About Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson is Circuit Cellar's Managing Editor. You can reach her at mwilson@circuitcellar.com and @mgeditor_cc.

A Timely Look at RFID Technology

Most of us have had that annoying experience of setting off an alarm as we leave a store because one item in our bags has a still-active radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag. So it’s back to the cashier for some deactivation (or to security for some questioning).

Retailers love RFID, for obvious reasons. So do other industries and governments dealing with limiting building access; tracking goods, livestock and people; collecting highway tolls and public transit fares; checking passports; finding airport baggage; managing hospital drug inventory… The list goes on and on.

RFIDRFID is a big business, and it is anticipated to grow despite concerns about privacy issues. Market researcher IDTechEx recently estimated that the RFID market—including tags, readers, and software and services for RFID labels, fobs, cards, and other form factors—will hit $9.2 billion in 2014 and increase to $30.24 billion in 2024.

So it’s good timing for columnist Jeff Bachiochi’s series about passive RFID tagging. Part 1 appears in Circuit Cellar’s May issue and focuses on read-only tags and transponder circuitry. It also hints at Bachiochi’s unfolding RFID project.

Other May issue highlights include DIY project articles describing an MCU-based trapdoor lift system, a customizable approach to an ASCII interface for sending commands to a sensor tool and receiving data, and a solar-powered home automation controller that enables household-device management and cloud connectivity to log temperature, energy use, and other data.

In addition, our columnists explore low-power wireless data receivers, testing and analyzing old and new batteries in a personal collection, and designing data centers to participate in smart-grid power management.

If you are a female engineer in search of some inspiration, read our interview with embedded systems expert Elecia White. Also, find out why new technology means a bright future for LEDs in emissive microdisplays.

A Engineering Workspace with Cost-Effective Solid Equipment

Engineering consultant Steve Hendrix of Sagamore Hills, OH, says the “corporate headquarters” of Hx Engineering, LLC, pictured below, “is pure function, minimal form, and barely fits.”

This basement workspace reflects Steven's diverse projects and clients.

This basement workspace reflects Steve’s diverse projects and clients.

It’s a home basement workspace that reflects a variety of projects and clients. “I do a range of design work, from transistor-level hardware design through microcontrollers and FPGAs, as well as the embedded firmware and PC-side software to run the products,” Steve says. “Most of my clients are small to medium businesses in northeast Ohio, although I’ve done designs for companies as far west as New Mexico, as far south as Florida, and as far east as Cypress.”

Steve describes a workspace layout that stresses utility and a certain attention to thriftiness:

As I look through my equipment, probably the central theme is cost-effective solid equipment, without necessarily being the ‘first kid on the block.’ I learned long ago to be the second kid on the block with the newest toy… er… TOOL. The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

He provides the following detailed description of his equipment and desk, which is a very large, solid-core door purchased cheaply from a lumberyard because it had been damaged:

Being natural wood and not plastic, it makes an inherently anti-static workstation. I used a router to round the front edge to be a bit friendlier to elbows, and carefully trimmed it and wedged it between the wall on the right and the utility room wall on the left, supported by vertical plywood against the walls. My PCs are in the adjacent utility room so I don’t have to listen to fans all day and they’re up on custom brackets on the wall so I don’t have to shinny under the desk to get to them. All the wires pass through plumbing fittings in the wall. The main work computer runs the lower dual monitors. The next-older work computer is still used for some specialized hardware, via the monitor above and an extra mouse. Under the left monitor is an all-band receiver that I sometimes use to monitor equipment under development, but also listen to broadcast music.

My late father-in-law was always extremely thrifty, and salvaged the flatbed scanner at the top left from a dumpster. It’s turned out to be the best scanner I’ve seen, and I used it to scan their family pictures. There’s also an HP Photosmart scanner that’s excellent on slides and negatives.

