A common trope in bank heist B-movies is someone effortlessly bypassing a safe’s combination lock. Typically, the hero or villain will turn the dial while listening to the internal machinery, then deduce the combination based on sounds made by the lock. In real life, high-quality combination locks are not vulnerable to such simple attacks, but cheap ones can often be bypassed with a minimum of effort. Some are so simple that this process can even be automated, as [Mew463] has shown by building a machine that can open a Master combination lock in less than a minute.
The operating principle is based on research by Samy Kamkar from a couple of years ago. For certain types of Master locks, the combination can be found by applying a small amount of pressure on the shackle and searching for locations on the dial where its movement becomes heavier. A simple algorithm can then be used to completely determine the first and third numbers, and find a list of just eight candidates for the second number.
[Mew463]’s machine automates this process by turning the dial with a stepper motor and pulling on the shackle using a servo and a rack-and-pinion system. A magnetic encoder is mounted on the stepper motor to determine when the motor stalls, while the servo has its internal position encoder brought out as a means of detecting how far the shackle has moved. All of this is controlled by an Arduino Nano mounted on a custom PCB together with a TMC2208 stepper driver.
The machine does its job smoothly and quickly, as you can see in the (silent) video embedded below. All design files are available on the project’s GitHub page, so if you’ve got a drawer full of these locks without combinations, here’s your chance to make them sort-of-useful again. After all, these locks’ vulnerabilities have a long history, and we’ve even seen automated crackers before.