Author Archives: Brian Benchoff

Freescale and Texas Instruments Goodies and World Maker Faire

via Hackaday » » hardware

Freescale was very kind to Hackaday at Maker Faire this weekend, showing off a few boards and answering a few questions about why old Motorola application notes aren’t available on the Internet.

The Hummingboard from SolidRun comes in an oddly familiar form factor to anyone who has ever handled a Raspberry Pi. It also has an interesting feature: the CPU is on a small module, allowing anyone to upgrade the chipset to something significantly more powerful. In the top of the line configuration, it has a two core iMX6 CPU with a Gig of RAM, LVDS output, and Gigabit Ethernet. All the complex bits for this board are on a single module, allowing anyone to take the module and put it in another project, a la the Intel Edison.

Also in the Freescale booth was the pcDuino, a dual core ARM Cortex A7 with Ethernet, WiFi, and a SATA, with Arduino form factor pinouts. It’s a somewhat niche product, but being able to stack shields on something comparable to a Raspi or BeagleBone is a nice feature.

[Trey German] from Texas Instruments showed off some very cool stuff, including a quadcopter board for a Launchpad microcontroller. This isn’t a board with an IMU and a few servo outputs; this is the whole shebang with a frame, motors, and props. The frame was cut from some odd composite that’s usually used for road signs, and even though it wasn’t flying at the Faire (nothing was flying, by the way), it’s pretty light for a quad made at a board house.

Also from TI was their CC3200 dev board. This is a single chip with an ARM Cortex M4 and a WiFi radio that we’ve seen before. The CC3200 runs TI’s Wiring/Arduino inspired development environment Energia, and at about $30 for the CC3200 Launchpad board, it’s an easy and cheap way to build an Internet of Things thing.

Filed under: Featured, hardware

A Proof of Concept Project for the ESP8266

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It’s hardly been a month since we first heard of the impossibly cheap WiFi adapter for micros, the ESP8266. Since then orders have slowly been flowing out of ports in China and onto the workbenches of tinkerers around the world. Finally, we have a working project using this module. It might only be a display to show the current weather conditions, but it’s a start, and only a hint of what this module can do.

Since the ESP8266 found its way into the storefronts of the usual distributors, a lot of effort has gone into translating the datasheets both on and the nurdspace wiki. The module does respond to simple AT commands, and with the right bit of code it’s possible to pull a few bits of data off of the Internet.

The code requests data from and displays the current temperature, pressure, and humidity on a small TFT display. The entire thing is powered by just an Arduino, so for anyone wanting a cheap way to put an Arduino project on the Internet, there ‘ya go.

Filed under: Arduino Hacks, hardware

Afroman Demonstrates Boost Converters

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boosIf you need to regulate your power input down to a reasonable voltage for a project, you reach for a switching regulator, or failing that, an inefficient linear regulator. What if you need to boost the voltage inside a project? It’s boost converter time, and Afrotechmods is here to show you how they work.

In its simplest form, a boost converter can be built from only an inductor, a diode, a capacitor, and a transistor. By switching the transistor on and off with varying duty cycles, energy is stored in the inductor, and then sent straight to the capacitor. Calculating the values for the duty cycle, frequency, inductor, and the other various parts of a boost converter means a whole bunch of math, but following the recommended layout in the datasheets for boost and switching converters is generally good enough.


[Afroman]‘s example circuit for this tutorial is a simple boost converter built around an LT1370 switching regulator. In addition to that there’s also a small regulator, diode, a few big caps and resistors, and a pot for the feedback pin. This is all you need to build a simple boost converter, and the pot tied to the feedback pin varies the duty cycle of the regulator, changing the output voltage.

It’s an extremely efficient way to boost voltage, measured by [Afroman] at over 80%. It’s also exceptionally easy to build, with just a handful of parts soldered directly onto a piece of perfboard.

Video below.