The middle stack has a parts cabinet that I really should retire, holding mainly SN74 series dual in-line packages (DIPs) that I very rarely use these days. Below that is an Ethernet-enabled power switch that controls various equipment. Next down is my trusty old Tektronix TDS-220 oscilloscope

I was pleased to note that past contributors to [Circuit Cellar’s Workspace feature] also use that same scope. It was the first digital scope I ever encountered that wouldn’t fib to me about aliasing, and it’s still a real workhorse. The ability to do screen captures with the free PC software helps a lot in documenting a finished product and in discussing problems remotely. Below that is a very solid bench multimeter. If it just had a capacitance function, I could abandon my Fluke 12! Then there’s a basic analog function generator, and some manual switches for AC.

Over on the far right are some more parts cabinets, several power supplies (including the ±5V/±12V supply my dad helped me build during my very first excursions into the then-new SN74 series of logic), an RF signal generator, and a good old boat-anchor Hewlett-Packard (HP) spectrum analyzer. I got that one off eBay, and spent as much again to get it repaired and calibrated. It’s in many ways better than the newer instruments. If it had a synthesized local oscillator and a computer interface, it would do it all. Actually, I have on occasion faked a computer interface by connecting the video outputs on its front panel to my TDS-220, and then capturing the resulting waveform.

In front of that is my solder station and stereo zoom microscope. Sitting on its stage is a backup prototype identical to the one currently controlling 4,800 W of my total 6,800 W of installed solar capacity. I routinely do prototypes using 0603 parts and recently more 0402 parts, with occasional 0201 parts. Don’t sneeze around those! The cabinets on the right wall are mainly connectors and surface-mount parts.

I needed some more bench space for a project, so I added a “temporary” shelf between the right end of my bench and the bookshelves on the wall to the right. As you can imagine, the “temporary” part of that wasn’t. So now it holds a voltage standard, on which sits my solder station and a ham radio. The latter is powered directly by 12-V solar power. At the extreme right are an inverter connected to the same solar batteries and the side of a breaker panel that allows me to safely connect to those same batteries when I need a heavy-duty 12-V power supply.

The whole office is lighted by strips of white LEDs run directly by 12-V solar power. The self-adhesive strips are just stuck to the drop-ceiling rails on each side of the standard florescent fixture. The standard fixture is still present and functional as a backup, but the solar lights are actually brighter and don’t flicker like a florescent. The 12-V solar is also wired to the rear jacks of the HP multimeter, so I can get an instant reading on the battery charge state. I have future plans to move some or all of my office circuits to the 120 VAC solar power that runs a portion of our home.

To the right and out of the picture is a solid wall of bookshelves that I built to hold databooks when I first set up this office over 20 years ago. The Internet and PDFs have pretty much made that obsolete, so those shelves now hold various supplies, projects in various states of completion, and some archival data. Behind me as I take this picture is a long table, made of another big door sitting atop filing cabinets. My original intent was for the desk to be for software/firmware, and the long table to be for hardware. Indeed, there are still a couple of RS-232 lines up through the ceiling and down to the table. However, now it serves as an assembly area when I have contractors doing assembly, as well as for storage and general workspace. But there’s Ethernet available on both the desk and the bench, for connecting Ethernet-enabled prototypes.

The biggest drawback to this office comes on a clear, cold, sunny day. The upstairs has lots of glass, so it absorbs lots of free solar heat. However, that means the furnace doesn’t run at all (even near zero outside), so the office and the rest of the basement get really cold. But since the furnace blower is on solar power, which is abundant under those conditions, I just force the blower on to share some of that heat!

If you’re interested in learning more about Steve’s work, check out our member profile posted last year. Also, be sure to pick up Circuit Cellar‘s upcoming July and August issues, which will include Steve’s two-part series on his personal solar-power setup.

These solar panels are mounted on Steve's east-facing roof.

These solar panels are mounted on Steve’s east-facing roof.


Specialized Linux File Systems

Since Linux was released in 1991, it has become the operating system for “98% of the world’s super computers, most of the servers powering the Internet, the majority of financial trades worldwide, and tens of millions of Android mobile phones and consumer devices,” according to the Linux Foundation. ”In short, Linux is everywhere.”

Linux offers a variety of file systems that are relatively easy to implement. Circuit Cellar columnist Bob Japenga, co-founder of MicroTools, writes about these specialized Linux file systems as part of his ongoing series examining embedded file systems. His latest article, which also discusses the helpful Samba networking protocol, appears in the magazine’s April issue.

