Issue 262: EQ Answers

Problem 1—The classic two-transistor astable multivibrator is shown below. Typically, R2 and R3 have at least 10 times the value of R1 and R4. This circuit oscillates, with Q1 and Q2 turning on alternately. From the point in time in a cycle where Q1 first switches on, describe what happens until Q2 switches on.

Source: D. Tweed, CC262

Answer 1—Right before the moment Q1 switches on, C1 is charged to VCC – VBE, with its left end positive, and the left end of C2 has just reached +VBE. The right end of C2 is being held at VCE(SAT) by Q2.

Source: D. Tweed, CC262

So, as Q1 begins to switch on, it pulls the left end of C1 low, and this also pulls the right end of C1 low, cutting off Q2. This in turn allows the right end of C2 to rise, emphasizing the turn-on of Q1 by increasing the voltage (and current) at the base of Q1.

Once Q1 is fully on, the right end of C1 is now at VCE(SAT)– (VCC – VBE) (a fairly substantial negative voltage), and C1 now begins to charge in the other direction, through R2. Once the right end of C1 reaches +VBE, Q2 begins to turn on, starting the second half of the cycle.

Problem 2—What determines the time of one half-cycle of the oscillation? Does this depend on VCC?

Answer 2—The time of the half-cycle described previously is the time that it takes the right end of C1 to charge from –(VCC – (VBE + VCE(SAT))) to +VBE.

Now, keep in mind that the capacitor is charging “toward” +VCC, but it gets halted by the B-E junction of Q2 at +VBE. This charging is occuring at a rate determined by the time constant C1 × R2, and we’re basically interested in the time that it takes to move halfway from its starting value to its final value. This works out to –ln(0.5), or 0.693 times the R-C time constant.

As long as VCC >> VBE, the time does not depend on VCC. That isn’t to say, however, that VCC can be arbitrarily large. If it exceeds the reverse-breakdown voltage of the transistors’ B-E junctions, current will flow and perturb the timing.

Problem 3—Recently, a different circuit appeared on the web, shown below. Again, R2 and R3 are significantly larger than R1 and R4. The initial reaction of one observer was that this circuit can’t work, because there’s no DC bias path for either transistor. Is this assessment correct?

Source: D. Tweed, CC262

Answer 3—No, it isn’t. This circuit can oscillate just fine. Again, look at how C1 charges and discharges.

Source: D. Tweed, CC262

If C1 starts out discharged, it will charge through R1 and the B-E junction of Q2. This current will turn on Q2, holding its collector at ground (really VCE(SAT)) and preventing Q1 from turning on.

However, as C1 reaches full charge, the current through it decays below a level that will keep Q2 turned on. When it starts to turn off, its collector voltage rises, which also forces current into Q1’s base through C2. As Q1 begins to turn on, it pulls its collector low, which also pulls the base of Q2 lower, emphasizing its turn-off. The circuit quickly “snaps” to the other state, with Q1 on and Q2 off. C1 is discharged through Q1 and D2 at the same time that C2 begins charging through R4 and Q1’s B-E junction.

Problem 4—What role do R2 and R3 play in this circuit?

Answer 4—R2 and R3 never have more than ±VBE across them; as a result, the current through them is negligible relative to the current through the capacitors. In other words, they’re superfluous.

Question 5—Does the timing of this circuit depend on VCC? If not, what does it depend on?

Answer 5—The time from when one of the transistors turns on to when it turns off is determined by the currents flowing into its base and collector. When the current into the base drops below the value needed to sustain the current into the collector, the transistor begins to turn off, and the circuit feedback then insures that this happens quickly.

Looking at Q2, and ignoring the transient associated with discharging C2 for now, the collector current is set by R4. The initial base current is set by R1, but this decays exponentially with a time constant of R1 × C1.

Therefore, the primary determinant of the half-cycle time period (in addition to the R-C time constant) is the current transfer ratio, or hFE of each transistor. When the base current drops to a value of 1/hFE of the collector current, the transistor begins to turn off.

Since both currents scale in the same way with VCC, it has no direct effect on the timing. There is only a secondary effect if the value of hFE changes with the value of the collector current.

Contributor:  David Tweed



Electronics Engineering Crossword (Issue 262)


3.     CATHODERAYOSCILLOSCOPE—Isn’t a digital ’scope [three words]

6.     PASSBAND—A super-efficient band of frequencies

9.     MESHNETWORKING—Relies on nodes to capture, distribute, and reproduce data [two words]

11.   PYTHON—An open-source programming language that relies of automatic memory management

13.   NORTONSTHEOREM—A formula for linear electrical networks [two words]

15.   TRIMMER—Variable resistors, variable capacitors, or trimmable inductors, for example

18.   DATATRANSFERRATE—Measures data’s speed of travel [three words]



1.     COLUMBSLAW—Electrostatic physics principal [two words]

2.     NOVACEK—Wrote 26 feature articles for Circuit Cellar between 1999 and 2004

4.     CYGWIN—Enables you to “get that Linux feeling on Windows”

5.     ELECTROLUMINESCENCE—Light emission caused by electrical influences

7.     SCHMITTTRIGGER—A comparator with two different threshold voltage levels [two words]

8.     POLARITYSWITCH—Reverses an output signal’s absolute phase [two words]

10.   SIEMENS—Equivalent of amperes per volt

12.   RAREFACTION—Sound wave phase

14.   SLEWRATE—Represents a signal’s maximum rate of change [two words]

16.   QFACTOR—Measures the damping of resonator modes

17.   GERBER—PCB file format

19.   TRIODE—An amp device with three electrodes

20.   SPRAGUE—Known as the “father of electric traction”


Elektor Weekly Wrap-Up: E-Blocks, Embedded Linux, & the Elektor Lab

Last week Elektor staffers provided the Circuit Cellar staff with an E-Blocks kit to open and analyze, introduced a new course on Embedded Linux (along with an affordable Linux board), and gave members a behind-the-scenes look at the Elektor Lab. Let’s review.


Early last week, the Elektor editorial department sent Circuit Cellar staffers an E-Blocks kit to open and review.

E-Blocks: The Elektor Pro PICmicro Starter Kit

So, what are E-Blocks?

