Category Archives: Hacking

Would You Look At That Yaw Control

[Jeff Bezos] might be getting all the credit for developing a rocket that can take off and land vertically, but [Joe Barnard] is doing it the hard way. He’s doing it with Estes motors you can pick up in any hobby shop. He’s doing it with a model of a Falcon 9, and he’s on his way to launching and landing a rocket using nothing but solid propellant.

The key to these launches is, of course, the flight controller, This is the Signal flight controller, and it has everything you would expect from a small board meant to mount in the frame of a model rocket. There’s a barometer, an IMU, a buzzer (important!), Bluetooth connectivity, and a microSD card slot for data logging. What makes this flight computer different is the addition of two connectors for standard hobby servos. With the addition of a 3D printed adapter, this flight controller adds thrust vectoring control. That means a rocket will go straight up without the use of fins.

We’ve seen [Joe]’s work before, and things have improved significantly in the last year and a half. The latest update from last weekend was a scale model (1/48) of the Falcon Heavy. In a 45-second video, [Joe]’s model of the Falcon Heavy launches on the two booster rockets, lights the center core, drops the two boosters and continues on until the parachutes unfurl. This would be impressive without active guidance of the motor, and [Joe] is adding servos and launch computers to the mix. It’s awesome, and certainly unable to be exported from the US.

from Blog – Hackaday

A YouTube Subscriber Counter With A Tetris Twist

When it comes to YouTube subscriber counters, there’s not much wiggle room for creativity. Sure, you can go with Nixies or even more exotic displays, but in the end a counter is just a bunch of numbers.

But [Brian Lough] found a way to jazz things up with this Tetris-playing YouTube sub counter. For those of you not familiar with [Brian]’s channel, it’s really worth a watch. He tends toward long live-stream videos where he works on one project for a marathon session, and there’s a lot to learn from peeking over his virtual shoulder. This project stems from an earlier video, posted after the break, which itself was a condensation of several sessions hacking with the RGB matrix that would form the display for this project. He’s become enamored of the cheap and readily-available 64×32 pixel RGB displays, and borrowing an idea from Mc Lighting author [toblum], he decided that digits being assembled from falling Tetris blocks would be a nice twist. [Brian] had to port the Tetris-ifying code to Arduino before getting the ESP8266 to do the work of getting the subs and updating the display. We think the display looks great, and the fact that the library is open and available means that you too can add Tetris animations to your projects.

None of this is to say that more traditional sub counters can’t be cool too. From a minimalist display to keeping track of all your social media, good designs are everywhere. And adding a solid copper play button is a nice touch too.

from Blog – Hackaday

Calm Down: It’s Only Assembly Language

Based on [Ben Jojo’s] title — x86 Assembly Doesn’t have to be Scary — we assume that normal programmers fear assembly. Most hackers don’t mind it, but we also don’t often have an excuse to program assembly for desktop computers.

In fact, the post is really well suited for the typical hacker because it focuses the on real mode of an x86 processor after it boots. What makes this tutorial a little more interesting than the usual lecture is that it has interactive areas, where a VM runs your code in the browser after assembling with NASM.

We really like that format of reading a bit and then playing with some code right in the browser. There is something surreal about watching a virtual PC booting up inside your browser. Yeah, we’ve seen it before, but it still makes our eyebrows shoot up a little.

We hope he’ll continue this as a series, because right now it stops after talking about a few BIOS functions. We’d love to see more about instructions, indexing, string prefixes, and even moving to code that would run under Linux or Windows. It would be nice, too, if there was some information about setting up a local environment. Now if you want to make a serious investment and you use Linux, this book is a lot to chew on but will answer your questions.

Of course, there are many tutorials, but this is a fun if brief introduction. If you want to know more about assembly outside the browser, we covered that. If you really want to write a real bootloader, there’s help for that, too.

from Blog – Hackaday

Refurbishing A DEC 340 Monitor

Back in the “good old days” movie theaters ran serials. Every week you’d pay some pocket change and see what happened to Buck Rogers, Superman, or Tex Granger that week. Each episode would, of course, end in a cliffhanger. [Keith Hayes] has started his own serial about restoring a DEC 340 monitor found in a scrap yard in Australia. The 340 — not a VT340 — looks like it could appear in one of those serials, with its huge cabinets and round radar-like display. [Keith] describes the restoration as “his big project of the year” and we are anxious to see how the cliffhangers resolve.

