Cheap FPGA Board Roundup

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Cheap FPGA Board Roundup

There’s never been a better time to get into using FPGAs. Nearly all vendors have some level of free software and while boards haven’t gotten as cheap as ones with microcontrollers, the prices are way down. [Joel Williams] was frustrated when his board of choice became unavailable, so he decided to compile data on as many cheap boards as he could.

[Joel] covers the major vendors like Intel and Altera. But he also includes information on Actel, Cypress, and Lattice. While the list probably isn’t comprehensive, it is a lot of information about many popular boards. The notes are helpful and point out oddities about the boards in many cases.

We didn’t see our favorite — the Lattice iCeStick — on the list. But there were some boards in the $10 range including the UPDuino, which looks like fun and will stack with an Arduino Nano or Pro. We also saw another of our favorites, the MAX1000 board which is a great little low-cost board.

We liked [Joel’s] comments about not worrying too much about the things you could add easily like serial memory and character LCDs. He suggests you worry more about things that you want that would be hard for you to add yourself, such as an Ethernet port, or HDMI. The list was updated a few months ago and we hope [Joel] will continue to maintain it. He does solicit suggestions.

If you are interested in learning about FPGAs, we have a set of boot camps for you at Hackaday.io, that you might like to check out.

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What Will You Do If WWVB Goes Silent?

Buried on page 25 of the 2019 budget proposal for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), under the heading “Fundamental Measurement, Quantum Science, and Measurement Dissemination”, there’s a short entry that has caused plenty of debate and even a fair deal of anger among those in the amateur radio scene:

NIST will discontinue the dissemination of the U.S. time and frequency via the NIST radio stations in Hawaii and Ft. Collins, CO. These radio stations transmit signals that are used to synchronize consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches, and may be used in other applications like appliances, cameras, and irrigation controllers.

The NIST stations in Hawaii and Colorado are the home of WWV, WWVH, and WWVB. The oldest of these stations, WWV, has been broadcasting in some form or another since 1920; making it the longest continually operating radio station in the United States. Yet in order to save approximately $6.3 million, these time and frequency standard stations are potentially on the chopping block.

What does that mean for those who don’t live and breathe radio? The loss of WWV and WWVH is probably a non-event for anyone outside of the amateur radio world. In fact, most people probably don’t know they even exist. Today they’re primarily used as frequency standards for calibration purposes, but in recent years have been largely supplanted by low-cost oscillators.

But WWVB on the other hand is used by millions of Americans every day. By NIST’s own estimates, over 50 million timepieces of some form or another automatically synchronize their time using the digital signal that’s been broadcast since 1963. Therein lies the debate: many simply don’t believe that NIST is going to shut down a service that’s still actively being used by so many average Americans.

The problem lies with the ambiguity of the statement. That the older and largely obsolete stations will be shuttered is really no surprise, but because the NIST budget doesn’t specifically state whether or not the more modern WWVB is also included, there’s room for interpretation. Especially since WWVB and WWV are both broadcast from Ft. Collins, Colorado.

What say the good readers of Hackaday? Do you think NIST is going to take down the relatively popular WWVB? Are you still using devices that sync to WWVB, or have they all moved over to pulling their time down over the Internet? If WWVB does go off the air, are you prepared to setup your own pirate time station?

[Thanks to AG6QR for the tip.]

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OMEN Alpha: A DIY 8085-Based Computer

[Martin Malý] has put together a sweet little 8085-based single board computer called OMEN. He needed a simple one for educational purposes, and judging by the schematic we think he’s succeeded.

Now in its fourth iteration, it has a 32K EEPROM, 32K of memory, one serial and three parallel ports. In the ROM he’s put Tiny BASIC and Dave Dunfield’s MON85 Serial Monitor with Roman Borik’s improvements. His early demos include the obligatory blinking LED, playing 8-bit music to a speaker, and also a 7-segment LED display with a hexadecimal keyboard. There is also a system connector which allows you to connect a keyboard, a display, and other peripherals. Of course, you can connect serially at up to 115200 baud, making it very easy to compile some assembly on a PC and use the monitor to paste the hex into the board’s memory and run it. Or you can just jump into the Tiny BASIC interpreter and have some nostalgic fun. He demos all this in the video below.

