The Future of Data Acquisition Technology

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

By Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

Data acquisition is a necessity, which is why data acquisition systems and software applications are essential tools in a variety of fields. For instance, research scientists rely on data acquisition tools for testing and measuring their laboratory-based projects. Therefore, as a data acquisition system designer, you must have an in-depth understanding of each part of the systems and programs you create.

I mainly design data acquisition software for physics-related experiments and industrial applications. Today’s complicated physics experiments require highly complex data acquisition systems and software that are capable of managing large amounts of information. Many of the systems require high-speed connections and digital recording. And they must be reconfigurable. Signals that are hard to characterize and analyze with a real-time display are evaluated in terms of high frequencies, large dynamic range, and gradual changes.

Data acquisition software is typically available in a text-based user interface (TUI) that comprises an ASCII configuration file and a graphic user interface (GUI), which are generally available with any web browser. Both interfaces enable data acquisition system management and customization, and you don’t need to recompile the sources. This means even inexperienced programmers can have full acquisition control.

Well-designed data acquisition and control software should be able to quickly recover from instrumentation failures and power outages without losing any data. Data acquisition software must provide a high-level language for algorithm design. Moreover, it requires data-archiving capability for verifying data integrity.

You have many data acquisition software options. An example is programmable software that uses a language such as C. Other software and data acquisition software packages enable you to design the custom instrumentation suited for specific applications (e.g., National Instruments’s LabVIEW and MathWorks’s MATLAB).

In addition to data acquisition software design, I’ve also been developing embedded data acquisition systems with open-source software to manage user-developed applications. The idea is to have credit-card-sized embedded data acquisition systems managing industrial systems using open-source software written in C. I’m using an ARM processor that will give me the ability to add small boards for specific applications (e.g., a board to manage data transmission via Wi-Fi or GSM).

A data acquisition system’s complexity tends to increase with the number of physical properties it must measure. Resolution and accuracy requirements also affect a system’s complexity. To eliminate cabling and provide for more modularity, you can combine data acquisition capabilities and signal conditioning in one device.

Recent developments in the field of fiber-optic communications have shown longer data acquisition transmission distances can cause errors. Electrical isolation is also an important topic. The goal is to eliminate ground loops (common problems with single-ended measurements) in terms of accuracy and protection from voltage spikes.

During the last year, some new technological developments have proven beneficial to the overall efficacy of data acquisition applications. For instance, advances in USB technology have made data acquisition and storage simpler and more efficient than ever (think “plug and play”). Advances in wireless technology have also made data transmission faster and more secure. This means improved data acquisition system and software technologies will also figure prominently in smartphone design and usage.

If you look to the future, consumer demand for mobile computing systems will only increase, and this will require tablet computers to feature improved data acquisition and storage capabilities. Having the ability to transmit, receive, and store larger amounts of data with tablets will become increasingly important to consumers as time goes on. There are three main things to consider when creating a data acquisition-related application for a tablet. Hardware connectivity: Tablets have few control options (e.g., Wi-Fi and Bluetooth). Program language support: Many tablets support Android apps created in Java. Device driver availability: Device drivers permit a high-level mode to easily and reliably execute a data acquisition board’s functionality. C and LabVIEW are not supported by Android or Apple’s iOS. USB, a common DAQ bus, is available in a set of tablets. In the other case, an adapter is required. In these instances, moving a possible data acquisition system to a tablet requires extra attention.

For all of the aforementioned reasons, I think field-programmable arrays (FPGAs) will figure prominently in the evolution of data acquisition system technology. The flexibility of FPGAs makes them ideal for custom data acquisition systems and embedded applications.

Microcontroller-Based Heating System Monitor

Checking a heating system’s consumption is simple enough.

Heating system monitor

Determining a heating system’s output can be much more difficult, unless you have this nifty design. This Atmel ATmega microcontroller-based project enables you to measure heat output as well as control a circulation pump.

Heating bills often present unpleasant surprises. Despite your best efforts to economise on heating, they list tidy sums for electricity or gas consumption. In this article we describe a relatively easy way to check these values and monitor your consumption almost continuously. All you need in order to determine how much heat your system delivers is four temperature sensors, a bit of wiring, and a microcontroller. There’s no need to delve into the electrical or hydraulic components of your system or modify any of them.

A bit of theory
As many readers probably remember from their physics lessons, it’s easy to calculate the amount of heat transferred to a medium such as water. It is given by the product of the temperature change ΔT, the volume V of the medium, and the specific heat capacity CV of the medium. The power P, which is amount of energy transferred per unit time, is:

P= ΔT × CV × V // Δt

With a fluid medium, the term V // Δt can be interpreted as a volumetric flow Vt. This value can be calculated directly from the flow velocity v of the medium and the inner diameter r of the pipe. In a central heating system, the temperature difference ΔT is simply the difference between the supply (S) and return (R) temperatures. This yields the formula:

P = (TS – TR) × CV × v × pr2

The temperatures can easily be measured with suitable sensors. Flow transducers are available for measuring the flow velocity, but installing a flow transducer always requires drilling a hole in a pipe or opening up the piping to insert a fitting.

Measuring principle
Here we used a different method to determine the flow velocity. We make use of the fact that the supply and return temperatures always vary by at least one to two degrees due to the operation of the control system. If pairs of temperature sensors separated by a few metres are mounted on the supply and return lines, the flow velocity can be determined from the time offset of the variations measured by the two sensors…

As the water flows through the pipe with a speed of only a few metres per second, the temperature at sensor position S2 rises somewhat later than the temperature at sensor position S, which is closer to the boiler.

An ATmega microcontroller constantly acquires temperature data from the two sensors. The time delay between the signals from a pair of sensors is determined by a correlation algorithm in the signal processing software, which shifts the signal waveforms from the two supply line sensors relative to each other until they virtually overlap.The temperature signals from the sensors on the return line are correlated in the same manner, and ideally the time offsets obtained for the supply and return lines should be the same.

To increase the sensitivity of the system, the return line sensor signals are applied to the inputs of a differential amplifier, and the resulting difference signal is amplified. This difference signal is also logged as a function of time. The area under the curve of the difference signal is a measure of the time offset of the temperature variations…

Hot water please
If the heating system is also used to supply hot water for domestic use, additional pipes are used for this purpose. For this reason, the PCB designed by the author includes inputs for additional temperature sensors. It also has a switched output for driving a relay that can control a circulation pump.

Under certain conditions, controlling the circulation pump can save you a lot of money and significantly reduce CO2 emissions. This is because some systems have constant hot water circulation so users can draw hot water from the tap immediately. This costs electricity to power the pump, and energy is also lost through the pipe walls. This can be remedied by the author’s circuit, which switches on the circulation pump for only a short time after the hot water tap is opened. This is detected by the temperature difference between the hot water and cold water supply lines…

Circuit description
The easiest way to understand the schematic diagram is to follow the signal path. It starts at the temperature sensors connected to the circuit board, which are NTC silicon devices.

Heating system monitor schematic

Their resistance varies by around 0.7–0.8% per degree K change in temperature. For example, the resistance of a KT110 sensor is approximately 1.7 kΩ at 5 °C and approximately 2.8 kΩ at 70 °C.

