Author Archives: Rob Reynolds

Badges? We Don’t Need no Stinking – Wait, We Definitely Need this Badge

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If you made it to the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, then you’ve already gotten your hands on this year’s amazing badge. If you weren’t able to attend the Supercon this year, then you’ve probably been relegated to staring at it longingly from afar, and this year’s badge is definitely worthy of our admiration.


Gaze at it in wide-eyed wonder! (Original image ©Lucasfilm Ltd)

The brainchild of Jeroen Domburg (Sprite_TM), this year’s badge is in a Gameboy form factor and packs quite a punch. It holds an ECP5 45K LUT FPGA - a huge chip, especially for a badge; 16MiB SPI RAM and 16MiB flash memory; a 480x 320 LCD display;a mono audio output (you’ll need to solder a speaker to J3 to hear anything); IrDA, to allow for a little wireless communication; a PMOD connectors, the standard for peripherals used with FPGAs; a pair of upgraded SAO connectors; a micro-USB connector and an HDMI-compatible connector, in case you want your badge to have an enormous screen; and finally, there’s a 40-pin 2.54 mm female breakout header, and every person who gets a badge will also get a protoboard cartridge that includes a flash memory chip and plugs right in. Oh, and if you really bork your badge, you've got JTAG access as well!

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Each badge includes a protoboard cartridge with an on-board flash memory chip

The FPGA chip has 381 connections, over 200 of which are IO. With this many possible connections, and the speed at which the deadline arrived, typos on the silkscreen were possible. Probable. Inevitable. For example, on the PMOD connector, the pin numbers are in fact upside-down from what the silkscreen indicates. Additionally, on the SAO header, SDA and SDL are flipped as are the GPIO 1 and GPIO 2. Luckily, according to Jereon, all of the lines are just IOs to the FPGA, so you can fix the issue by just picking a different IO line. He also suggests that if you do use any of these lines, you just throw a multimeter on them to make sure that information is being sent where you want it.

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With the rush to production, a few errors were made in the silkscreen. (Image from Jeroen Domburg)

Many people may be hesitant to jump into the FPGA pool because generally you are forced to work in Verilog or VHDL. As a way to make the badge more accessible to those not completely comfortable writing in hardware description language, Domburg basically wrote a microcontroller into the fabric of the FPGA. This makes it possible to program the microcontroller in the soft-core, as if you were programming an ARM, PIC or AVR-based board.

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Nyan cat demos the graphics display, but there is so much more that can be done with it.

The idea behind the Hackaday Supercon Badge is, of course, to hack it. You can find everything you need to get started over on Hackaday's site, and at Sprite_TM's GitHub repo. That will help you set up your gateway, SDK, and show you how to start hacking your badge, but what if you need some ideas as to what to hack? Take a look at the Badge Hacking Ceremony, and get inspiration from some amazing coders developers, and engineers who were there.

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Getting more from your SparkFun Edge Development Board

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Don't forget, we've got new deals live today for our Week of Deals sale. Stock up for 2020 projects and find your last-minute gifts, all in one place!

Last week, SparkFun CTO Kirk and I headed out to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, to take part in the first ARM AIoT Dev Summit. If you’re not yet familiar with the term, AIoT, or Artificial Intelligence of Things, is a combination of AI and IoT in order to achieve more efficient and smarter connected technologies. The conference included a great array of keynote speakers, including Simon Segars, CEO of ARM; Massimo Banzi, co-founder and CTO of Arduino; and Pete Warden, Google’s Lead Engineer for the TensorFlow AI and TinyML projects. Workshops and tech sessions included things like "Privacy-Focused Voice AI in Intelligent Robotics," "Getting Started with a Self-Driving RC Car" (using only computer vision and deep learning), and "AI Workflow for Large Scale Deployment of Far-Edge ML devices."

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Quick age test - how many items on display here have you owned?

We met some great people and learned a lot, but the main reason we were there was to lead a workshop on "Low-Power AI and Machine Learning," where we showed attendees how to create a magic wand. Working with Pete Warden we made some advances with the SparkFun Edge Board, and simplified the process by building an Arduino core for the board. We lead a full class of fifty-five participants, and while almost everyone was able to finish all of the examples before class ended, even the few who weren’t claimed to have had a great time learning and said they were looking forward to working more with the board when they got home.

