Test Under Real Conditions (EE Tip #137)

The world’s best engineers have one thing in common: they’re always learning from their mistakes. We asked Niagara College professor and long-time contributor Mark Csele about his biggest engineering-related mistake. He responded with the following interesting insight about testing under real conditions.

Mark Csele's complete portable accelerometer design, which he presented in Circuit Cellar 266.  with the serial download adapter. The adapter is installed only when downloading data to a PC and mates with an eight pin connector on the PCB. The rear of the unit features three powerful rare-earth magnets that enable it to be attached to a vehicle.

Mark Csele’s complete portable accelerometer design, which he presented in Circuit Cellar 266. with the serial download adapter. The adapter is installed only when downloading data to a PC and mates with an eight pin connector on the PCB. The rear of the unit features three powerful
rare-earth magnets that enable it to be attached to a vehicle.

Trusting simulation (or, if you prefer, lack of testing under real conditions). I wrote the firmware for a large three-phase synchronous control system. The code performed amazingly well in the lab, and no matter what stimulus was applied, it always produced correct results. When put into operation in the field (at a very large industrial installation), it failed every 20 minutes or so, producing a massive (and dangerous) step-voltage output! I received a call from a panicked engineer on-site, and after an hour of diagnosis, I asked for a screenshot of the actual power line (which was said to be “noisy,” but we knew this ahead of time) only to be shocked at how noisy. Massive glitches appeared on the line many times larger than the AC peak and crossing zero several times, causing no end of problems. Many hours later (the middle of the morning), the software was fixed with a new algorithm that compensated for such “issues.” This was an incredibly humbling experience: I wasn’t nearly as smart as I had thought, and I really missed the boat on testing. I tested the system under what I thought were realistic conditions, whereas I really should have spent time investigating what the target grid really looked like.—Mark Csele, CC25 (anniversary issue)

High Dynamic-Range Audio Processor

STMicroelectronics recently introduced a new digital audio processor with greater than 100-dB SNR and Dynamic Range. The device can process most digital input formats including 6.1/7.1 channel and 192-kHz, 24-bit DVD audio and DSD/SACD. When configured in a 5.1 application, its additional two channels can be used to supply audio line-out or headphone drive.

Source: STMicroelectronics

Source: STMicroelectronics

The STA311B is a single chip solution for digital audio processing and control in multichannel applications, providing FFXTM (Full Flexible Amplification) compatible outputs. Together with a FFXTM power amplifier it can provide high-quality, high-efficiency, all-digital amplification.

The chip accepts digitized audio input information in either I2S (left or right justified), LSB or MSB first, with word lengths of 16, 18, 20 and 24 bits. Its pop-noise removal feature does not discriminate against the music genre but instead prevents any audible transients or pops finding their way through to the power amp where they may damage the speakers. Device control is via an I2C interface. The STA311B embeds eight audio-processing channels with up to 10 independent user-selectable bi-quadratic filters per channel to allow easy implementation of tone and music genre equalization templates. It is capable of input and output mixing with multi-band dynamic range compression. The chip also has input sampling frequency auto-detection, input/output RMS metering and employs pulse-width modulated output channels.

The STA311B is supplied in an 8.0 × 8.0 × 0.9 mm VFQFPN package.

[via Elektor]

Fanless Small Form Factor PC System

HABEYThe BIS-3922 improves on HABEY’s BIS-6922 system by offering additional I/O for more applications and solutions. The system is well suited for automation, digital signage, network security, point of sale, transportation, and digital surveillance applications.
The BIS-3922 system includes six DB9 COM ports on the front panel, one of which supports RS-232/-422/-485. HABEY’s proprietary ICEFIN design ensures maximum heat dissipation and a true fanless system.

The BIS-3922 system is built with the Intel QM77 chipset and is compatible with the third-generation Ivy Bridge Core processors. The BIS-3922 system’s additional features include a HM77 chipset that supports third-generation Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors; dual gigabit Ethernet ports; High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), video graphics array (VGA), and low-voltage differential signaling (LVDS) display interfaces; one mini-PCI Express (PCIe) and one mSATA expansion; and a 3.5” single-board computer (SBC) form factor.

Contact HABEY for pricing.


3400-F Ultracapacitor

Maxwell Technologies has announced the addition of a 2.85-V, 3400-F cell to its K2 family of ultracapacitors. It is the most powerful cell available in the industry-standard, 60-mm cylindrical form factor. Incorporating Maxwell’s DuraBlue Advanced Shock and Vibration technology, it is a rugged cell that’s suitable for high-energy storage in demanding environments (e.g., in public transit vehicles).maxwell

The electrostatic charge can be cycled over a million times without performance degradation. The cells can also provide extended power and energy for long periods of propulsion in automotive subsystems and give fast response in UPS/Backup Power and grid applications to ensure critical information is not lost during dips, sags, and outages in the main power source. In addition, they can relieve batteries of burst power functions, thereby reducing costs and maximizing space and energy efficiency.