E-blocks are small circuit boards. Each contains a block of electronics that you would typically find in an electronic system. The 40 circuit boards in the E-blocks product line use rugged, nine-way, D-type connectors as a connection bus for eight signal lines and earth. Power (5 or 3.3 V) is wired separately. Thus, you can assemble a complete system to be assembled in a matter of minutes.

The system’s functionality can be enhanced further by the addition of more than 40 sensors and accessories.

Systems based on microcontrollers can be programmed using flowcharts, C, or Assembly. Systems based on CPLD/FPGA technologies can be programmed in block diagrams, VHDL or Verilog. A range of CD ROM tutorials, which includes compilers, development tools and manuals, provides support to students who are new to any of these technologies. (Source)

Click here for more information.

Take closer look at the E-Blocks kit. It includes a Microchip Technology PIC16F877A chip, a multiprogrammer board, an LCD board, a switch board, Flowcode, an internal power supply, and documentation.

Embedded Linux Made Easy

Elektor announced last Wednesday an introductory course on Embedded Linux that’s accompanied by a compact circuit board:

In this beginners’ course you will learn where the most important applications and software components, the basis of our Linux system, originate from. You will also learn how the hardware is constructed and how it operates. The next step is to install a suitable Linux development environment on a PC to compile our own source code. By the end of the course you will be able to construct a simple heating controller with a graphical display and data analysis via a browser.

The Linux board features:

  • Two-layer board using readily-available components
  • No special debugging or programming hardware required
  • Fully bootable from an SD memory card
  • Linux pre-installed
  • 180-MHz ARM9 MCU, 8-MB RAM (32 MB optional), 64 MB swap
  • Integrated USB-to-RS-232 converter for console access
  • Relay, external power supply, and pushbuttons for quick testing
  • Four GPIO pins, 3 A/D channels and a PWM channel
  • I²C and SPI buses accessible from Linux
  • USB interface for further expansion

More info.


Circuit Cellar has been publishing workspace writes for the past few weeks. Last week, our colleagues at Elektor gave the world some insight about the Elektor Lab:

Developing electronic circuits necessitates measurement equipment, tools and a good place to work. Many electronics engineers, pro or hobbyist, tinkerers, researchers and other refer to this place as their “Lab”. We at Elektor have our Lab where we develop and test the circuits we publish in the magazine. Over the years, we have collected, (mis)used and destroyed quite a lot of gear, soldering irons and components here, and it is only thanks to regular & rigorous ‘clean-up’ campaigns that we keep our lab workable.

Many of our readers have access to their own often substantial labs, with equipment that sometimes even the NASA would be jealous of. So what does your electronics workspace look like? Our colleagues at Circuit Cellar have begun posting write-ups about workspaces, hackspaces, and “circuit cellars” on their website. If you would like to show off your lab, just send them some pictures and descriptions and they will post it on the Circuit Cellar website. Don’t worry about cleaning up first as our lab is probably in a similar state as yours. (Source)

Email pictures and descriptions of your workspaces, hackspaces, and circuit cellars to our editors. is an Elektor International Media publication.


Issue 262: Full-Featured SBCs at Your Fingertips

Fact 1: Easy-to-use, full-featured SBCs are popping up everywhere. Fact 2: Open-source software is becoming more commonplace each day. (Even Microsoft Corp. has begun taking open source seriously.) Conclusion: It’s an opportune time to be an electronics innovator.

In Circuit Cellar May 2012, Steve Ciarcia surveys some of the more affordable, 32-bit hardware options at your disposal. In “Power to the People” he writes:

While last month I may have implied that 8 bits is enough to control the world, there are significant things happening in high-end, 32-bit embedded processors that might really produce that inevitability. There are quite a few new system-on-chip-based, low-cost, single-board computers (SBCs) specifically designed to compete with or augment the smartphone and pad computer market. These and other full-feature budget SBCs are something you should definitely keep on your radar.

These devices typically have a high-end, 32-bit processor, such as ARM Cortex-A8, running 400 MHz to 1,000 MHz, coupled with a GPU core (and sometimes a separate DSP core) along with 128 MB to 512 MB of DDR SDRAM. These boards typically boot a full-up desktop operating system (OS)—such as Linux or Android (and soon Windows 8)—and often contain enough graphics horsepower for full-frame rate HD video and gaming.

Texas Instruments made a significant splash a few years ago with the introduction of the BeagleBoard SBC (, $149 at the time) with their OMAP3530 chip along with 256-MB of flash memory and 128 MB of SDRAM running Angstrom Linux on a high-resolution HDMI monitor. That board has since been superseded by the BeagleBoard-xM (1,000 MHz and 512 MB) at the same price and supplemented by the BeagleBone board. Selling for just $89, BeagleBone includes a 600-MHz AM3517 processor, 256-MB SDRAM, a 2-GB microSD card, and Ethernet (something the original BeagleBoard lacked).

All of the software for these boards is open source, and a significant community of developers has grown up around them. In particular, a lot of effort has been put into software infrastructure, with a number of OSes now ported to many of these boards, along with languages (both compiled and interpreted) and application frameworks, such as XBMC for multimedia and home-theater applications.

Another SBC that has been generating a lot of buzz lately is the Raspberry Pi board (, mainly because the “B” version is priced at just $35. Raspberry Pi is based on a Broadcom chip, which is unexpected. Broadcom traditionally only gave hardware documentation and software drivers to major customers, like set-top box manufacturers, not to an open-source marketplace. Apparently, the only proprietary piece of software for the Raspberry Pi board will be the driver/firmware for the GPU core. Unfortunately, as I write this, there are a few lingering manufacturing issues, and Raspberry Pi still awaits shipping.

Both the concept and size of an “SBC” are evolving as well. In addition to the bare development boards, a number of interesting second-level products based on these chips has begun to appear. Take a look at A couple of projects in particular are Pandora’s Pandora Handheld and Always Innovating’s HDMI Dongle. The former is a pocket-sized computer that flips open to reveal an 800 × 480 touchscreen and an alphanumeric keypad with gaming controls. Besides the obvious applications as a video viewer, gaming platform, and “super PDA,” I see huge opportunities for this box as a user interface for things like USB-based test instruments.

The Always Innovating HDMI Dongle is amazing for how much functionality they’ve crammed into a small package: it’s no bigger than a USB thumb drive (it also needs a USB socket for power), but it can turn any TV with an HDMI input jack and USB socket into a fully functional, Android-based computer with 1080p HD video playback, games, and Wi-Fi-based Internet access. These dongles might easily become distributed home theater nodes, delivering high-quality video and audio to multiple rooms from a common file server; or, one of the other low-cost SBCs might become the brain of a robot that can see and understand the world around it using open-source computer vision (OpenCV).

