Long-Range, Memory Jewelry-Tagging Solution

EMThe EM4126 EPC radio-frequency identification (RFID) IC is designed to provide RFID tagging on small and/or high-value products (e.g., jewelry and watches). The IC’s high sensitivity enables long read ranges. EM4126-based tags can achieve –21-dBm read sensitivities. The ICs are designed for supply chain management, tracking and tracing, container identification, and access and asset control applications.

The EM4126’s 224 bits of nonvolatile memory support International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or Electronic Product Code (EPC) data structures and enable SGTIN-198 encoding, which uses alphanumeric serialization represented as a string of up to 20 7-bit characters. The EM4126’s additional features include ISO 18000-63 and EPC Class-1 Generation-2 compliance, 32-bit short-tag identification, 40-to-160 Kbps forward- and return-link data rates, and a –40°C-to-85°C extended temperature range.

Contact EM Microelectronic for pricing.

EM Microelectronic
www.emmicroelectronic.com

The Sun Chaser Energy-Harvesting System

When Sjoerd Brandsma entered the 2012 Renesas Green Energy Challenge, he wanted to create a fun project that would take advantage of his experience at a company that heavily uses GPS.

Brandsma, who lives in Kerkwijk, The Netherlands, has worked as a software engineer and is currently an R&D manager at CycloMedia, which produces 360° street-level panoramic images with geographic information system (GIS) accuracy.

Ultimately, Brandsma’s Sun Chaser project won third prize in the Renesas Green Energy Challenge. The Sun Chaser is an energy-harvesting system that automatically orients a solar panel to face the sun.

Photo 1: The Sun Chaser’s stepper motor controls the solar panel‘s “tilting.”

Photo 1: The Sun Chaser’s stepper motor controls the solar panel‘s “tilting.”

“The Sun Chaser perfectly follows the sun’s path and keeps the battery fully charged when there’s enough sunlight,” Brandsma says in his article about the project, which appears in Circuit Cellar’s June issue. ”It can power a small electronics system as long as there’s enough sunlight and no rain, which would damage the system due to lack of protection. This project also demonstrates that it’s possible to build an interesting green-energy system with a tight budget and a limited knowledge of  electronics.”

A registered GPS calculates the orientation of the Sun Chaser’s solar panel, which is mounted on a rotating disc. “You can use an external compass, the internal accelerometer, a DC motor, and a stepper motor to determine the solar panel’s exact position,” Brandsma says. “The Sun Chaser uses Renesas Electronics’s RDKRL78G13 evaluation board running the Micriµm µC/OS-III real-time kernel.”

The following article excerpt describes the GPS reference station and evaluation board in greater detail. The issue with Brandsma’s full article is available online for membership download or single-issue purchase.

GPS REFERENCE STATION
Whenever you want to know where you are, you can use a GPS receiver that provides your position. A single GPS receiver can provide about 10 to 15 m (i.e., 33’ to 50’) position accuracy. While this is sufficient for many people, some applications require positioning with significantly higher accuracy. In fact, GPS can readily produce positions that are accurate to 1 m (3’), 0.5 m (18”), or even 1 to 2 cm (less than 1“). A technique called “differential GPS” can be used to achieve higher accuracy.

The differential technique requires one GPS receiver to be located at a known position (often called a control or reference point) and a second “rover” receiver at the location to be measured. The information from the two GPS receivers (rover and control) is combined to determine the rover’s position. That’s where a GPS reference station comes in. It functions as the control point and serves potentially unlimited users and applications. Leica Geosystems has published an excellent introductory guide about GPS reference stations (Refer to the Resources at the end of this article.)

The GPS reference station should always be located at a position with a broad sight. In some situations it can be difficult to provide a decent power supply to the system. When regular power isn’t available, a solar panel can power the GPS reference station.

My Sun Chaser GPS reference station uses a 10-W solar panel connected to a 12-V battery to provide enough power. To increase the energy harvesting, the solar panel is mounted on a rotating disc that can be controlled by a DC motor to point in the desired direction. A stepper motor controls the solar panel’s “tilting.” Photo 1 highlights the main components.

USING THE EVALUATION BOARD
The RDKRL78G13 is an evaluation and demonstration tool for Renesas Electronics’s RL78 low-power microcontrollers. A set of human-machine interfaces (HMIs) is tightly integrated with the RL78’s features. I used several of these interfaces to control other devices, read sensors, or store data.

Most of the system’s hardware is related to placing the solar panel in the correct position. Figure 1 shows the top-level components used to store the GPS information and position the solar panel.

Figure 1: The Sun Chaser’s components include a Renesas Electronics RDKRL78G13 evaluation board, a GPS receiver, a stepper motor, and an SD card.

Figure 1: The Sun Chaser’s components include a Renesas Electronics RDKRL78G13 evaluation board, a GPS receiver, a stepper motor, and an SD card.

The RDKRL78G13 evaluation board has an on-board temperature and light sensor. Both sensor values are stored on the SD card. The on-board light sensor is used to determine if rotating/tilting makes sense (at night it’s better to sleep). For this project, the temperature values are stored just for fun so I could make some graphs or do some weather analysis.

A micro-SD memory card slot on the RDKRL78G13 evaluation board provides file system data storage. I used it to store all incoming data and log messages using the FAT16/FAT32 file system.

The on-board Renesas Electronics RQK0609CQDQS MOSFET controls the DC motor that rotates the evaluation board. The DC motor can be controlled by applying a PWM signal generated from one of the RL78’s timers. The MOSFET is controlled by the RL78’s TO05 port and powered from the 12-V battery. A PWM signal is generated on TO05 by using Timer4 as a master and Timer5 as a slave. It’s only necessary to rotate clockwise, so additional hardware to rotate the platform counterclockwise is not required.

A digital compass is needed to determine the evaluation board’s rotated position or heading (see Figure 2). The Honeywell HMC5883L is a widely used and low-cost compass. This I2C-based compass has three-axis magnetoresistive sensors and a 12-bit ADC on board. It can read out values at a 160-Hz rate, which is more than enough for this project.

Figure 2: A Honeywell HMC5883L digital compass verifies the evaluation board’s rotated position or heading.

Figure 2: A Honeywell HMC5883L digital compass verifies the evaluation board’s rotated position or heading.

The compass uses the RL78’s IICA0 port through the Total Phase Beagle debug header, which is mounted on the RDKRL78G13 evaluation board. The Beagle analyzer provides easy access to this I2C port, which increases the flexibility to change things during prototyping.

The HMC5883L compass turned out to be a very sensitive device. Even the slightest change in the hardware setup seemed to influence the results when rotating. This meant some sort of calibration was needed to ensure the output was consistent every time the system started. [Brandsman’s full article descibes how how the HMC5883L can be calibrated. It’s important to know that every time the system starts, it makes a full turn to calibrate the compass.

A GPS module must be connected to the system to provide the system’s current location. I wanted the GPS module to be inexpensive, 3.3-V based, and have an easy and accessible interface (e.g., UART).

Figure 3 shows a schematic of a Skylab M&C Technology SKM53 GPS module, which is based on the MediaTek 3329 GPS receiver module. This module supports NMEA messages and the MTK NMEA Packet Protocol interface to control things such as power saving, output message frequency, and differential global positioning system (DGPS).

Unfortunately, the 3329 receiver can’t output “raw” GPS data (e.g., pseudorange, integrated carrier phase, Doppler shift, and satellite ephemeris), which would significantly improve the GPS reference station’s capabilities. Due to budget and time limitations (it takes some more software development effort to handle this raw data), I didn’t use a receiver that could output raw GPS data.

Figure 3:A Skylab M&C Technology SKM53 GPS receiver obtains the system’s current location.

Figure 3:A Skylab M&C Technology SKM53 GPS receiver obtains the system’s current location.

The SKM53 GPS receiver is connected to the RL78’s UART2. All data from the GPS receiver is stored on the SD card. As soon as a valid GPS position is received, the system calculates the sun’s position and moves the platform into the most ideal position.

A compact stepper motor is needed to tilt the platform in very small steps. The platform had to be tilted from fully vertical to fully horizontal in approximately 6 h when the sun was exactly following the equator, so speed wasn’t really an issue. I wanted to do very fine tilting, so I also needed a set of gears to slow down the platform tilting.

I used an inexpensive, easy-to-use, generic 5-V 28BYJ-48 stepper motor (see Figure 4). According to the specifications, the 28BYJ-48 stepper motor has a 1/64 gear reduction ratio and 64 steps per rotation (5.625°/step) of its internal motor shaft.

An important consideration here is that you don’t want to retain power on the stepper motor to keep it in position. This particular stepper motor has some internal gears that prevent the platform from flipping back when the stepper motor is not powered.