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It was standing room only for our Build Your Own Harry Potter Wand with TensorFlow workshop.

If you have an Edge board, or are thinking of picking one up to start dabbling in machine learning and AI, I’ve put together some steps and some links to help you get more from your board using the Arduino IDE, and to teach you how to start training the board on your own.

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Illuminate your world!

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Everyone loves things that blink, flash or light up, and LEDs are a quick and simple way to make that happen. From a simple "power on" indicator to fully animated billboards, the applications for LEDs are seemingly endless. They're also the ideal starting point for physical computing -- a basic blink sketch functions serves the same purpose as "Hello World." If you're just getting into electronics or want to up your LED game, we have some great LED resources, like our Guide to Light-Emitting Diodes, tons of project and design ideas for LEDs, and the video below.

Whether you're looking to beautify your home this winter with some simple luminaries, or you want to make a full album art display to enhance the visuals of your party playlist, LEDs will help you light up your life!

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So Close. But Exactly How Close?

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There are many reasons why we might need to measure distance or proximity in a project. Obstacle avoidance jumps to mind, of course, but perhaps we want a UAV to maintain a constant elevation over changing terrain. Maybe you want to scan part of a 2000-year-old European castle to create a 3D representation of it. For many applications, LiDAR - Light Detection And Ranging - is the perfect solution. But like everything, it does have potential drawbacks. LiDAR units can be expensive, draw high current and, let’s face it, they shoot lasers. Carelessness could easily lead to a sudden loss of depth perception. With the release of the new LiDAR-Lite v4, Garmin has addressed some of those issues and added some great new features, too.

The new lightweight powerhouse!

One of the cool additions to this version of the LiDAR-Lite is its support for Ultra Low Power (ULP) wireless technologies, including ANT and Bluetooth® 5 LE. ANT can be used to transmit data to a computer or microcontroller as it comes in, while the BLE is for updating the device's software wirelessly. ANT is an ultra-low-power wireless network protocol that can handle peer-to-peer, star, tree and mesh topologies. If you’re not familiar with the ANT wireless protocol, you can get a good idea of the basics here. For a complete look at everything the Garmin LiDAR-Lite v4 is capable of, check out their Operation Manual and Technical Specifications sheet.

Happy hacking!

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Where am I, Exactly? A Guide to SparkFun’s GPS Modules

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At the end of 2018, the US Air Force launched the first of 32 GPS III satellites, which will replace the current constellation of satellites, ultimately offering three times greater accuracy and an eight-fold improvement in anti-jamming capabilities. You may also recall back on April 6th when the GPS Week Rollover on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) occurred. Since the week numbers are encoded into the data stream by a 10-bit field, they were only good for about 19.7 years, or 1024 weeks. However, part of the new system upgrade will include switching the week data to a 13-bit field, meaning we won’t see another rollover for about 157 years.

With all of these improvements happening throughout the field of global positioning, we would be remiss if we didn’t up our GPS game here at SparkFun as well. Over the past decade, our GPS modules have gotten faster, more accurate and easier on the wallet. And if you’re interested in increased accuracy, and are not yet familiar with Real Time Kinematics, you’re definitely going to want to take a look at this video.

To that end, here’s a short overview and comparison of our current crop of GPS modules.

Happy Hacking!

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Introducing the Pizza Roll Console!

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If you were keeping an eye on E3 last week - that’s the Electronic Entertainment Expo, one of the premiere events for the video gaming industry - then you know Miller Lite introduced the Cantroller™, a beer can, full of beer, that is also a Bluetooth gaming controller. Of course, you couldn’t buy one of these. But you could win one of the two hundred that Miller Lite was giving away, simply by beating comedian Eric Andre in a game of Street Fighter. And naturally, you would both be playing using the Cantroller. It was a great way for Miller Lite to get noticed at this year’s E3. They even released a heavy-on-visuals/light-on-copy commercial before the event, which you should definitely watch.

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"It's a beer can. It's a controller. It's a Cantroller™." Image ©2019 Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI

This is the type of project I can wholeheartedly support. It’s ridiculous, kitchy and fully functional, and there was really no reason for it to exist other than because a bunch of people were sitting around in a meeting, and one said, probably in a Beavis-sounding voice, "Hey, you know what would be cool? If we made, like, a beer can, but it was also a game controller. Heh heh."