While it makes an old hardware guy like me feel less useful, it’s clear that the hardware—or, more specifically, the necessity to always design unique hardware—is no longer the bottleneck when it comes to powerful embedded applications. In a turnaround from decades ago, the ball is now clearly in the court of the software developers.

The applications for these boards and “thumb-thingies” are endless. Basically, they have the hardware muscle to handle anything that a smartphone or pad computer can do for much less. A lot of work has already been done on the OS and middleware layers. We just need to dive in and create the applications! Then it basically becomes a simple matter of programming. Of course, you know how much I personally look forward to that.

Circuit Cellar 262 (May 2012) is on newsstands now. Click here for a free preview of the issue.

Raspberry Pi Now Shipping

Got Raspberry Pi? Probably not. But rest assured. The wait is almost over.

After receiving an inquiry about the status of Raspberry Pi from a Circuit Cellar member earlier today, I decided to do a bit of research. It didn’t take long to figure out that hundreds of thousands of orders have been placed and shipping has begun.

Raspberry Pi (Source: Raspberry Pi Foundation & posted on reported last week that more than 350,000 orders have been placed since February and the next shipments are scheduled for May.

According to an April 18 post by element14’s Sagar Jethani, shipping is underway and “will be made strictly in the order that commitments were received within each region — Europe, Asia, and the Americas.” He added that “Everyone who ordered before 18th April will definitely receive their Raspberry Pi before the end of June. Those placing new orders from today can expect a July delivery.”

I encourage Circuit Cellar members to tell us what they think about Raspberry Pi once their receive their orders. We’ll be happy to review project articles for publication in print or online.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation’s compact (85.60 mm × 53.98 mm × 17 mm) single-bard computer features a Broadcom BCM2835, an ARM1176JZFS, and a Videocore 4 GPU. The ARM GNU/Linux system costs $25.

You can order the Raspberry Pi from element14 and RS Components.

Check out my first Raspberry Pi post for additional information.

Issue 262: Advances in Measurement & Sensor Tech

As I walked the convention center floor at the 2012 Design West conference in San Jose, CA, it quickly became clear that measurement and sensor technologies are at the forefront of embedded innovation. For instance, at the Terasic Technologies booth, I spoke with Allen Houng, Terasic’s Strategic Marketing Manager, about the VisualSonic Studio project developed by students from National Taiwan University. The innovative design—which included an Altera DE2-115 FPGA development kit and a Terasic 5-megapixel CMOS sensor (D5M)—used interactive tokens to control computer-generated music. Sensor technology figured prominently in the design. It was just one of many exciting projects on display.

In this issue, we feature articles on a variety of measurement-and sensor-related embedded design projects. I encourage you to try similar projects and share your results with our editors.

Starting on page 14, Petre Tzvetanov Petrov describes a multilevel audible logical probe design. Petrov states that when working with digital systems “it is good to have a logical probe with at least four levels in order to more rapidly find the node in the circuit where things are going wrong.” His low-cost audible logical probe indicates four input levels, and there’s an audible tone for each input level.

Matt Oppenheim explains how to use touch sensors to trigger audio tags on electronic devices (p. 20). His design is intended to help visually impaired users. But you can use a few capacitive-touch sensors with an Android device to create the application of your choice.

The portable touch-sensor assembly. The touch-sensor boards are mounted on the back of a digital radio, connected to a IOIO board and a Nexus One smartphone. The Android interface is displayed on the phone. (Source: M. Oppenheim)

Two daisy-chained Microchip Technology mTouch boards with a battery board providing the power and LED boards showing the channel status. (Source: M. Oppenheim)

Read the interview with Lawrence Foltzer on page 30 for a little inspiration. Interestingly, one of his first MCU-based projects was a sonar sensor.

The impetus for Kyle Gilpin’s “menU” design was a microprocessor-based sensor system he installed in his car to display and control a variety of different sensors (p. 34).

The design used to test the menU system on the mbed processor was intentionally as simple as possible. Four buttons drive the menu system and an alphanumeric LCD is used to display the menu. Alternatively, one can use the mbed’s USB-to-serial port to connect with a terminal emulator running on a PC to both display and control the menu system. (Source: K. Gilpin)

The current menU system enables Gilpin to navigate through a hierarchical set of menu items while both observing and modifying the parameters of an embedded design.

The menU system is generic enough to be compiled for most desktop PCs running Windows, OSX, or Linux using the Qt development framework. This screenshot demonstrates the GUI for the menU system. The menu itself is displayed in a separate terminal window. The GUI has four simulated LEDs and one simulated photocell all of which correspond to the hardware available on the mbed processor development platform. (Source: K. Gilpin)

The final measurement-and-sensor-related article in this issue is columnist Richard Wotiz’s “Camera Image Stabilization” (p. 46). Wotiz details various IS techniques.

Our other columnists cover accelerated testing (George Novacek, p. 60), energy harvesting (George Martin, p. 64), and SNAP engine versatility (Jeff Bachiochi, p. 68).

Lastly, I’m excited to announce that we have a new columnist, Patrick Schaumont, whose article “One-Time Passwords from Your Watch” starts on page 52.

The Texas Instruments eZ430 Chronos watch displays a unique code that enables logging into Google’s Gmail. The code is derived from the current time and a secret value embedded in the watch. (Source: P. Schaumont)

Schaumont is an Associate Professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech. His interests include embedded security, covering hardware, firmware, and software. Welcome, Patrick!

Circuit Cellar 262 (May 2012) is now available.

Wireless Data Control for Remote Sensor Monitoring

Circuit Cellar has published dozens of interesting articles about handy wireless applications over the years. And now we have another innovative project to report about. Circuit Cellar author Robert Bowen contacted us recently with a link to information about his iFarm-II controller data acquisition system.

The iFarm-II controller data acquisition system (Source: R. Bowen)

The design features two main components. Bowen’s “iFarm-Remote” and the “iFarm-Base controller” work together to as an accurate remote wireless data acquisition system. The former has six digital inputs (for monitoring relay or switch contacts) and six digital outputs (for energizing a relay’s coil). The latter is a stand-alone wireless and internet ready controller. Its LCD screen displays sensor readings from the iFarm-Remote controller. When you connect the base to the Internet, you can monitor data reading via a browser. In addition, you can have the base email you notifications pertaining to the sensor input channels.