The stepper motor can be controlled by the well-known ULN2003 high-voltage high-current Darlington transistor array. The ULN2003 is connected to P71-P74. Each of the ULN2003’s four outputs is connected to one of the stepper motor’s coils. When two neighbor coils are set high (e.g., P72 and P73), the stepper motor will step in that direction.

When it comes to solar panels, you can build your own panel out of individual solar cells or buy a fully assembled one with known specifications. I used a no-name 10-W solar panel. The size (337 mm long × 205 mm wide × 18 mm high) was acceptable and it delivered more than enough energy. I used a charge controller to protect the battery from overcharging and to prevent it from supplying power to the solar panel at night.

Like solar panels, many charge controllers and battery protectors can be used in such a system. I chose the lazy approach: Just take one off the shelf. The CMP12/24 charge controller is specially designed for small solar systems. It has a stabilized 12-V output, which is taken from the connected battery. It can handle up to 12 A of charging or load current and, according to the specifications, it consumes about 20 mA of quiescent current. There is some room for improvement, but it worked for my project.

I had some 7805 voltage regulators lying around, which I figured could do the job and supply just enough power when the system was starting up. However, when it comes to power saving, the 7805 is not the way to go. It’s a linear regulator that works by taking the difference between the input and output voltages and burning it up as wasted heat.

What I needed was a switching regulator or a buck converter. I used a National Semiconductor (now Texas Instruments) LM2596. Note: The LM2596 is made by several companies and is available in inexpensive, high-quality modules (most cost a little more than $1 per converter). These ready-to-use modules already have the necessary capacitors, diodes, and so forth on board, so it’s really a matter of plug and play.

I used a lead acid RT1219 12-V 1.9-AH battery for power storage. You can use any 12-V battery with sufficient capacity.

Editor’s Note: Check out other projects from the 2012 Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge.

Measuring Jitter (EE Tip #132)

Jitter is one of the parameters you should consider when designing a project, especially when it involves planning a high-speed digital system. Moreover, jitter investigation—performed either manually or with the help of proper measurement tools—can provide you with a thorough analysis of your product.

There are at least two ways to measure jitter: cycle-to-cycle and time interval error (TIE).

WHAT IS JITTER?
The following is the generic definition offered by The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in its G.810 recommendation. “Jitter (timing): The short-term variations of the significant instants of a timing signal from their ideal positions in time (where short-term implies that these variations are of frequency greater than or equal to 10 Hz).”

First, jitter refers to timing signals (e.g., a clock or a digital control signal that must be time-correlated to a given clock). Then you only consider “significant instants” of these signals (i.e., signal-useful transitions from one logical state to the other). These events are supposed to happen at a specific time. Jitter is the difference between this expected time and the actual time when the event occurs (see Figure 1).

Figure 1—Jitter includes all phenomena that result in an unwanted shift in timing of some digital signal transitions in comparison to a supposedly “perfect” signal.

Figure 1—Jitter includes all phenomena that result in an unwanted shift in timing of some digital signal transitions in comparison to a supposedly “perfect” signal.

Last, jitter concerns only short-term variations, meaning fast variations as compared to the signal frequency (in contrast, very slow variations, lower than 10 Hz, are called “wander”).

Clock jitter, for example, is a big concern for A/D conversions. Read my article on fast ADCs (“Playing with High-Speed ADCs,” Circuit Cellar 259, 2012) and you will discover that jitter could quickly jeopardize your expensive, high-end ADC’s signal-to-noise ratio.

CYCLE-TO-CYCLE JITTER
Assume you have a digital signal with transitions that should stay within preset time limits (which are usually calculated based on the receiver’s signal period and timing diagrams, such as setup duration and so forth). You are wondering if it is suffering from any excessive jitter. How do you measure the jitter? First, think about what you actually want to measure: Do you have a single signal (e.g., a clock) that could have jitter in its timing transitions as compared to absolute time? Or, do you have a digital signal that must be time-correlated to an accessible clock that is supposed to be perfect? The measurement methods will be different. For simplicity, I will assume the first scenario: You have a clock signal with rising edges that are supposed to be perfectly stable, and you want to double check it.

My first suggestion is to connect this clock to your best oscilloscope’s input, trigger the oscilloscope on the clock’s rising edge, adjust the time base to get a full period on the screen, and measure the clock edge’s time dispersion of the transition just following the trigger. This method will provide a measurement of the so-called cycle-to-cycle jitter (see Figure 2).

Figure 2—Cycle-to-cycle is the easiest way to measure jitter. You can simply trigger your oscilloscope on a signal transition and measure the dispersion of the following transition’s time.

Figure 2—Cycle-to-cycle is the easiest way to measure jitter. You can simply trigger your oscilloscope on a signal transition and measure the dispersion of the following transition’s time.

If you have a dual time base or a digital oscilloscope with zoom features, you could enlarge the time zone around the clock edge you are interested in for more accurate measurements. I used an old Philips PM5786B pulse generator from my lab to perform the test. I configured the pulse generator to generate a 6.6-MHz square signal and connected it to my Teledyne LeCroy WaveRunner 610Zi oscilloscope. I admit this is high-end equipment (1-GHz bandwidth, 20-GSPS sampling rate and an impressive 32-M word memory when using only two of its four channels), but it enabled me to demonstrate some other interesting things about jitter. I could have used an analog oscilloscope to perform the same measurement, as long as the oscilloscope provided enough bandwidth and a dual time base (e.g., an old Tektronix 7904 oscilloscope or something similar). Nevertheless, the result is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3—This is the result of a cycle-to-cycle jitter measurement of the PM5786A pulse generator. The bottom curve is a zoom of the rising front just following the trigger. The cycle-to-cycle jitter is the horizontal span of this transition over time, here measured at about 620 ps.

Figure 3—This is the result of a cycle-to-cycle jitter measurement of the PM5786A pulse generator. The bottom curve is a zoom of the rising front just following the trigger. The cycle-to-cycle jitter is the horizontal span of this transition over time, here measured at about 620 ps.

This signal generator’s cycle-to-cycle jitter is clearly visible. I measured it around 620 ps. That’s not much, but it can’t be ignored as compared to the signal’s period, which is 151 ns (i.e., 1/6.6 MHz). In fact, 620 ps is ±0.2% of the clock period. Caution: When you are performing this type of measurement, double check the oscilloscope’s intrinsic jitter as you are measuring the sum of the jitter of the clock and the jitter of the oscilloscope. Here, the latter is far smaller.

TIME INTERVAL ERROR
Cycle-to-cycle is not the only way to measure jitter. In fact, this method is not the one stated by the definition of jitter I presented earlier. Cycle-to-cycle jitter is a measurement of the timing variation from one signal cycle to the next one, not between the signal and its “ideal” version. The jitter measurement closest to that definition is called time interval error (TIE). As its name suggests, this is a measure of a signal’s transitions actual time, as compared to its expected time (see Figure 4).

Figure 4—Time interval error (TIE) is another way to measure jitter. Here, the actual transitions are compared to a reference clock, which is supposed to be “perfect,” providing the TIE. This reference can be either another physical signal or it can be generated using a PLL. The measured signal’s accumulated plot, triggered by the reference clock, also provides the so-called eye diagram.

Figure 4—Time interval error (TIE) is another way to measure jitter. Here, the actual transitions are compared to a reference clock, which is supposed to be “perfect,” providing the TIE. This reference can be either another physical signal or it can be generated using a PLL. The measured signal’s accumulated plot, triggered by the reference clock, also provides the so-called eye diagram.

It’s difficult to know these expected times. If you are lucky, you could have a reference clock elsewhere on your circuit, which would supposedly be “perfect.” In that case, you could use this reference as a trigger source, connect the signal to be measured on the oscilloscope’s input channel, and measure its variation from trigger event to trigger event. This would give you a TIE measurement.

But how do you proceed if you don’t have anything other than your signal to be measured? With my previous example, I wanted to measure the jitter of a lab signal generator’s output, which isn’t correlated to any accessible reference clock. In that case, you could still measure a TIE, but first you would have to generate a “perfect” clock. How can this be accomplished? Generating an “ideal” clock, synchronized with a signal, is a perfect job for a phase-locked loop (PLL). The technique is explained my article, “Are You Locked? A PLL Primer” (Circuit Cellar 209, 2007.) You could design a PLL to lock on your signal frequency and it could be as stable as you want (provided you are willing to pay the expense).