Filed under: hardware, parts

A Breakout Board for a Flir Lepton

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leptonThermal imaging cameras are all the rage now, and one of the best IR cameras out there is Flir’s Lepton module. It’s the sensor in the FLIR ONE, a thermal imaging camera add-on for an iPhone. Somewhat surprisingly, Flir is allowing anyone to purchase this module, and that means a whole bunch of robotics and other various electronics projects. Here’s a breakout board for Flir’s Lepton.

Electron artisan [Mike] recently got his hands on a FLIR ONE, and doing what he does best, ripped the thing apart and built the world’s smallest thermal imaging camera. Compared to professional models, the resolution isn’t that great, but this module only costs about $250. Just try to find a higher resolution thermal imager that’s cheaper.

With this breakout board, you’ll obviously need a Lepton module. There’s a group buy going on right now, with each module costing just under $260.

The Lepton module is controlled over I2C, but the process of actually grabbing images happens over SPI. The images are a bit too large to be processed with all but the beefiest Arduinos, but if you’re thinking of making Predator vision with a Raspi, BeagleBone, or a larger ARM board, this is just the ticket.

You can check out some video made with the Lepton module below.

This is also project number 3000 on That’s pretty cool and worthy of mention.

Filed under: hardware

Hands On with the Intel Edison

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Yesterday the tech world resounded with the astonishing news that Apple can’t run a CMS, rotary encoders were invented just for the Apple Watch, and Intel’s Developer Forum was scheduled well in advance of the Apple media circus. Intel’s smallest computer yet, the Edison, was also announced. Very few people without an Intel employee badge have one of these cool little devices, and lucky for us one of them put up a hands-on review.

With a lot of comments asking what the Edison is good for, [Dimitri] tells us the Edison isn’t meant to be only a dev board. A better comparison would be something like the Raspberry Pi compute module – a small board that product designers can build a device around. This, of course, is not news and should come as a surprise to no one. The 70-pin connector used in the Edison isn’t rated for high-frequency insertions, anyway.

Stock up on level shifters

Compared to even a Raspberry Pi, or even an Arduino Mega, the Arduino breakout board for the Edison is huge. The reason for this is a huge number of level shifters. Where Arduinos can chug right along at 3.3V and 5V, and a Pi uses the somewhat more uncommon (at least for the hobbyist market) 3.3V logic, most of the Edison runs at 1.8V.  All the user-configurable pins on the smaller breakout are 1.8V logic. Someone reading this will fry their Edison, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.


[Dimitri] was keen to get an idea of how powerful the Edison is. There’s a pretty good chip in there – an Atom Z34XX – that’s underclocked at 500MHz. Still, despite this apparent performance limitation, a few benchmarks reveal the Edison can work at up to 615 MIPS. That’s about twice the performance of the Raspberry Pi B+, and real-world tests of doing FFT along with OpenCV tracking makes [Dimitri] happy. Power consumption? At a medium load, the Edison draws about 200 mA. A lot of number crunching and blasting bits out of the radios increases that to a maximum of 500 mA. Not exactly low power, but very good in terms of performance per Watt.


There are two radios on the Edison, one for Bluetooth Low Energy, and another for a/b/g/n WiFi (yes, it supports access mode). The on-chip antenna is acceptable, but for sending signals to the conference room down the hall, you might want to connect an external antenna.

Linux, Programming, and Arduino

Linux on the Edison isn’t a friendly Debian-derived installation like the Raspberry Pi. Instead, Intel is using Yocto, specifically designed for embedded environments. It’s not quite a distribution but instead a build system. There is no apt-get. Right now, this might be seen as a limitation, but enterprising kernel wizards have ported Debian to the Intel Galileo. Full Linux support is coming, but probably not (officially) from Intel.

Edison launched with an Arduino breakout board, but the Arduino compatibility is literally only a facade. Intel reengineered the Arduino IDE so it writes files instead of toggling pins. This means any programming language that can write a file is able to blink a LED with an Edison. It’s only a matter of preference, but if your idea of embedded development is a single chip and a C compiler, you’re better off using an ATMega and a UART.

