Q&A: Embedded Systems Consultant

Elecia White is an embedded systems engineer, consultant, author, and innovator. She has worked on a variety of projects: DNA scanners, health-care monitors, learning toys, and fingerprint recognition.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

 

NAN: Tell us about your company Logical Elegance. When and why did you start the company? What types of services do you provide?

ELECIA: Logical Elegance is a small San Jose, CA-based consulting firm specializing in embedded systems. We do system analysis, architecture, and software implementation for a variety of devices.

Elecia White

Elecia White

I started the company in 2004, after leaving a job I liked for a job that turned out to be horrible. Afterward, I wasn’t ready to commit to another full-time job; I wanted to dip my toe in before becoming permanent again.

I did eventually take another full-time job at ShotSpotter, where I made a gunshot location system. Logical Elegance continued when my husband, Chris, took it over. After ShotSpotter, I returned to join him. While we have incorporated and may take on a summer intern, for the most part Logical Elegance is only my husband and me.

I like consulting, it lets me balance my life better with my career. It also gives me time to work on my own projects: writing a book and articles, playing with new devices, learning new technologies. On the other hand, I could not have started consulting without spending some time at traditional companies. Almost all of our work comes from people we’ve worked with in the past, either people we met at companies where we worked full time or people who worked for past clients.

Here is Elecia’s home lab bench. She conveniently provided notes.

Here is Elecia’s home lab bench. She conveniently provided notes.

NAN: Logical Elegance has a diverse portfolio. Your clients have ranged from Cisco Systems to LeapFrog Enterprises. Tell us about some of your more interesting projects.

ELECIA: We are incredibly fortunate that embedded systems are diverse, yet based on similar bedrock. Once you can work with control loops and signal processing, the applications are endless. Understanding methodologies for concepts such as state machines, interrupts, circular buffers, and working with peripherals allows us to put the building blocks together a different way to suit a particular product’s need.

For example, for a while there, it seemed like some of my early work learning how to optimize systems to make big algorithms work on little processors would fall to the depths of unnecessary knowledge. Processors kept getting more and more powerful. However, as I work on wearables, with their need to optimize cycles to extend their battery life, it all is relevant again.

We’ve had many interesting projects. Chris is an expert in optical coherence tomography (OCT). Imagine a camera that can go on the end of a catheter to help a doctor remove plaque from a clogged artery or to aid in eye surgery. Chris is also the networking expert. He works on networking protocols such as Locator/ID Separation Protocol (LISP) and multicast.

I’m currently working for a tiny company that hopes to build an exoskeleton to help stroke patients relearn how to walk. I am incredibly enthusiastic about both the application and the technology.

That has been a theme in my career, which is how I’ve got this list of awesome things I’ve worked on: DNA scanners, race cars and airplanes, children’s toys, and a gunshot location system. The things I leave off the list are more difficult to describe but no less interesting to have worked on: a chemical database that used hydrophobicity to model uptake rates, a medical device for the operating room and ICU, and methods for deterring fraud using fingerprint recognition on a credit card.

Elecia says one of the great things about the explosion of boards and kits available is being able to quickly build a system. However, she explains, once the components work together, it is time to spin a board. (This system may be past that point.)

Elecia says one of the great things about the explosion of boards and kits available is being able to quickly build a system. However, she explains, once the components work together, it is time to spin a board. (This system may be past that point.)

In the last few years, Chris and I have both worked for Fitbit on different projects. If you have a One pedometer, you have some of my bits in your pocket.

The feeling of people using my code is wonderful. I get a big kick seeing my products on store shelves. I enjoyed working with Fitbit. When I started, it was a small company expanding its market; definitely the underdog. Now it is a success story for the entire microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) industry.

Not everything is rosy all the time though. For one start-up, the algorithms were neat, the people were great, and the technology was a little clunky but still interesting. However, the client failed and didn’t pay me (and a bunch of other people).