He’s given enough detail for you to make your own and he also has the boards available in kit form on Tindie for a very reasonable price. With some minimal soldering skills, you can be back in the ’80s in no time.

Part of [Martin’s] interest in these vintage computers stems from his having grown up in the ’80s in Eastern Europe when it was impossible for him to have a computer of his own. We’re glad then that he wrote up his experience with home computers behind the iron curtain as well as the peripherals.

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Simple ESP8266 Weather Station using Blynk

Today’s hacker finds themself in a very interesting moment in time. The availability of powerful microcontrollers and standardized sensor modules is such that assembling the hardware for something like an Internet-connected environmental monitor is about as complex as building with LEGO. Hardware has become elementary in many cases, leaving software as the weak link. It’s easy to build the sensor node to collect the data, but how do you display it in a useful and appealing way?

This simple indoor temperature and humidity sensor put together by [Shyam Ravi] shows one possible solution to the problem using Blynk. In the video after the break, he first walks you through wiring the demonstration hardware, and then moves on to creating the Blynk interface. While it might not be the ideal solution for all applications, it does show you how quickly you can go from a handful of components on the bench to displaying useful data.

In addition to the NodeMCU board, [Shyam] adds a DHT11 sensor and SSD1306 OLED display. He’s provided a wiring diagram in the repository along with the Arduino code for the ESP8266, but the hardware side of this demonstration really isn’t that important. You could omit the OLED or switch over to something like a BME280 sensor if you wanted to. The real trick is in the software.

For readers who haven’t played with it before, Blynk is a service that allows you to create GUIs to interact with microcontrollers from anywhere in the world. The code provided by [Shyam] reads the humidity and temperature data from the DHT11 sensor, and “writes” it to the Blynk service. From within the application, you can then visualize that data in a number of ways using the simple drag-and-drop interface.

We’ve seen Blynk and ESP8266 used to control everything from mood lighting to clearance-rack robotic toys. It’s a powerful combination, and something to keep in mind next time you need to knock something together in short order.

Posted in blynk, dht11, environmental monitoring, ESP8266, how-to, Microcontrollers | Leave a comment

Rewinding Live Radio

Even though it’s now a forgotten afterthought in the history of broadcasting technology, we often forget how innovative the TiVo was. All this set-top box did was connect a hard drive to a cable box, but the power was incredible: you could pause live TV. You could record shows. You could rewind TV. It was an incredible capability, that no one had ever seen before. Of course, between Amazon and Netflix and YouTube, no one watches TV anymore, and all those platforms have a pause button, but the TiVO was awesome.

There is one bit of broadcasting that still exists. Radio. For his Hackaday Prize entry, [MagicWolfi] is bringing the set-top box to radio. He’s invented the Radio Rewind Button, and it does exactly what you would expect: it rewinds live radio a few minutes.

To have a pause or rewind button on a TV or radio, the only real requirement is a bunch of memory. The TiVO did this with a hard drive, and [MagicWolfi] is doing this with 256 MB of SDRAM. That means he needs to access a ton of RAM, and for that he’s turning to the Digilent ARTY S7 board. Yes, it’s an FPGA, but actually a fairly simple solution to the problem.

The rest of the circuit is an FM receiver chip and an I2S audio codec on an Arduino-shaped daughterboard. The main controller for this project is a big red button that will simply rewind the audio stream a few minutes. There’s no telling exactly how long [MagicWolfi] will be able to rewind the audio stream, but 256 MB is a ton in the audio world.