Closing thoughts

This isn’t a Raspi killer, a Beaglebone killer, a TI CC3200 killer, or an ESP8266 killer. It’s an x86 board, with WiFi, Bluetooth and Linux that can toggle a few pins. It’s something different. Different is good. That means there are more choices.

Filed under: hardware

More WiFi Modules for IoT Madness

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The last year has brought us CC3000 WiFi module from TI, and recently the improved CC3200 that includes an integrated microcontroller. The Chinese design houses have gotten the hint, putting out the exceptionally cheap ESP8266, a serial to WiFi bridge that also includes a microcontroller to handle the TCP/IP stack and the software side of an 802.11 connection. Now there’s another dedicated WiFi module. It’s called the MT7681, and it’s exactly what you would expect given the competition: a programmable module with the ability to connect to a WiFi network.

Like TI’s CC3200, and the ESP8266, the MT7681 can be connected to any microcontroller over a serial connection, making it a serial to WiFi bridge. This module also contains a user-programmable microcontroller, meaning you don’t need to connect an Arduino to blink a few pins; UART, SPI, and a few GPIO pins are right on the board. The module also includes an SDK and gnu compiler, so development of custom code running on this module should be easier than some of the other alternatives.

You can pick up one of the MT7681 modules through the usual channels, but there’s an Indiegogo campaign based in China that takes this module and builds a ‘dock’ around it. The dock has a relay, temperature/humidity sensor, a few GPIO pins, and a USB serial connection for use as an Internet of Things base station.

For anyone looking for a little more computational horsepower, there’s also a few mentions and press releases announcing another module, the MT7688, This is a very small (12mm by 12mm) module running Linux with 256 MB of RAM and 802.11n support. This module hasn’t even hit the market yet, but we’ll be on the lookout for when it will be released.

Thanks [uhrheber] for sending this one in.

Filed under: hardware, parts

The Current State of ESP8266 Development

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ESP A few weeks ago we caught wind of a very cool new chip. It’s called the ESP8266, and it’s a WiFi module that allows you to connect just about any project to an 802.11 b/g/n network. It also costs $5. Yes, there was much rejoicing when this chip was announced.

Since we learned of the ESP8266, there has been a lot of work done to translate the datasheets from Chinese, figure out how the SOC can be programmed, and a few preliminary attempts at getting this module working with an Arduino. Keep in mind, very few people have one of these modules in hand right now, so all this information is completely untested. Here’s what we have so far:

Over on Hackaday Projects, [bafeigum] has been working to research the capabilities of this module. Most of the comments deal with the AT Command set for the module and figuring out what is actually returned when certain commands are called.

The ESP8266 community forum is about a week old, but already there’s a wealth of information. Most of the efforts seem to be centered on getting GCC to program this chip, something that would make the ESP8266 a single-solution chip for anything that needs WiFi and a bit of processing power. Everyone (including the great [Sprite_TM]) has currently hit a roadblock, so if you have a ton of experience with GCC and the Xtensa microcontroller, check out that thread. Failing that, we’ll have to wait until someone from Tensilica, the company behind the guts of this chip, to chime in and help everyone figure out how this thing actually works.

The Arduino-heads out there will have a much easier time. There’s already a tutorial for using the ESP8266 as a serial WiFi module. Note the ESP operates on 3.3 Volts, so connecting this module to the 5V pin means you’ll be out $5 and several weeks of shipping time.

This is an incredible amount of development in a very short amount of time, made even more remarkable by the fact that no one has one of these WiFi modules yet. When these modules do arrive to workbenches around the world, we’ll expect the Hackaday tip line to be flooded with very small and somewhat battery friendly WiFi builds.

Filed under: hardware, parts

Extrinsic Motivation: BASIC For Bluetooth

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There’s a lot more to those fancy radio modules you use with your Arduino projects than meets the eye. Many of them are systems on a chip, complete with their own microcontroller and memory that can control your entire blinking LEDs project. Developing for these radio modules is a bit of a challenge, as the IDEs and compilers cost several thousand dollars. [Tim]‘s entry for the Hackaday Prize looks at one of these Bluetooth LE modules – Texas Instrument’s CC2540 and CC2541 – and puts an embedded BASIC interpreter right on the chip.