We’re no strangers to wireless controllers here at SparkFun - we’ve had the Sparkfun Wireless Joystick Kit for quite a while now. Nor are we strangers to hacking game controllers, so seeing Miller Lite’s controller immediately brought two things to the front of my mind: first, why didn’t I think of this, and second, what could I do that would be similar or complementary to this project?

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From Phillip Torrone's Maker Faire 2007 Flickr

Creating a solution where there is no problem

Instead of looking for what’s needed, I decided to look for what was ridiculous. If you were lucky enough to win one of the Cantrollers, it’s a pretty good bet that you have several gaming consoles. I looked for obvious pairings – game controllers pair with gaming consoles, and cold beer pairs with tasty snacks. From this was born…

The Pizza Roll Console™!

I figured the gaming console would be fairly easy. I used a Raspberry Pi 3 B+, along with the Raspberry Pi 7” LCD Touchscreen, a Hamburger Mini Speaker, and one of our now-retired 5Ah Lithium Ion Battery Packs. I loaded up RetroPie, and Emulation Station, the video game emulator. The RaspberryPi 3 B+ seemed the perfect choice, since it has built-in Bluetooth, and would therefore be compatible with the Miller Lite Cantroller. You can learn how to set up your own RetroPie system here.

For reasons I cannot explain, my brain just kept yelling “Pizza rolls! Pizza rolls!” I found that the big box of Totino’s Pizza Rolls looked to be about the perfect size. I knew I would have to make some kind of insert for the Totino’s box so that it had a little structural stability. I also wanted to give it two sections: the bottom would house all of the electronics, while the top section would hold pizza rolls.

With access to a laser cutter here at SparkFun, I used MakerCase to create a finger-jointed box that I could cut out of quarter-inch and eighth-inch acrylic. I made a few adjustments to allow for the screen opening, a hole for the wired controller, some venting to keep the system cool and to let a little sound out, and the separator to keep the pizza rolls out of the electronics. I carefully opened the Totino’s box from the bottom, so I could open the factory sealed top in the video. I test fit the acrylic box, and it was just a little too large - my tolerances were too tight - a reduction in the outside dimensions by two percent, and it was a perfect fit.

Box for components and snacks

The acrylic box, with an opening for the Raspberry Pi screen, side opening for the wired controller, a separator, and some side venting.

It couldn’t be that easy

Having created the insert to house the electronics (and some pizza rolls), I put in the speaker, battery, Raspberry Pi and touchscreen. They all fit beautifully. Then I attempted to slide it all into the pizza roll box. That’s when I learned that the glass of the touchscreen was about 3mm too wide for the box.

Box With Components

Well look at that, the components fit, but the screen glass IS wider than the containment box!

I struggled, forced and pleaded, but it looked like there was no way it would all fit in without tearing the box edges. So I took my hobby knife and carefully opened the box on its seam. I was then able to slide the entire assembly in, then hot glue the box back together as tightly as it would fit. I also made a hole in the side of the box where the Raspberry Pi’s USB ports sit, so I could insert the wired controller once the assembly was sealed inside the box. Of course, this wouldn’t be necessary with a wireless controller.

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Party in the front, party in the back. What's not to like?

Thinking of building your own? Here are some thoughts

Since this was basically just a fast and fun build, designed for a quick fake commercial, there were definitely some shortcuts taken. The biggest, of course, is that the entire system needs to be powered up, then hermetically sealed inside the pizza roll box. To power it down, you either have to tear the box open again, or just play until the battery drains completely.

Ah yes, the battery. This setup could be quite a drain on a single cell LiPo battery. Knowing I would not be using a wireless controller, and not knowing how long the shoot would take, I swapped out the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ for an older Pi 2 that I had sitting around. Since this board lacks Wifi and Bluetooth, I knew it would draw less current, and therefore last longer. With the now-retired 5Ah battery pack, it was still running strong after four and a half hours.

Ideally, a finished product would have, hidden on the bottom of the box, a way to turn the system on/off, a way to turn the speaker on/off (or just use a speaker that could be powered from the Raspberry Pi), and a USB port to charge the battery. The immediate issue that comes to mind there, however, is that single cell LiPo chargers that also allow for output have a current limit of about 1A - not enough to run a system like this. But hey, that’s future me’s problem, and something I’ll worry about if the good people at Miller Lite find it in their hearts to send me a Cantroller™ to go with my Pizza Roll Console™!

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