Posted in 2018 Hackaday Prize, digital audio hacks, fpga, radio, radio hacks, The Hackaday Prize, TiVo | Leave a comment

The Forgotten Art of Riveted Structures

If you are in the habit of seeking out abandoned railways, you may have stood in the shadow of more than one Victorian iron bridge. Massive in construction, these structures have proved to be extremely robust, with many of them still in excellent condition even after years of neglect.

A handsome riveted railway bridge, over the River Avon near Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.A handsome riveted railway bridge, over the River Avon near Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.

When you examine them closely, an immediate difference emerges between them and any modern counterparts, unlike almost all similar metalwork created today they contain no welded joints. Arc welders like reliable electrical supplies were many decades away when they were constructed, so instead they are held together with hundreds of massive rivets. They would have been prefabricated in sections and transported to the site, where they would have been assembled by a riveting gang with a portable forge.

So for an audience in 2018, what is a rivet? If you’ve immediately thought of a pop rivet then it shares the function of joining two sheets of material by pulling them tightly together, but differs completely in its construction. These rivets start life as pieces of steel bar formed into pins with one end formed into a mushroom-style dome, probably in a hot drop-forging process.

A rivet is heated to red-hot, then placed through pre-aligned holes in the sheets to be joined, and its straight end is hammered to a mushroom shape to match the domed end. The rivet then cools down and contracts, putting it under tension and drawing the two sheets together very tightly. Tightly enough in fact that it can form a seal against water or high-pressure steam, as shown by iron rivets being used in the construction of ships, or high-pressure boilers. How is this possible? Let’s take a look!

How Rivets are Formed

The above simple description of the process leaves out a few details. Rivet snap and set tools — heavy solid steel formers to fit both the straight and mushroom shaped ends of the rivet — are used on both ends of the rivet, on the mushroom end to hold it in place while it is being hammered, and at the straight end to hammer the sheets together with the snap and form a smooth new mushroom shape with the set. Thus a typical riveting gang such as that working on a railway bridge would have included two people working on the rivet itself, one on either end. Sometimes the person holding the set on the mushroom end would have to crawl into confined spaces such as inside a boiler to perform this task.

In the Victorian era the work would have been all done by hand, the rivet shaped by repeated blows to the set by a hammer, but from the early 20th century onwards a typical riveting gang would have used a hand-held pneumatic riveting gun. If you think of the tool Rosie the Riveter was often depicted as holding, you’re in the right place. However as the video below from 1949 shows, the scene would have otherwise changed little from the Victorian era, with the operator of a small forge tossing glowing rivets up to a worker who catches them in mid-air before placing them in the hole to be forged.

Swapping Rivets for Welders or Bolts

In 2018, you are only likely to encounter this type of iron rivet being used in heritage restoration work or in work that is intended to emulate it (The aviation industry uses rivets, but not quite the same as the ones you’d find in boilers or railway bridges!). Even then, as for example with the boiler on the new-build steam locomotive Tornado which was welded rather than riveted, it is by no means a given that rivets will be used. You can see a video of a modern-day riveting gang installing a boiler patch at LNWR Heritage in Crewe though, typical of this kind of riveting work. It’s ironic that even one of the most iconic riveters was pictured at a time when the practice was dying out, Rosie the Riveter’s portrait appeared while American shipyards were embracing the welder. Structural steel with mating holes is still used today, but high-strength bolts of a quality unavailable during the height of riveting have completely taken the place of rivets.

Speaking personally as a Hackaday scribe, my dad had occasional need to rivet as a blacksmith. Done by hand with the set positioned in the hardy hole of an anvil it was a more difficult job for an enthusiastic teen than you might expect, and I remember more than one attempt that emerged with distinct play in the resulting joint. I suspect I hadn’t managed to keep my rivet hot enough and thus its contraction had been less than it should have been. The rivets we were using were smaller than the ones in the videos after all. Perhaps if there had been handy online tutorials back in the day I’d have had more success.

Header image: Simon Lee [CC BY-SA 2.0].