The sensor for supply temperature S forms a voltage divider with resistor R37. This is followed by a simple low-pass filter formed by R36 and C20, which filters out induced AC hum. U4a amplifies the sensor signal by a factor of approximately 8. The TL2264 used here is a rail-to-rail opamp, so the output voltage can assume almost any value within the supply voltage range. This increases the absolute measurement accuracy, since the full output signal amplitude is used. U4a naturally needs a reference voltage on its inverting input. This is provided by the combination of R20, R26 and R27. U5b acts as an impedance converter to minimise the load on the voltage divider…

Thermal power

PC connection
The circuit does not have its own display unit, but instead delivers its readings to a PC via an RS485 bus. Its functions can also be controlled from the PC. IC U8 looks after signal level conversion between the TTL transmit and receive lines of the ATmega microcontroller’s integrated UART and the differential RS485 bus. As the bus protocol allows several connected (peer) devices to transmit data on the bus, transmit mode must be selected actively via pin 3. Jumper JP3 must be fitted if the circuit is connected to the end of the RS485 bus. This causes the bus to be terminated in 120 Ω, which matches the characteristic impedance of a twisted-pair line…


Q&A: Chris Paiano (Problem Solving & Design)

Chris Paiano is an Elko, NV-based problem engineer. His father introduced him to programming at an early age, and Chris has continued to team with his father to write software and firmware for some of his hardware designs. Chris has written dozens of unique application notes for the Cypress Semiconductor Programmable-System-on-Chip (PSoC) chipset. He is currently using PSoC in an innovative household project and dreams of finishing his concept for environmentally friendly electric/hybrid vehicle wheeldrive retrofit kits.

Chris Paiano working with his “office assistants” (bearded dragons)

You can read the complete interview in Circuit Cellar 272 March 2013.

NAN PRICE: Tell us a little about your background.

CHRIS PAIANO: I went to school in Orlando, FL, all the way through college at the University of Central Florida, where I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering.

I started at a very young age. My father always had an electronics workbench and I spent time there when I could. When I was 2 years old, he brought me home an Apple ][ with some floppy disks and told me there were games to be played—if I could only figure out how to make them work.

The Apple ][ was not the most user-friendly or intuitive computer system, by any means. In order to accomplish my important goal of playing video games, I had to learn how to work with the computer’s clunky command-line interface (CLI). Once I figured out how to make all the games work, I wanted to fully automate them so I didn’t have to go through all the manual steps to play them every time (also, so my friends could start them up without me). So, I spent much time developing automatic start-up scripts, from the Applesoft HELLO program to MS-DOS configuration start-up menus, supporting whatever memory management method was required to play certain games, along with icon-driven pre-Windows menu systems that made these early systems usable by my friends, family, and clients.

This evolved into more elaborate scripting and programming to fill the gaps where the tools I needed did not exist, so I had to create them. My possibilities really opened up when I began developing firmware to complement my father’s hardware designs.

NAN: Tell us about your company, Christopher Paiano Engineering (CpE).

CHRIS: I design and program prototypes for various clients. I provide them with ideas at various development stages, which I turn into something that they can mass produce. I’ve just redesigned my website (, by the way. It has a sleeker, simple interface and is easier to navigate now. No more Java menu with annoying sound effects!

NAN: Several of your projects are built around the Cypress Semiconductor programmable system-on-chip (PSoC). Is that your go-to chipset?

CHRIS: Yes, mainly because of how versatile and capable it is. It seems to be sufficient to take care of most any embedded task or set of tasks that come to mind.

For example, recently, the proprietor of a local game/tech/arcade business approached me to build a custom, inexpensive door chime. He wanted customers to hear random, recognizable portal sounds from popular video games whenever customers entered or exited his shop.

I started with an inexpensive motion sensor product from a local superstore. I added a Cypress CY8C27443 PSoC, as I have several lying around for general projects. I made a copy of my “Playing WAV Files with a PSoC” app note project to modify.

I added code to randomly cycle through available sound clips in the memory and I was able to provide 1.9805 s of audio at 8 kHz with the 16 KB of RAM available in this chip. The client was happy with this. He settled on two portal sounds (from The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers) and the chime has been in use for several months now. Customer feedback has been excellent. Everyone entering the place immediately recognizes the sounds and loves it!

NAN: You’ve written more than 30 application notes for the Cypress chipset, including PongSoC and the Video RTA. Can you explain the process?

CHRIS: Sometimes Cypress would post bounties for app notes that they’d like to see written on a certain topic or capability. Other times, I’d have an interesting personal project for which I decided to utilize a PSoC. I would then decide it might make a good app note, so I’d write it up and submit it. Either way, I’d usually develop the project side-by-side with my father. (We make an excellent hardware/software team.) I work out whatever firmware and PC/smartphone apps may be necessary, and he builds the PSoC circuit board with which to test. Then, I document it all, arrange it, and edit it into an app note (or, in some cases, an article).

Sometimes a project is just too complex to squeeze into a single PSoC’s resources and the simplest solution is to just add another PSoC. Communication between PSoCs can be quick and easy to implement, so distributing tasks and maintaining synchronization is not too difficult. This was the solution for the video real-time analyzer (RTA) app note where, realistically, there were only enough internal analog resources to provide three filters in each PSoC. With the Video RTA, one just adds as many PSoCs to the bus as is necessary to achieve the desired analyzer resolution.

The PongSoC was a fun one! Once I learned it was possible to combine some internal PSoC modules and algorithms to generate a stable composite video signal, I immediately decided I wanted to try and utilize this new capability to recreate a Pong-like embedded game-on-a-chip. I could already generate sound effects and read potentiometers for paddle inputs, I just needed to work it all out. I had a great time doing so, testing it with friends and playing with the variables to tweak the gameplay, and so forth.

Additionally, all 40 of my PSoC application notes are now available in some capacity on my updated website, as Cypress does not actively market the older PSoC families that many of my projects utilized in the past. I get enough e-mail requests for source code and documentation from this collection, so I have just gone ahead and taken the time to restore as many as I could find from my archives to the new website.

NAN: Your two-part article series “PSoC Design Techniques” describes how to build an eight-channel mixer and how DSP effects and a user interface can be added to it (Circuit Cellar 216–217, 2008). Describe the design and why you chose this design concept.

CHRIS: This was a great challenge. In a chip that traditionally would only allow for four full audio pathways in the provided analog resources (four PGA modules utilizing the normal I/O paths provided by PSoC Designer), we managed to figure out a way to utilize the remaining switched-capacitor blocks to act as signal mixers and gain stages with enough live reconfigurable resources to add potentiometers to control volume for each channel. Since there was still plenty of code space, I went ahead and added some DSP effects (reverb and pitch shift) along with a voice menu and flash-settings memory.

I really wanted to showcase what efficient design and algorithms could accomplish in a single piece of silicon, and I’m quite pleased with the way this project turned out. I still use the resulting device on my workbench and in my setups. It comes in handy sometimes. I have not updated it at all. I’ve been using it as is and it is still available for purchase on my website for anyone interested in experimenting with one.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any microprocessor-based projects?

CHRIS: Currently, I’m working on a PSoC solution for my broken dishwasher.

Chris Paiano is developing a PSoC solution for a broken dishwasher. In addition to the fix, he plans to make it smartphone-controllable.

The control module on this appliance has failed, so I am wiring it into a PSoC to make it work again as well as add some new capabilities (such as keeping a wash/rinse/door open log so it can tell when the dishes contained within it are clean or dirty, and adding a Bluetooth module so I can check the status and control/program the appliance from my smartphone).

This is the type of personal project I like to work on in my free time. It also might make a good app note or article in the future, as it involves an Android application and Bluetooth communication. It also increases my capabilities, if I have to figure out anything new. And that is always good.