He’s been lucky, and he’s been unlucky. The lucky part is that he has the cabinet with the CRT and the deflection yoke. Those would be very difficult to replace. The unlucky part is that one entire cabinet of electronics is missing.

Keep in mind, this monitor dates from the 1960s when transistors were fairly new. The device is full of germanium transistors and oddball silicon transistors that are unobtainable. A great deal of the circuitry is on “system building block” cards. This was a common approach in those days, to create little PC boards with a few different functions and build your circuit by wiring them together. Almost like a macro-scale FPGA with wire backplanes as the programming.

Even if some of the boards were not missing, there would be some redesign work ahead. The old DEC machine used a logic scheme that shifted between ground and a negative voltage. [Keith] wants to have a more modern interface into the machine so the boards that interface with the outside world will have to change, at least. It sounds like he’s on his way to doing a modern remake of the building block cards for that reason, and to preserve the originals which are likely to be difficult to repair.

The cliffhanger to this first installment is a brief description of what one of the system building block cards looks like. The 1575 holds 8 transistors and 11 diodes. It’s apparently an analog building block made to gate signals from the monitor’s digital to analog converters to other parts of the circuit. You’ll have to tune into the next episode to hear more of his explanation.

If you want to read about how such a thing was actually used, DECUS had a programming manual that you can read online. Seeing the round monitor made us think of the old PDP-1 that lives at the Computer History Museum. We are sure it had lots of practical uses, but we think of it as a display for Spacewar.

from Blog – Hackaday

Laser Cutter Turns Scrapped To Shipped

We’ll go way out on a limb here and say you’ve probably got a ridiculous amount of flattened cardboard boxes. We’re buying more stuff online than ever before, and all those boxes really start to add up. At the least we hope they’re making it to the recycling bin, but what about reusing them? Surely there’s something you could do with all those empty shipping boxes…

Here’s a wild idea…why not use them to ship things? But not exactly as they are, unless you’re in the business of shipping big stuff, the probably won’t do you much good as-is. Instead, why not turn those big flattened cardboard boxes into smaller, more convenient, shippers? That’s exactly what [Felix Rusu] has done, and we’ve got to say, it’s a brilliant idea.

[Felix] started by tracing the outline of the USPS Priority Small Flat Rate Box, which was the perfect template as it comes to you flat packed and gets folded into its final shape. He fiddled with the design a bit, and in the end had a DXF file he could feed into his 60W CO2 laser cutter. By lowering the power to 15% on the fold lines, the cutter is even able to score the cardboard where it needs to fold.

Assuming you’ve got a powerful enough laser, you can now turn all those Amazon Prime boxes into the perfect shippers to use when your mom finally makes you sell your collection of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards on eBay. Otherwise, you can just use them to build a wall so she’ll finally stay out of your side of the basement.

[Thanks to Adrian for the tip.]

from Blog – Hackaday

Printing Strain Wave Gears

We just wrapped up the Robotics Module Challenge portion of the Hackaday Prize, and if there’s one thing robots need to do, it’s move. This usually means some sort of motor, but you’ll probably want a gear system on there as well. Gotta have that torque, you know.

For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Johannes] is building a 3D printed Strain Wave Gear. A strain wave gear has a flexible middle piece that touches an outer gear rack when pushed by an oval central rotor. The difference in the number of teeth on the flexible collar and the outer rack determine the gear ratio.

This gear is almost entirely 3D printed, and the parts don’t need to be made of flexible filament or have weird support structures. It’s printed out of PETG, which [Johannes] says is slippery enough for a harmonic drive, and the NEMA 17 stepper is completely contained within the housing of the gear itself.

