NASA’s 2017-2018 Software Catalog is Out

Need some help sizing your beyond-low-Earth-orbit vehicle? Request NASA’s BLAST software. Need to forecast the weather on Venus? That would be Venus-GRAM (global reference atmospheric model). Or maybe you just want to play around with the NASA Tensegrity Robotics Toolkit. (We do!) Then it’s a good thing that part of NASA’s public mandate is making their software available. And the 2017-2018 Software Catalog (PDF) has just been released.

Unfortunately, not everything that NASA does is open source, and a substantial fraction of the software suites are only available for code “to be used on behalf of the U.S. Government”. But still, it’s very cool that NASA is opening up as much of their libraries as they are. Where else are you going to get access to orbital debris engineering models or cutting-edge fluid dynamics modelers and solvers, for free?

We already mentioned this in the Links column, but we think it’s worth repeating because we could use your help. The catalog is 154 pages long, and we haven’t quite finished leaf through every page. If you see anything awesome inside, let us know in the comments. Do any of you already use NASA’s open-source software?

Filed under: news

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Retrotechtacular: How Old is the Remote?

A few weeks ago we covered a (probably) bogus post about controlling a TV with the IR from a flame. That got us thinking about what the real origin of the remote control was. We knew a story about the 38 kHz frequency commonly used to modulate the IR. We’ve heard that it was from sonar crystals used in earlier sonic versions of remotes. Was that true? Or just an urban myth? We set out to find out.

Surprise! Remotes are Old!

If you are a younger reader, you might assume TVs have always had remotes. But for many of us, remotes seem like a new invention. If you grew up in the middle part of the last century it is a good bet you were your dad’s idea of a remote control: “Get up and turn the channel!” Turns out remotes have been around for a long time, though. They just weren’t common for a long time.

If you really want to stretch back, [Oliver Lodge] used a radio to move a beam of light in 1894. In 1896, [Marconi] and some others made a bell ring by remote control. [Tesla] famously showed a radio-controlled boat in 1898. But none of these were really remote controls like we think of for a television.

mysteryOf course, TV wouldn’t be around for a while, but by the 1930’s many radio manufacturers had wired remotes for radios. People didn’t like the wires, so Philco introduced the Mystery Control in 1939. This used digital pulse coding and a radio transmitter. That’s a fancy way of saying it had a dial like an old telephone. As far as we can tell, this was the first wireless remote for a piece of consumer equipment.

The Mystery Control was several years later and didn’t take a piece of furniture to house it (but it did take a big battery). We know you want to tear one apart, and luckily, [batteryman] has done that for us in this video.

Lazy

Philco was no stranger to remote controls. Their LazyX TVs predated the Mystery Control and used a flat cable under your carpet to connect the radio to the remote housed in another wooden cabinet. They weren’t alone in making wired remotes, either. Zenith introduced the Lazy Bones wired remote for TVs in 1950.

lazyb

According to Zenith:

The Lazy Bones used a cable that ran from the TV set to the viewer. A motor in the TV set operated the tuner through the remote control. By pushing buttons on the remote control, viewers rotated the tuner clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on whether they wanted to change the channel to a higher or lower number. The remote control included buttons that turned the TV on and off.

Although customers liked having remote control of their television, they complained that people tripped over the unsightly cable that meandered across the living room floor.

Flash!

Zenith engineer [Eugene Polley] solved the wire problem in 1955. His Flashmatic system used four light sensors at the corners of the TV. By hitting a sensor with some light you could change the channel up and down, turn the TV off, or mute the audio and, presumably, unmute it.

The only problem was the light sensors would respond to any light. So if the sun came in your window at the right time of day, it might turn your TV off. However, people loved it and Zenith had to apologize to customers for not having enough product to fill demand.

Audio Remote

In 1956, Zenith rolled out its Space Command remote. This used audio frequency instead of light. But it probably didn’t work the way you’d imagine. When you pressed a key, a hammer struck an aluminum rod producing a particular frequency the receiver picked up. This meant the remote didn’t need any batteries, which is clever. Zenith’s marketing department feared that people would think their TV was broken if the remote batteries died.
space

You can see the rods inside. Each rod is a slightly different length, around 2.5 inches overall, and if you guessed that means the remote has two buttons, you are right. You could change the channel down or cycle the volume from high to low and back again. Remember, back then you only had 12 channels to flip through, and probably only two or three with anything other than snow on them.

There was room in the case for two more rods and you see the cutouts for two more buttons in the case. There were models with four buttons and four rods, as well.