[Tim]‘s inspiration for this project came from looking at a few popular devices using the CC254X chip. Many of these included a microcontroller and the added costs, complexity, and power requirements that come along with an additional chip. This radio module could easily run any code an ATMega could, and adding another chip to a product seemed like a terrible waste, and certainly not in the spirit of open hardware and software.

The alternative is writing an interpreter for the CC254X chip. He’s chosen BASIC, but added a little bit of Arduino language syntax to make it even easier to develop on. Having already run through a few successful tests involving SPI, I2C and 1-wire devices, [Tim] has a basic system working, but [Tim] admits it does need a little rework to make it easier to use.

It’s a great project, and personally astonishing that it didn’t make the quarterfinal selection for The Hackaday Prize. [Tim] is still working on his project, though, in a great example of extrinsic motivation; he doesn’t need a trip to space to convince him to build something cool.

You can check out [Tim]‘s two minute concept video below.

SpaceWrencherThis project is an official entry to The Hackaday Prize that sadly didn’t make the quarterfinal selection. It’s still a great project, and worthy of a Hackaday post on its own.

Filed under: hardware, radio hacks, The Hackaday Prize

DEFCON: Blackphone

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Despite being full of techies and people doing interesting things with portable devices, you don’t want to have an active radio on you within a quarter-mile of DEFCON. The apps on your phone leak personal data onto the Internet all the time, and the folks at DEFCON’s Wall Of Sheep were very successful in getting a few thousand usernames and passwords for email accounts.

Blackphone is designed to be the solution to this problem, so when we ran into a few members of the Blackphone crew at DEFCON, we were pretty interested to take a quick peek at their device.

The core functionality for the Blackphone comes from its operating system called PrivatOS. It’s a fork of Android 4.4.2 that is supposed to seal up the backdoors found in other mobile phones. There’s also a bundle of apps from Silent Circle that give the Blackphone the ability to make encrypted phone calls, texts (with file sharing), and encrypted and password protected contact lists.

The hardware for the Blackphone is pretty impressive; a quad-core Nvidia Tegra provides all the power you need for your apps, video, and playing 2048, a 2000mAh battery should provide enough juice to get you through a day or two (especially since you can turn off cores), and the usual front/rear cameras, GPS, 802.11bgn and GSM and HSPA+/WCDA radios means this phone will be useable on most networks.

Filed under: Featured, hardware, security hacks

New Chip Alert: The ESP8266 WiFi Module (It’s $5)

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Every so often we run across something in the Hackaday tip line that sends us scurrying to Google, trying to source a component, part, or assembly. The ESP8266 WiFi module is the latest, made interesting because it pretty much doesn’t exist outside China.

Why is it cool? It’s a WiFi module with an SOC, making it somewhat similar to TI’s CC300 in conception (A.K.A. the thing that makes the Spark Core so appealing), in that a microcontroller on the module takes care of all the WiFi, TCP/IP stack, and the overhead found in an 802.11 network. It’s addressable over SPI and UART, making this an exceptionally easy choice for anyone wanting to build an Internet of Things thing; you can simply connect any microcontroller to this module and start pushing data up to the Internet. Oh, it’s also being sold for $5 in quantity one. Yes, for five dollars you can blink a LED from the Internet. That’s about half the price as the CC3000 itself, and a quarter of the price if you were to build a CC3000 breakout board.

There’s a catch, right, there’s always a catch. Yep. About two hours after this post is published it will be the number one English language Google result for “ESP8266.” As far as the English-speaking world is concerned, there is absolutely nothing to be found anywhere on the Internet on this module.

Seeed Studio recently sold a few of these modules for $7 and has some documentation, including a full datasheet and an AT command set. All the documentation is in Chinese. There’s also an “ESP8266 IoT SDK”, but from a quick glance at the code, this appears to be an SDK for the SOC on the module, not a simple way to connect the module to a microcontroller.