Moreover, this PLL’s bandwidth (which is the bandwidth of its feedback filter) would give you an easy way to zoom in on your jitter of interest. For example, if the PLL bandwidth is 100 Hz, the PLL loop will capture any phase variation slower than 100 Hz. Therefore, you can measure the jitter components faster than this limit. This PLL (often called a carrier recovery circuit) can be either an actual hardware circuit or a software-based implementation.

So, there are at least two ways to measure jitter: Cycle-to-cycle and TIE. (As you may have anticipated, many other measurements exist, but I will limit myself to these two for simplicity.) Are these measurement methods related? Yes, of course, but the relationship is not immediate. If the TIE is not null but remains constant, the cycle-to-cycle jitter is null.  Similarly, if the cycle-to-cycle jitter is constant but not null, the TIE will increase over time. In fact, the TIE is closely linked to the mathematical integral over time of the cycle-to-cycle jitter, but this is a little more complex, as the jitter’s frequency range must be limited.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an article written by Robert Lacoste, “Analyzing a Case of the Jitters: Tips for Preventing Digital Design Issues,” Circuit Cellar 273, 2013.

Experimentation and Engineering

Frederic Vecoven is software engineer living in Luxembourg who enjoys experimenting with everything from his home’s central heating controller to FPGAs. He has been designing micrcontroller-based projects for more than a dozen years and is currently working on an EPROM emulator.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

 

NAN: What is your current occupation?

FREDERIC:: I am a software principal engineer at Oracle.

NAN: Your website Vecoven.com features projects involving capacitors, microcontrollers, and EEPROM and hardware emulators. Tell us a little about the projects and your design process.

vecovenFREDERIC: At work I design firmware for high-end servers. At home I like to design my own stuff, so I have full control and can create new devices and/or enhance existing ones. I work on various projects and I don’t find enough time to document all of them on the website. For example, I designed a controller for the central heating in my house, but never documented it (it’s too “custom”). I love retrocomputing, which is how my FreHD project started. This is a hard-drive emulator for TRS-80 computers.

My design process starts from an idea (I have too many, so I must carefully select one) then a lot of thinking about the future implementation (as always, designing something is about compromises). Once I have a clear view in my mind about how things should work, I start prototyping. If possible, I use a breadboard or I create a PCB. Sometimes I do a lot of simulation before starting the prototyping, as this will save a lot of time. However, that cannot be done for all projects.

NAN: How long have you been designing microcontroller-based systems?

FREDERIC: More than 15 years.

NAN: How did you become interested in technology?

FREDERIC: When I was 13 years old I fell in love with computers when I saw a TRS-80 model in high school. I am thankful to my parents, who gave me a computer one year later.
I went to college and got a master’s degree in computer science. But I wasn’t satisfied, so I studied some more years to get another master’s degree, this time in electrical engineering. The combination of software and hardware is really powerful. A few years later, I relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, but I am back in Europe now.

NAN: Describe the first embedded system you designed. Where were you at the time? What did you learn from the experience?

FREDERIC: My first big experience with a real embedded system was when I was working for Sun Microsystems. My group was writing the firmware for the system controllers of the SunFire 3800-6900 line. The embedded system was a small SPARC CPU running Wind River Systems’s VxWorks and the firmware was almost entirely written in Java.

NAN: What was the last electronics design-related product you purchased and how did you use it?

FREDERIC: I bought some FPGAs recently. I haven’t released any project with it yet, it is still a work in progress. My hobby time is very limited.

My idea is to use a CPU core and enhance it with new instructions to enable the generation of real-time signals. FPGAs are very powerful in that area, where a microcontroller would spend most of its time processing interrupts.

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

Vecoven_PWM

This is Frederic’s PWM prototype for his Roland Super JX synthesizer.

FREDERIC: Yes, I have rewritten the Roland JX-10/MKS-70 firmware from scratch because I wanted to add PWM waveforms. This quickly turned into a big project. Currently, the prototype setup involves a simulator running the “assigner” code on my laptop. The laptop sends the sound board commands in System Exclusive (SysEx) Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) messages, which go to a microcontroller that extracts the payload from the SysEx. The payload is then sent to the sound board, which believes it got its instructions directly from the assigner. The sound board (which runs its own microcontroller) uses an EPROM emulator connected over USB, so I can easily modify the assigner code (running in the simulator) or the sound board code (running in the EPROM emulator) without having to program any chip. Note that I didn’t have an EPROM emulator, so I designed mine.

Vecoven_scope

This oscilloscope capture shows the generated PWM signal.

FREDERIC: The power of CPUs and GPUs are really exciting. You can pretty much do everything with software now (a 32-bit core costs less than $5).
On the other side, people don’t pay enough attention to optimization, so I am sad anytime I see poorly written code. I am also excited with all the tools and hardware available today for so little cost. That wasn’t the case in the past, so it opens door to students and hobbyists.

NAN: Last question. Let’s say you had a full year and a nice budget to work on any embedded design project you wanted. Call it your “dream project.” What would it be?

FREDERIC: I would love to do some robotic design, but I am not an expert in mechanics and I don’t have the tools (e.g., lathe, milling machine, etc.). That would fill the gap: hardware, software, and mechanics.

Flexible I/O Expansion for Rugged Applications

WynSystemsThe SBC35-CC405 series of multi-core embedded PCs includes on-board USB, gigabit Ethernet, and serial ports. These industrial computers are designed for rugged embedded applications requiring extended temperature operation and long-term availability.

The SBC35-CC405 series features the latest generation Intel Atom E3800 family of processors in an industry-standard 3.5” single-board computer (SBC) format COM Express carrier. A Type 6 COM Express module supporting a quad-, dual-, or single-core processor is used to integrate the computer. For networking and communications, the SBC35-CC405 includes two Intel I210 gigabit Ethernet controllers with IEEE 1588 timestamping and 10-/100-/1,000-Mbps multispeed operation. Four Type-A connectors support three USB 2.0 channels and one high-speed USB 3.0 channel. Two serial ports support RS-232/-422/-485 interface levels with clock options up to 20 Mbps in the RS-422/-485 mode and up to 1 Mbps in the RS-232 mode.

The SBC35-CC405 series also includes two MiniPCIe connectors and one IO60 connector to enable additional I/O expansion. Both MiniPCIe connectors support half-length and full-length cards with screw-down mounting for improved shock and vibration durability. One MiniPCIe connector also supports bootable mSATA solid-state disks while the other connector includes USB. The IO60 connector provides access to the I2C, SPI, PWM, and UART signals enabling a simple interface to sensors, data acquisition, and other low-speed I/O devices.

The SBC35-CC405 runs over a 10-to-50-VDC input power range and operates at temperatures from –40°C to 85°C. Enclosures, power supplies, and configuration services are also available.

Linux, Windows, and other x86 OSes can be booted from the CFast, mSATA, SATA, or USB interfaces, providing flexible data storage options. WinSystems provides drivers for Linux and Windows 7/8 as well as preconfigured embedded OSes.
The single-core SBC35-CC405 costs $499.

Winsystems, Inc.
www.winsystems.com

High Electron Mobility Transistors

gold backgroundThe TPH3002LD and the TPH3002LS are 600-V Gallium nitride (GaN)-based, low-profile power quad flat no-lead (PQFN) high electron mobility transistors (HEMTs). The HEMTs utilize Transphorm’s patented, high-performance EZ-GaNTM technology, which combines low switching and conduction losses, reducing the overall system energy dissipation up to 50%.

The TPH3002PD and TPH3002PS HEMTs are designed for use in smaller, lower-power applications (e.g., adapters and all-in-one computer power supplies). The HEMTs feature a Kelvin connection to isolate the gate circuit from the high-current output circuit to further reduce electromagnetic interference (EMI) and high-frequency switching capabilities.
Evaluation boards are available with the devices.

Contact Transphorm for pricing.

Transphorm, Inc.
www.transphormusa.com

HackRVA: They provide the tools, you provide the enthusiasm

HackRVA Sign4HackRVA is a Richmond-based makerspace. They like to take things apart, put them back together, figure out how they work, and create new things. Their mission? To learn and make stuff sharing tools and knowledge in technology; including Arduino, Makerbot, Linux, and the Open Source movement.

Aaron Nipper will tell us a little more.

Location 1600 Roseneath Road, Suite E, Richmond, VA 23230
Members 65
Website www.hackrva.org

What’s your meeting space like? 

Our space is about 2,000 square feet. We have an AV and general meeting area, a tech lab, and a fab lab.

What’s in your “toolbox”?

  • Two 3D printers
  • Laser cutter
  • Lots of soldering stations
  • O-scopes
  • Hand and power tools
  • A computer lab

Are there any tools your group really wants or needs?

A CNC Router — like a shopbot. Can’t wait to build that first wiki-house!

Arduino, Raspberry Pi, embedded security… which embedded technologies does your group work with most frequently? 