You have to keep in mind what the electronics looked like in 1956. The remote receiver added six tubes to the TV set and raised the price about 30%. Nevertheless, it was a success. People wanted remote control.

It is really entertaining to watch [drh4683] align the receiver for one of these remotes and hear the clicking noise of the aluminum bars being struck. There was even special test gear for aligning the remote receivers.

Electronics

In the 1960s, solid state technology advanced to the point that the aluminum rods could be replaced with transistor circuits and piezoelectric transducers. This allowed for more buttons, but it did take batteries.

There are stories of people who could hear the remotes and dogs, too. It isn’t hard to imagine that random noises could produce enough energy to trigger some of the remotes too. However, Zenith claims the industry delivered more than nine million ultrasonic remotes over the 25 years they were in use.

Infrared

The switch to infrared like we have today started in the 1980s with a Canadian company called Viewstar that made cable boxes. We’ve covered how those work many times so we won’t rehash that here. We never could verify that the 38 kHz was due to the frequency of ultrasonic remotes. It looks like frequencies in that range were introduced around the time of the electronic remotes. The aluminum bar remotes appear to operate about one fifth of the frequency. However, even with infrared remotes, there is some variation in carrier frequency.

For example, the NEC protocol specifies a carrier frequency of 38 kHz. Philips RC-5 and RC-6 remotes are supposed to use 36 kHz. However, because many companies used an easy-to-find 455 kHz resonator, frequencies of 37.92 kHz are common. There are other examples of other frequencies including some in the 50-60 kHz range.

One interesting note: the frequency of the IR light is also important. Many remotes use wavelengths of 930–950 nM because the atmosphere absorbs the sun’s IR emissions in that spectrum. That reduces the chances that sunlight would blind the IR receiver.

Universal

The universal remote first appeared from Magnavox (which is a Philips brand) in 1985. [Steve Wozniak] of Apple fame started a company, CL9, to sell CORE–a programmable learning remote that failed to catch on. Some say because it was too hard to program.

Even today, it is hard to find that one remote that will control absolutely everything unless you buy something very high-end. There are a few RF remotes that complicate things, and bring us back full circle to the Mystery Controller. New devices and codes appear all the time.

However, there is a growing trend to allow devices to accept control via networked devices like cellphones or tablets. So maybe IR remotes will one day be as peculiar as an ultrasonic one is today.

Next time you cradle that Harmony remote in your hand and search for the next reality show you’ll consume, take a minute to think about the history. That remote has a long line behind it tracing back to [Tesla], [Marconi], and [Lodge].

Filed under: History, wireless hacks

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Super Computing with Mini ITX Cluster

[Colin Alston] was able to snag a handful of Mini ITX motherboards for cheap and built a mini super computer he calls TinyJaguar. Named partly after the AMD Sempron 2650 APU, the TinyJaguar boasts four, yes that’s four MSI AM1I Mini-ITX motherboards, each with 4GB of DDR memory.

A Raspberry Pi with custom software manages the cluster, and along with some TTL and relays, controls the power to the four nodes. The mini super computer resides in a custom acrylic case held together by an array of 3D printed parts and fasteners.There’s even a rack-like faceplate near the bottom to host the RPi, an Ethernet switch, an array of status LEDs, and the two buttons.


With 16 total cores of computing power (including GPU), the TinyJaguar is quite capable of doing some pretty cool stuff such as running Jupyter notebook with IPyParallel. [Colin] ran into some issues getting the GPU to behave with PyOpenCL. It took a bit of pain and time, but in the end he was able to get the GPUs up, and wrote a small message passing program to show two of the cores were up and working together.

Be sure to check out [Colin’s] super computer project page, specifically the ten project logs that walk through everything that went into this build. He also posted his code if you want to take a look under the hood.

Filed under: computer hacks, Raspberry Pi

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Robot Ants Wear Circuitry as Exoskeleton

[FESTO] keeps coming up with new tricks that make us both envious and inspired. Take their bionicANTs for example. Watching a group of them cooperate to move objects around looks so real that you’re instantly reminded of the pests crawling across your floor, but looking at them up close they’re a treasure trove of ideas for your next robot project.

Ant exoskeleton as circuit board
Ant exoskeleton as circuit board

The exoskeleton is 3D printed but they then use the outer surface of that exoskeleton as a circuit board for much of the circuitry. The wiring is “painted on” using a 3D MID (Molded Interconnect Device) process. While FESTO didn’t give specifics about their process, a little research shows that 3D MID involves the 3D printed object being made of a special non-conductive metal material, a laser then “drawing” the traces in the material, and then dipping the object in various baths to apply copper, nickel and gold layers. We mortal hackers may not have the equipment for doing this ourselves in our workshops but seeing the beautiful result should be inspiration enough to get creative with our copper tape on the outer surfaces of our 3D printed, CNC’d, or hand-carved parts.

