT devices, it is certainly a significant improvement on the speed of their proof-of-work process, and the software speedup is incredibly satisfying to watch.

This Is The Bike You Wanted Your Dad To Make You When You Were Eight Years Old!

The ever-resourceful [Turbo Conquering Mega Eagle] has an excellent excuse for starting on projects, he’s building them for his kids and making videos. We’re not so sure his little motorcycle wasn’t built because Dad also wants to have a go though, because it seems he had quite a lot of fun testing it.

The build starts with a Chinese petrol conversion kit for a bicycle. There’s a little two-stroke motor and a basic chain drive to a large sprocket intended to fit on the opposite side of a bicycle wheel to the pedal sprocket. He uses a pair of pneumatic wheelbarrow wheels for which he makes a new bush and to which he welds the sprocket. These go into a fairly simple hardtail frame for which he makes a padded motorcycle seat, and from then on he’s ready to go.

The result is a rather cool little non-road-legal motorcycle that we suspect most readers will have a hankering to own. We’re not so sure about its seeming lack of brakes though. Judge for yourself, the video is below the break.

This isn’t the first home made small bike we’ve brought you, though it’s a lot safer than the first one.

This Handheld C64 Design Study Needs To Be Made

The Commodore 64 remains the best selling home computer of all time, and is unlikely to be toppled anytime soon. It continues to inspire a diehard community of makers and hackers to this day. [Cem Tezcan] is one of those people, and his design study of a handheld C64 is utterly droolworthy.

It’s quite likely that you’d run out of power before the cassette finished loading, but hey, we can dream.

The study includes renders of the device from several angles, as well as a basic blueprint outlining the various components. It features period accurate hardware, using a membrane keyboard, micro-cassettes for data storage, and a 3.5″ CRT. Other nice touches are the big red textured FIRE button, and a horrible early 80s 3.5mm jack.

The C64 hardware of the time required both 12 V and 5V power, and the current draw of even a small CRT would be high. It’s likely such a handheld would have battery life measured in minutes. It’s a wonderful picture of what could have been, though we suspect that such a design would have pushed the limits of the technology of the time.

However, electronics has matured since, and we sit here rather comfortably in 2019. We’d love to see the best handheld C64 that the community can muster, and with 3D printers and FPGAs on hand, it’s an eminently achievable feat. Bonus points to anyone who can make a microdatasette interface, too. All submissions to the tips line, and meanwhile, consider how easy it is to build a new C64 from scratch. Happy hacking!

Double Pendulum Uses Custom Slip Rings

Rotating mechanisms can be a headache when it becomes necessary to deliver power through them. [Igor Brkic] faced just such a challenge when creating his double-pendulum build, and solved it with a little DIY.

The project is known as KLAATNO, inspired by the Croatian word for pendulum, klatno. It’s a mechanical installation piece, consisting of a power-assisted pendulum, with a second pendulum fitted at the end of the swinging arm. A 24 volt geared motor is used to drive the assembly. It’s controlled by an Arduino Pro Mini, which measures the back EMF from the motor terminals to determine the speed and direction of the motor’s movement.

To make the installation more visually striking, EL wire was installed on the swinging arms of the twin pendulums. This required the transfer of power to the rotating assembly, which was achieved through the use of custom made slip rings. Copper sheet is used in combination with a flexible metal wire sourced from a guitar string. It’s not as low-friction as [Igor] would like, but it gets the job done.

It’s a fun installation that would be perfectly at home in the common area of any university engineering building. Of course, our favorite pendulums are of the siege weapon variety. Video after the break.

Music Box Paper-Punching Machine Settles The Score

As soon as [pashiran] laid eyes on his first hand-cranked music box, he knew he was in love. Then, he started punching the holes for his first ditty. As the repetitive stress of punching heated up his arm, his love cooled a bit. Annealed by the ups and downs of this experience, he decided to design a machine that can punch the holes automatically.