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Badgelife, The Hardware Demoscene Documentary

Last week, tens of thousands of people headed home from Vegas, fresh out of this year’s DEF CON. This was a great year for DEF CON, especially when it comes to hardware. This was the year independent badges took over, thanks to a small community of people dedicated to creating small-run hardware, puzzles, and PCB art for thousands of conference-goers. This is badgelife, a demoscene of hardware, and this is just the beginning. It’s only going to get bigger from here on out.

We were lucky enough to sit down with a few of the creators behind the badges of this year’s DEF CON and the interviews were fantastic. Right here is a lesson on electronic design, manufacturing, and logistics. If you’ve ever wanted to be an engineer that ships a product instead of a lowly maker that ships a product, this is the greatest classroom in the world.

Although badgelife may seem like a bunch of hardware engineers sitting behind a pick and place machine for a weekend’s worth of lulz, this is a masterclass of product design and manufacturing. Badgelife is product development, and unlike many other hardware design jobs, the ship date will not slip for any reason. The hardware must be done on time, and if you’re not shipping all the features you promised everyone will be upset. Badgelife is the best experience you’ll ever get in engineering for production, product design, and manufacturing.

The Greatest, and Most Coveted Badge

One of the most coveted badges at this year’s DEF CON was the one from AND!XOR. This team of engineers consisting of [zapp], [Hyr0n], [Bitstr3m], [8bit] and a few others have been creating independent badges for three years now. Their Bender badges are consistently held up as the example of what badgelife is all about: custom hardware turned into art on a tight production schedule. How do they do it? Effectively, they work backwards. Instead of throwing a microcontroller and some art on a board, they first figure out what they want the badge to do, and select their parts from there. The cost of prototyping, the number of expected failures, and the total cost of goods sold is all taken into account before the design is finalized. Only then do they make the prototypes and reach out to Kickstarter to fund the rest of the production run. This year was exceptional in that regard: AND!XOR sold 300 of their fantastic Bender badges overnight. Hundreds more were sold at the con.

The Official Badge

When it comes to manufacturing challenges, there’s no comparison to the main DEF CON badge. This year, the official badge was brought to life by a hardware collective known as Tymkrs. DEF CON reached out to the Tymkrs after seeing their incredible cubic badge from last year’s Cyphercon, and after months of work the Tymkrs managed to ship over 28,000 badges for this year’s DEF CON.

The theme for this year’s DEF CON, and this year’s DEF CON badge, is 1983, the year before the Orwellian hellscape of 1984. This is the year where it was still possible to change something, even though Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. This idea gave the Tymkrs an idea for a game in the badge, where your choices affect those around you. This is done by ‘mating’ different badge together through a hermaphroditic connector. Plug two badges into each other, and it affects the status of each badge.

If there’s one problem with manufacturing 28,000 of something, it’s programming the microcontroller on every board. The best way to program thousands and thousands of chips is to have them programmed off the assembly line. For any DEF CON badge with a production timeline of a few months, there simply isn’t time for that. The next option is to have the chips programmed before they’re put on a reel. This is what the Tymkrs planned to do, but three weeks before the con their supplier reached out and told them they had no idea how to program these microcontrollers. Without a moment to spare, the Tymkrs said to ship them to the fab in China, asked the factory to hire some temp workers, and had dozens of people programming badges as they came out of a reflow oven. If you’re wondering how high someone’s blood pressure can go, just ask the Tymkrs.

No One Says You Need To Ship Thousands

The exquisite coin-op badge developed soley by badgemaker extraordinaire [Mike Szczys]But of course shipping a con’s worth of badges isn’t for everyone. Sometimes you don’t need to go big to make a huge impact on badgelife. Sometimes you only need to ship a few dozen units.

One of the stand-out badges of this year’s DEF CON was the Coin-Op badge from Hackaday Editor in Chief and Mister Hackaday himself, [Mike Szczys].