Printing a gear system is all well and good, but what do you do with it? As an experiment, [Johannes] slapped two of these motors together along with a strange, bone-like adapter to create a pan/tilt mount for a camera. Yes, if you don’t look at the weird pink and blue bone for a second, it’s just a DSLR on a tripod with a gimbal. The angular resolution of this setup is 0.03 degrees, so it should be possible to use this setup for astrophotography. Impressive, even if that particular implementation does look a little weird.

from Blog – Hackaday

Federico Faggin: The Real Silicon Man

While doing research for our articles about inventing the integrated circuit, the calculator, and the microprocessor, one name kept popping which was new to me, Federico Faggin. Yet this was a name I should have known just as well as his famous contemporaries Kilby, Noyce, and Moore.

Faggin seems to have been at the heart of many of the early advances in microprocessors. He played a big part in the development of MOS processors during the transition from TTL to CMOS. He was co-creator of the first commercially available processor, the 4004, as well as the 8080. And he was a co-founder of Zilog, which brought out the much-loved Z80 CPU. From there he moved on to neural networking chips, image sensors, and is active today in the scientific study of consciousness. It’s time then that we had a closer look at a man who’s very core must surely be made of silicon.

Learning Electronics

Federico at Olivetti, middle-right
Federico at Olivetti, middle-right. Photo:

Faggin was born in 1941 in Vicenza, Italy. From an early age, he formed an interest in technology, even attending a technical high school.

After graduating at age 19 in 1961, he got a short-term job at the Olivetti Electronics Laboratory. There he worked on a small experimental digital transistor computer with a 4096 word, 12-bit magnetic core memory and an approximately 1000 logic gate CPU. After his boss had a serious car accident, Faggin took over as project leader. The job was a great learning experience for his future career.

He next studied physics at the University of Padua where he graduated summa cum laude in 1965. He stayed on for a year teaching electronics to 3rd-year students.

Creating MOS Silicon Gate Technology (SGT) At Fairchild

In 1967 he started work at SGS-Fairchild, now STMicroelectronics, in Italy. There he developed their first MOS (metal-oxide-semiconductor) silicon gate technology (SGT) and their first two commercial MOS ICs. They then sent him to Silicon Valley in California to work at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1968.

During the 1960s, logic for ICs was largely done using TTL (Transistor-Transistor Logic). The two ‘T’s refer to using bipolar junction transistors for the logic followed by one or more transistors for the amplification. TTL was fast but took a lot of room, restricting how much could fit into an IC. TTL microprocessors also consumed a lot of power.

MOSFET, by CyrilB CC-BY-SA 3.0

On the other hand, ICs containing MOSFETs had manufacturing problems that lead to inconsistent and variable speeds as well as lower speeds than was theoretically possible. If those problems could be solved then MOS would be a good substitute for TTL on ICs since more could be crammed into a smaller space. MOSFETs also required far less power.

In the mid-1960s, to make an aluminum gate MOSFET, the source and drain regions would first be defined and doped, followed by the gate mask defining the thin-oxide region, and lastly the aluminum gate over the thin-oxide.

However, the gate mask would inevitably be misaligned in relation to the source and drain masks. The workaround for this misalignment was to make the thin-oxide region large enough to ensure that it overlapped both the source and drain. But this led to gate-to-source and gate-to-drain parasitic capacitance which was both large and variable and was the source of the speed problems.

Faggin and and the rest of his team at Fairchild worked on these problems between 1966 and 1968. Part of the solution was to define the gate electrode first and then use that as a mask to define the source and gate regions, minimizing the parasitic capacitances. This was called the self-aligned gate method. However, the process for making self-aligned gates raised issues with using aluminum for the gate electrode. This was solved by switching to amorphous silicon instead. This self-aligned gate solution had been worked on but not to the point where ICs could be manufactured for commercial purposes.

Faggin and Tom Klein At Fairchild in 1967
Faggin and Tom Klein At Fairchild in 1967, Credit: Fairchild Camrea & Instrument Corporation

In 1968, Faggin was put in charge of developing Fairchild’s self-aligned gate MOS process technology. He first worked on a precision etching solution for the amorphous silicon gate and then created the process architecture and steps for fabricating the ICs. He also invented buried contacts, a technique which further increased the density through the use of an additional layer making direct ohmic connections between the polysilicon gate and the junctions.