The following article excerpts introduce the file systems and when they should be used. For more details, including instructions on how to use these file systems and the Samba protocol, refer to Japenga’s full article in the April issue.

What It Is—Our systems demand more and more memory (or file space) and a compressed read-only file system (CRAMFS) can be a useful solution in some instances.

CRAMFS is an open-source file system available for Linux. I am not sure where CRAMFS gets its name. Perhaps it gets its name because CRAMFS is one way to cram your file system into a smaller footprint. The files are compressed one page at a time using the built-in zlib compression to enable random access of all of the files. This makes CRAMFS relatively fast. The file metadata (e.g., information about when the file was created, read and write privileges, etc.) is not compressed but uses a more compact notation than is present in most file systems.

When to Use It—The primary reason my company has used CRAMFS is to cut down on the flash memory used by the file system. The first embedded Linux system we worked on had 16 MB of RAM and 32 MB of flash. There was a systems-level requirement to provide a means for the system to recover should the primary partition become corrupt or fail to boot in any way. (Refer to Part 3 of this article series “Designing Robust Flash Memory Systems,” Circuit Cellar 283, 2014, for more detail.) We met this requirement by creating a backup partition that used CRAMFS.

The backup partition’s only function was to enable the box to recover from a corrupted primary partition… We were able to have the two file systems identical in file content, which made it easy to maintain. Using CRAMFS enabled us to cut our backup file system space requirements in half.

A second feature of CRAMFS is its read-only nature. Given that it is read-only, it does not require wear leveling. This keeps the overhead for using CRAMFS files very low. Due to the typical data retention of flash memory, this also means that for products that will be deployed for more than 10 years, you will need to rewrite the CRAMFS partition every three to five years…

What It Is—Linux provides two types of RAM file systems: ramfs and tmpfs. Both are full-featured file systems that reside in RAM and are thus very fast and volatile (i.e., the data is not retained across power outages and system restarts).

When the file systems are created with the mount command, you specify the ramfs size. However, it can grow in size to exceed that amount of RAM. Thus ramfs will enable you to use your entire RAM and not provide you with any warning that it is doing it. tmpfs does not enable you to write more than the space allocated at mount time. An error is returned when you try to use more than you have allocated. Another difference is that tmpfs uses swap space and can swap seldom used files out to a flash drive. ramfs does not use swapping. This difference is of little value to us since we disable swapping in our embedded systems.

When to Use It—Speed is one of the primary reasons to use a RAM file system. Disk writes are lightning fast when you have a RAM disk. We have used a RAM file system when we are recording a burst of high-speed data. In the background, we write the data out to flash.

A second reason to use a RAM file system is that it reduces the wear and tear on the flash file system, which has a limited write life. We make it a rule that all temporary files should be kept on the RAM disk. We also use it for temporary variables that are needed across threads/processes.

Figure 1: An example of a network file system is shown.

Figure 1: An example of a network file system is shown.

What It Is—In the early 1990s I started working with a company that developed embedded controllers for machine control. These controllers had a user interface that consisted of a PC located on the factory floor. The company called this the production line console (PLC). The factory floor was hot, very dirty, and had a lot of vibration. The company had designed a control room console (CRC) that networked together several PLCs. The CRC was located in a clean and cool environment. The PLC and the CRC were running QNX and the PLC was diskless. The PLC booted from and stored all of its data on the CRC (see Figure 1).

This was my first exposure to a Network File System (NFS). It was simple and easy to configure and worked flawlessly. The PLCs could only access their “file system.” The CRC could access any PLC’s files.

QNX was able to do this using the NFS protocol. NFS is a protocol developed initially by Sun Microsystems (which is now owned by Oracle). Early in its lifetime, Sun turned the specification into an open standard, which was quickly implemented in Unix and its derivatives (e.g., Linux and QNX).

When to Use It—One obvious usage of NFS is for environments where a hard drive cannot easily survive, as shown in my earlier example. However, my example was before flash file systems became inexpensive and reliable so that is not a typical use for today.
Another use for NFS would be to simplify software updates. All of the software could be placed in one central location. Each individual controller would obtain the new software once the central location was updated.