Soon, [pashiran] found his people — a community of music boxers that transform MIDI files to DXF format, which creates coordinates for CAD software. In [pashiran]’s music puncher, an Arduino MEGA takes a DXF file and bubble-sorts the jumble of x-coordinates. The MEGA conducts a trio of two stepper motors and DC motor. One stepper pushes the paper through on the x-axis, and the other moves the puncher head back and forth across the paper scroll as the y-axis. The DC motor moves the punch up and down.

Now, paired with [Martin] of [Wintergatan]’s method for chaining music box paper together, [pashiran] can write a prog-rock-length opus without fear of repetitive stress injury. And since he’s published the STL and INO files, now you can, too. Watch it punch and play 250 notes worth of “See My Vest” “Be Our Guest” after the break.

There’s more than one way to avoid manually punching all those holes. When [Wintergatan] was wrestling this problem, he inspired the hacker community to create a MIDI-to-laser-cut-stencil solution.

November 15 2019

A Self-Expanding PWM Driver

For smaller microcontrollers, having enough outputs for the job is sometimes a challenge. A common solution is to do some sort of multiplexing with the available outputs or perhaps something more advanced such as Charlieplexing, but another good option is to use a specialized driver board. What’s even better is if you can daisy chain driver boards to get even more outputs.

[Eric] has been working on a 16 channel LED project but first wanted to build a driver board with 8 channels. Before building a full 16 channel version he realized that he could take the same 8 channel board, make a mirror image of it, and attach it underneath the first board with headers in order to double the number of channels available. Without having to build a separate 16-channel board, this shortcut saved [Eric] some time and a great deal of effort.

This is a great example of working smarter, not harder. Each of the 8 or 16 channels has full PWM support as well to support PWM dimming, and a similar board could be built for motor control as well. It’s a good illustration of how good design can end up working for you as well. And if you need even more outputs, Charlieplexing is one way to get them.

Finally Your Air Drumming Has an Outlet

Two engineering students are hard at work on this air drum which they hope will help disabled people and people in nursing homes. Though, we think it just looks fun!

Each board is its own module consisting of the electronics and 3D printed cases. The modules each contain an arduino mini, IR sensor, and LEDs. They share power, audio, and communicate with an i2c bus. Two modules are special, one holds the power system and the other a Raspberry Pi. The units can be put together in different configurations. Finally, they are capped with speaker units.

The demo shown in the video, which you can see after the break, looks fun. The response time is pretty fast and it looks like you can measure all sorts of parameters. This can then be translated into different velocities, pitches, and instruments. It’s somewhere between a theremin and a drum kit, very cool.

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DSP Spreadsheet: IQ Diagrams

In previous installments of DSP Spreadsheet, we’ve looked at generating signals, mixing them, and filtering them. If you start trying to work with DSP, though, you’ll find a topic that always rears its head: IQ signals. It turns out, these aren’t as hard as they appear at first and, as usual, we’ll tackle them in a spreadsheet.

What does IQ stand for? The I stands for “in phase” and the Q stands for quadrature. By convention, the I signal is a cosine wave and the Q signal is a sine wave. Another way to say that is that the I and Q signals are 90 degrees out of phase. By manipulating the amplitude of I and Q, you can create complex modulation or, conversely, demodulate signals. We’ll see a spreadsheet that shows that completely next time.

For now, though, consider a sine wave of frequency f that has relative phase Φ. That is just a fancy way to say that if you pick one point to be the “zero” point of a reference sine wave (even if it doesn’t really exist) the wave in question will be shifted over from that point. We saw in the last installment that a sine wave and a cosine wave are the same except for phase and you can model them like this: y=A*cos(2πft+Φ). If the phase angle (Φ) is -90 degrees, you have a sine wave.

Practically Speaking…

In practical terms, changing the amplitude of a signal is easy. The frequency is a bit harder, but we can arrange for that to change, too. Phase is typically hard to modify though. However, with a little trigonometry we can rewrite that equation: A*cos(2πft+Φ)=I*cos(2πft)-Q*sin(2πft)

That’s a remarkable result. By picking the right I and Q values, you can take a cosine and sine wave and create any arbitrary sine wave you like. If you don’t believe it, have a look at the Trig Identity tab on this spreadsheet.