[Mike] has been involved in a number of badge projects before, from the 2017 Superconference ‘camera’ badge to the 2018 Belgrade retrocomputer badge, but he hasn’t gone deep and built a badge entirely by himself before. This changed with the Coin-Op badge, a badge inspired by the greatest video game ever, Galaga.

The design for the Coin-Op badge began on July 1st, and consisted of a Galaga ship-shaped board loaded up with LEDs and microcontrollers. [Mike] assembled almost sixty of these by hand in his basement by the end of the month, just in time for DEF CON. This was one of the great badges this year, and would have been in the running for the Badgelife contest if [Mike] wasn’t also tapped for his expertise as a badgelife contest judge. It just goes to show you don’t need to produce hundreds of badges — sometimes just a few dozen will make a huge impact.

It’s A Demoscene of Hardware

The rise of badgelife is one of the greatest advances in DIY hardware. This is the only place you’ll find people designing and manufacturing items on an extremely condensed time scale, all on their own. This is a demoscene of hardware, with dozens of groups showing off what they can do with limited resources and limited time. If the Commodore and Amiga demo shows are the top tier of software developers, badgelife is the Olympics for hardware engineers. This is it, and it’s only going to get better from here.

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The Engineering Of An Ultrasonic Phased Array

Ultrasonic phased arrays are one of the wonders of the moment, with videos of small items being levitated by them shared far and wide. We’ve all seen them and some of us have even wondered about building them, but what about the practical considerations? Just how would you drive a large array of ultrasonic transducers, and how would you maintain a consistent phase relationship between their outputs? It’s a problem [Niklas Fauth] has been grappling with over the three iterations so far of his ultrasonic phased array project, and you can follow his progress on the latest build.

The arrays themselves are a 16 by 16 grid of cheap ultrasonic transducers on a PCB, fed by HV583 high-voltage shift registers. These chips have proven to be particularly problematic, their drivers having a relatively high internal resistance which leaves them prone to overheating.

An interesting solution to a problem comes from the transducers having a polarity, but because it doesn’t matter in their usual application, that polarity not being marked. He’s overcome this by using the STM32 he has managing power alongside his BeagleBone to listen through a sensor as the ‘Bone supplies each transducer in turn with a known phase. An internal map can then be created, such that the appropriate phase can be applied on a transducer-by-transducer basis.

It’s the fascination with the subject that we find appealing, this is version three and version two worked. Most of us would make one and call it a day. It’s something we’ve seen before from [Niklas], after all this is someone who plays with turbomolecular pumps for fun. Meanwhile if you would like to learn more about ultrasonic arrays and acoustic levitation, it was the subject of one of this year’s Hackaday Belgrade talks.

Posted in digital audio hacks, phased array, ultrasonic array, ultrasonic levitation | Leave a comment

Restoring A 100 Year Old Vice To Pristine Condtion

We love our vices. They hold pipes for us to saw away at, wood while we carve, and circuit boards so that we can solder on components. So we keep them in shape by cleaning and greasing them every now and then, [MakeEverything] went even further. He found a 100-year-old vice that was in very rough shape and which was going to be thrown out and did a beautiful restoration job on it.

It was actually worse than in rough shape. At some point, one of the jaws had been replaced by welding on a piece of rebar where the jaw would normally go. So he made entirely new jaws from solid brass as well as the pins to hold them firmly in place. We applaud his attention to detail. After removing all the old paint and corrosion, he painted it with a “hammered” spray paint to give it a nice hammered look. Though when he made the raised letters stand out by applying gold paint to them using an oil-based paint marker, we felt that was just showing off. The result is almost too gorgeous to use, but he assures us he will use it. You can see his process, as well as have a good look at the newly revived vice in the video below.

A while ago, we asked Hackaday readers what their favorite tools are. Check out the discussion and pipe in with your own.

Posted in bench tools, restoration, tool hacks, tools, vice | Leave a comment