The major area in which we use NFS today is during software development. Even though flash file systems are fast and new versions of your code can be seamlessly written to flash, it can be time consuming. For example, you can use a flash memory stick over USB to update the flash file system on several of our designs. This is simple but can take anywhere from several seconds to minutes.

With NFS, all of your development tools can be on a PC and you never have to transfer the target code to the target system. You use all of your PC tools to change the file on your PC, and when the embedded device boots up or the application is restarted, those changed files will be used on the device.

What It Is—Although we don’t like to admit it, many of us still have Windows machines on our desks and on our laptops. And many of us are attached to some good development tools on our Windows machines.

Samba is not exactly a file system but rather a file system/networking protocol that enables you to write to your embedded system’s file system from your Windows machine as if it were a Windows file system. Samba can also be used  to access your embedded system’s files from other OSes that support the SMB/CIFS networking protocol.

When to Use It—Although I primarily see Samba, like NFS, as a development tool, you could certainly use it in an environment where you needed to talk to your embedded device from a Windows machine. We have never had a need for this, but I can imagine it could be useful in certain scenarios. The Linux community documents a lot of Samba users for embedded Linux.

Raspberry Pi-Based Network Monitoring Device

In 2012, Al Anderson, IT director at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, MT, and his team wired the dorms and student housing units at the small tribal college with fiber and outdoor CAT 5 cable to provide reliable Internet service to students. “Our prior setup was wireless and did not provide very good service,” Anderson says.

The 25 housing units, each with a small unmanaged Ethernet switch, were daisy chained in several different paths. Anderson needed a way to monitor the links from the system’s Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) network monitoring software, Help/Systems’s InterMapper. He also wanted to ensure the switches installed inside the sun-exposed utility boxes wouldn’t get too hot.

The Raspberry Pi is a small SBC based on an ARM processor. Its many I/O ports make it very useful for embedded devices that need a little more power than the typical 8-bit microcontroller.

Photo 1: The Raspberry Pi is a small SBC based on an ARM processor. Its many I/O ports make it very useful for embedded devices that need a little more power than the typical 8-bit microcontroller.

His Raspberry Pi-based solution is the subject of an article appearing in Circuit Cellar’s April issue. “We chose the Raspberry Pi because it was less expensive, we had several on hand, and I wanted to see what I could do with it,” Anderson says (see Photo 1).

The article walks readers through each phase of the project:

“I installed a Debian Linux distro, added an I2C TMP102 temperature sensor from SparkFun Electronics, wrote a small Python program to get the temperature via I2C and convert it to Fahrenheit, installed an SNMP server on Linux, added a custom SNMP rule to display the temperature from the script, and finally wrote a custom SNMP MIB to access the temperature information as a string and integer.”

Setting up the SBC and Linux was simple, Anderson says. “The prototype Raspberry Pi has now been running since September 2012 without any problems,” he says in his article. “It has been interesting to see how the temperature fluctuates with the time of day and the level of network activity. As budget and time permit, we will be installing more of these onto our network.”

In the following excerpt, Anderson discusses the project’s design, implementation, and OS installation and configuration. For more details on a project inspired, in part, by the desire to see what a low-cost SBC can do, read Anderson’s full article in the April issue.

Figure 1 shows the overall system design. The TMP102 is connected to the Raspberry Pi via I2C. The Raspberry Pi is connected to the network via its Ethernet port. The monitoring system uses TCP/IP over the Ethernet network to query the Raspberry Pi via SNMP. The system is encased in a small acrylic Adafruit Industries case, which we used because it is inexpensive and easy to customize for the sensor.

The system is designed around the Raspberry Pi SBC. The Raspberry Pi uses the I2C protocol to query the Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor. The Raspberry Pi is queried via SNMP.

Figure 1: The system is designed around the Raspberry Pi SBC. The Raspberry Pi uses the I2C protocol to query the Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor. The Raspberry Pi is queried via SNMP.