You can connect the system to the Internet for remote monitoring. The Network Settings Page enables you to configure the iFarm-Base controller for your network. (Source: R. Bowen)

Bowen writes:

The iFarm-II Controller is a wireless data acquisition system used to remotely monitor temperature and humidity conditions in a remote location. The iFarm consists of two controllers, the iFarm-Remote and iFarm-Base controller. The iFarm-Remote is located in remote location with various sensors (supports sensors that output +/-10VDC ) connected. The iFarm-Remote also provides the user with 6-digital inputs and 6-digital outputs. The digital inputs may be used to detect switch closures while the digital outputs may be used to energize a relay coil. The iFarm-Base supports either a 2.4GHz or 900Mhz RF Module.

The iFarm-Base controller is responsible for sending commands to the iFarm-Remote controller to acquire the sensor and digital input status readings. These readings may be viewed locally on the iFarm-Base controllers LCD display or remotely via an Internet connection using your favorite web-browser. Alarm conditions can be set on the iFarm-Base controller. An active upper or lower limit condition will notify the user either through an e-mail or a text message sent directly to the user. Alternatively, the user may view and control the iFarm-Remote controller via web-browser. The iFarm-Base controllers web-server is designed to support viewing pages from a PC, Laptop, iPhone, iTouch, Blackberry or any mobile device/telephone which has a WiFi Internet connection.—Robert Bowen,

iFarm-Host/Remote PCB Prototype (Source: R. Bowen)

Robert Bowen is a senior field service engineer for MTS Systems Corp., where he designs automated calibration equipment and develops testing methods for customers involved in the material and simulation testing fields. Circuit Cellar has published three of his articles since 2001:

Elektor Weekly Wrap-Up: Publishing Process Video, Inside May 2012, & a New Book on LEDs

What your plans for this weekend? Any projects in the works? Before you start soldering, consider what Elektor staffers have been working in this week. Perhaps you’ll want to start designing with the goal of submitting your project to the Elektor Lab. Check out the video below for details.

If you don’t have a project yet, no worries. The currently available May issue is chock full of interesting articles and projects.

May Issue Intro Video

My friend and colleague Wisse Hettinga does a wonderful job each month introducing the newest issue of Elektor. This week he released the May intro video:

Inside Elektor May 2012

Here is the table of contents for the latest edition of Elektor:

  • Embedded World 2012
  • The RL78 Green Energy Challenge has begun
  • Embedded Linux Made Easy (1)
  • Platino Controlled by LabVIEW (1)
  • Preamplifier 2012 (2)
  • Lossless Load
  • Inside Pico C-Super
  • Mounting nixie tubes
  • Minty Geek’s Mark Brickley
  • QuadroWalker
  • Electronics for Starters (5)
  • AVR Software Defined Radio (3)
  • Component Tips: MOSFETs + extras
  • Energy Monitor
  • SHT11 Humidity Sensor Connected to PC
  • RAMBOard-Serial
  • Retronics: Elektor Logic Analyser (1981)
  • Hexadoku
  • Gerard’s Columns: Reliability

New Book on LED Designs & Projects

Ask anyone under 20 to mention a light source and you’re likely to hear “el-ee-dee.” It just goes to show that LEDs are succeeding the light bulb at a terrific pace. Now ask any high school kid to mention an electronic component. You’ll hear the same acronym again. Kids positively adore LEDs: they’re cheap, simple to connect, and allow all sorts of things to be personalized, tweaked, and adorned with bright colors, preferably in strings and flashing too.

Editor Jan Buiting at Elektor this week signed off the production of a small book on LEDs specifically aimed at young people. The idea is to help them learn about these fantastic devices. The book is packed with entry-level projects that can be built straight off on a breadboard. With one-stop shopping in mind, Elektor will also be selling a nice parts kit that belongs with the book that will enable readers to gain some hands-on experience working with LEDs.

The new book and the associated kit are expected to come on sale by June 1, 2012. Check the Elektor webpage at that time. is an Elektor group publication.

Elektor Weekly Wrap-Up: Project Generator, 32-Bit Linux on an 8-Bit MCU, & Computer Vision Simplified

Last week Elektor staffers put in a long workweek of, well, a little bit of everything: lab work, news reporting, and book launching. Let’s start with the lab.

Elektor’s Project Generator Edition

The Elektor Lab’s workers were finishing up their final lab duties relating to Elektor’s upcoming double summer edition—the Project Generator Edition, PGE.

Elektor Lab staff preps for the summer issue

Thijs Beckers reported: “Extra attention is paid to the quality of this year’s projects, after upping the standards already in the selection process. We set an ambitious goal for all of us, lab workers and editors alike, to bring you articles and circuit ideas from the utmost quality, with crystal clear details and lots of PCB layouts. All of this would of course be unfeasible without our highly respected freelance contributors and experts, who we are grateful for their efforts in supporting this year’s extra-thick magazine with fresh and exciting projects and circuits.”

Getting read for the "Project Generator Edition"

32-Bit Linux on an 8-Bit MCU

Elektor editor Clemens Valens reported last week about an interesting project by Dmitry Grinberg. Clemens said Dmitry ported a 32-bit operating system to an 8-bit microcontroller lacking most of the features needed to actually run the OS. Seem odd? Learn more here.

A 32-bit OS ported to an 8-bit micro

Computer Vision Simplified

Elektor announced Wednesday a new book on the topic of computer vision. Fevzi Özgül’s Design your own PC Visual Processing and Recognition System in C# is intended for “engineers, scientists and enthusiasts with developed programming skills or with a strong interest in image processing technology on a PC.”

The book, which Özgül wrote using Microsoft C# and utilizing object-oriented practices, is a practical how-to guide. He covers essential image-processing techniques and provides practical application examples so you can produce high-quality image processing software. Click here for more information. is an Elektor group publication.


User Interface Innovation: Collaborative Navigation in Virtual Search and Rescue

An engineering team from Virginia Tech’s Center of HCI and Department of Computer Science recently won first place in the IEEE’s 2012 3DUI Contest the for their Collaborative Navigation in Virtual Search and Rescue Escort (CARNAGE) project. The project was designed to enable emergency responders to collaborate and safely navigate a dangerous environment such as a disaster area.