Anyone wanting to grab one of these modules can do so on Ali Express. Anyone wanting to do something with one of these modules will have a much more difficult time, most likely poking and prodding bits randomly with the help of Google translate. Should someone, or even a group of people, want to take up the task of creating a translation of the datasheet and possibly a library, we have a pretty collaborative project hosting site where you can do that. You may organize in the comments below; we’ll also be taking bets as to when a product using the ESP8266 will be found on Kickstarter. My guess is under a month.

Thanks [Liam] for the tip.

Filed under: hardware, wireless hacks

Defcon Side Trip: Pololu And Robots

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PololuDuring our trip out to Vegas for Defcon, we were lucky enough to catch up with a few of the companies that should be of interest to Hackaday readers. One of the companies based out of the area is Pololu, makers and purveyors of fine electronics and robots. In an incredible bit of lucky scheduling, LV Bots, the Las Vegas area robot builders club, was having an event the same weekend we were there. A maze challenge, no less, where builders would compete to build the best robot and write the best code to get a pile of motors and electronics through a line-following maze in the fastest amount of time.

The Bots

The LV Bots events are held in the same building as Pololu, and unsurprisingly there were quite a few Pololu employees making a go at taking the stuff they developed and getting it to run through a maze. At least one bot was based on the Zumo kit, and a few based on the 3pi platform. Interestingly, the Raspberry Pi Model B+ was the brains of quite a few robots; not extremely surprising, but evidence that the LV Bots people take their line-following mazes seriously and are constantly improving their builds.

Each robot and builder ‘team’ was given three runs. For each team, the first run is basically dedicated to mapping the entire maze. A carefully programmed algorithm tries to send the robot around the entire maze, storing all the intersections in memory. For the second and third runs, the bot should – ideally – make it to the end in a very short amount of time. This is the ideal situation and was only representative of one team for that weekend’s event.

The worst case scenario is a bot that doesn’t quite have the proper mapping algorithm down. For example:

If, however, a robot can figure out all the nodes in the line following map, the second and third runs can go by pretty quick:


Although I did arrive a bit after normal working hours, [Ryan] and [Kevin] were kind enough to take me around their shop for a small tour of the joint. It’s more or less what you would expect: one giant room with pick and place machines, giant ovens, solder paste dispensers, enough equipment for all the testing and rework, and a giant wall of filled with all their products. One of the more interesting pieces of equipment was a soldering robot. Yes, as in a robot with a soldering iron. Here are the pics:

Solderbot3 Solderbot2 Solderbot1

Being after hours, the machines were not running. [Kevin] did send me a video of the manufacturing process of their A-Star 32U4 Micro, shown below:

In addition to their huge manufacturing room, the guys took me up to their dev lab where they come up with the design of all their products. Lego abound, surprisingly in already built configuration. I’ll let the picture galleries speak for themselves, shown below.

The Bots

DSC_0009 The maze DSC_0008 DSC_0007 Setting up for a run DSC_0004 DSC_0003 Blinky again PacBot DSC_0030 LV Bots RaspiBotsB DSC_0005 DSC_0023 Blinky


DSC_0056 "The" Pololu Truly, important stuff happens in the design lab Shop floor Thousands of dollars in pogo pins The 'wall of samples' DSC_0041 DSC_0053 Hundreds of steppers DSC_0055 DSC_0054
Filed under: hardware, Interviews

The ChipWhisperer At Defcon

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We’ve seen [Colin]‘s entry to The Hackaday Prize before. After seeing his lightning talk at Defcon, we had to get an interview with him going over the intricacies of this very impressive piece of hardware.

The ChipWhisperer is a security and research platform for embedded devices that exploits the fact that all security measures must run on real hardware. If you glitch a clock when a microcontroller is processing an instruction, there’s a good probability something will go wrong. If you’re very good at what you do, you can simply route around the code that makes up the important bits of a security system. Power analysis is another trick up the ChipWhisperer’s sleeve, analyzing the power consumption of a microcontroller when it’s running a bit of code to glean a little information on the keys required to access the system. It’s black magic and dark arts, but it does work, and it’s a real threat to embedded security that hasn’t had an open source toolset before now.