I am almost ready to hook it up to the dishwasher, let it try running through the cycles, and hope I don’t flood my house in the process. Ah, the pure excitement of engineering!

The entire interview is available in Circuit Cellar 272 March 2013.

Free Raspberry Pi Poster

The Raspberry Pi is a computer with no casing, no keyboard, no hard disk and no screen. Despite all that, it’s taking the world by storm!

Get your free Raspberry Pi poster now, courtesy of Elektor, RS Components, and CC! Go ahead: download, print, and then enjoy!

Free Raspberry Pi Poster


Model A has 256-MB RAM, one USB port, and no Ethernet port (network connection). Model B has 512-MB RAM, two USB ports, and an Ethernet port.

The Raspberry Pi Model B, revision 2 board:

  • Status led labels: top led has label “ACT” and bottom led has label “100”
  • Header P2 is not populated
  • The text underneath the Raspberry Pi logo reads: “(C) 2011,12”
  • The area next to the micro usb port has CE and FCC logos and the text “Made in China or UK” along the board edge.
  • There are two 2.9-mm holes in the PCB, which can be used as mounting holes.
  • P5 is a new GPIO header with four additional GPIO pins and four power pins. Also note that some pin and I2C port numbers of connector P1 have been modified between revisions!
  • Header P6 (left from the HDMI port) was added, short these two pins to reset the computer or wake it up when powered down with the “sudo halt” command.

The Raspberry Pi measures 85.60 mm × 56 mm × 21 mm, with a little overlap for the SD card and connectors which project over the edges. It weighs 45 g.

The SoC is a Broadcom BCM2835. This contains an ARM ARM1176JZFS, with floating point, running at 700 MHz, and a Videocore 4 GPU. The GPU is capable of BluRay quality playback, using H.264 at 40 Mbps. It has a fast 3D core which can be accessed using the supplied OpenGL ES2.0 and OpenVG libraries.

The Raspberry Pi is capable of using hardware acceleration for MPEG-2 and VC-1 playback, but you’ll need to buy license keys at the Raspberry Pi Store to unlock this functionality.

Which programming languages can you use? Python, C/C++, Perl, Java, PHP/MySQL, Scratch, and many more that can run under Linux.


If you’re getting a flashing red PWR LED or random restarts during the booting process, it’s likely that your PSU or USB cable has problems. The Raspberry Pi is pretty picky and requires a solid 5-V/1000-mA power supply. For other issues and more troubleshooting tips check out the extensive overview at the eLinux website is an Elektor International Media website.

Member Profile: Chris Coulston

Chris Coulston

Location: Erie, PA

Education: BA, Physics (Slippery Rock University), BS and MS, Computer Engineering (Penn State University), and PhD, Computer Science (Penn State University)

Occupation: Computer Engineering Professor, Penn State University

Member Status: Chris started reading Circuit Cellar 10 years ago, when he became a professor and wanted to learn more about embedded and mixed-signal systems. He says much of what he teaches has been gleaned from Circuit Cellar. He often has students from his embedded systems class read articles because it [provides] “invaluable insight into the practice of embedded systems design from working professionals in the field.”

Technical Interests: Chris says his career in academia has enabled him to study a range of fascinating subjects in areas as diverse as theoretical computer science to embedded systems design. He has worked on creating a neural network that mimics the neural function behind swimming and locomotion behaviors in the leech hirudo medicinalis, optimizing Steiner minimal trees, and recently designing embedded systems that leverage the photoelectric effect of LEDs to make them behave as sensors.

Most Recent Embedded Tech-Related Acquisition: To keep his embedded systems class current, Chris experiments with new technologies every year. This year, Chris says his students will interface a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 to a Raspberry Pi. “I am enjoying the broad support base of the Raspberry Pi and the excellent development tools provided by Microchip,” Chris said.

Current Projects: Chris is working on getting the Raspberry Pi to “play nice” with the PIC18F26K22 before making it a class assignment. Recently, he has also been working on replicating Jeff Han’s LED matrix multitouch display. “This is a neat project where Jeff took an off-the-shelf LED matrix and enabled it to sense where a user was touching the display. Hopefully you’ll see my version of this concept in these pages,” Chris said.

Thoughts on the Future of Embedded Technology: Chris thinks the industry will continue its trend of peripheral integration (hopefully) with an eye on simplifying the task of laying out PBCs. He notes that crossbar switches between microcontroller subsystems and the I/O pins enable cleaner and quicker PCB layouts and integration of new subsystems (e.g., DACs) reduces chip count and layout effort.

Issue 270: EQ Answers

The answers to the Circuit Cellar 270 Engineering Quotient are now available. The problems and answers are listed below.

Problem 1: Given a microprocessor that has hardware support for just one level of priority for interrupts, is it possible to implement multiple priorities in software? If so, what are the prerequisites that are required?

Answer 1: Yes, given a few basic capabilities, it is possible to implement multiple levels of interrupt priority in software. The basic requirements are that it must be possible to reenable interrupts from within an interrupt service routine (ISR) and that the different interrupt sources can be individually masked.

Question 2: What is the basic scheme for implementing software interrupt priorities?

Answer 2: In normal operation, all the interrupt sources are enabled, along with the processor’s global-interrupt mask.

When an interrupt occurs, the global interrupt mask is disabled and the “master” ISR is entered. This code must (quickly) determine which interrupt occurred, disable that interrupt and all lower-priority interrupts at their sources, then reenable the global-interrupt mask before jumping to the ISR for that interrupt. This can often be facilitated by precomputing a table of interrupt masks for each priority level.

Question 3: What are some of the problems associated with software interrupt priorities?

Answer 3: For one thing, the start-up latency of all the ISRs is increased by the time spent in the “master” ISR. This can be a problem in time-critical systems. This scheme enables interrupts to be nested, so the stack must be large enough to handle the worst-case nesting of ISRs, on top of the worst-case nesting of non-interrupt subroutine calls.

Finally, it is very tricky to do this in anything other than Assembly language. If you want to use a high-level language, you’ll need to be intimately familiar with the language’s run-time library and how it handles interrupts and reentrancy, in general.

Answer 4: Yes, on most such processors, you can execute a subroutine call to a “return from interrupt” instruction while still in the master ISR, which will then return to the master ISR, but with interrupts enabled.

Check to see whether the “return from interrupt” affects any other processor state (e.g., popping a status word from the stack) and prepare the stack accordingly.

Also, beware that another interrupt could occur immediately thereafter, and make sure the master ISR is reentrant beyond that point.


Contributed by David Tweed

Baltimore Hackerspace: Four Years in the “Making”

Baltimore Hackerspace is a non-profit group founded by David Powell, Jason McMahon, Paul King , Miles Pekala, and Chris Cockrum. Though making things since January 2009, Baltimore Hackerspace just recently revamped its logo and name to better reflect the city they call home to their 1250 square feet of space. Currently, Baltimore Hackerspace has more than 20 members who all contribute their share of knowledge, talent, and money to keep the hackerspace open and exciting.

The group participates in several competition each year. These competitions give them a reason to work on projects as a group. The following links showcase some of the group’s projects, as well as some individual projects.

Group Projects

Power Wheels Racing – World Maker Faire

Zen Garden – 2012 RedBull Creation Entry and Chill-a-Piller – 2011 RedBull Creation Competiton

RobotFest – 2012 Robot Head Game



Tron Disc Mod


CNC Mill

Individual Projects





LaserShark – Laser Light Show





LED Fire Flys



Fox News


Book – Hack This: 24 incredible hackerspace projects from the DIY movement

Client Profile: Anaren Inc.