We use all that stuff. Arduino, R-Pi, whatever we can get our hands on! We’ve designed, from scratch, PCB Badges for RichSec security conference the last three years. Click here to learn more about the PCB Badges project.

What have you been working on lately?

For the past three years, we’ve designed those PCB badges for the RichSec security conference. Here’s another recent build where a member took a Power Wheels and made it Xbox controller driven. Check out the video below or click here to read more about that project.

Do you have any events or initiatives you’d like to tell us about? Where can we learn more about them?

You can learn more about us at hackrva.org. We host the Richmond Maker Guild, have regular Saturday Hackathons, as well as a Noise Night. Members are always coming up with creative events!

Any words of advice for fellow hackers?

My personal motto is fail often, teach others, and post to the web. All those things help me learn and think about projects better.

Want to know more about what HackRVA does? Check out their Facebook page and website.

Show us your hackerspace! Tell us about your group! Where does your group design, hack, create, program, debug, and innovate? Do you work in a 20′ × 20′ space in an old warehouse? Do you share a small space in a university lab? Do you meet a local coffee shop or bar? What sort of electronics projects do you work on? Submit your hackerspace and we might feature you on our website!

EMC Measurement Technology

LangerSX near-field probes enable electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) analyses of interferences emitted by electronic boards, components, and IC pins with high internal frequencies. The SX-R3-1 magnetic H-field probe is designed to detect high-frequency magnetic fields with a high geometrical resolution. The field orientation and distribution can be detected by moving the probe around conductor runs, bypass capacitors, EMC components, and within IC pin and supply system areas. The SX-E03 E-field probe detects bus structures and larger components.

The probes have a 1-to-10-GHz frequency range. Their high resolution (the SX R3-1 achieves 1 mm and the SX E03 covers up to 4 mm × 4 mm) enables them to pinpoint RF sources on densely packed boards or on IC pins. The magnetic-field probe heads are electrically shielded. The probes are connected to a spectrum analyzer input via a shielded cable and SMA connectors during measurement. High clock rates of 2 GHz, for example, may result in fifth-order harmonics of up to 10 GHz. These harmonics are coupled out by RF sources on the board (e.g., conductor-run segments, ICs, and other components). They may stimulate other structural parts of the board to oscillate and emit interferences.

Contact Langer for pricing.

Langer EMV-Technik
www.langer-emv.com

Three Workspaces, Countless Projects

Clive “Max” Maxfield, who received his BSc in Control Engineering from Sheffield Hallam University in England in 1980, began his career designing CPUs for mainframe computers. But he has branched out far beyond that, becoming a prolific writer of engineering books, an EE Times editor, a blogger, and a designer of “interesting stuff,” from silicon chips to Steampunk “Display-O-Meters,” according to his website.

Max, who now lives in Huntsville, AL, recently shared with Circuit Cellar photos and descriptions of some of his ongoing projects and creative workspaces:

I would say that I have three personal workspaces. But before we talk about my workspaces, it might be appropriate to first mention two of my several projects, which vary from artistic to technological.

This is the future home of the Prognostication Engine.

This is the future home of the Prognostication Engine.

One of my projects that is currently in full swing is my Pedagogical and Phantasmagorical Inamorata Prognostication Engine. What do you mean “What’s that when it’s at home?” Isn’t it obvious?

Pedagogical = Educational
Phantasmagorical = It’s pretty darned fantastic
Inamorata = The woman with whom one is in love
Prognostication = Predicting the future
Engine = Machine

The Prognostication Engine is intended to help me predict my wife’s mood. Will the radiance of her smile fall upon me when I return home from work in the evening?

My Prognostication Engine is going to be housed in a beautiful wooden radio cabinet circa 1929. This is going to feature two brass control panels, both of which are going to be festooned with antique knobs and buttons and switches and analog meters (the ones with the black Bakelite bezels). I’m aiming at a Steampunk “look-and-feel” that would not look out of place in a Victorian setting.

One of the tricks I use when working on this type of project is to first create to-scale Visio drawings of all of the knobs, switches, meter, and so forth, and then I create a full-sized card-and-paper mockup as shown below. This makes it much easier to move things around and experiment with different placements so as to decide on the final layout.

The paper and card mockup of the Prognostication Engine's upper and low control panels

The paper and card mockup of the Prognostication Engine’s upper and low control panels

Observe the two small pink dots at the top and bottom of each of the vertically-oriented switches and on either side of the horizontally oriented switches and buttons; also the 16 pink dots around each of the five potentiometers. These are going to be faux mother-of-pearl dots, behind which will be tri-colored LEDs implemented using Adafruit’s individual Flora NeoPixels and NeoPixel Rings, respectively.

Everything is going to be controlled using an Arduino Mega microcontroller development board. Speaking of control, the potentiometers are going to be motorized, so that if an unauthorized operator tries to modify any of the settings, the other potentiometers will automatically change to compensate (later they will all surreptitiously return to their original settings).

Now observe the three black momentary push-buttons located on the lower panel, just under the modestly sized red button (do not press the red button). These equate to gifts of chocolates and flowers and hugs. Judicious use of these buttons increases the chances of happy times; overusing them, however, may trigger the “suspicion of wrongdoing” algorithm. In reality, there’s far too much “stuff” to go into here. Suffice it to say that the large meter in the top right-hand corner of the upper panel will reflect the full range of female emotion, from “Extremely Disgruntled” to “Fully Gruntled” (LOL).

Max has another project, dubbed “BADASS Display,” which was inspired by an item he saw in an electronics boutique-type store—a “really cool 9″ tall, cylindrical Bluetooth loudspeaker, whose outer surface was covered with tri-colored LEDs implementing a sort of spectrum analyzer display.”

While Max wasn’t interested in the $199.95 price, the “seed had been sown,” he says.

Thus was conceived my Bodacious Acoustic Diagnostic Astoundingly Superior Spectromatic (BADASS) display. First of all, I took a look around YouTube to get some ideas. It turns out that there are many different ways to present spectrographic data. For example, check out Gavin Curtis’ “My Big Blue 32 Band Audio Spectrum Analyzer Lady Gaga,”  RGB Styles’s “Coffee Table,” and Techmoan’s “Giant LED Graphic Music Display (DJ Spectrum Analyzer).”

I decided that the first incarnation of my display would boast a 16 x 16 array of tri-colored LEDs. I decided to use Adafruit’s NeoPixel Strips. Once again, I started by creating a cardboard and paper mockup as shown below.

Cardboard and paper mockup of the BADASS Display

Cardboard and paper mockup of the BADASS Display

The NeoPixel strips I’m using have 30 pixels per meter. I’m mounting these vertically, which means the vertical separation between adjacent pixels is 33.33 mm. To provide some visual interest, I decided to make the horizontal spacing between columns 50 mm, which is 1.5 times the vertical spacing.

In the real version, the cardboard will be replaced by plywood stained to look like expensive old wood. Meanwhile, the main display panel and the smaller control panel will be formed from hardboard painted to look like antique brass. In front of each pixel will be a 1″-diameter brass bezel accompanied by a 1/2″-diameter clear Fresnel lens in the center. The hardboard panels are going to be attached to the plywood panel using brass acorn nuts. Once again, the finished unit is intended to have a Steampunk look and feel.

I’m planning on using an Arduino Mega microcontroller development board to drive the display itself. This will be accompanied by a chipKIT Max32 microcontroller board that will be used to process the stereo audio stream and extract the spectrum data.

Max’s three project work areas include his office, his kitchen table, and his garage:

I would say that my first personal workspace is the Pleasure Dome (my office). Why do I think of this as a personal workspace? Theoretically I work out of a home office. In reality, however, I prefer to rent a room in a building belonging to an engineering company called MaxVision (no relation).

When you cross the office threshold, you enter a small corner of “Max’s World” (where the colors are brighter, the butterflies are bigger, the birds sing sweeter, and the beer is plentiful and cold). One of the walls is lined with wooden bookshelves containing an eclectic mix of science books, technical books, comics, and science fiction and fantasy books and graphic novels.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (Max's office)

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (Max’s office)

My office is also the repository for all of the antique knobs and switches and analog meters and large vacuum tubes and such that I collect on my travels for use in my projects. Also, I can store (and present) larger objects in the bay outside my office.

My second personal workspace is the kitchen table in the breakfast nook at our home. This is where I tend to implement the electronics portions of my projects. At the far end of the table in the image below we see the jig I constructed to hold the two brass control panels for my Inamorata Prognostication Engine project. On the floor in the right-hand side of the image is the tool box that contains my electronics tools including screwdrivers, snip, and suchlike. It also contains my test equipment in the form of a cheap-and-cheerful multimeter from Amazon, along with an iPad-based oscilloscope and an iPad-based logic analyzer, both from Oscium.