Our first step was to set up the Raspberry Pi. We started by installing the OS and the various software packages needed. Next, we wrote the Python script that queries the I2C temperature sensor. Then we configured the SNMP daemon to run the Python script when it is queried. With all that in place, we then set up the SNMP monitoring software that is configured with a custom MIB and a timed query. Finally, we modified the Raspberry Pi case to expose the temperature sensor to the air and installed the device in its permanent location.

The Raspberry Pi requires a Linux OS compiled to run on an ARM processor, which is the brain of the device, to be installed on an SD card. It does not have a hard drive. Setting up the SD card is straightforward, but you cannot simply copy the files onto the card. The OS has to be copied in such a way that the SD card has a boot sector and the Linux partitioning and file structure is properly maintained. Linux and Mac OS X users can use the dd command line utility to copy from the OS’s ISO image. Windows users can use a utility (e.g., Win32DiskImager) to accomplish the same thing. A couple of other utilities can be used to copy the OS onto the SD card, but I prefer using the command line.

A Debian-based distribution of Linux seems to be the most commonly used Linux distribution on the Raspberry Pi, with the Raspbian “wheezy” as the recommended distribution. However, for this project I chose Adafruit Learning Systems’s Occidentalis V0.2 Linux distribution because it had several hardware-hacker features rolled into the distribution, including the kernel modules for the temperature sensor. This saved me some work getting those installed and debugged.

Before you can copy the OS to the SD card, you need to download the ISO image. The Resources section of this article lists several sources including a link to the Adafruit Linux distribution. Once you have an ISO image downloaded, you can copy it to the SD card. The Resources section also includes a link to an Embedded Linux Wiki webpage, “RPi Easy SD Card Setup,” which details this copying process for several OSes.

The quick and dirty instructions are to somehow get the SD card hooked up to your computer, either using a built-in SD reader or a peripheral card reader. I used a USB attached reader. Then you need to format the card. The best format is FAT32, since it will get reformatted by the copy command anyway. Next, use your chosen method to copy the OS onto the card. On Linux or Mac OS X, the command:

dd bs=4M if=~/linux_distro.img of=/dev/sdd

will properly copy the OS onto the SD card.

You will need to change two important things in this command for your system. First, the
if parameter, which is the name the in file (i.e., your ISO image) needs to match the file you downloaded. Second, the of device (i.e., the out file or our SD drive in this case) needs to match the SD card. Everything, including devices, is a file in Linux, in case you are wondering why your SD drive is considered a file. We will see this again in a bit with the I2C device. You can toast your hard drive if you put the wrong device path in here. If you are unsure about this, you may want to use a GUI utility so you don’t overwrite your hard drive.

Once the OS is copied onto the SD card, it is time to boot up the Raspberry Pi. A default username and password are available from wherever you download the OS. With our OS, the defaults are “pi” and “raspberry.” Make it your first mission to change that password and maybe even add a new account if your project is going to be in production.

Another thing you may have to change is the IP address configuration on the Ethernet interface. By default, these distributions use DHCP to obtain an address. Unless you have a need otherwise, it is best to leave that be. If you need to use a static IP address, I have included a link in the Resources section with instructions on how to do this in Linux.

To access your Raspberry Pi, hook up a local keyboard and monitor to get to a command line. Once you have the network running and you know the IP address, you can use the SSH utility to gain access via the network.

To get SNMP working on the Raspberry Pi, you need to install two Debian packages: snmpd and snmp. The snmpd package is the actual SNMP server software that will enable other devices to query for SNMP on this device. The second package, snmp, is the client. It is nice to have this installed for local troubleshooting.

We used the Debian package manager, apt-get, to install these packages. The commands also must be run as the root or superuser.

The sudo apt-get install snmpd command installs the snmpd software. The sudo part runs the apt-get command as the superuser. The install and snmpd parts of the command are the arguments for the apt-get command.

Next we issued the
sudo apt-get install snmp command, which installed the SNMP client. Issue the ps -ax | grep snmpd command to see if the snmpd daemon is running after the install. You should see something like this:

1444 ? S 14:22 /usr/sbin/snmpd -Lsd -Lf /dev/null -u snmp -g snmp -I -smux -p /var/run/snmpd.pid

If you do not see a line similar to this, you can issue the sudo /etc/init.d/snmpd command start to start the service. Once it is running, it is time to turn your attention to the Python script that reads the temperature sensor. Configure the SNMP daemon after you get the Python script running.