Anaren, Inc.
6635 Kirkville Road
Syracuse, NY 13057

Anaren, Inc.Anaren Integrated Radio (AIR) modules are tiny, surface-mountable, pre-certified transceiver modules based on Texas Instruments’s (TI) low-power RF chips—and they are designed to ease development of wireless functionality for non-RF savvy OEMs. More information is available at

AIR modules reduce time and costs associated with adding wireless capability to a wide range of electronic products, given that they are easy-to-implement (e.g., small format, SMT technology), pre-certified to FCC, IC, or ESTI (saving many certification expenses), and supported by a range of development tools (e.g., the new CC2530 BoosterPack kit for development of ZigBee standard applications using TI’s MSP430 or Stellaris LaunchPad kits).

Anaren, Inc.

Engineer Survey: Skills, Topics, & Preferences

The electrical engineers, academics, and students who read Circuit Cellar hail from a wide range locations across the globe, such as the US, Brazil, India, The Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and Japan. Despite having different languages and cultures, the readers share a common dedication to and passion for electrical engineering.

This is a portion of our survey results. Link to the full set of results below.

In late 2012, we surveyed a random sample of more than 1,000 members of our community on their technical interests and preferences. We asked questions such as the following: How often do you solder? How many milliamps have you felt? Do you know more than three programming languages? Do you use FPGAs? Which companies make the best embedded products? And more!

Check out the results.

Read CC25 for more survey information, as well as interesting essays on the past, present, and future electrical engineering by engineers, business leaders, professors, and students.

Q&A: Colin O’Flynn (Engineering and “Pure” Research)

Colin O’Flynn

NAN: Where are you located?

COLIN: I’m currently living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I’m originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and had been living in Edinburgh, Scotland for almost two years before I moved to Halifax.

NAN: How did you become interested in electronics?

COLIN: Like many people in this area, I did start at a very young age. If I had to pin one event as the starting of my life-long interest in electronics, it was getting one of those “20-in-1” kits from RadioShack as a present. My parents always encouraged my interest in electronics, but as they were a commercial airline pilot and a chartered accountant, it wasn’t the case of them initially pushing me in the same direction they started!

My dad found me a few small “learn-to-solder” kits, which I enjoyed. At age 8, I assembled my first real kit, the LED-Tric Christmas tree featured in the December 1994 issue of Popular Electronics. My parents have kept bringing that tree out as a Christmas decoration every year since, and it still works.

Besides my parents, I also had help from local people interested in electronics and became friends with many of the local electronics store owners. I spent many hours building projects from magazines like Electronics Now, Popular Electronics, Circuit Cellar, and the various Forrest M. Mims III books. I find it interesting to see the recent surge in “maker” culture. It’s something that has really been going on for years. Growing up, there wasn’t such a thing as maker spaces, but there were local people with interesting workshops who would share projects. It’s great to see this a little more mainstream now, as it means more opportunities for people to get involved at any stage of their life in this fascinating world.

NAN: What is your current occupation? Are you still consulting for projects related to 802.15.4 wireless communications?

COLIN: I’m currently a graduate student at Dalhousie University pursuing a PhD. I decided to go back to school for the chance to do more “pure” research. It’s also fun to have access to a range of tools I wouldn’t otherwise get—the lab I sit in has an anechoic chamber, for example. And we have most of the latest versions of high-end software like MATLAB (including most of the add-ons), 3-D electromagnetic antenna simulation software, FPGA design software, and so forth.


I’m only loosely involved in 802.15.4 projects for now, and not actively following the latest developments and standards. Having said that, a friend of mine has gotten involved in creating small, wireless modules called RadioBlocks.

They use an IEEE 802.15.4 radio combined with a small ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller. They use an open-source mesh networking software we created called SimpleMesh, so most of my recent work on 802.15.4 has been around this project. The mesh software is designed to do the basic job of sending a block of data to another node, and otherwise staying out of the way. I previously did a lot of work using IPv6 on such small sensor networks, but haven’t been active in that area lately.

At Dalhousie, I’m working on the area of side-channel analysis of cryptographic systems, specifically power analysis. This area has a simple idea: if you have a microcontroller or other embedded controller, it typically has some internal data bus. When those data lines switch state, it takes power. But the power actually depends on the data. Imagine a databus switching from all 1s to all 0s in a clock cycle, compared to staying at all 1s. Likewise, different operations, such as a MUL compared to a LDI, have different power signatures. If you measure the current consumption on each clock cycle, you can learn something about the data being processed, and then often the secret key. Practically speaking, you can measure this current even with an electromagnetic probe, so you don’t need to physically modify the circuit board.

I gave a presentation at Black Hat Abu Dhabi in December 2012 about some of this work. If you are interested, the slides and white paper are available online at, or from my personal website You can see the photo above showing an example of attacking a microcontroller-based smart card. The capture software might look something like where you can see different computations the card is performing directly from the power trace. In this case, each burst is a round of the AES-128 computation.

NAN: Many of your projects include Atmel microcontrollers. Why Atmel?

COLIN: It’s no secret I’ve been a big fan of Atmel’s AVR microcontroller, but it wasn’t my first. I don’t know the exact lineage of my microcontroller work, but one of the first things I learned on was an AMD 2900 Evaluation and Learning Kit. A local electronics store happened to have it in stock. They had gotten it from someone cleaning out old inventory, as even at that time it was old. I added heatsinks, as the several amps it drew when powered with 5 V made a lot of those chips very hot. And, of course, you had to keep the entire board powered up if you didn’t want to lose you program you’d been manually entering. From there, I moved onto a Z80 trainer board, which let you program with a hex-entry keypad, and eventually I moved onto programming it from the computer. I designed a Z80 computer board but never built it—I still have the piece of transparency with the taped out PCB design and photosensitive PCB on which I was to expose it. That’s more than 10 years old now, so I suspect the chemicals in it have degraded a little!

I forget exactly why I picked up the AVRs, but I had one of the first AVRs released, Atmel’s AT90S1200, which I programmed in Assembly. After Assembly, I programmed them in BASIC (using MCS Electronics’s BASCOM-AVR), going as far to write a neural network in

BASCOM-AVR. Even today, I think BASIC gets a bad rap. It was almost the original “Arduino” environment, as you could drop down LCD drivers, ADC, and so forth without ever knowing much about how it worked, and with a really intuitive feel. I moved onto C sometime later, and used C almost exclusively for embedded development since. For some time, I was fairly involved in the tools used in the AVR world, such as WinAVR. Atmel donated a considerable amount of equipment to me, as at the time I was a high school student using these devices for science fair projects. I think that’s a great example of how such corporate donations pay off. I’ve almost exclusively used AVR processors since I am so familiar with them because of that. In addition, as a student with little money but lots of time, I was happy to spend hours each day on or working on open-source tools. While Atmel probably ended up giving me around $3,000 worth of tools, I’m sure the value of work I performed for free in terms of open-source tool contributions or forum posts would be worth many times this.

A funny story around all this work: In undergrad, we used the Atmel AVR microcontrollers. During one of the first labs they distributed a tutorial on how to set up the WinAVR tools and compile your first program. As it turned out, this guide was something I wrote years prior and had posted to the WinAVR website. Sufficient to say, I did OK in that class.

NAN: Tell us about What kind of information is available on the site?

