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May 07 2013

Four Short Links: 7 May 2013

  1. Raspberry Pi Wireless Attack ToolkitA collection of pre-configured or automatically-configured tools that automate and ease the process of creating robust Man-in-the-middle attacks. The toolkit allows your to easily select between several attack modes and is specifically designed to be easily extendable with custom payloads, tools, and attacks. The cornerstone of this project is the ability to inject Browser Exploitation Framework Hooks into a web browser without any warnings, alarms, or alerts to the user. We accomplish this objective mainly through wireless attacks, but also have a limpet mine mode with ettercap and a few other tricks.
  2. Industrial Robot with SDK For Researchers (IEEE Spectrum) — $22,000 industrial robot with 7 degrees-of-freedom arms, integrated cameras, sonar, and torque sensors on every joint. [...] The Baxter research version is still running a core software system that is proprietary, not open. But on top of that the company built the SDK layer, based on ROS (Robot Operation System), and this layer is open source. In addition, there are also some libraries of low level tasks (such as joint control and positioning) that Rethink made open.
  3. OtherMill (Kickstarter) — An easy to use, affordable, computer controlled mill. Take all your DIY projects further with custom circuits and precision machining. (via Mike Loukides)
  4. go-raft (GitHub) — open source implementation of the Raft distributed consensus protocol, in Go. (via Ian Davis)

February 15 2013

Masking the complexity of the machine

The Internet has thrived on abstraction and modularity. Web services hide their complexity behind APIs and standardized protocols, and these clean interfaces make it easy to turn them into modules of larger systems that can take advantage of the most intelligent solution to each of many problems.

The Internet revolutionized the software-software interface; the industrial Internet will revolutionize the software-machine interface and, in doing so, will make machines more accessible. I’m using “access” very broadly here — interfaces will make machines accessible to innovators who aren’t necessarily experts in physical machinery, in the same way that the Google Maps API makes interactive mapping an accessible feature to developers who aren’t expert cartographers and front-end developers. And better access for people who write software means wider applications for those machines.

I’ve recently encountered a couple of widely different examples that illustrate this idea. These come from very different places — an aerospace manufacturer that has built strong linkages between airplanes and software, and an advanced enthusiast who has built new controllers for a pair of industrial robots — but they both involve the development of interfaces that make machines accessible.

The Centaur, built by Aurora Flight Sciences, is an optionally-piloted aircraft: it can be flown remotely, as a drone, or by a certified pilot sitting in the plane, which satisfies U.S. restrictions against domestic drone use. Customers include defense agencies and scientists, who might need a technician onboard to monitor equipment in some cases but in others send the plane on long trips well beyond a human’s comfort and safety limitations.

John Langford, Aurora’s founder, described his company’s work to me and in the process offered a terrific characterization of what the industrial Internet does: “We’re masking the complexity of the machine.”

The intelligence that Aurora layers onto its planes reduces the entire flight process to an API. The Centaur can even be flown from the pilot’s seat in the plane through the remote-operator control. In other words, Aurora has so comprehensively captured the mechanism of flight in its software that a pilot might as well fly the airplane he’s sitting in through the digital pipeline rather than directly through the flight deck’s physical links.

A highly-evolved interface between airplane and its software means that the software can draw insight from the plane, reading control settings as well as sensors to improve its piloting performance. “An experienced human pilot might have [flown] 10,000 to 20,000 hours,” says Langford. “We already have operating systems that have hundreds of thousands of flying hours on them. Every anomaly gets built into the memory of the system. As the systems learn, you only have to see something once in order to know how to respond. The [unmanned aircraft] has flight experience that no human pilot will ever build up in his lifetime.”

The simplified interface between humans and the Centaur’s combined machinery and software might eventually make flight vastly more accessible. “What we think the robotic revolution really does is remove operating an air vehicle from the priesthood that it’s part of today, and makes it accessible to people with lower levels of training,” he says.

Trammell Hudson's PUMA robotic arm setup at NYC Resistor, with laptop running kinematics library, homemade controller stack, and robot.Trammell Hudson's PUMA robotic arm setup at NYC Resistor, with laptop running kinematics library, homemade controller stack, and robot.

Trammell Hudson's PUMA robotic arm setup at NYC Resistor, with laptop running kinematics library, homemade controller stack, and robot.