Max's kitchen table

Max’s kitchen table

Observe the plastic storage box on the nearside of the table. I have a separate storage box for each of my projects. Anything associated with a project that’s currently under construction is stored in that project’s box, including any notes I’ve made, any electronic components and their datasheets, and any mechanical parts such as nuts and bolts.

I tend to gather everything associated with a particular function or sub-unit together into smaller boxes or plastic Ziploc bags. In the case of my motorized potentiometers, for example, I have the potentiometers along with the appropriate nuts, washers, antique knobs and suchlike all gathered together. I cannot tell you how much time and frustration a bit of organization like this saves you in the long run. It also make it much easier to pack everything up when my wife, Gina, informs me that she needs the table cleared.

Below we see another view of the test jig I constructed to hold the two brass panels for the Prognostication Engine. Creating this jig only took an hour or so, but it makes life so much easier with regard to assembling the electronics and accessing everything while I’m in the prototyping and software experimentation phase of the project.

The test jig for the Prognostication Engine on the kitchen table

The test jig for the Prognostication Engine on the kitchen table

Max’s third personal workspace is his garage. When his family’s three vehicles are parked inside, his projects are packed away in a corner, including tools and tiles for a mosaic he is creating that will feature ceramic tiles fired in his recently purchased kiln.

Everything tucked away

Everything tucked away

The shelves covered in plastic sheet to the right are where I place my freshly-rolled clay tiles to gradually dry without cracking. The low-down rolling cabinet in the foreground contains all of my handheld ceramic equipment (shapers and scrapers and rolling pins whatnot) along with general protective gear like face masks and safety goggles. Each of the plastic boxes on top of this cabinet is associated with a currently in-progress project. Behind this cabinet is a red rolling tool cabinet, which contains any smaller power tools, clamps, screwdrivers, wrenches and spanners, and also my soldering station and magnifying lens with helping hands and suchlike. To the right of that tool cabinet is a door (not visible in this picture) to a built-in closet, where I keep my larger power tools such as a diamond saw, desktop grinder, router, and so forth.

On the weekends, Max’s garage space opens up as his stepson drives out in his truck and Max’s wife leaves for her real estate agent’s job. “As soon as she has left, I leap into action,” Max says. “I roll out my tool boxes, set up a folding table and chair, and start work on whatever it is I’m currently working on.”

Another little corner of Max's garage work area

Another little corner of Max’s garage work area

As he works on projects in his garage, Max says he is “happily listening to stuff like Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, Supertramp, Gentle Giant, The Moody Blues…”

The image below shows a close-up of the current state-of-play with regard to my BADASS Display. A week ago, I routed out the areas in the big plywood panel that will accommodate the hardboard display and control panels. In this image, I’m poised to mark out the hardboard panels and start drilling the mounting holes along with the 256 holes for the tri-state LEDs.

The BADASS Display

The BADASS Display

What can I say? Working on my hobby projects is a great way to wind down after a hard day at work, and being in any of my three personal workspaces makes me happy.

Max poised to give a presentation at the EELive! Conference in San Jose, CA, earlier this year

Max poised to give a presentation at the EELive! Conference in San Jose, CA, earlier this year

Editor’s Note: To find out more about Clive “Max” Maxfield, read his 2013 interview in Circuit Cellar. You can follow Max on Twitter @MaxMaxfield.

Build an Automated Vehicle Locator

Several things inspired Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Chris Coulston and his team at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, to create an online vehicle-tracking system. Mainly, the team wanted to increase ridership on a shuttle bus the local transit authority provided to serve the expanding campus. Not enough students were “on board,” in part because it was difficult to know when the bus would be arriving at each stop.

So Coulston’s team created a system in which a mobile GPS tracker on the bus communicates its location over a radio link to a base station. Students, professors, or anyone else carrying a smartphone can call up the bus tracker web page, find out the bus’ current location, and receive reliable estimates of the bus’ arrival time at each of its stops. Coulston, computer engineering student Daniel Hankewycz, and computer science student Austin Kelleher wrote an article about the system, which appears in our June issue.

Circuit Cellar recently asked Coulston if the system, implemented in the fall 2013 semester, had accomplished its goals and might be expanded.

“The bus tracker team is tracking usage of the web site using Google Analytics,” Coulston said. “The data reveals that we get on average 100 hits a day during cold weather and fewer on warmer days. Ridership has increased during this past year, helping assure the long-term presence of the shuttle on our campus.”

“Over winter break, shuttle service was increased to a distant location on campus,” he added. “In order to better track the location of the shuttle, a second base station was added. The additional base station required a significant rework of the software architecture. The result is that the software is more modular and can accept an arbitrary number of base stations. There are no plans at present to add a second bus—a good thing, because this change would require another significant rework of the software architecture.”

Initially, Coulston looked to other real-time vehicle trackers for inspiration: “There are a variety of live bus trackers that motivated my early ideas, including the University of Utah’s Live Tracker  and the Chicago Transit Authority’s CTA Bus Tracker. Given our single bus route on campus, I was motivated to keep the interface simple and clean to minimize the amount of time needed to figure out where the bus is and how long it’s going to take to get to my stop.”

The system, as it was originally implemented in August 2013, is fully described in the June issue, now available for single-issue purchase or membership download. The following article excerpt provides a broad overview and a description of the team’s hardware choices.

THE BIG PICTURE
Figure 1 shows the bus tracker’s hardware, which consists of three components: the user’s smartphone, the base station placed at a fixed location on campus, and the mobile tracker that rides around on the bus.

The bus tracking system includes a Digi International XTend radio, a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer.

Figure 1: The bus tracking system includes a Digi International XTend radio, a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer.

Early on, we decided against a cellular-based solution (think cell phone) as the mobile tracker. While this concept would have benefited from wide-ranging cellular coverage, it would have incurred monthly cellar network access fees. Figure 1 shows the final concept, which utilizes a 900-MHz radio link between the mobile tracker and the base station.

Figure 2 shows the software architecture running on the hardware from Figure 1. When the user’s smartphone loads the bus tracker webpage, the JavaScript on the page instructs the user’s web browser to use the Google Maps JavaScript API to load the campus map. The smartphone also makes an XMLHttpRequests request for a file on the server (stamp.txt) containing the bus’ current location and breadcrumb index.

Figure 2: The bus tracker’s software architecture includes a GPS, the mobile tracker, a smartphone, and the base station.

Figure 2: The bus tracker’s software architecture includes a GPS, the mobile tracker, a smartphone, and the base station.

This information along with data about the bus stops is used to position the bus icon on the map, determine the bus’ next stop, and predict the bus’ arrival time at each of the seven bus stops. The bus’ location contained in stamp.txt is generated by a GPS receiver (EM-408) in the form of an NMEA string. This string is sent to a microcontroller and then parsed. When the microcontroller receives a request for the bus’ location, it formats a message and sends it over the 900-MHz radio link. The base station compares the bus position against a canonical tour of campus (breadcrumb) and writes the best match to stamp.txt.

Early in the project development, we decided to collect the bus’ position and heading information at 2-s intervals during the bus’ campus tour. This collection of strings is called “breadcrumbs” because, like the breadcrumbs dropped by Hansel and Gretel in the eponymously named story, we hope they will help us find our way around campus. Figure 3 shows a set of breadcrumbs (b1 through b10), which were collected as the bus traveled out and back along the same road.

Figure 3: Breadcrumbs (b1 through b10) containing the bus’ position and orientation information were taken every 2 s during a test-run campus tour.

Figure 3: Breadcrumbs (b1 through b10) containing the bus’ position and orientation information were taken every 2 s during a test-run campus tour.

The decision to collect breadcrumbs proved fortuitous as they serve an important role in each of the three hardware components shown in Figure 1.

MOBILE TRACKER
The bus houses the mobile tracker (see Photo 1). Figure 4 shows the schematic, which is deceptively simple. What you see is the third iteration of the mobile tracker hardware.

Figure 4: The mobile tracker includes a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, a Micrel MIC5205 regulator, a Digi International XTend RF module, and a Texas Instruments TXS0102 bidirectional translator

Figure 4: The mobile tracker includes a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, a Micrel MIC5205 regulator, a Digi International XTend RF module, and a Texas Instruments TXS0102 bidirectional translator

An important starting point in the design was how to step down the bus’ 12-V supply to the 5-V required by our circuit. In terms of hardware, the best decision we made was to abandon the idea of trying to integrate a 12-to-5-V converter onto the mobile tracker PCB. Instead we purchased a $40 CUI VYB15W-T DC-DC converter and fed the mobile tracker 5-V inputs…

We used Micrel’s MIC5205 regulator to step down the 5 V for the 3.3-V GPS receiver, which easily supplied its peak 80 mA. Since we ran a Digi International XTend radio at 5 V for the best range, we ended up with mixed voltage signals. We used a Texas Instruments TXS0102 bidirectional voltage-level translator, which handles voltage-interfacing duties between the 5-V radio and the 3.3-V microcontroller.