COLIN: I’ve run since 2001, although it’s not really designed to be the type of website one checks for new content daily. If I’ve spent some time solving a problem that I think other people could use, I’ll put a post up. Sometimes this is a complete project, such as my IEEE 802.15.4 sniffer. Sometimes it’s just a small post, such as how to set up the AVR USB keyboard for 5-V operation, which wasn’t described in the manual. I also use it for keeping copies of any published papers or presentations.

I’ve more recently been posting some ongoing research to the site, including blog posts with ongoing projects, rather than just waiting until it’s completely finished! In that vein, I started a YouTube channel with some technical videos ( A big collection of these are from when I taught a digital logic course and recorded all my presentations from that.

My content spans a huge range of topics—everything from showing my students how to get screen captures, to a demonstration of my soldering station, to recordings of my academic paper presentations. I don’t like duplicating work. I’ll only go to the effort of making a video or website post if I really couldn’t find the information elsewhere. Because of this, I don’t have one specific topic you could expect to learn about. I’ve never been aiming to be like EEVBlog!

NAN: You wrote “It’s a SNAP: A Flexible Communications Protocol” (Circuit Cellar 139, 2002) more than 10 years ago. Do you still use SNAP in any of your current projects?

COLIN: I have to admit that I haven’t used SNAP in probably eight years! Of course now, when needing to network devices, I’m more likely to turn to a wireless standard.

NAN: Your article “Open-Source AVR Development” (Circuit Cellar 196, 2006) provides an introduction to the AVR-GCC toolchain for AVR microcontrollers. The article references the Cygwin project and Sourceforge’s WinAVR project. How do these components work in the design?

COLIN: The Cygwin project is still something I use regularly, as it lets you run a variety of Unix-like tools on Windows. The Linux command line is extraordinarily powerful, and it is makes it simple to access things like C compilers, text parsing utilities, and scripting tools. With Cygwin, one can have a Linux-like experience under Windows, which I used in that article to build some of the tools you are developing for AVR. By comparison, WinAVR is just a number of prebuilt tools for the AVR development. While it’s more work to build your own tools, sometimes you require special features that were not available in the premade tools.

NAN: Atmel products have played a starring role in several articles you have published in Circuit Cellar. For example, an AT90S4433 microcontroller was featured in “It’s a SNAP: A Flexible Communications Protocol” (Circuit Cellar 139, 2002), an ATmega88 AVR RISC microcontroller was featured in “Digital Video in an Embedded System” (issue 184, 2005), an AT45DB041 DataFlash and an ATmega88 microcontroller were featured in “Open-Source AVR Development” (issue 187, 2006), and an AT90USBKEY demonstration board was featured in “Advanced USB Design Debugging” (issue 241, 2010). Why Atmel microcontrollers/boards? What do you prefer about these products?

COLIN: As I mentioned before, I have a long history with Atmel products. Because of this, I already have the debug toolchains for their chips and can get projects up very quickly.

When picking boards or products, one of the most important considerations for me is that readers can buy it easily. For me, this means I can get it at DigiKey (and I’ll check Farnell for our UK friends). Part of this comes from being in Canada, where DigiKey was one of the first distributors offering cheap and fast shipping to Canada.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any microprocessor-based projects?

Binary Explorer Board

COLIN: My current big project is something I designed over the summer of 2012. It’s called the Binary Explorer Board and is something I used when teaching a course in digital logic at Dalhousie University. I needed a simple, programmable logic board and nothing I could find was exactly right. In particular, I needed something with an integrated programmer, several switches and LEDs, and an integrated breadboard. The students needed to be able to use the breadboard without the CPLD to learn about discretely packaged parts. All the CPLD-based trainers I found didn’t have exactly what I wanted in this regard.

The embedded part is the USB interface using an Atmel AT90USB162 microcontroller, although I plan on later upgrading that to an XMEGA for lower cost and more code room. The firmware is powered by Dean Camera’s excellent open-source USB library called LUFA ( This firmware lets students program the CPLD on the board easily over USB. But the cool thing is you can go even further and use the device as a generic programmer for other AVRs or CPLDs/FPGAs. For example, you can mount an AVR on the breadboard, connect it to the USB interface, and program that through the Arduino IDE. The entire board would retail for $35 in single-unit quantity, so it’s cheaper than most textbooks. I’m working on making it a real product with Colorado Micro Devices right now.

The design environment is the standard Xilinx toolchain, although I’ve made a number of predefined projects to make it simple enough for students with zero previous design experience to use. The idea is to get students familiar with the real tools they might see in the industry. Around this project, it’s interesting to note I choose a Xilinx CPLD because of my familiarity with Xilinx devices and design tools. This familiarity comes from years ago when Xilinx donated to me a part for a project I was working on. Now throngs of students will be exposed to Xilinx devices, all because Xilinx was willing to donate some parts to a student.

There is always an assortment of half-finished projects, too. I started designing a battery tester, which could simulate characteristics you’d typically see when driving small wireless nodes from coin-cell batteries. I started planning on using an AVR USB microcontroller and doing all the data logging myself. I then found this LabJack device, which simplified my life a lot, as they had basically a generic USB-based logging/control module.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the embedded design industry?

COLIN: Wireless and the “Internet of Things” will eventually be a big thing, which means design engineers will need to become more familiar with things like protocols and realistic transmission characteristics. I use the word “realistic,” as part of this world is separating hype from reality. There’s certainly a huge disconnect between the marketing hype around all these various wireless protocols and how well they work in practice. When designing a product that will use a wireless technology, it’s likely some commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) module will be used, so the engineer may think they can remain blissfully unaware of RF or networking things. But the engineer still needs to have a rough idea about how many devices might fit in an area on a single network or the advantage of selecting certain protocols.

Another thing of interest to me is programmable logic, such as FPGAs. It’s been interesting to see the tools that try to turn anybody into an FPGA designer becoming more mainstream, or at least letting you program FPGAs in more common languages (e.g., C/C++). They are still fairly specialized and more likely to be used by a hardware engineer looking to improve productivity, compared to a software engineer who needs to offload an algorithm into a FPGA. But I think they could fairly quickly get to the point that engineers with some FPGA experience could implement considerably more complex designs than they would have otherwise been able to had they been required to design everything from scratch.

In a somewhat similar vein, we are starting to see the availability of multicore devices coming down to embedded levels. Learning to program them in a way to take advantage of these new cores is a useful skill to pick up. I recently started using both the OpenMP API and Cilk++ development software on some of my programs. My work wasn’t targeting an embedded project, but instead regular full-size multicore computers, but it’s still a useful (and fairly simple) skill to pick up.

NAN: Tell us a little about your workbench. What are some of your favorite design tools?

Colin’s Workbench

COLIN: My initial workbench was the kitchen table, although other family members were frequently concerned about eating in the same space as these various items with warning labels about lead. My next workbench was a long, custom-built bench in Hamilton, Ontario. My current bench in Halifax was again custom-built, and I’ll take you few of its features. I’d like to point out by “custom-built” I mean built by myself with a jigsaw and some plywood, not an artesian finely crafted piece of furniture.

Due to a back injury, I work standing up, which you can’t see in the photo. It’s actually quite refreshing, and combined with a good quality antifatigue mat and stool to lean up against means I can work long hours without tiring. A cover comes down to hide everything in my desk, which was a feature partially required by my significant other, who didn’t want guests to see the typical mess of wires it contains. When closed, it also gives it some protection against any rogue water leaks. For my computer, I use a trackball instead of a mouse, and the keyboard and trackball are mounted on a plate tilted underneath the desk in a “negative” tilt angle, adjusted to most natural angle. And, because there is no way to see the keyboard while typing, it tends to keep anyone else from borrowing my computer to look something up!