These techniques became the basis of Fairchild’s silicon gate technology (SGT), which was widely used by industry from then on.

Faggin went on to make the first silicon-gate IC, the Fairchild 3708. This was a replacement for the 3705, a metal-gate IC implementing an 8-bit analog multiplexor with decoding logic and one which they had trouble making due to strict requirements. During its development, he further refined the process by using phosphorus gettering to soak up impurities and by substituting the vacuum-evaporated amorphous silicon with polycrystalline silicon applied using vapor-phase deposition.

The resulting SGT meant more components could fit on the IC than with TTL and power requirements were lower. It also gave a three to five times speed improvement over the previous MOS technology.

Making The First Microprocessors At Intel

Intel C4004
Intel C4004 by Thomas Nguyen CC BY-SA 4.0

Faggin left Fairchild to join the two-year-old Intel in 1970 in order to do the chip design for the MCS-4 (Micro Computer System) project. The goal of the MCS-4 was to produce four chips, initially for use in a calculator.

One of those chips, the 4004, became the first commercially available microprocessor. The SGT which he’d developed at Fairchild allowed him to fit everything onto a single chip. You can read all the details of the steps and missteps toward that invention in our article all about it. Suffice it to say that he succeeded and by March 1971, all four-chips were fully functional.

Faggin’s design methodology was then used for all the early Intel microprocessors. That included the 8-bit 8008 introduced in 1972 and the 4040, an improved version of the 4004 in 1974, wherein Faggin took a supervisory role.

Meanwhile, Faggin and Masatoshi Shima, who also worked on the 4004, both developed the design for the 8080. It was released in 1974 and was the first high-performance 8-bit microprocessor.

Creating The Z80

Z80 CPUIn 1974, Faggin left Intel to co-found Zilog with Ralph Ungermann to focus on making microprocessors. There he co-designed the Z80 with Shima, who joined him from Intel. The Z80 was software compatible with the 8080 but was faster and had double the number of registers and instructions.

The Z80 went on to be one of the most popular CPUs for home computers up until the mid-1980s, typically running the CP/M OS. Some notable computers were the Heathkit H89, the Osborne 1, the Kaypro series, a number of TRS-80s, and some of the Timex/Sinclair computers. The Commodore 128 used one alongside the 8502 for CP/M compatibility and a number of computers could use it as an add-on. My own experience with it was through the Dy4.

This is a CPU which no doubt many Hackaday readers will have fond memories of and still build computers around to this day, one such example being this Z80 Raspberry Pi look-alike.

The Z80, as well as the Z8 microcontroller conceived of by Faggin are still in production today.

The Serial Entrepreneur

After leaving Zilog, in 1984, Faggin created his second startup, Cygnet Technologies, Inc. There he conceived of the Communication CoSystem, a device which sat between a computer and a phone line and allowed transmission and receipt of both voice and data during the same session.

In 1986 he co-founded Synaptics along with Carver Mead and became CEO. Initially, they did R&D in artificial neural networks and in 1991, produced the I1000, the first single-chip optical character recognizer. In 1994 they introduced the touchpad, followed by early touchscreens.

Between 2003 and 2008, Faggin was president and CEO of Foveon where he redirected their business into image sensors.

At the Computer History Museum
At the Computer History Museum, by Dicklyon CC-BY-SA 4.0

Awards And Present Day

Faggin received many awards and prizes including the Marconi Prize, the Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology, Fellow of the Computer History Museum, and the 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation given to him by President Barak Obama. In 1996 he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame for co-inventing the microprocessor.

In 2011 he and his wife founded the Federico and Elvia Faggin Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting research into consciousness through theoretical and experimental research, an interest he gained from his time at Synaptics. His work with the Foundation is now his full-time activity.

He still lives in Silicon Valley, California where he and his wife moved to from Italy in 1968. A fitting home for the silicon man.

from Blog – Hackaday