The contest was open to researchers, students, and professionals working on 3-D user interface technologies. Entrants were challenged to design an application to enable two users—situated in different locations with his or her own UI—to navigate a 3-D environment without speaking to each other.

Collaborative Augmented Rescue Navigation and Guidance Escort UI (Source: Virginia Tech News, YouTube)

The Virginia Tech team—comprising Felipe Bacim, Eric Ragan, Siroberto, and Cheryl Stinson—described their design in a concise system description, which is currently available on the 3DUI 2012 contest website:

Our task specifically looks at communication between a scene commander and a disaster relief responder during a search and rescue operation. The responders inside the environment have great difficulty navigating because of hazards, reduced visibility, disorientation, and lack of survey knowledge of the environment. Observing the operation from outside of the disaster area, scene commanders work to help coordinate the response effort  [1, 2]. With the responder’s notifications about the environment, scene commanders can provide new instructions, alert the responders to risks, and issue evacuation orders. Since neither the commander nor the responder has complete information about the environment, effective communication is essential.

As technology advances, the incorporation of new tools into search and rescue protocols shows promise for improving  operation efficiency and safety. In this research, we explore the  use of 3D user interfaces to assist collaborative search-and-rescue. Ideally, users should be able to focus on their primary tasks in the VE, rather than struggle with travel and way finding. Using virtual reality (VR) as a prototyping testbed, we implemented a proof-of-concept collaborative guidance system. Preliminary evaluation has demonstrated promising results for efficient rescue operations.

The team also created an explanatory 6:16-minute project video:

Click here for more information about the IEEE Symposium on 3D User Interfaces in Costa Mesa, CA.

Source: Virginia Tech News


Issue 263: Net-Enabled Controller, MCU-Based Blood Pressure Cuff, MOSFETs 101, & More

Although the June issue is still in production, I can report that it’s packed with projects and tips you’ll find immediately applicable. The projects include an AC tester design, an Internet-enabled controller, a DIY image-processing system, and an MCU-cased blood pressure cuff. Once you’ve had your fill of design projects, you’ll benefit from our articles on essential topics such as concurrency embedded systems, frequency mixers, MOSFET channel resistance, and “diode ORing.”

An Internet-Enabled Controller, by Fergus Dixon
Power-saving smart switches require a real-time clock-based controller. With a request for an Ethernet interface, the level of complexity increases. Once the Ethernet interface was working, connecting to the Internet was simple, but new problems arose.

Final PCB with a surface-mount Microchip Technology ENC28J60 Ethernet chip (Source: F. Dixon, CC263)

AC Tester, Kevin Gorga
The AC Tester provides a modular design approach to building a tool for repair or prototyping line voltage devices. In its simplest form, it provides an isolated variable AC voltage supply. The next step incorporates digital current and voltage meters with an electronic circuit breaker. The ultimate adds an energy meter for Watts, VA, and VAR displays.

The AC Tester powered up and running. The E meter is shown in the plastic case on the top of the tester. The series current limit bulbs are on the top. (Source: K. Gorga, CC263)

Image Processing System Development, by Miguel Sánchez
Some computer vision tasks can be accomplished more easily with the use of a depth camera. This article presents the basics on the usage of Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing device on your PC for an interactive art project.

Build an MCU-Based Automatic Blood Pressure Cuff, by Jeff Bachiochi
Personal health products are becoming more and more commonplace. They reinforce regular visits to personal physicians, and can be beneficial when diagnosing health issues. This article shows you how to convert a manual blood pressure cuff into an automatic cuff by adding an air pump, a solenoid release valve, and a pressure sensor to a Microchip Technology PIC-based circuit.

A manual blood pressure cuff adapted into an automatic cuff by adding an air pump, a solenoid release valve, and a pressure sensor to a microcontroller. (Source: J. Bachiochi, CC263)

Concurrency in Embedded Systems, by Bob Japenga
This is the first in an article series about concurrency in embedded systems. This article defines concurrency in embedded systems, discusses some pitfalls, and examines one of them in detail.

Radio Frequency Mixers, by Robert Lacoste
Frequency mixers are essential to radio frequency (RF) designs. They are responsible for translating a signal up or down in frequency. This article covers the basics of RF mixers, their real-life applications, and the importance of frequency range.

MOSFET Channel Resistance: Theory and Practice, by Ed Nisley
This article describes the basics of power MOSFET operation and explores the challenges of using a MOSFET’s drain-to-source resistance as a current-sensing resistor. It includes a review of fundamental enhancement-mode MOSFET equations compared with Spice simulations, and shows measurements from an actual MOSFET.

Diode ORing, by George Novacek
Diode ORing is a commonly used method for power back up. But there is a lot more behind the method than meets the eye. This article describes some solutions for maintaining uninterrupted power.

The June issue will hit newsstands in late May.

Hollow-State Amps & Frequency Response

“Glass audio” has been growing in popularity among average audio enthusiasts for the past decade. Music-loving consumers worldwide enjoy the look and sound (i.e., the “warmth”) of tube amps, and innovative companies are creating demand by selling systems featuring tubes, iPod/MP3 hookups, and futuristic-looking enclosures. I suspect hybrid modern/retro designs will continue to gain popularity.

Many serious audiophiles enjoy incorporating glass tubes in their custom audio designs to create the sounds and audio system aesthetics to match their tastes. If you’re a DIYer of this sort, you’ll benefit from knowing how amps work and understanding topics such as frequency responses. In the April 2012 issue of audioXpress, columnist Richard Honeycutt details just that in his article titled “The Frequency Response of Hollow-State Amplifiers.”

Below is an excerpt from Honeycutt’s article. Click the link at the bottom of this post to read the entire article.