I’ve wired a ground fault interrupter (GFI) into the desk, so all my power outlets are protected. If I ever did something dumb like dropping a scope ground on a live wire, the GFI socket would at least give me a hope of protecting the scope and myself. There are many outlets above and below the desk, and also a ground jack for the antistatic strap beside the thermal wire strippers. The outlets under the desk let me plug in things in a hidden manner—printers, USB hubs, and other permanent devices get wired in there. I’ve wired a number of USB hubs to the top of my desk, so I typically have around 12 free USB slots. You always seem to run out otherwise!

Most of my tools are off the desk and stored in the drawers to either side. I made the “drawers” just pieces of wood with minimal sides—the idea being most of the time you are placing PCBs or tools down, so the lack of high sides prevents you from piling too much into them! All the cables get stored on hooks to the left of my desk, and I’ve got a whiteboard that sticks up when I’m working on a problem.

SMD Organization

I store all my SMD parts in small envelopes stored in index card holders in the bottom left of my desk. While I’m not a static-phobic, I also didn’t want to use plastic film strips or plastic bags. So the paper envelopes at least I hope don’t generate much static, even if they don’t dissipate it. It’s very easy to label all your parts and also this system holds up to a high dynamic range of stock numbers. For example, capacitors get split into 10.1–99.9 nF, 100 nF, 100.1–999.9 nF, and so forth. Because you seem to end up with loads of 100-nF capacitors, they get their own envelope. It’s trivial to change this division around as you get more parts, or to group part sizes together.

In terms of interesting tools: my soldering station is probably my favorite tool, a Metcal MX500 I got used from eBay. The response time on these is unbelievable. I put a video up to show people just because I’ve been so impressed with it. There are other manufactures that now make stations with the same RF-heating technology I believe, and I always encourage everyone to try one. I’ve been using the DG8SAQ Vector Network Analyzer (VNWA) for a while too. It’s a very affordable way to get familiar with VNA and RF measurements. It’s especially fun to follow along with some of the “Darker Side” columns in Circuit Cellar. Rather than just hearing about the mysterious world of RF, you can do experiments like viewing the response of several different decoupling capacitors mounted in parallel. I’ve got an old TiePie TiePieSCOPE HS801 parallel-port oscilloscope mounted underneath my desk, and still use it today. A lot of my work is digital, so have an Intronix LogicPort digital analyzer, a Beagle USB 480 protocol analyzer, and oodles of microcontroller programming/debug tools from different manufacturers.

CC271: Got Range?

As with wireless connectivity, when it comes to your engineering skills, range matters. The more you know about a variety of applicable topics, the more you’ll profit in your professional and personal engineering-related endeavors. Thus, it makes sense to educate yourself on a continual basis on the widest range of topics you can. It can be a daunting task. But no worries. We’re here to help. In this issue, we feature articles on topics as seemingly diverse as wireless technology to embedded programming to open-source development. Let’s take a closer look.

Consider starting with Catarina Mota and Marcin Jakubowski’s Tech the Future essay, “Open-Source Hardware for the Efficient Economy” (p. 80). They are thoughtful visionaries at the forefront of a global open-source hardware project. You’ll find their work exciting and inspirational.

Stuart Ball’s Dip Meter

On page 20, Stuart Ball describes the process of designing a digital dip meter. It’s a go-to tool for checking a device’s resonant frequency, or you can use it as a signal source to tune receivers. Ball used a microcontroller to digitize the dip meter’s display.

Interested in 3-D technology? William Meyers and Guo Jie Chin’s 3-D Paint project (p. 26) is a complete hardware and software package that uses free space as a canvas and enables you to draw in 3-D by measuring ultrasonic delays. They used a PC and MATLAB to capture movements and return them in real time.

This month we’re running the third article in Richard Lord’s series, “Digital Camera Controller” (p. 32). He covers the process of building a generic front-panel controller for the Photo-Pal flash-trigger camera controller project.

Richard Lord’s front panel CPU

Turn to page 37 for the fifth article in Bob Japenga’s series on concurrency in embedded systems. He covers the portable operating system interface (POSIX), mutex, semaphores, and more.

Check out the interview on page 41 for insight into the interests and work of electrical engineer and graduate student Colin O’Flynn. He describes some of his previous work, as well as his Binary Explorer Board, which he designed in 2012.

Colin O’Flynn’s Binary Explorer Board

In Circuit Cellar 270, George Novacek tackled the topic of failure mode and criticality analysis (FMECA). This month he focuses on fault-tree analysis (p. 46).

Arduino is clearly one of the hottest design platforms around. But how can you use it in a professional-level design? Check out Ed Nisley’s “Arduino Survival Guide” (p. 49).

Standing waves are notoriously difficult to understand. Fortunately, Robert Lacoste prepared an article on the topic that covers an experimental platform and measurements (p. 54).

This month’s article from the archives relates directly to the issue’s wireless technology theme. On page 60 is Roy Franz’s 2003 article about his WiFi SniFi design, which can locate wireless networks and then display “captured” packet information.

If you like this issue’s cover, you’ll have to check out Jeff Bachiochi’s article on QR coding (p. 68). He provides an excellent analysis of the technology from a pro engineer’s point of view.

Circuit Cellar 271 is now available.

Retro Electronics (“Retronics”): Analog, Test, & Micrcontroller Tech

Pop quiz: What was the first microcontroller to leave the Earth? Find out the answer in Jan Buiting’s new “Retronics” webinar. Check out the video below.

The Tektronix 546B

If you read Circuit Cellar and Elektor magazines, you likely have as much passion for old-school electronics as you do for he new, cutting-edge technology you find at events such as the Embedded Systems Conference. Elektor editor Jan Buiting is well-known for his love of both new and old technology, and in his Retronics webinar series he presents some of his favorite old-school technologies.

In the video below, Jan explains how and where he found some of his retronics equipment. He also details how he fixed some of the systems and what he does with them. Examples include:

  • A Heathkit TC-2P Tube Checker that Jan found at lawn sale
  • Old audio equipment
  • A satellite TV receiver
  • An “Elektorscope” from 1977
  • 1980s-era test equipment
  • And more! is an Elektor International Media publication.

New Products: February 2013


The 36-Position Quadrature Encoder Set provides rotational feedback for robot wheels. The set was specifically designed for Parallax’s Motor Mount and Wheel Kit, which is included with the Eddie and MadeUSA robotic platforms. The kit also can be used with custom robots or mechanical systems with 0.5” axles.

The encoder set provides two out-of-phase outputs from within a single sensor assembly. Its 36-position encoder disks, which resolve to 144 positions with the quadrature sensor output, are incised to grip 0.5” diameter axles. Key features include low power consumption, dual-channel outputs that provide speed and directional information, and a six-pin, single-row header that accommodates a four- or six-wire interface.

The Si1143 Proximity Sensor is well suited for noncontact gesture recognition in microcontroller applications. Gestures in the up, down, left, right, and center directions can be detected by measuring infrared light levels from the three on-board IR LEDs.

The Si143 measures visible and IR ambient light levels, providing a range of operation from darkness to full sunlight. The sensor’s easy-to-use interface is compatible with any microcontroller. Its standard 0.1” header pins enable the sensor to conveniently connect to breadboard or through-hole projects.

The 36-Position Quadrature Encoder Set and the Si1143 Proximity Sensor both cost $29.99.


Parallax, Inc.