The mobile tracker unit

Photo 1: The mobile tracker unit

We selected Microchip Technology’s PIC18F26K22 because it has two hardware serial ports, enabling it to simultaneously communicate with the GPS module and the radio modem when the bus is traveling around campus. We placed two switches in front of the serial ports. One switch toggles between the GPS module and the Microchip Technology PICkit 3 programming pins, which are necessary to program the microcontroller. The second switch toggles between the radio and a header connected to a PC serial port (via a Future Technology Devices FT232 USB-to-serial bridge). This is useful when debugging at your desk. An RGB LED in a compact PLCC4 package provides state information about the mobile tracker.

The XTend RF modules are the big brothers to Digi International’s popular XBee series. These radios come with an impressive 1 W of transmitting power over a 900-MHz frequency, enabling ranges up to a mile in our heavily wooded campus environment. The radios use a standard serial interface requiring three connections: TX, RX, and ground. They are simple to set up. You just drop them into the Command mode, set the module’s source and destination addresses, store this configuration in flash memory, and exit. You never have to deal with them again. Any character sent to the radio appears on the destination modem’s RX line.

The GPS receiver utilizes the CSR SiRFstarIII chipset, which is configured to output a recommended minimum specific (RMC) string every 2 s…

The mobile tracker’s firmware listens for commands over the serial port and generates appropriate replies. Commands are issued by the developer or by the base station…

Burning breadcrumbs into the mobile tracker’s flash memory proved to be a good design decision. With this capability, the mobile tracker can generate a simulated tour of campus while sitting on the lab bench.

BASE STATION
The base station consists of an XTend RF module connected to a Raspberry Pi’s serial port (see Photo 2). The software running on the Raspberry Pi does everything from running an Nginx open-source web server to making requests for data from the mobile tracker.

From Figure 1, the only additional hardware associated with the base station is the 900-MHz XTend radio connected to the Raspberry Pi over a dedicated serial port on pins 8 (TX) and 10 (RX) of the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header.

The only code that runs on the base station is the Python program, which periodically queries the mobile tracker to get the bus’ position and heading. The program starts by configuring the serial port in the common 9600,8,N,1 mode. Next, the program is put into an infinite loop to query the mobile tracker’s position every 2 s.

Photo 2: The base station includes an interface board, a Raspberry Pi, and a radio modem.

Photo 2: The base station includes an interface board, a Raspberry Pi, and a radio modem.

Q&A: Raspberry Pi Innovation

Orlando, FL-based web app developer and blogger Shea Silverman recently received Kickstarter funding for the latest version of PiPlay, his Raspberry Pi-based OS. Shea and I discussed his ongoing projects, his Raspberry Pi book, and what’s next for PiPlay.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

 

silverman

Shea Silverman

NAN: What is your current occupation?

SHEA: Web applications developer with the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

NAN: Why and when did you decide to start your blog?

SHEA: I’ve been blogging on and off for years, but I could never keep to a schedule or really commit myself to writing. After I started working on side projects, I realized I needed a place to store tips and tricks I had figured out. I installed WordPress, posted some PhoneGap tips, and within a day got a comment from someone who had the same issue, and my tips helped them out. I have been blogging ever since. I make sure to post every Friday night.

NAN: Tell us about PiPlay, the Raspberry Pi OS. Why did you start the OS? What new developments, if any, are you working on?

piplay-case

Shea’s PiPlay Raspberry Pi OS recently reached 400% funding on Kickstarter.

SHEA: PiPlay is a gaming and emulation distribution for the Raspberry Pi single-board computer. It is built on top of the Raspbian OS, and tries to make it as easy as possible to play games on your Raspberry Pi. My blog got really popular after I started posting binaries and tutorials on how to compile different emulators to the Raspberry Pi, but I kept getting asked the same questions and saw users struggling with the same consistent issues.

I decided I would release a disk image with everything preconfigured and ready to be loaded onto an SD card. I’ve been adding new emulators, games, and tools to it ever since.

I just recently completed a Kickstarter that is funding the next release, which includes a much nicer front end, a web GUI, and a better controller configuration system.

NAN: You wrote Instant Raspberry Pi Gaming. Do you consider this book introductory or is it written for the more experienced engineer?

SHEA: Instant Raspberry Pi Gaming is written like a cookbook with recipes for doing various tasks. Some of them are very simple, and they build up to some more advanced recipes. One of the easier tasks is creating your user account on the Pi Store, while the more advanced recipes have you working with Python and using an API to interact with Minecraft.

Readers will learn how to setup a Raspberry Pi, install and use various emulators and games, a bit about the Minecraft API, and common troubleshooting tips.

pitroller

The Pitroller is a joystick and buttons hooked up to the GPIO pins of a Raspberry Pi, which can act as a controller or keyboard for various emulators.

NAN: You are a member of FamiLAB, an Orlando, FL-based community lab/hackerspace. What types of projects have you worked on at the lab?

miniarcade

Disney director Rich Moore poses with Shea’s miniature arcade machine. The machine was based on Fix It Felix Jr. from Disney’s Wreck It Ralph.

SHEA: I spend a lot of time at the lab using the laser cutter. Creating a 2-D vector in Inkscape, and then watching it be cut out on a piece of wood or acrylic is really inspiring. My favorite project was making a little arcade machine featuring Fix It Felix Jr. from Wreck It Ralph. A marketing person from Disney was able to get it into the hands of the director Rich Moore. He sent me a bunch of pictures of himself holding my little arcade machine next to the full size version.

NAN: Give us a little background information. How did you become interested in technology?

SHEA: My mom always likes to remind me that I’ve been using computers since I was 2. My parents were very interested in technology and encouraged my curiosity when it came to computers. I always liked to take something apart and see how it worked, and then try to put it back together. As the years went on, I’ve devoted more and more time to making technology a major part of my life.

NAN: Tell us about the first embedded system you designed.

SHEA: I have a lot of designs, but I don’t think I’ve ever finished one. I’ll be halfway into a project, learn about something new, then cannibalize what I was working on and repurpose it for my new idea. One of the first embedded projects I worked on was a paintball board made out of a PICAXE microcontroller. I never got it small enough to fit inside the paintball marker, but it was really cool to see everything in action. The best part was when I finally had that “ah-ha!” moment, and everything I was learning finally clicked.

NAN: What was the last electronics-design related product you purchased and what type of project did you use it with?

SHEA: At UCF, one of our teams utilizes a ticket system for dealing with requests. Our department does a hack day each semester, so my coworker and I decided to rig up a system that changes the color of the lights in the office depending on the urgency of requests in the box. We coded up an API and had a Raspberry Pi ping the API every few minutes for updates. We then hooked up two Arduinos to the Raspberry Pi and color-changing LED strips to the Arduinos. We set it up and it’s been working for the past year and a half, alerting the team with different colors when there is work to do.

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

SHEA: My Kickstarter for PiPlay just finished at 400% funding. So right now I’m busy working on fulfilling the rewards, and writing the latest version of PiPlay.

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

SHEA: Wearable computing. Google Glass, the Pebble smart watch, Galaxy Gear—I think these are all great indicators of where our technology is heading. We currently have very powerful computers in our pockets with all kinds of sensors and gadgets built in, but very limited ways to physically interact with them (via the screen, or a keypad). If we can make the input devices modular, be it your watch, a heads-up display, or something else, I think that is going to spark a new revolution in user experiences.

June Issue: Vehicle Tracking, Bit Banging, and More

Circuit Cellar’s June issue is now online, outlining DIY projects ranging from an automated real-time vehicle locator to a  GPS-oriented solar tracker and offering solid advice on bit banging, FPGA reconfiguration, customizing the Linux kernel, and more.

June issueA persistent problem typically sparks the invention of projects featured in our magazine. For example, when the campus at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, had a growth spurt, the local transit authority provided a shuttle bus to help students who were rushing from class to class. But ridership was low because of the bus’ unpredictable schedule.

So a college engineering team constructed a mobile application to track the bus. That system inspired the cover of our June issue and complements its communications theme.

The three-part system consists of a user’s smartphone running a HTML5-compatible browser, a base station consisting of an XTend 900-MHz radio connected to a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, and a mobile tracker including a GPS receiver, a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, and an XTend module.