Early electronic devices were intended mainly for speech amplification and reproduction. By the 1930s, however, musical program material gained importance, and an extended frequency response became a commercial necessity. This emphasis grew until, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Harmon Kardon Citation audio amplifier claimed frequency response from 1 to 100,000 Hz flat within a decibel or better. Although today, other performance metrics have surpassed frequency response in advertising emphasis—in part because wide, flat frequency response is now easier to obtain with modern circuitry—frequency response remains a very important parameter …

Just which factors determine the low- and high-frequency limitations of vacuum tube amplifiers? In order to examine these factors, we need to discuss a bit of electric circuit theory. If a voltage source—AC or DC, it doesn’t matter—is connected to a resistance, the resulting current is given by Ohm’s Law: I = V/R. If the voltage source is of the AC variety, and the resistor is replaced by a capacitor or inductor, the current is given by: I = V/X where X is the reactance of the capacitor or inductor. Reactance limits current flow by means of temporary energy storage: capacitive reactance XC does so via the electric field, and inductive reactance XL stores energy in the magnetic field.

Figure 1 - The values of reactance provided by a 0.1-μF capacitor and a 254-mH inductor, for a frequency range of 10 to 30,000 Hz (Source: R. Honeycutt, AX April 2012)

Figure 1 shows the values of reactance provided by a 0.1 μF capacitor and a 254 mH inductor, for a frequency range of 10 to 30,000 Hz. Notice that capacitive reactance decreases with frequency; whereas, inductive reactance increases as frequency increases.

Click here to read the entire article.

audioXpress is an Elektor group publication.



The Renesas RL78 for Low-Power Applications

Renesas Technology announced in late March he start of a design challenge for engineers around the world: develop an innovative, low-power application using the RL78 MCU and IAR Systems toolchain. To get started, you need to familiarize yourself with the RL78. Clemens Valens, Editor-in-Chief of Elektor online, introduces the RL78 in a comprehensive “The RL78 Microcontroller: An MCU Family for Low-Power Applications” (Circuit Cellar 261, 2012).

I’ve worked with Valens in various occasions, and had the pleasure of meeting him in 2011. He’s truly “an engineer’s engineer”: extremely embedded tech savvy, well-read, and inquisitive. Furthermore, I edited Circuit Cellar articles Valens wrote about diverse design projects, such as a virtual instrument interface and a scrolling LED message board. Thus, it’s clear to me that Valens understands the importance of designing high-quality, energy-efficient, systems—and doing so within budget. I trust you’ll find his introduction to the RL78 insightful and immediately applicable.

The RL78 Microcontroller: An MCU Family for Low-Power Applications

By Clemens Valens (Circuit Cellar 261, 2012)

The low-power 8/16-bit microcontroller (MCU) market is a bit of a warzone with several MCU manufacturers proposing “the industry’s lowest power solution.” In a YouTube video, Texas Instruments boasts a best active figure of 160 μA/MIPS for their MSP430 family. In application note AN1267, Microchip Technology claims 110 μA at “1 MHz Run” for their PIC16LF72X. And Renesas Electronics announced 70 μA at “1-MHz normal operation” on their RL78 product website.[1, 2, 3] The absence of justification on how exactly these figures were obtained makes comparing them rather useless. But then again, you don’t really have to because, as most low-power developers know from experience, if you don’t get the hardware and software design right, you will never attain the promised 20-year battery lifetime no matter how low the MCU’s active, sleep, or standby current may be. In this article, I will take a closer look at Renesas’s quickly expanding RL78 family to see what they offer that may help you create a low-power design.

Photo 1 - The Renesas RL78


The RL78 family of 16-bit MCUs currently has two branches, “generic” and “application specific,” but a third “display” branch is forthcoming. The generic branch contains the subfamilies G12, G13, and G1A, all based on the 78K core, and the G14, which is based on the R8C core. In the application-specific branch there is the 1A and F12. I am not sure about their core origins as these products are still very new and, at the time of writing, documentation is missing. It doesn’t really matter; from now on it is the new RL78 core for all. Since they share the same core, I will concentrate on the G13 for which I have a nice evaluation board (see Photo 1 and “The Renesas Demonstration Kit for RL78” sidebar).

Sidebar: Renesas Demonstration Kit


This family comes in a large number of variants (I counted 182), with devices having from 20 up to 128 pins (see Figure 1). Note that the parts themselves are labelled R5F10xx. The differences between all these variants are, besides the package type, the amounts of flash memory (program and data) and RAM. Program flash memory starts at 16 KB and currently ends at 512 KB, data flash sizes can be 0, 4, or 8 KB and RAM is 2 KB for the small devices and up to 32 KB for the big ones.

Figure 1 - Diagram of 128-pin RL78/G13 devices

The CPU is 16-bit, but the internal memory architecture is 8 bit. Its 32 general-purpose registers are organized in four banks of eight and can be used as 8- or 16-bit registers. The memory-mapped special function registers (SFRs) that control the on-chip peripherals can be addressed per bit, per byte, or as 16-bit registers, depending on the register. A second set of SFRs, the extended or second SFRs, are available too, but they need longer instructions to be accessed.

For those who need to squeeze the maximum out of MCU performance, it may be interesting to know that the CPU offers a short addressing mode enabling you to access a page of 256 bytes with a minimum amount of code.

The maximum clock frequency of the processor is 32 MHz, but the hardware user’s manual, which is almost 1,100 pages, interestingly also boasts about the ultra-low-speed capabilities of the processor as it can run from a 32.768-kHz clock.

The RL78 core features 15 I/O ports, most of which are 8-bit wide. Port 13 is 2-bit wide and ports 10 and 15 are 7-bit wide. The port pins that are actually available depend on the device. Inputs and outputs are highly configurable. Inputs can be analog, CMOS, or TTL. Outputs can be CMOS or N-channel open drain. Pull-up resistors are available too. The exact configuration possibilities depend on the port pin, so consult the datasheet. Because of the many configuration options, it is possible to use the MCU in multi-voltage systems without level-shifting circuitry except for the occasional external pull-up resistor. The chip can be powered from 1.6 V to 5.5 V, the core itself runs from 1.8 V provided by an internal voltage regulator.


Several options are available for the MCU clock. When clock precision is not too important, the MCU can be run from its internal clock, up to 32 MHz, otherwise it is possible to connect an external crystal, resonator, or oscillator. An internal low-speed clock (15 kHz) is also available, but not for the CPU, only for the watchdog timer (WDT), the real-time clock (RTC), and the interval timer.