The XMC4400, XMC4200, and XMC4100 Cortex-based microcontrollers offer a high-resolution PWM unit. Devices in the XMC4000 microcontroller family use ARM Cortex M4 processors.

With a 150-ps PWM resolution, the XMC4400, XMC4200, and XMC4100 microcontrollers are well suited for digital power conversion in inverters, switching and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), and other applications including I/O automation units, user interfaces (HMI), and logging and control systems.

Like Infineon’s XMC4500 microcontrollers, the XMC4400, XMC4200, and XMC4100 series offer powerful application-optimized peripherals, fast and robust embedded flash technology, an extended –40°C-to-125°C temperature range, and tools for automatic code generation.

The XMC4000 family includes four series: XMC4500, XMC4400, XMC4200, and XMC4100. The microcontroller families differ mainly in core frequency, memory capacity, peripheral functions, and number of I/Os. The XMC4400, XMC4200, and XMC4100 series have a powerful CPU subsystem with 120 MHz or 80 MHz, DSP functionality, a floating-point unit, and fast flash memory (512, 256 or 128 KB). They feature a 22-ns read time and error-correction code and SRAMs up to 80 KB. The microcontrollers’ peripherals include high-speed 12-bit ADCs and DACs and integrated delta-sigma demodulator modules (XMC4400). Communication is provided by Ethernet MAC (XMC4400), USB 2.0, CAN interfaces, and serial communication channels, which can be individually software-configured as UART, SPI, Quad-SPI, I2S, or I2C. The microcontrollers also provide a touch interface and an LED matrix display.

The XMC4400, XMC4200, and XMC4100 are supported with the DAVE 3 integrated development platform, which enables convenient, fast, and application-orientated software development. Third-party tools can be used to extend the Eclipse-based environment with free GNU compiler and debugger. DAVE 3 also supports automatic code generation based on predefined software components (i.e., the “DAVE Apps”). The DAVE Apps are configured in a user-friendly way via the graphical user interface. DAVE 3 ensures industrial application developers can use the XMC4000 microcontrollers’ functionality with little programming effort. The generated code can be compiled and debugged directly in DAVE 3 or imported into third-party tools for further processing (currently Altium, ARM, Atollic, IAR Systems, and Rowley).

Contact Infineon for pricing.

Infineon Technologies



The AD514x and AD512x series of nonvolatile single-, dual-, and quad-channel digital potentiometers (digiPOTs) feature a ±1% resistance tolerance to improve component matching in industrial and communication control systems. The 11 digiPOTs in the AD514x and AD512x series achieve a high 3-MHz bandwidth, which enables fast system response time.

The nonvolatile digiPOT series meet a range of system-level requirements in 256- or 128-TAP, SPI or I²C interfaces, leaded and leadless packaging, all of which feature 4-kV ESD protection. The devices offer a low temperature coefficient performance over a –40°C-to-125°C temperature range.

The AD514x and AD512x digiPOTS are available in a 3-mm × 3-mm LFCSP package option for board savings. Contact Analog Devices for pricing.


Analog Devices, Inc.


The Barix Real-Time Clock (RTC) accessory helps ensure audio and control devices continue operating uninterrupted during network failures. The devices help keep mission-critical operations for broadcast radio, streaming media, building automation, and other applications on time.

The self-sustaining reference clock plugs into any device with an RS-232 serial port, including Barix IP audio and control products. The Barix RTC maintains time, even when unpowered, for years. This enables the RTC to provide time information immediately after a device startup, even without a network-based time reference.

The Barix RTC enables devices to work offline without network connection, playing out audio messages and time-sensitive content on time. Similarly, broadcasters streaming syndicated programs with local network IDs, jingles, ads, and promotions can trigger scheduled events without affecting their on-air content.

The RTC can be used by IP control devices to gain independence from network time references, continuing to switch lights and boilers on and off if the network fails. This ensures energy-saving techniques for schools, businesses, and other facilities continue without disruption.

Contact Barix for pricing.



The A2530x24xxx series, Anaren’s new family of Anaren Integrated Radio (AIR) modules, are specifically designed to help OEMs develop products that wirelessly communicate in compliance with the ZigBee standard. Based on the Texas Instruments (TI) CC2530 low-power RF system-on-a-chip (SoC), which operates using TI’s Z-Stack firmware, the family of AIR modules is bundled with AIR Support for ZigBee, which includes time-saving AIR-ZNP firmware (including more than 30 code examples), precertification to applicable global, regulatory standards, and development tools (e.g., Anaren’s BoosterPack for TI MSP430 and Stellaris LaunchPad development kits).

The A2530x24xxx devices require minimal RF engineering and ZigBee experience. They are easy to program for a shortened design cycle. The devices are available with an integral or connectorized antenna and a tiny, 2.5-mm × 11-mm × 19-mm standardized footprint. The devices are pre-certified to FCC/IC and compliant with ETSI. There is a choice of range-extender or non-range extender modules. The A2530x24xxx devices’ additional features include a 2.4-GHz IEEE 802.15.4-compliant RF transceiver (TI’s CC2530), a wide 2.2-to-3.6-V input voltage range, and excellent receiver sensitivity and robustness to interference (–95 dBm average).

Anaren has also introduced a BoosterPack featuring its new family of modules. The CC2530 BoosterPack Kit helps OEM engineers develop wireless applications using a TI LaunchPad for MSP430 or a Stellaris microcontroller. The BoosterPack provides “out-of-the-box” wireless connectivity to easily develop applications based on the ZigBee standard. It also includes AIR-ZNP firmware solution (based on TI’s Z-Stack).

The kit includes three A2530E24A AIR Module BoosterPacks for connection to TI’s MSP430 or Stellaris’s LaunchPad development kit (LaunchPad not included). Each BoosterPack includes an on-board MSP430G2553IN20 Value Line microcontroller, pre-flashed with Anaren’s AIR-ZNP firmware (based on TI’s Z-Stack for the ZigBee standard).

Contact Anaren for pricing.

Anaren, Inc.


The M24LR Discovery Kit helps you design battery-free electronic applications that can exchange data with ISO15693-compatible NFC-enabled smartphones or radio-frequency identification (RFID) reader-writers. The kits help create and integrate energy-autonomous data collection, asset tracking, or diagnostics capabilities in applications, including phone and tablet accessories, computer peripherals, electronic shelf labels, home appliances, industrial automation, sensing and monitoring systems, and personal healthcare products.

With a combination of industry-standard serial bus (I2C) and contactless RF interfaces, the M24LR EEPROM memory is capable of communicating with host systems “over-the-wire” or “over-the-air.” The M24LR’s RF interface can convert ambient radio waves emitted by RFID reader-writers and NFC phones or tablets into energy to power its circuits and enable complete battery-free operation.

The M24LR Discovery Kit includes an RF transceiver board with a 13.56-MHz multiprotocol RFID/NFC transceiver (CR95HF) driven by an STM32 32-bit microcontroller, which powers and wirelessly communicates with a battery-less board. This board includes ST’s dual-interface EEPROM memory IC (M24LR), an ultra-low-power 8-bit microcontroller (STM8L), and a temperature sensor (STTS75).

The M24LR Discovery Kit costs $17.50.



The configurable MGC3130 is an electrical-field (E-field)-based 3-D gesture controller, providing low-power, precise, fast, and robust hand-position tracking with free-space gesture recognition. The controller features Microchip’s GestIC technology, which enables intuitive, gesture-based, non-contact user interfaces for many end products.