Spreadsheet Time

You can set the parameters in column A. Column D is the generated cosine wave using the first formula. Then we generate the zero-phase cosine and sine waves in columns E and F. Finally, we plug in values for I and Q and compute the second equation in column I.

The I and Q values are calculated. At the point where the cosine in column E is 1, column F will be zero. That means that column D will contain the I value. By the same token, at the point that the sine in column F is 1, the cosine must be zero and, again, column D will have the negative of the Q value (because remember, the Q term is subtracted).

Playing with this is quite illustrative. Try phase angles of 0 degrees, 45 degrees, 90 degrees, and 180 degrees. What happens to the I and Q values? What happens to the graphs?

It is handy to plot the amplitude of the I and Q on a graph where the I component is on the X-axis and the Q is on the Y-axis. You can treat this as a vector — that is, draw a point at (X,Y) = (I, Q) and then draw an arrow from the graph origin to the point. The phase angle of the signal will be the angle between the X axis and the arrow.

A Little Trig

When you plot a vector like the one here, keep in mind that if you count I as X, Q as Y, and the length of the vector as r, the following relations that include the angle the vector forms with the X-axis (Φ) are true:




You might also find the following useful:



Thought Experiments

You’ll get more chances to play with these diagrams in the next installment of this series, but for now, consider this. If Q was always zero, you’d get a straight horizontal line with the magnitude of I. If I were zero, you’d get a horizontal line with the magnitude of Q.

However, for a sine wave, the only zeros come at 1/2 the frequency. For a cosine wave, the zeros start at time zero and also repeat every 180 degrees.

Make a copy of the spreadsheet and overwrite the values at locations I3 and I4. If you make I and Q the same you will get a vector that is either 45 degrees or 225 degrees. If you make the magnitudes the same but the signs different you will split the other quadrants. What happens if I is greater than Q or vice versa?

If you set columns B and C to be a sine wave and use the arrow keys on the original spreadsheet (this requires a simple script; you can also just plug an index into E1), you’ll see the vector rotates along with the sine wave’s motion. What happens if I is a sine wave and Q is a cosine wave or vice versa?

How Do You Get There?

How do you get an arbitrary signal into IQ form? The most common way is to mix it — something we already know how to do — with a reference cosine and sine wave. However, there are other ways, like the Tayloe detector in the video below.

We will see more of the conventional method next time, but you should really take time to play with these models and get a good feel for how signals decompose into IQ samples.

Needling Your Projects: 3D Printed PCB Probing Jig Uses Accupuncture Needles

Trying to probe a modern electronic circuit with tiny SMD components, without letting the magic smoke escape in the process, can be quite a challenge. Especially since we hackers have not yet developed the number of appendages required to hold 3 different probes in place while operating both an oscilloscope and a computer. [Giuseppe Finizia] solved this problem with a 3D printed PCB probing jig that uses acupuncture needles.

As part of [Giuseppe] day job as an engineer at an electronic forensics laboratory, he does technical investigations on seized devices, which involves quite a bit of probing. The jig consists of a base plate with slots in which PCB holders of various configurations slide to hold all shapes and sizes of PCBs. Around the circumference of the plate there are multiple positions for adjustable probing “cranes”, each of which hold an acupuncture needle that is crimped or soldered to a wire. Each needle holder has a bit of flex which allows it to maintain downward pressure for a positive connection.

Making one-off tools and jigs is arguably one of the best applications for 3D printing, of which this is a perfect example. You can of course point solder wires or use test hooks if you have something to grab onto, but for easily probing multiple point on any PCB, this looks like a damn good solution. If you’re trying to trace a single signal, a precision pantograph might be your friend, or you can add a foot switch to your oscilloscope for quickly checking a circuit by hand.

[Jonathon Oxer] from the YouTube channel SuperHouse did a very nice video on the jig and made some small modifications. Check out the video after the break.

This Week in Security: Fuzzing Fixes, Foul Fonts, TPM Timing Attacks, and More!