The Raspberry Pi runs a web server to handle requests from a user’s smartphone. The user then receives accurate bus arrival times.

Also aligning with June’s theme, we present an article about implementing serial data transmission through bit banging. You’ll gain a better understanding of how serial data is transmitted and received by a microprocessor’s hardware UART peripheral. You’ll also learn how bit banging can achieve serial communication in software, which is essential when your embedded system’s microprocessor lacks a built-in UART.

Recognizing a rapidly unfolding communications trend, this issue includes an inventor’s essay about how the presence of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) in the latest mobile devices is sparking a big boom in innovative hardware/sensor add-ons that use your smartphone or tablet as an interface. Other communications-related articles include Part 2 of a close look at radio-frequency identification (RFID). This month’s installment describes the front-end analog circuitry for the RFID base station of a secure door-entry project.

In addition, we offer articles about adjusting your FPGA design while it’s operating, modifying the Linux kernel to suit your hardware and software designs, tools and techniques to boost your power supply, digital data encoding in wireless systems, GPS orientation of a solar panel, and an interview with Quinn Dunki, an embedded applications consultant and hacker.

The June issue is available for membership download or single-issue purchase.

Integrated Wi-Fi System in Package Module

EconaisThe EC19W01 is a small, smart, highly integrated 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi system in package (SiP) module. The module is well suited for home automation and smart appliances; Wi-Fi audio speakers and headphones; wireless sensors and sensor networks; wireless monitoring (audio and video); smart appliances; health care and fitness devices; wearable devices; security, authentication, and admittance control; lighting; building/energy/industrial management/control; cloud-connected devices; remote control, data acquisition, and monitoring; and machine-to-machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) design.

The EC19W01’s features include an integrated 32-bit processor to support application customization, on-board flash and antenna, low power consumption, support for Serial-to-Wi-Fi and SPI-to-Wi-Fi, wireless transmit/receive rates of up to 20 Mbps, and a small 14-mm × 16-mm × 2.8-mm footprint.

Contact Econais for pricing.

Econais, Inc.
www.econais.com

DIY Single-Board Computer (EE Tip #131)

In the early 1990s, nostalgic users wrote software emulators to relive the “vintage” experience of their old Commodore 64 or Apple II. Others preferred the actual hardware and began collecting classic computers. As their old machines occasionally broke down, people began cultivating the art of computer diagnosis and repair into a new form of retrocomputing.

RETROCOMPUTING
Next to software emulation and hardware maintenance, a third strain of retrocomputing has emerged: designing and building your own system from a “bag of chips” and a circuit board. It is easy to create a functional computer on a little circuit board—considering all the information now available on the Internet. These retro machines may not have much practical use, but the learning experience can be tremendously valuable (see Photo 1).

Photo 1—Here is a homebrew N8VEM system with a single-board computer (SBC) and disk/IDE card plugged into the ECB backplane. The ECB card on the far right is a bus monitor, which adds classic “blinkenlights” to the system. In front is a vintage-style hex keyboard/monitor. (Photo courtesy of Nik Brisevac, The N8VEM Home Brew Computer Project)

Photo 1—Here is a homebrew N8VEM system with a single-board computer (SBC) and disk/IDE card plugged into the ECB backplane. The ECB card on the far right is a bus monitor, which adds classic “blinkenlights” to the system. In front is a vintage-style hex keyboard/monitor. (Photo courtesy of Nik Brisevac, The N8VEM Home Brew Computer Project)

Hobbyists with no background in electronics somehow pick up the required skills, and they often share their homebrewing experiences online. Although some of their creations are stunningly exotic, most people build simple machines. They use a CPU and add RAM, ROM, a serial port, and maybe an IDE interface for mass storage. And most hobbyists run either BASIC (e.g., the 1980s home computers) or use a “vintage” OS such as CP/M.

Running CP/M, in fact, is a nice target to work toward. A lot of good software ensures your homebrew computer can do something interesting once it is built. As the predecessor of MS-DOS, CP/M also provides a familiar command-line interface. And it is simple. A few days of study are enough to port it to your circuit board.

Still, one challenge remains: If you want homebrewing to be an enduring hobby instead of a one-off project, you should have some perspective beyond putting together a minimal computer and switching it on. Working on your own, it can become progressively more difficult to take the next steps (i.e., building graphics subsystems or using exotic processors) or to add state-of-the-art microcontrollers to create “Frankenstein” systems (i.e., blends of old and new technology that can do something useful, such as automate your home).

This is where the N8VEM Google group comes in. In 2006, Andrew Lynch published his own single-board CP/M design to engage and involve others. He intended the N8VEM (named after his ham radio license) to be expandable with add-on cards. Soon after, an informal collaborative effort emerged around a Google mail group. A website was set up to share the hardware and software produced.

Builders with a range of skills became involved, from well-known systems builders to beginners. They bought Lynch’s $20 circuit board and ordered the required electronic components and a soldering iron from an online electronics distributor. After two days of wielding the soldering iron, they could create a CP/M computer that uses ROM and RAM disks for storage and has plenty of built-in vintage software.

The design can be expanded into a “powerful” (we use the term lightly here) multiprocessor system with “blinkenlights,” hard disks, graphics subsystems, and various OSes. People also started to build miniaturized variants, PC/XT clones, and 32-bit machines.

However, N8VEM is not about soldering kits. It is about joining in, trying new things, and picking up skills along the way. These skills range from reading schematics to debugging a computer card that does not operate as intended. The learning curve may be steep at times, but, because the N8VEM mail group is very active, expert help is available if or when you get stuck.

There is nothing preventing you from plugging in your own CPU board design. But if you do, you’re not forced to develop all the other expansion boards on your own.

As the novelty of designing a simple single-board computer (SBC) wears off, you may prefer to focus your energy on exploring graphics systems or ways to hook up 8-bit machines on the Internet. Or, you may want to jump into systems software development and share your experiences with a few hundred others. Retrocomputing is not always backward-facing. Making “Frankenstein” systems by adding modern Parallax Propeller chips or FPGAs to old hardware is a nice way to gain experience in modern digital electronics, too.

Photo 2—This is the N8VEM in its $20 stand-alone incarnation. Even without any other boards, this SBC provides sufficient I/O and storage options to be a full-fledged CP/M computer.

Photo 2—This is the N8VEM in its $20 stand-alone incarnation. Even without any other boards, this SBC provides sufficient I/O and storage options to be a full-fledged CP/M computer.

THE N8VEM SBC
At 10-cm × 16-cm (roughly 4” × 6”), the N8VEM computer does not look particularly impressive (see Photo 2). However, it provides all the capabilities of an early 1980s commercial microcomputer. In fact, thanks to CP/M, it is software-compatible with those microcomputers, offering a range of good programming languages (e.g., BASIC, C, Pascal, and Assembler). Excellent editors (e.g., ZDE) and word processors (e.g., WordStar) are also available. You could also run simple spreadsheets, databases and interactive games (e.g., Zork).

The small-sized N8VEM makes one concession to modern-day electronics: It uses a single, high-capacity RAM chip. All the other electronics are components that would have been used “back in the day” (e.g., simple 74LS logic chips, a Z80 microprocessor, and classic interface chips). A battery backs up the N8VEM’s memory; therefore, the RAM disk is a practical storage mechanism, especially because a ROM disk comes with most essential software installed. Use the N8VEM with a serial terminal, or (more likely) with a PC terminal program. The XMODEM protocol enables files to be transferred to and from the N8VEM.

GETTING STARTED: BOOKS AND TOOLS
Homebrewing is straightforward once you figure out how to do things. That is why homebrewing as a group is so practical. Still, two pieces of background information will prove indispensable for any builder: an understanding of basic computer hardware and Assembly language. Reading up on these topics will not only make things easier, but will also help you understand what you are putting together. (See the Resources section at the end of this article for helpful information.)

Only a few tools are necessary. Although, for many, building an electronics lab is part of the fun. A good soldering iron, an inexpensive “solder sucker” to correct mistakes, and a multi-meter are absolute requirements. A secondhand oscilloscope is a useful additional tool. A logic analyzer can also be a big help by enabling you to simultaneously inspect multiple signals and determine what is wrong. Old logic probes are expensive and cumbersome. New designs (e.g., Saleae’s Logic 8-channel USB logic analyzer) are inexpensive and better.

At some point you will need an EPROM programmer, unless you want to depend on others to burn EPROMs for you. Ensure you have a programmer that can deal with a range of (E)EPROMs, as N8VEM boards use many types. Finally, a laboratory power supply is a wise investment, mostly because it has a current limiter that cuts power when a short circuit could otherwise blow up your board.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an article written by Oscar Vermeulen and Andrew Lynch, “DIY Single-Board Computers (Part 1): Design and Expansion Options,”
Circuit Cellar 276, 2013.