I saw a different kind of revolutionary accessibility at work when I visited Trammell Hudson at NYC Resistor, a hardware collective in Brooklyn. I came across Hudson through a blog post he wrote detailing his rehabilitation of a pair of industrial robots — reverse-engineering their controls and building his own new controller stack in place of the PLCs that had operated them before they were salvaged from a factory with wire cutters.

“The arm itself has no smarts — just motors and quadrature encoders,” he says. (Even the arm’s current position is stored in the controller’s memory, not the robot’s.) Hudson had to write his own smarts for the robot, from scratch — intelligence that, when the robot was new, resided in purpose-built controllers the size of mini-fridges but that today can be built from open-source software libraries and run on an inexpensive microprocessor.

The robot’s kinematics — the spatial intelligence that decides how to get the robot’s hand from one place to another by repositioning six different joints — run on Hudson’s laptop. He’s interested in building those mathematical models directly into a controller that could be built from widely-available parts by anyone else with a similar robot, which could give second lives to thousands of high-quality industrial automation components by taking discarded machines and assigning new intelligence to them.

“The hardware itself is very durable,” Hudson told me. “The software is where the interesting things are happening, and the controllers age very rapidly.

Hudson’s remarkable feat of Saturday-afternoon electrical engineering was made possible by open-source microcontrollers, software libraries, and hardware interfaces (and, naturally, his own ingenuity). But he told me the most important factor in the success of his project was the rise of an online community that has an extraordinarily specialized and sophisticated understanding of electronics. “The ease of finding information now is incredible,” he said. “Some guy posted the correct voltage for releasing the arm’s brake, and I was able to find it in a few minutes and avoid damaging anything.”

“We went through a white-collar dark ages in the 1980s,” Hudson said. “People stopped building things. No one took shop class.” Now hardware components, abstracted and modularized, have become accessible to anyone with a technical mindset, who can improve the physical world by writing more intelligence onto it.

In an earlier reverse-engineering project, Hudson wrote his own firmware, which became Magic Lantern, for Canon’s 5D Mark II digital SLR camera. “I have a 4 by 5 [inch] camera from the 1890s — with my Canon 5D Mark II attached to the back,” he says. “The hardware on the old camera is still working fine, but the software on the 5D is way better than chemical film.”

This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

January 24 2013

The bicycle barometer, SCADA security, the smart city in a disaster (industrial Internet links)

The Bicycle Barometer (@richardjpope) — Richard Pope, a project manager at, built what he calls a barometer for his bike commute: it uses weather and transit data to compute a single value that expresses the relative comfort of a bike commute versus a train commute, and displays it on a dial. It’s a clever way of combining two unrelated datasets and then applying algorithmic intelligence. As more data from a sensor-laden world becomes available, we’ll need better tools like this one for reducing it to useful, simple, informed prescriptions.

Scada Security Predictions: 2013 (IndustryWeek) — Tofino Security founder Eric Byres predicts that 2013 will be the year that tablets start to show up on the plant floor. “We won’t see a full invasion of iDevices on the plant floor in 2013,” he writes, “but the wall will be breached.” Security researchers I’ve spoken with usually say that iOS is a remarkably secure platform, but connecting more devices to industrial control systems means more endpoints that make the job of securing an industrial system much more complicated.

Adaptation (The New Yorker, subscription required for full article) — Some smart-city systems, especially targeted communications and infrastructure monitoring, have become important elements of disaster preparedness.

This is a post in our industrial Internet series, an ongoing exploration of big machines and big data. The series is produced as part of a collaboration between O’Reilly and GE.

August 27 2012

Four short links: 27 August 2012

  1. International Broadband Pricing Study Dataset for Reuse3,655 fixed and mobile broadband retail price observations, with fixed broadband pricing data for 93 countries and mobile broadband pricing data for 106 countries.
  2. The Dictator’s Practical Internet Guide to Power Retention — tongue-in-cheek “The goal of this guide is to provide leaders of authoritarian, autocratic, theocratic, totalitarian and other single-leader or single-party regimes with a basic set of guidelines on how to use the internet to ensure you retain the most power for the longest time. The best way to achieve this is to never have your authority contested. This guide will accompany you in the obliteration of political dissidence. By having everyone agree with you, or believe that everyone agrees with you, your stay at the head of state will be long and prosperous.” (via BoingBoing)
  3. Ultra Cinnamon (GitHub) — arduino-based monitor & access system for restricted locations.
  4. CKEditor Beta 4 Out — moving to Github, added inline editing. (via Javascript Weekly)
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