An issue was discovered in libarchive through Google’s ClusterFuzz project. Libarchive is a compression and decompression library, widely used in utilities. The issue here is how the library recovers from a malformed archive. Hitting an invalid header causes the memory in use to be freed. The problem is that it’s possible for file processing to continue even after that working memory has been freed, leading to all kinds of problems. So far an actual exploit hasn’t been revealed, but it’s likely that one is possible. The problem was fixed back in May, but the issue was just announced to give time for that update to percolate down to users.

Of note is the fact that this issue was found through Google’s fuzzing efforts. Google runs the oss-fuzz project, which automatically ingests nightly builds from around 200 open source projects and runs ClusterFuzz against them. This process of throwing random data at programs and functions has revealed over 14,000 bugs.

PDF Documents and Embedded Fonts

Adobe recently released a security update for Reader. There are a bunch of vulnerabilities in this update, but the one that caught my eye was CVE-2019-8196. This too was discovered through fuzzing, though in this case it was randomly manipulating a valid PDF document that produced the malformed file. Changes to an embedded font led to reading from an uninitialized memory location. It’s worrying that after nearly ten years of font related vulnerabilities, crashes like this are still possible.

Trusted Platform Module Timing Attack

The Trusted Platform Module is a piece of hardware embedded on many motherboards that allows offloading cryptographic operations. The purpose of moving tasks like signing and encryption off the CPU isn’t for speed benefits, in this case. Instead, the TPM is intended to be a trusted platform even if the operating system has been compromised. A new study, aptly named TPM Fail, has illustrated a timing attack that reveals one of the secret keys embedded in the TPM.

Timing attacks turn normal programming paradigms on their head. For instance, when using grep to look for the first instance of a string in a large file, you want the operation to complete as quickly as possible. If the data you’re searching for is found in the top 10% of the file, it’s obvious that the search program should stop searching and return an answer as soon as it’s found. What’s less obvious is the information leaked by the amount of time it takes grep to find your pattern. Imagine running several such searches on the same file, all looking for different strings. Given the timing data and source file, it would be possible to make an educated guess at the search strings.

A typical example of this in the real world is a string comparison routine. If the first characters of two strings are different, the routine can return immediately, but if the first 10 characters are the same and the strings don’t diverge till the 11th character, that routine will take that much longer to run the comparison. Given enough time to observe comparisons, an attacker could work out the secret string one character at a time. The longer the comparison time, the more characters are correct. The standard solution to this dilemma is using constant-time functions. In our string comparison example, this would mean comparing every character of the strings, regardless of how different they are.

The researchers in question discovered that certain TPM 2.0 implementations failed to use constant-time algorithms when doing elliptic curve routines. So how bad is the result? On a vulnerable system, the secret TPM key can be extracted in 20 minutes at the longest, assuming the attacker could run code on that machine. Even worse, in the case of a VPN like StrongSwan powered by a TPM, the secret key could be extracted in 5 hours of network traffic.

Software implementations can be patched, but hardware TPMs are much harder to fix, as they aren’t flashable by design. The math of how the secret key maps to the timing variations is a bit complicated, but it’s all in the paper, so go take a look.

Zombieload Returns From the Dead

Very appropriately, considering the name, Zombieload has risen once again in the form of Zombieload V2. This time the problem is the Transactional Synchronization Extensions (TSX) in modern Intel processors. Existing mitigations weren’t enough to prevent the TSX Asynchronous Abort (TAA) vulnerability, so this attack wasn’t disclosed with the rest of the Zombieload details. What makes TAA particularly problematic is that a process doesn’t need to use the TSX instructions, all that’s needed is for an attacker to have access to them. For a vulnerable processor, the ultimate solution is to disable TSX instructions altogether. The Linux kernel documentation has some of the most useful information I’ve found.

Windows Attacks

A pair of attacks against Windows systems came to light recently. First is Ghost Potato, an NTLM reflection attack. NTLM is the authentication solution built into Windows. There have been a bunch of attacks against NTLM over the years, and mitigations against those attacks. One of the side-effects of Windows being closed-source is that it’s not always clear how exactly those mitigations work. Ghost Potato is an example of how trivial those mitigations can be to bypass, once an attacker understand how they work.