The Raspberry Pi’s final installation is shown. The clear acrylic case can be seen along with the Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor, which is glued below the air hole drilled into the case. We used a modified ribbon cable to connect the various TMP102 pins to the Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi’s final installation is shown. The clear acrylic case can be seen along with the Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor, which is glued below the air hole drilled into the case. We used a modified ribbon cable to connect the various TMP102 pins to the Raspberry Pi.

Pulse-Shaping Basics

Pulse shaping (i.e., base-band filtering) can vastly improve the behavior of wired or wireless communication links in an electrical system. With that in mind, Circuit Cellar columnist Robert Lacoste explains the advantages of filtering and examines Fourier transforms; random non-return-to-zero NRZ signaling; and low-pass, Gaussian, Nyquist, and raised-cosine filters.

Lacoste’s article, which appears in Circuit Cellar’s April 2014 issue, includes an abundance of graphic simulations created with Scilab Enterprises’s open-source software. The simulations will help readers grasp the details of pulse shaping, even if they aren’t math experts. (Note: You can download the Scilab source files Lacoste developed for his article from Circuit Cellar’s FTP site.)

Excerpts from Lacoste’s article below explain the importance of filtering and provide a closer look at low-pass filters:

I’ll begin with an example. Imagine you have a 1-Mbps continuous digital signal you need to transmit between two points. You don’t want to specifically encode these bits; you just want to transfer them one by one as they are.

Before transmission, you will need to transform the 1 and 0s into an actual analog signal any way you like. You can use a straightforward method. Simply define a pair of voltages (e.g., 0 and 5 V) and put 0 V on the line for a 0-level bit and put 5 V on the line for a 1-level bit.

This method is pedantically called non-return-to-zero (NRZ). This is exactly what a TTL UART is doing; there is nothing new here. This analog signal (i.e., the base-band signal) can then be sent through the transmission channel and received at the other end (see top image in Figure 1).

Note: In this article I am not considering any specific transmission channel. It could range from a simple pair of copper wires to elaborate wireless links using amplitude, frequency and/or phase modulation, power line modems, or even optical links. Everything I will discuss will basically be applicable to any kind of transmission as it is linked to the base-band signal encoding prior to any modulation.

Directly transmitting a raw digital signal, such as this 1-Mbps non-return-to-zero (NRZ) stream (at top), is a waste of bandwidth. b—Using a pulse-shaping filter (bottom) reduces the required bandwidth for the same bit rate, but with a risk of increased transmission errors.

Figure 1: Directly transmitting a raw digital signal, such as this 1-Mbps non-return-to-zero (NRZ) stream (top), is a waste of bandwidth. Using a pulse-shaping filter (bottom) reduces the required bandwidth for the same bit rate, but with a risk of increased transmission errors.

Now, what is the issue when using simple 0/5-V NRZ encoding? Bandwidth efficiency. You will use more megahertz than needed for your 1-Mbps signal transmission. This may not be an issue if the channel has plenty of extra capacity (e.g., if you are using a Category 6 1-Gbps-compliant shielded twisted pair cable to transmit these 1 Mbps over a couple of meters).

Unfortunately, in real life you will often need to optimize the bandwidth. This could be for cost reasons, for environmental concerns (e.g., EMC perturbations), for regulatory issues (e.g., RF channelization), or simply to increase the effective bit rate as much as possible for a given channel.

Therefore, a good engineering practice is to use just the required bandwidth through a pulse-shaping filter. This filter is fitted between your data source and the transmitter (see bottom of Figure 1).

The filter’s goal is to reduce as much as possible the occupied bandwidth of your base-band signal without affecting the system performance in terms of bit error rate. These may seem like contradictory requirements. How can you design such a filter? That’s what I will try to explain in this article….


A base-band filter is needed between the binary signal source and the transmission media or modulator. But what characteristics should this filter include? It must attenuate as quickly as possible the unnecessary high frequencies. But it must also enable the receiver to decode the signal without errors, or more exactly without more errors than specified. You will need a low-pass filter to limit the high frequencies. As a first example, I used a classic Butterworth second-order filter with varying cut-off frequencies to make the simulation. Figure 2 shows the results. Let me explain the graphs.