The MGC3130 includes 150-dpi, mouse-like resolution and a 200-Hz sampling rate to sense fast hand and finger motions. It has a super-low-noise analog front-end for high-accuracy interpretation of electrode sensor inputs. The controller’s configurable Auto Wake-Up on Approach at 150-µW current consumption enables always-on 3-D gesture sensing in power-constrained mobile applications.

The MGC3130’s additional features include automated self calibration, 32-bit digital signal processing for real-time processing of x/y/z positional data, integrated flash memory to easily upgrade deployed products, and a 70-to-130-kHz E-field with frequency hopping to eliminate RF interference.

GestIC technology achieves high gesture-recognition rates through Colibri Suite, which is a library of 3-D gestures for hands and fingers that is preprogrammed into the MGC3130. The Colibri Suite combines a stochastic Hidden Markov model (HMM) and x/y/z hand-position vectors to provide recognized 3-D hand and finger gestures. Examples include Wake-Up on Approach, Position Tracking, Flick Gestures, Circle Gestures, and Symbol Gestures to perform functions (e.g., on/off, open application, point, click, zoom, scroll, free-space mouseover, etc.). The chip also provides prefiltered electrode signals for additional functionality.

GestIC technology uses thin sensing electrodes made of any conductive material, such as PCB traces or a touch sensor’s indium tin oxide (ITO) coating, to enable invisible integration behind a device’s housing. In addition, the technology provides 100% surface coverage, eliminating “angle-of-view” blind spots. With a detection range of up to 15 cm, the MGC3130 is well suited for products used in close proximity for direct user-to-device interaction.

In addition, Microchip’s Sabrewing MGC3130 single-zone evaluation kit enables development with the MGC3130 by providing a 5” or 7” selectable electrode size. The kit comes with the AUREA graphical user interface (GUI), which is available for a free download at The GUI enables designers to easily match their system commands to Microchip’s Colibri Suite. The evaluation kit costs $169. The MGC3130, featuring GestIC technology, is available in a 5-mm × 5-mm, 28-pin QFN package. The controllers cost $2.26 each.

Microchip Technology, Inc.


The SMC-01 is a manual servomotor controller for a single servomotor. The controller performs via an on-board potentiometer. A Microchip Technology PIC12F683 microcontroller is at the heart of the SMC-01. The potentiometer connects to the microcontroller to proportionally control the servomotor’s rotation.

The servomotor’s shaft is capable of responding as fast and as far as the potentiometer knob is rotated. A universal three-pin header enables easy connection to the servo motors. They are simply plugged into the board. The circuit is controlled by an inexpensive, eight-pin microcontroller and powered by a 9-V battery.

The unit can be purchased as a kit or fully assembled. The SMC-01 kit costs $24.95. The fully assembled SMC-01A costs $34.95.

Images SI, Inc.


The Class D ToolStick kit is a cost-effective USB-based evaluation kit that enables developers to add digital Class D audio capabilities to 32-bit embedded designs based on Silicon Labs’s SiM3U1xx Precision32 microcontrollers. The kit helps developers upgrade basic “buzzer/beeper” alert sounds used in personal medical devices, fitness equipment, high-end toys, small appliances, and other consumer electronics products to sophisticated voice prompts, music, sound clips, and streaming audio.

The SiM3U1xx microcontrollers include the following: a 300-mA, high-drive I/O that can directly drive a small speaker; a crystal-less USB transceiver compatible with the USB audio interface; two 250-ksps, 12-bit ADCs; and an I2S receiver that supports audio streaming from a PC, a portable music player, or a range of I2S-enabled audio devices. The only external components required to drive Class D audio from SiM3U1xx microcontrollers are inexpensive inductors, some capacitors, and ferrite beads.

You can use the ToolStick to add capacitive-touch buttons and sliders to 32-bit embedded systems. The SiM3U1xx microcontrollers’ high-drive I/Os with PWM can be used to directly drive other components (e.g., small motors), without using separate power field-effect transistors (FETs).

The Class D ToolStick kit is powered from USB using the SiM3U1xx microcontroller’s internal 5-V regulator. The board uses a simple speaker to play music from a stereo jack, a computer, or a recorded message. The ToolStick provides four modes of operation. The microcontroller’s on-chip ADCs are used to sample data from a portable music player or USB audio streaming from a PC. The kit uses a common audio compression algorithm to play prerecorded sound clips stored from on-chip flash memory and it uses an audio-compression algorithm as a voice recorder that stores data in flash. Capacitive-touch buttons and control volume with a capacitive-touch slider are used to handle mode transition.

The Class D ToolStick evaluation kit comes complete with hardware Gerber files and software, which helps streamline the process of adding Class D audio to embedded applications. The ToolStick features a built-in USB-based debugger/programming interface and accessible pins for easy prototyping. The ToolStick debug interface is fully operational with Silicon Laboratories’s complimentary Precision32 IDE, compiler, AppBuilder crossbar configuration software, and Keil toolchains.

The Class D ToolStick evaluation kit includes full source code and implements a Class D amplifier demonstration using a small-footprint, 40-pin, 6-mm × 6-mm package SiM3U1xx microcontroller. The kit costs $35.

Silicon Laboratories, Inc.


The RL78/G1C group of 16-bit microcontrollers conforms to the USB Battery Charging Specification, Revision 1.2. The microcontrollers provide USB host/function interfaces, which support full-speed and low-speed USB communication. The USB interface is used between PCs and PC peripheral equipment and also as a general-purpose interface for consumer and industrial equipment in applications such as smartphone accessories, portable healthcare devices, AV accessories, and game and industrial equipment.

The microcontrollers’ battery-charging function enables high-speed charging up to 1.5 A. They also integrate a 1% accurate high-speed oscillator.

The RL78/G1C microcontroller group is the first RL78 microcontroller family that includes USB host/function and can be easily deployed in existing systems utilizing other RL78 family products. The integration of USB functionality alongside RL78’s smart peripherals enables them to achieve 71 µA/MHz in full operation and 0.23 µA in Stop mode (RAM retained). The first series within the RL78/G1C microcontroller group features 32-to-48-pin devices in packages as small as 5 mm × 5 mm, up to 32 KB of flash, and 5.5 KB of on-board RAM.

Samples of the RL78/G1C group of microcontrollers are available. Prices vary by USB peripheral functions and USB host functions including packages and number of pins. For example, the 32-pin LQPF package R5F10KBCAFP device with USB peripheral function costs $1 per unit, in 10,000-unit quantities.

Renesas Electronics Corp.


Design a Low-Power System in 2013

A few months ago, we listed the top design projects from the Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge. Today, we’re excited to announce that Circuit Cellar‘s upcoming 25th anniversary issue will include a mini-challenge featuring the RL78. In the issue, you’ll learn about a new opportunity to register for an RL78/G14 demonstration kit that you can use to build a low-power design.

Renesas RL78

The RL78/G14 demonstration kit (RDK) is a handy evaluation tool for the RL78/G14 microcontrollers. Several powerful compilers and sample projects will be offered either free-of-charge (e.g., the GNU compiler) or with a code-size-limited compiler evaluation license (e.g., IAR Systems).  Also featured will be user-friendly GUIs, including the Eclipse-based e2studio.


  • 32-MHz RL78/G14 MCU board with integrated debugger and huge peripheral, including Wi-Fi, E Ink display, matrix LCD, audio ports, IR ports, motor control port, FET and isolated triac interfaces
  •  256-KB On-chip flash
  • USB Debugger cable
  • Four factory demos showcasing local and cloud connectivity through Wi-Fi

The CC25 anniversary issue is now available.