The essence of NTLM reflection attacks is that if an attacker can trick a user into trying to perform an NTLM authentication with a malicious machine. That authentication is then replayed back at the connecting machine in real time, essentially causing the victim to authenticate with their own machine. Once authentication finished, the attacker can take over the session and act as the authenticated user. One of the ways this attack was mitigated was a record of the cryptographic challenges. Incoming challenge messages are compared to those recently sent, and a collision is probably an attack. The problem is in how quickly challenges are aged out of that cache: 5 minutes. It’s possible to stretch an NTLM authentication session past that 5 minute mark. At that point, sending a second bogus connection attempt will push the targeted message off the end of the cache, and the reflection attempt will succeed. It’s clever, and it was fixed in the November Patch Tuesday update to Windows.

Bitlocker is the disk/folder encryption solution that’s been baked into Windows ever since Windows Vista. A group of researchers just published a paper detailing the state-of-the-art password cracking techniques applied to Bitlocker. Their Bitcracker program contains a couple of novel performance improvements. First, they realized that part of the Bitlocker decryption algorithm could be partially pre-computed. A 256 Mb lookup table was built, which shaves a bit of time off of each password attempt.

The second improvement is a way to quickly determine if the decryption attempt was successful before doing all the calculations normally required. Bitlocker decryption normally ends with calculating and comparing a Message Authentication Code. If the calculated MAC matches what is expected, then the password was correct. It was noticed that the output of a proper decryption was recognizable without calculating the MAC. In essence, they were able to quickly determine whether the result of a given password attempt was giving a plausible output without completing the process. This shortcut can result in some false positives, but the number of false positives are low enough to make the approach well worth the effort.

When using high-end CUDA enabled GPUs, they were able to test well over 100 million passwords in a day. This isn’t really enough performance to brute-force a good password, but certainly makes a large dictionary attack trivial. Their conclusion was that it’s still important to use good passwords that don’t appear on password lists.

Credit Card Skimmers Evolve – Shimmers Are Here

Credit cards are loaded with security features, but the game of cat and mouse goes on. Nefarious syndicates continue to develop technology to steal data in new and innovate ways. After SparkFun did a teardown on some illicit hardware, they were visited by local law enforcement, who requested their help once more.

[Nick] from SparkFun refers to the device in question as a “shimmer”. It’s intended to be installed inside the chip reader of a credit card terminal, in between the terminal and the user’s credit card. Fabricated on a flexible film PCB, it’s thin enough to glue inside without being obvious even during maintenance.

The investigation begins with identification of the major components on board, followed by attempts to communicate with the device. Unfortunately, the hardware was largely unresponsive, even when connected to a card reader. In an effort to learn more, a schematic was produced. [Nick]’s analysis raised more questions than answers, and the suspicion is that the hardware may have been damaged at some point. However, the basic capabilities of the device are obvious, given the ability of the hardware to interact with a card via its contacts and offload the data through the onboard nRF24L01 radio module.

Thanks to people like [Nick], and earlier work from SparkFun, we all now have a better understanding of the risks when using payment terminals out in the wild. Unfortunately, unless your local gas station is willing to let you spend 20 minutes disassembling their card reader before paying, there’s not a whole lot the individual can do about it. Stay vigilant, and if you’ve got the skinny on a skimmer, drop us a line.

A Radio for the Apocalypse

There’s been a spate of apocalypse related articles over the last few weeks, but when I saw an AM radio made from a hand-wound coil and an oxidized British penny, I couldn’t help but be impressed. We’ve covered foxhole radios, stereotypical radios that are cobbled together from found parts during wartime.

This example uses a variable capacitor for tuning, but that’s technically optional. All that’s really needed is a coil and something to work as a diode. Surprisingly, copper oxide is a semiconductor, and the surface oxidation on a penny is enough to form a rudimentary diode. Though, note, not all pennies have that necessary coating of copper. If a penny has green oxide, it’s likely a candidate.

Need a quickly cobbled together AM radio? Have some wire and a penny? Yeah, watch the video below the break, and you’ll know how to make it happen. When the apocalypse comes, you’ll thank us.

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