The timers of the RL78 are flexible and offer many functions. Depending on the pin size of the device, you can have up to 16 16-bit timers, grouped in two arrays of eight. Each timer (called a “channel”) can function as an interval timer, square-wave generator, event counter, frequency divider, pulse-interval timer, pulse-duration timer, and delay counter. For even more possibilities, timers can be combined to create monostable multivibrators or to do pulse-width modulation (PWM). This way, up to seven PWM signals can be generated from one master timer. If you need more timers but resolution is less important, you can split some 16-bit timers in two 8-bit timers (this is not possible with all timers). Timer 7 of array 0 is extra special as it features local interconnect network (LIN) network support (see below).

Aside from date and time keeping with alarms, the RTC also provides constant period interrupts at 2 Hz and 1 Hz and also every minute, hour, day, or month. A 1-Hz output is available on devices with 40 or more pins. For extra precision, the RTC offers a correction register for fine tuning the 32,768-kHz clock. Unsurprisingly, the RTC continues operation when the MCU is stopped.

Now that I mentioned Stop mode, a special interval timer peripheral enables wakeup from this mode at periodic intervals. This timer is also used for the analog-to-digital converter’s (ADC’s) Snooze mode. More on that later. With a clock frequency of 32,768 Hz, the lowest interval rate is 8 Hz (0.125 ms).

Yet another time-related peripheral on the RL78 is the buzzer controller (not available on 20-pin devices). This is a clock output destined at IR comms carrier generation, to clock other chips in a system or to produce sound from a buzzer. A gate bit enables modulation of this output in such a way that pulses always have the same width.

Finally, a WDT completes the timing peripherals. It has a special Window mode that limits the time frame during which you can reset the watchdog to a fraction of the watchdog interval (50%, 75%, or 100%). Resetting the watchdog counter outside the window results in a reset. The window is open in the second part of the interval. An interrupt can be generated when the WDT reaches 75% of its time-out value, (i.e., when the watchdog reset window is known to be open in all cases). Figure 2 illustrates the mechanism.

Figure 2 - Trying to reset the watchdog counter when the window is closed results in an internal reset signal


The ADC is of the 10-bit successive approximation type and can have up to 26 inputs. Several triggering options are provided, hardware and software, where hardware triggering means triggering by a timer module (timer channel 1 end of count or capture, interval timer, or RTC). The time it takes to do a conversion depends partly on the triggering mode. When input stabilization is not too much of an issue (i.e., when you don’t switch inputs) you can achieve conversion times of just over 2 μs.

Two registers enable comparing the ADC’s output to maximum and minimum values, producing an interrupt when the new value is either in or out of bounds. This function is also available in Snooze mode. In this mode, the processor itself is stopped and consumes very little power, but ADC conversions continue under control of the hardware trigger. When a conversion triggers an ADC interrupt, the processor can then wake up from Snooze mode and resume normal operation.


The RL78 features multifunction serial units. The devices with 25 pins or less have one such unit, the others have two. Only serial unit 2 provides LIN bus support.

A serial unit can function in asynchronous UART mode, in synchronous CSI mode (three-wire bus with clock, data in and data out signals, master and slave mode supported), and in simplified (master-only) I²C mode. Again, depending on the device, you can have up to four UARTs or eight CSI and/or simplified I²C ports. Of course a mix is also possible. Full I²C is possible with the specialized I²C unit.

UART0 and UART2, CSI00 and CSI20 provide Snooze mode functionality similar to the ADC. In Snooze mode, these ports can be made to wake up on the arrival of incoming data without waking up the CPU. If the received data is interesting enough, it is also possible to wake up the CPU.

LIN communications are possible with UART2 together with Timer 7 of Array 0. The LIN bus is an inexpensive alternative to the CAN bus in automotive systems to control simple devices like switches, sensors, and actuators. LIN only uses one wire and is rather low speed (20 Kbps maximum). The timer takes care of the LIN synchronization issues and the UART performs the (de)serialisation of the data.

Full blown I²C communication is possible with the specialized I²C peripheral IICA. The 80-pin and more devices have two channels, the others only one. Communication speeds up to 20 MHz are permitted to enable I²C “fast mode” (3.5 MHz) and “fast mode plus” (10 MHz). This module is capable of waking up the CPU from Stop mode.


Of interest is the hardware multiplier and divider module intended for filtering and FFT functions. This module is capable of 16 × 16 bits signed and unsigned multiplications and divisions producing 32-bit results. It can also do 16 × 16 bit multiply-accumulate. We are talking about a module here, not an instruction, meaning that you have to load the operands yourself in special registers and get the result from yet another. The multiplication itself is done in one clock cycle, a division takes 16. The accumulate operation adds another cycle.

Another special math function is the binary-coded decimals (BCD) correction register that enables you to easily transform binary calculation results into BCD results.


To speed up data transport without loading the CPU, the RL78 core features direct memory access (DMA), up to four channels. DMA transfers up to 1,024 words of data (8 or 16 bit) to and from SFRs and RAM and they can be started by a range of interrupts (e.g., ADC, serial, timer). Although DMA transfers are done in parallel with normal CPU operation, it does slow down the CPU. For time-critical situations, it is possible to put a DMA transfer on hold for a number of clock cycles and let the CPU finish its job first.


Interrupts are pretty standard on the RL78 and many sources are available. The “key interrupt” function on the other hand is less common. It provides up to eight (depending on the device, you guessed it) key or push button inputs that are ORed together to generate an interrupt on a key press (active low).


Besides the aforementioned Stop and Snooze modes, the RL78 also provides a Halt mode. In this mode, the CPU is stopped but the clocks keep running, making a fast resume possible. In Stop mode, the clocks are stopped too reducing power consumption more than in Halt mode. Snooze mode is like Stop mode, but with one or more peripherals in a snoozing state, ready to wake up when something interesting happens. Interrupts can be used to wake up from Snooze, Stop, or Halt mode. A reset usually works too.

Reset, by the way, can have seven origins, three of which are related to safety functions: illegal instruction, RAM parity, and illegal memory access. Two others involve the power supply: power-on reset (POR) and low-voltage detection (LVD). All these reset options are needed to conform to the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) 60730-1 (“Automatic Electrical Controls for Household and Similar Use; Part 1: General Requirements”) and IEC 61508-SER (“Functional Safety of Electrical/Electronic/Programmable Electronic Safety-Related Systems”) safety standards. Since the RL78 is compliant, it also implements flash memory CRC checking, protections to prevent RAM and SFRs to be modified when the CPU stops functioning, an oscillator frequency-detection circuit, and an ADC self-test function.