The K2 family of cells work in tandem with batteries for applications that require both a constant power discharge for continual function and a pulse power for peak loads. In these applications, the ultracapacitor relieves batteries of peak power functions resulting in an extension of battery life and a reduction of overall battery size and cost. The cells are available with threaded terminals or with compact, weldable terminals.

[via Elektor]

Wearable Medical Computing and the Amulet Project

Health care is one of the most promising areas for employing wearable devices. Wearable mobile health sensors can track activities (e.g., count steps or caloric expenditure), monitor vital signs including heart rate and blood pressure, measure biometric data (e.g., glucose levels and weight), and provide alerts to medical emergencies including heart failures, falls, and shocks.

Applying wearable computing to support mobile health (mHealth) is promising but involves significant risks. For instance, there are security issues related to the reliability of the devices and sensors employed, the accuracy of the data collected, and the privacy of sensitive information.

The Amulet bracelet-style prototype for developers enables users to control its settings

The Amulet bracelet-style prototype for developers enables users to control its settings

Under the federally funded Amulet project, an interdisciplinary team of Dartmouth College and Clemson University researchers is investigating how wearable devices can effectively address medical problems while ensuring wearability, usability, privacy, and security for mHealth applications. The project aims to develop pieces of “computational jewelry” and a software framework for monitoring them. This computational jewelry set comprises wearable mobile health devices collectively named Amulet. An Amulet device could be worn as a discreet pendant or bracelet that would interact with other wearable health sensors that constitute the wearer’s wireless body-area network (WBAN). The Amulet device would serve as a “hub,” tracking health information from wearable health sensors and securely sending data to other health devices or medical professionals.

The project’s goals are multifold. Regarding the hardware, we’re focusing on designing small and unobtrusive form factors, efficient power sources, and sensing capabilities. With respect to the software, we’re concentrating on processing and interpreting the digital signs coming from the sensors, effectively communicating and synchronizing data with external devices, and managing encrypted data.

Amulet’s multiprocessor hardware architecture includes an application processor that performs computationally intensive tasks and a coprocessor that manages radio communications and internal sensors. Amulet’s current prototypes contain an accelerometer and a gyroscope to monitor the wearer’s motion and physical activities, a magnetometer, a temperature sensor, a light sensor, and a microphone. To save power, the application processor is powered off most of the time, while the coprocessor handles all real-time device interactions.

By employing event-driven software architecture, Amulet enables applications to survive routine processor shutdowns. Amulet is reactive, running only when an event of interest occurs. To handle such events, programmers can define their application as a finite-state machine and set appropriate functions. Amulet’s architecture enables applications to identify the computational states that should be retained between events. Explicitly managing program state (rather than implicitly managing state in a thread’s run-time stack) enables the run-time system to efficiently save the application state to persistent memory and power down the main processor without harming applications.

Amulet provides a secure solution that ensures the accuracy and the integrity of the data sensed and transmitted, continuous availability of the services provided (e.g., data sensing and processing and sending alerts and notifications), and access to the device’s data and services only by authorized parties after their successful authentication. Two key features enable Amulet to provide security in mHealth applications: sandboxing and the authorization manager. The former enforces access control, protects memory, and restricts the execution of event handlers. The latter enables applications to run small tasks until their completion, managing all resources by receiving requests and forwarding them to a corresponding service manager.

Amulet also aims to protect privacy, enabling users to control what is sensed and stored, where it is stored, and how it is shared (with whom). Amulet devices use privacy policies to protect patients’ sensitive information, which ensures confidentiality through authorized access and controlled sharing.

To guarantee easy wearability, the Amulet team focuses on understanding the user’s wishes, needs, and requirements and translating them into appropriate design decisions. Amulet provides a list of principles and guidelines for wearability, which will aid designers in providing high levels of comfort, aesthetics, ergonomics, and discretion in their projects.

Amulet includes a framework to support stakeholders involved in similar projects during all phases of development. It is intended to aid developers and designers from industry or academia. Amulet provides a general-purpose solution for body-area mobile health, complementing the capabilities of a smartphone and facilitating the development of applications that integrate one or more mHealth wearable devices.

Amulet also provides intuitive interfaces and interaction methods for user input and output, employing multimodal approaches that include gestures and haptics. Amulet has developed and continues to refine bracelet-style prototypes with a variety of envisioned applications, including: emergency responders (e.g., providing immediate notifications and quick responses in medical emergencies), stress monitoring, smoking cessation, diet (e.g., bite counting), and physical therapy (e.g., knee sensors).

Dr. Vivian Genaro Motti

Dr. Vivian Genaro Motti


Dr. Vivian Genaro Motti holds a PhD in Human Computer Interaction from the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Computing at Clemson University in Clemson, SC. She works on the Amulet project, which is funded by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Computer Systems Research program. As part of the Amulet project, Vivian is investigating how to properly ensure wearability and privacy in wearable applications for mobile health. Vivian has a BA in Biomedical Informatics and an MS in Human Computer Interaction from University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Her main research interests are human computer interaction, medical applications, wearable devices and context awareness.

This appears in Circuit Cellar 288, July 2014.