Q&A: Embedded Applications Consultant and Hacker Quinn Dunki

Quinn Dunki is more than just a hacker. This Los Angeles, CA-based embedded applications consultant and software game developer enjoys working on her homebrew 8-bit computer and dreams of a future filled with hackerspace-type libraries.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

 

NAN: Tell us about your computer game company, One Girl, One Laptop Productions. How did the company begin?

Quinn Dunki

Quinn Dunki

QUINN: I had been in the AAA games industry for most of my career. I’ve been making games in my spare time since I was six years old, but the “actually-getting-paid-for-it” time started in the 1990s with the Nintendo 64.

I’ve written games on everything from the Apple II to the Playstation 3. I worked at various companies including Bungie Studios and 3DO.

My longest stint was eight good years at a small studio called Pandemic in Los Angeles, CA. In 2009, the company was in financial trouble and was sold to Electronic Arts with the intention it would keep it going. Electronic Arts opted to close the studio down shortly thereafter. We got some severance with our walking papers, and I decided to spin that money into One Girl, One Laptop Productions

This was just at the tail end of the initial gold rush on Apple’s iOS platform, and it still seemed like there was money to be made there. Unfortunately, there was subsequently a mad rush to the bottom on pricing for iPhone games. Before I could establish a presence, the space got very crowded almost overnight. Low-volume, high-quality indie games became financially unviable (though I think they’re coming back now). I still do independent game development on the side, but my primary business now is consulting and hired-gun engineering for other companies needing mobile or embedded applications.

Quinn has two workspaces. She uses this one for the “small clean stuff.”

Quinn has two workspaces. She uses this one for the “small clean stuff.”

Quinn’s other workspace is used for the “big dirty stuff.”

NAN: Describe some of the software One Girl, One Laptop Productions develops. Do you have a favorite?

QUINN: As much as I love games, my true love is engineering itself. My favorite projects always end up being the ones with the most complex challenges. I don’t think I could pick just one.

A good recent example is the Olloclip, which is a combination photography app and lens attachment for the iPhone. The main killer feature is real-time barrel distortion correction that made for some very interesting development challenges.

Much like game consoles, working on mobile devices is often about taking a well-understood algorithm and making it work on a platform so small that nobody thinks it will be possible. On AAA games, I used to try and build complex artificial intelligence (AI) systems that ran in 3 ms of frame time. Now I’m trying to cram gigabyte-scale image processing systems into devices with little memory, minimal graphics processing units (GPUs), and slow CPUs. They are similar challenges with completely different contexts. Some days it feels like you’re trying to model high-energy particle physics on a washing machine, but it’s a great when you finally do solve a problem like that. It’s the engineering of the thing that’s exciting, whatever that thing is this week.

Another favorite has been the ICEdot project. It’s a health and safety sensor system that works with your mobile device and is targeted at athletes and coaches. It’s a fun mix of mobile and embedded systems development and it has pushed my skill set into a number of new areas—in particular, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which is an exciting new technology. ICEdot is on the bleeding edge of that, and it’s been a big challenge to use it in the real world.

NAN: What types of projects did you work on while you were a Senior Engineer at Pandemic Studios?

QUINN: I started my tenure there on a squad tactics training simulator Pandemic was building for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM), an experimental technology branch of the US Army. It’s a long story, but that simulator was later spun into a series of Xbox games called Full Spectrum Warrior.

The biggest project I worked on was an open-world game set in World War II called Saboteur. Unlike the usual shooter format the WWII genre is littered with, this was a third-person action-adventure game with a noir art style. Saboteur was a hugely ambitious project, and the awesome team there solved some very big challenges. We did things with physics, rendering, AI, clambering, animation, toolchains, content streaming, and game design that no game had done before. As so often happens with AAA games, the marketing budget was pulled at the last moment, so you can add it to the long list of “Greatest Games That Nobody Played.”

NAN: Your blog-style website BlondiHacks features hacking projects involving everything from development boards to two-layer PCB etching. Tell us about the types of projects you enjoy hacking.

QUINN: BlondiHacks is my outlet for whatever whim that comes to mind as far as hacking. I think hacking is more than a hobby—it’s kind of a way of life. It’s about shaping your environment to be what you think it should be. It’s about saving things from landfills and giving new life to forgotten or underappreciated artifacts. It’s part creativity, part environmentalism, part self-reliance, and all good times.

It’s fun to talk about stuff you’re doing, but most of my flights of fancy are so obscure or odd that only a select few would find them interesting. The power of the Internet is that it connects all of us oddballs to each other. Hence, BlondiHacks.

NAN: How did you become interested in technology?

QUINN: I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested, honestly, so that transition must have occurred before my brain was retaining memories. What age is that? Three? Four?
I may have been born with a multimeter in my hand (though my mom would probably have noted that in the medical report). My mom likes to say, the day they brought the Apple II into the house (when I was around age five) I crawled up on the stool and haven’t moved since.

To prolong her toothbrush’s life, Quinn replaced a toothbrush battery with a nickel–cadmium battery and added wires to the old battery’s PCB mount points.

To prolong her toothbrush’s life, Quinn replaced a toothbrush battery with a nickel–cadmium battery and added wires to the old battery’s PCB mount points.

NAN: What was your first project?

QUINN: That’s difficult to say, since my life is a series of endless overlapping projects. As soon as I was old enough to hold a soldering iron, I built a lot of things from the seminal Forrest Mims book RadioShack sold. You know the one: Getting Started in Electronics.
That book was my bible for many years. I remember hacking a remote-control truck to have headlights and speed control. I remember building a working guillotine for a school project about the French Revolution. It was 4’ tall and genuinely dangerous. I carried it on the bus and demonstrated it on bourgeoisie bananas in class. I don’t imagine kids would get away with that today.

More recently, my interest in hacking was probably rekindled with the simple act of replacing the “non-user-serviceable” battery in a very expensive toothbrush (see “Toothbrush Repair”). That was five years ago, and I’m still using that toothbrush today. To me, that’s the purest essence of hacking right there—fixing the one weakness in a product that would have otherwise halved its useful life.

Quinn’s homebrew computer, Veronica, includes a clock circuit and a CPU. The breadboard is shown.

Quinn’s homebrew computer, Veronica, includes a clock circuit and a CPU. The breadboard is shown.

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

QUINN: My biggest hobby project recently has been my homebrew computer, Veronica (see “Veronica”). The Apple II I mentioned was very formative for me, and [Apple Computer founder] Steve Wozniak was a bit of a hero figure. My whole life, I wanted to know how one person could just sit down and create something like that.

A couple of years ago, with no formal training in electrical engineering, I decided to see if I could do it. Veronica is the result, and it was the fulfillment of a lifelong goal to build a functioning, usable, 8-bit computer from scratch, complete with video graphics array (VGA) bitmapped video, a keyboard, game controllers, and built-in Pong.

Today, my most active project is repairing, restoring, and modifying an early 1990s Bally/Williams pinball machine called Johnny Mnemonic (see “Johnny”). Anyone who likes hacking should be into pinball machines. They are wonderlands of mechanical systems, electronics, software, and game theory all rolled into one. They are also bottomless pits of hacking and tinkering potential (not to mention money pits and time sinks).

Another big ongoing project is our 24 Hours of LeMons race team. The short version is that it’s a (very) low-budget form of endurance auto racing that involves a whole lot of hacking of all kinds. That’s probably an entire interview unto itself, but I feel I should at least mention it, since it’s such a big part of my hacking time.

Quinn is in the process of hacking a Bally/Williams Johnny Mnemonic pinball machine. This photo shows the machine’s circuitry.

Quinn is in the process of hacking a Bally/Williams Johnny Mnemonic pinball machine. This photo shows the machine’s circuitry.

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

QUINN: One “big idea“ that has been put forward that I’m excited about is the notion of hackerspaces replacing public libraries. The Internet is gradually replacing the role of pure information access that libraries have served. It has been suggested that access to high-end technology creation tools is the next such area where playing field leveling is required. Anyone wanting to improve their station in life by executing their ideas in a high-tech world will need access to CNC machines, 3-D printers, machine tools, high-end computer-aided design (CAD), video production software, and so forth.

Libraries are generally well located and already equipped with things such as fire exits, sprinkler systems, and commercial-grade electrical. Converting some libraries into hackerspaces sounds to me like a terrific use of public funds. It’s a bit “pie in the sky,” but places like Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, and North Logan, UT, are already experimenting with the idea. This is like hacking democracy itself, and I love it.