Figure 2: This random non-return-to-zero (NRZ) signal (top row) was passed through a second-order Butterworth low-pass filter. When the cut-off frequency is low (310 kHz), the filtered signal (middle row) is distorted and the eye diagram is closed. With a higher cutoff (410 kHz, bottom row), the intersymbol interference (ISI) is lower but the frequency content is visible up to 2 MHz.

Figure 2: This random non-return-to-zero (NRZ) signal (top row) was passed through a second-order Butterworth low-pass filter. When the cut-off frequency is low (310 kHz), the filtered signal (middle row) is distorted and the eye diagram is closed. With a higher cutoff (410 kHz, bottom row), the intersymbol interference (ISI) is lower but the frequency content is visible up to 2 MHz.

The leftmost column shows the signal frequency spectrum after filtering with the filter frequency response in red as a reference. The middle column shows a couple of bits of the filtered signal (i.e., in the time domain), as if you were using an oscilloscope. Last, the rightmost column shows the received signal’s so-called “eye pattern.” This may seem impressive, but the concept is very simple.

Imagine you have an oscilloscope. Trigger it on any rising or falling front of the signal, scale the display to show one bit time in the middle of the screen, and accumulate plenty of random bits on the screen. You’ve got the eye diagram. It provides a visual representation of the difficulty the receiver will have to recover the bits. The more “open” the eye, the easier it is. Moreover, if the successive bits’ trajectories don’t superpose to each other, there is a kind of memory effect. The voltage for a given bit varies depending on the previously transmitted bits. This phenomenon is called intersymbol interference (ISI) and it makes life significantly more difficult for decoding.

Take another look at the Butterworth filter simulations. The first line is the unfiltered signal as a reference (see Figure 2, top row). The second line with a 3-dB, 310-kHz cut-off frequency shows a frequency spectrum significantly reduced after 1 MHz but with a high level of ISI. The eye diagram is nearly closed (see Figure 2, middle row). The third line shows the result with a 410-kHz Butterworth low-pass filter (see Figure 2, bottom row). Its ISI is significantly lower, even if it is still visible. (The successive spot trajectories don’t pass through the same single point.) Anyway, the frequency spectrum is far cleaner than the raw signal, at least from 2 MHz.

Lacoste’s article serves as solid introduction to the broad subject of pulse-shaping. And it concludes by re-emphasizing a few important points and additional resources for readers:

Transmitting a raw digital signal on any medium is a waste of bandwidth. A filter can drastically improve the performance. However, this filter must be well designed to minimize intersymbol interference.

The ideal solution, namely the Nyquist filter, enables you to restrict the used spectrum to half the transmitted bit rate. However, this filter is just a mathematician’s dream. Raised cosine filters and Gaussian filters are two classes of real-life filters that can provide an adequate complexity vs performance ratio.

At least you will no longer be surprised if you see references to such filters in electronic parts’ datasheets. As an example, see Figure 3, which is a block diagram of Analog Devices’s ADF7021 high-performance RF transceiver.

This is a block diagram of Analog Devices’s ADF7021 high-performance transceiver. On the bottom right there is a “Gaussian/raised cosine filter” block, which is a key factor in efficient RF bandwidth usage.

Figure 3: This is a block diagram of Analog Devices’s ADF7021 high-performance transceiver. On the bottom right there is a “Gaussian/raised cosine filter” block, which is a key factor in efficient RF bandwidth usage.

The subject is not easy and can be easily misunderstood. I hope this article will encourage you to learn more about the subject. Bernard Sklar’s book Digital Communications: Fundamentals and Applications is a good reference. Playing with simulations is also a good way to understand, so don’t hesitate to read and modify the Scilab examples I provided for you on Circuit Cellar’s FTP site.  

Lacoste’s full article is in the April issue, now available for membership download or single issue purchase. And for more information about improving the efficiency of wireless communication links, check out Lacoste’s 2011 article “Line-Coding Techniques,” Circuit Cellar 255, which tells you how you can encode your bits before transmission.