The hardware used for the flash memory CRC check is also available as a general-purpose CRC module for user programs. It implements the standard CCITT CRC-16 polynomial (X^16 + X^12 + X^5 + 1).

The RAM guard function protects only up to 512 bytes, so be careful where you put your sensitive data.


Those familiar with the fuse bytes of PIC and AVR processors will be happy to know that the RL78 contains four of them, the option bytes that configure such things as the WDT, low-voltage detection, flash memory modes, clock frequencies, and debugging modes.

Flash memory is divided into two parts, program memory and data memory, and it can be programmed in-circuit over a serial interface. A boot partition is available too. This partition uses a kind of ping-pong mechanism called “boot swapping” to ensure that a valid bootloader is always programmed into the boot partition so that even power failures during bootloader programming will not harm the boot partition. A flash window function protects the memory against unintentionally reprogramming parts of it.


This concludes our voyage through the Renesas RL78 core. As you have seen, the RL78 offers many interesting peripherals all combined in a flexible low-power optimized design. Thanks to the integrated oscillator and other functions, an RL78 MCU can be used with very little external hardware, enabling inexpensive and compact designs. Once you master its Snooze mode and your low-power design skills, you can use this MCU family in battery-operated metering applications, for instance, but I am sure you can think of something more surprising.

Clemens Valens ( is Editor-in-Chief of Elektor Online. He has more than 15 years of experience in embedded systems design. Clemens is currently interested in sound synthesis techniques, rapid prototyping, and the popularization of technology.


[1] Texas Instruments, Inc., “Ultra-Low Power MSP430 – The World’s Lowest Power MCU,” 201.

[2] Microchip Technology, Inc., “AN1267: nanoWatt and nanoWatt XLP Technologies: An Introduction to Microchip’s Low-Power Devices,” 2009.

[3] Renesas Electronics Corp., “RL78 Family,”


International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), “60730-1, Automatic Electrical Controls for Household and Similar Use; Part 1: General Requirements,” 2002.

———, “61508-SER, Functional Safety of Electrical/

Electronic/Programmable Electronic Safety-Related Systems,” 2010.

Renesas Electronics Corp., Renesas Rulz, “RL78/G13 Demonstration Kit,”

For more information about the RL78 Family of microcontrollers, visit

For information about the 2012 Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge (in association with Elektor & Circuit Cellar), go to

This article appears in Circuit Cellar 261 (April 2012).



Weekly Elektor Wrap Up: Preamplifier 2012, Pico C, & a Webshop Hunt

It’s time for our Friday Elektor wrap up. Our Elektor colleagues were hard at work during this first week of April. Here’s quick review.

Elektor Preamplifier 2012: The Sound of Silence

Elektor has a 40-year history of high-end audio (tube and solid state) coverage: projects, books, circuit boards, and even DVDs. The latest project is the Preamplifier 2012, which was designed by renowned audio specialist Douglas Self, with Elektor audio staffer Ton Giesberts doing the board designs and testing on Elektor’s $50,000 audio precision analyzer! It achieves incredibly low noise figures using low impedance design techniques throughout, but still based on an affordable and easy-to-find opamp: the NE5532. The Preamplifier 2012’s most notable characteristics are its ultra low noise MC/MD section (get out your vinyl records) and the remarkably low-value pots in the Baxandall tone control (like 1-kΩ).Douglas Self and Elektor Audio Labs already stunned the audio community with their NE5532 Op-amplifier a while ago with 32 NE5532 op-amps basically paralleled on a board producing 10 W of extremely high-quality sound. Simply put: they know what they’re doing!You can read about the seven-board design in the April 2012 edition. In fact, why not follow the series?

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3: currently in editing for June 2012 edition.

NE5532 Opamplifier:

Pico C Webinar Announcement

Elektor announced this week that it will run a new webinar via element14 on the Elektor Pico C meter, which was featured in the April 2011 editions. The Pico C meter can measure small capacitances. In February 2012 the device was upgraded with new firmware.

According to an Elektor news item, UK-based author/designer Jon Drury will run the webinar slated for Thursday, April 19, 2012. He’ll cover a unique way of giving the original instrument a much wider range while also extending its functionality, all with new software and practically no changes to the existing Pico C hardware. Microcontroller fans, including AVR enthusiasts, can also learn how to adapt the software for different calibration capacitors. Elektor staffers are reporting that Jon may also give a sneak preview of his PicoLO oscilloscope and Pico DDS generator.  You can register at element14.

“E” Hunt!

In other news, Elektor is challenging you to find hidden Easter eggs in its webshop. Find eggs, get a discount. Click here to get started.



Tech Highlights from Design West: RL78, AndroPod, Stellaris, mbed, & more

The Embedded Systems Conference has always been a top venue for studying, discussing, and handling the embedded industry’s newest leading-edge technologies. This year in San Jose, CA, I walked the floor looking for the tech Circuit Cellar and Elektor members would love to get their hands on and implement in novel projects. Here I review some of the hundreds of interesting products and systems at Design West 2012.


Renesas launched the RL78 Design Challenge at Design West. The following novel RL78 applications were particularly intriguing.

  • An RL78 L12 MCU powered by a lemon:

    A lemon powers the RL78 (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

  • An RL78 kit used for motor control:

    The RL78 used for motor control (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

  • An RL78 demo for home control applications:

    The RL78 used for home control (Photo: Circuit Cellar)


Circuit Cellar members have used TI products in countless applications. Below are two interesting TI Cortex-based designs

A Cortex-M3 digital guitar (you can see the Android connection):

TI's digital guitar (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

Stellaris fans will be happy to see the Stellaris ARM Cortex -M4F in a small wireless application:

The Stellaris goes wireless (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

NXP mbed

Due to the success of the recent NXP mbed Design Challenge, I stopped at the mbed station to see what exciting technologies our NXP friends were exhibiting. They didn’t disappoint. Check out the mbed-based slingshot developed for playing Angry Birds!

mbed-Based sligshot for going after "Angry Birds" (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

Below is a video of the project on the mbedmicro YouTube page:


I was pleased to see the Elektor AndroPod hard at work at the FTDI booth. The design enables users to easily control a robotic arm with Android smartphones and tablets.

FTDI demonstrates robot control with Android (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

As you can imagine, the possible applications are endless.

The AndroPod at work! (Photo: Circuit Cellar)