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HackLab 2014 - Builders are better Breakers

By on 12 May, 2014

It’s no secret we love to break technology at MWR, but to find flaws it often helps to have experience building what you are breaking. That way you get to know how someone designing a system thinks, the common mistakes that are made, and simply get to know the technology better. It also makes us better consultants, because breaking things is only the first part of what we do; providing practical, realistic advice on how to address a flaw is even more important.

With that in mind, one of the projects at this year’s HackLab was to design and build a hardware device. This lets people practice or gain experience working with electronics, embedded programming, working to a budget, and dealing with all the challenges embedded device designers face. All of this is valuable experience when it comes to popping open someone else’s device and finding where the security flaws might be…

So out came the breadboards, datasheets and yes even at this early stage the soldering iron made an appearance. We’d bought up a variety pack of fun but affordable components to mix and match, added to the labs general supply of every day components and got to brainstorming.

Now the details of what this device is actually going to be are still under wraps, but needless to say when it’s ready you might get a chance to play with one yourself so keep an eye on the website for more details! That said, we only had a rough idea of what we wanted at the start of the day, and after a few hours we refined the idea to something workable and started working on some prototypes for individual elements. Not everyone had electronics experience, so breaking up bits of the design let people go and explore how to implement it.

For some of the guys this meant grabbing an interesting sounding component and a breadboard and making it work. For others it meant researching some keywords thrown at them by those with more electronics experience. You’ve already controlled 3 LEDs with your MSP430 but what about an array of 16×16? There are certainly not enough spare pins to drive all of those and do lots of other useful things besides. “Multiplexing, Charliplexing, shift registers” someone said, and the learning began.

We had some small pre-made LED arrays in the hopes of quickly prototyping some things, but the data sheets neglected to properly explain which pin was which so some trial and error was had with far too many loose wires to get something meaningful displayed on them.

Other people were getting some Infra-Red communications going, trying to implement the protocol from scratch rather than just download a library. There are some fantastic hardware maker communities out there with all sorts of software and designs for things, but it is all too easy to just download and plug pre-made pieces and not actually learn how to really build something. Getting timing and synchronisation right was tricky.

Naturally there were a few diversions to the other HackLab projects around us; soldering on to a hard disk controller, holding down a quadrocopter motor being tested, wiring something up to a JTAGulator. There was a lot of hardware at this year’s HackLab.

We didn’t end the day with a final schematic, but we knew that would likely be the case. We did however have a good plan of how to proceed and hopefully the project will give the team lots of opportunity to learn more about electronics if that isn’t their normal area of expertise.

So keep an eye out for future sneak peeks and how to get your hands on one of these mystery devices in the future!