Before our interview, [Colin] did a few short and sweet demos of the ChipWhisperer. They were extraordinarily simple demos; glitching the clock when a microcontroller was iterating through nested loops resulted in what can only be described as ‘counter weirdness’. More advanced applications of the ChipWhisperer can supposedly break perfectly implemented security, something we’re sure [Colin] is saving for a followup video.

You can check out [Colin]‘s 2-minute video for his Hackaday Prize entry below.

Filed under: hardware, security hacks, The Hackaday Prize

Open Source GPU Released

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Nearly a year ago, an extremely interesting project hit Kickstarter: an open source GPU, written for an FPGA. For reasons that are obvious in retrospect, the GPL-GPU Kickstarter was not funded, but that doesn’t mean these developers don’t believe in what they’re doing. The first version of this open source graphics processor has now been released, giving anyone with an interest a look at what a late-90s era GPU looks like on the inside, If you’re cool enough, there’s also enough supporting documentation to build your own.

A quick note for the PC Master Race: this thing might run Quake eventually. It’s not a powerhouse. That said, [Bunnie] had a hard time finding an open source GPU for the Novena laptop, and the drivers for the VideoCore IV in the Raspi have only recently been open sourced. A completely open GPU simply doesn’t exist, and short of a few very, very limited thesis projects there hasn’t been anything like this before.

Right now, the GPL-GPU has 3D graphics acceleration working with VGA on a PCI bus. The plan is to update this late-90s setup to interfaces that make a little more sense, and add DVI and HDMI output. Not bad for a failed Kickstarter, right?

Filed under: hardware, video hacks

The Arduino Yun Shield

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A few years ago, the most common method to put an Arduino project on the web was to add a small router loaded up with OpenWrt, wire up a serial connection, and use this router as a bridge to the Internet. This odd arrangement was possibly because the existing Arduino Ethernet and WiFi shields were too expensive or not capable enough, but either way the Arduino crew took notice and released the Arduino Yun: an Arduino with an SoC running Linux with an Ethernet port. It’s pretty much the same thing as an Arduino wired up to a router, with the added bonus of having tons of libraries available.

Since the Yun is basically a SoC grafted onto an Arduino, we’re surprised we haven’t seen something like this before. It’s an Arduino shield that adds a Linux SoC, WiFi, Ethernet, and USB Host to any Arduino board from the Uno, to the Duemilanove and Mega. It is basically identical to the Arduino Yun, and like the Yun it’s completely open for anyone to remix, share, and reuse.

The Yun shield found on the Dragino website features a small SoC running OpenWrt, separated from the rest of the Arduino board with a serial connection. The Linux side of the stack features a 400MHz AR9331 (the same processor as the Yun), 16 MB of Flash, and 64 MB of RAM for running a built-in web server and sending all the sensor data an Arduino can gather up to the cloud (Yun, by the way, means cloud).

All the hardware files are available on the Yun shield repo, with the Dragino HE module being the most difficult part to source.

Filed under: Arduino Hacks, hardware

Changing Unipolar Steppers To Bipolar

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If you’ve been a good little hacker and have been tearing apart old printers like you’re supposed to, you’ve probably run across more than a few stepper motors. These motors come in a variety of flavors, from the four-wire deals you find in 3D printer builds, to motors with five or six wires. Unipolar motors – the ones with more than four wires – are easier to control, but are severely limited in generating torque. Luckily, you can use any unipolar motor as a more efficient bipolar motor with a simple xacto knife modification.

The extra wires in a unipolar motor are taps for each of the coils. Simply ignoring these wires and using the two coils independently makes the motor more efficient at generating torque.

[Jangeox] did a little experiment in taking a unipolar motor, cutting the trace to the coil taps, and measuring the before and after torque. The results are impressive: as a unipolar motor, the motor has about 380 gcm of torque. In bipolar mode, the same motor has 800 gcm of torque. You can check that video out below.

Filed under: hardware