We also like how they took a the mouse sensor from under a regular computer mouse and attached it to the ant’s underside, pointing down for precision dead reckoning. For the legs they used three piezo bending transducers. However, these give a deflection of only 1.5mm in both directions, not enough for walking. They increase this to over 10mm with the addition of a plastic hinge, another idea to keep in mind when building that next tiny robot. And there are more ideas to be taken advantage of in their ants, which you can see being built in the video below.

But this isn’t the only time FESTO’s creative ingenuity has been shown here on Hackaday. Check out their bionic kangaroo that actually hops around, their robotic bird that has to be the most life-like one we’ve see yet, or how about their flying manta ray blimp instead.

Filed under: robots hacks

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Roam the Wastelands with this Fallout-Themed Mini Geiger Counter

For anyone who has worked with radioactive materials, there’s something that’s oddly comforting about the random clicks of a Geiger counter. And those comforting clicks are exactly why we like this simple pocket Geiger counter.

Another good reason to like [Tim]’s build is the Fallout theme of the case. While not an item from the game, the aesthetic he went for with the 3D-printed case certainly matches the Fallout universe. The counter itself is based on the popular Russian SBT-11A G-M tubes that are floating around eBay these days. You might recall them from coverage of this minimalist Geiger counter, and if you were inspired to buy a few of the tubes, here’s your chance for a more polished build. The case is stuffed with a LiPo pack, HV supply, and a small audio amp to drive the speaker. The video below shows it clicking merrily from a calibration source.

We can see how this project could be easily expanded — a small display that can show the counts per minute would be a great addition. But there’s something about how pocketable this is, and just the clicking alone is enough for us.

Filed under: misc hacks, tool hacks

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Scrap Wood and Metal Combined for DIY Mecanum Wheels

Some scrap wood, a few pieces of sheet metal, a quartet of old gear motors, and a few basic hand tools. That’s all it takes to build an omni-bot with Mecanum wheels, if you’ve got a little know-how too.

For the uninitiated, Mecanum wheels can rotate in any direction thanks to a series of tapered rollers around the circumference that are canted 45° relative to the main axle.  [Navin Khambhala]’s approach to Mecanum wheel construction is decidedly low tech and very labor intensive, but results in working wheels and a pretty agile bot. The supports for the rollers are cut from sheet steel and bent manually to hold the wooden rollers, each cut with a hole saw and tapered to a barrel shape on a makeshift lathe. Each wheel is connected directly to a gear motor shaft, and everything is mounted to a sheet steel chassis. The controls are as rudimentary as the construction methods, but the video below shows what a Mecanum-wheeled bot can do.

There’s a lot of room here for improvement, but mainly in the manufacturing methods. The entire wheel could be 3D printed, for instance, or even laser cut from MDF with a few design changes. But [Navin] scores a win for making a working wheel and a working bot from almost nothing.

Thanks for the tips, [Karl Rosenqvist]!

Filed under: misc hacks, robots hacks

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Strandbeest Not Fooling Anyone — We See Right Through It

This Strandbeest is ready for the security line at a security-conscious high school. Like see-though backpacks, its clear polycarbonate parts let you see everything that goes into the quirky locomotion mechanism. Despite having multiple legs, if you analyze the movement of a Strandbeest it actually moves like a wheel.

For us, it’s the narrated fabrication video found below that makes this build really interesting. Hackaday alum [Jeremy Cook] has been building different versions of [Theo Jansen’s] Strandbeest for years now. Strandmaus was a small walker controlled by a tiny quadcopter, and MountainBeest was a huge (and heavy) undertaking. Both were made out of wood. This time around [Jeremy] ordered his polycarbonate parts already cut to match his design. But it’s hardly a walk on the beach to make his way to final assembly.

The holes to accept the hardware weren’t quite large enough and he had to ream them out to bring everything together. We enjoyed seeing him build a jig to hold the spacers for reaming. And his tip on using an offset roll pin to secure the drive gear to the motor shaft is something we’ll keep in mind.

In the end, things don’t go well. He had machined out a motor coupling and it ends up being too weak for the torque driving the legs. Having grown up watching [Norm Abram] build furniture (and houses) without a single blown cut or torn-out end grain this is a nice dose of reality. It’s not how perfect you can be with each step, it’s how able you are to foresee problems and correct them when encountered.

Filed under: robots hacks

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