When I started consulting, I asked a more experienced friend about the most important part. I expected to hear that I’d have to make myself more extroverted, that I’d have to be able to find more contracts and do marketing, and that I’d be involved in the drudgery of accounting. The answer I got was the truth: the most important part of consulting is accounts receivable. Working for myself—especially with small companies—is great fun, but there is a risk.

NAN: How did you get from “Point A” to Logical Elegance?

ELECIA: ”Point A” was Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. While there, I worked as a UNIX system administrator, then later worked with a chemistry professor on his computational software. After graduation, I went to Hewlett Packard (HP), doing standard software, then a little management. I was lured to another division to do embedded software (though we called it firmware).

Next, a start-up let me learn how to be a tech lead and architect in the standard start-up sink-or-swim methodology. A mid-size company gave me exposure to consumer products and a taste for seeing my devices on retailer’s shelves.

From there, I tried out consulting, learned to run a small business, and wrote a Circuit Cellar Ink article “Open Source Code Guide” (Issue 175, 2005). I joined another tiny start-up where I did embedded software, architecture, management, and even directorship before burning out. Now, I’m happy to be an embedded software consultant, author, and podcast host.

NAN: You wrote Making Embedded Systems: Design Patterns for Great Software (O’Reilly Media, 2011). What can readers expect to learn from the book?

ELECIA: While having some industry experience in hardware or software will make my book easier to understand, it is also suitable for a computer science or electrical engineering college student.

It is a technical book for software engineers who want to get closer to the hardware or electrical engineers who want to write good software. It covers many types of embedded information: hardware, software design patterns, interview questions, and a lot of real-world wisdom about shipping products.

Elecia White's BookMaking Embedded Systems is intended for engineers who are in transition: the hardware engineer who ends up writing software or the software engineer who suddenly needs to understand how the embedded world is different from pure software.

Unfortunately, most college degrees are either computer science or electrical engineering. Neither truly prepares for the half-and-half world of an embedded software engineer. Computer science teaches algorithms and software design methodology. Electrical engineering misses both of those topics but provides a practical tool kit for doing low-level development on small processors. Whichever collegiate (or early career) path, an embedded software engineer needs to have familiarity with both.

I did a non-traditional major that was a combination of computer science and engineering systems. I was prepared for all sorts of math (e.g., control systems and signal processing) and plenty of programming. All in all, I learned about half of the skills I needed to do firmware. I was never quite sure what was correct and what I was making up as I went along.

As a manager, I found most everyone was in the same boat: solid foundations on one side and shaky stilts on the other. The goal of the book is to take whichever foundation you have and cantilever a good groundwork to the other half. It shouldn’t be 100% new information. In addition to the information presented, I’m hoping most people walk away with more confidence about what they know (and what they don’t know).

Elecia was a judge at the MEMS Elevator Pitch Session at the 2013 MEMS Executive Congress in Napa, CA.

Elecia was a judge at the MEMS Elevator Pitch Session at the 2013 MEMS Executive Congress in Napa, CA.

NAN: How long have you been designing embedded systems? When did you become interested?

ELECIA: I was a software engineer at the NetServer division at HP. I kept doing lower-level software, drivers mostly, but for big OSes: WinNT, OS/2, Novell NetWare, and SCO UNIX (a list that dates my time there).

HP kept trying to put me in management but I wasn’t ready for that path, so I went to HP Labs’s newly spun-out HP BioScience to make DNA scanners, figuring the application would be more interesting. I had no idea.

I lit a board on fire on my very first day as an embedded software engineer. Soon after, a motor moved because my code told it to. I was hooked. That edge of software, where the software touches the physical, captured my imagination and I’ve never looked back.

NAN: Tell us about the first embedded system you designed. Where were you at the time? What did you learn from the project?

ELECIA: Wow, this one is hard. The first embedded system I designed depends on your definition of “designed.” Going from designing subsystems to the whole system to the whole product was a very gradual shift, coinciding with going to smaller and smaller companies until suddenly I was part of the team not only choosing processors but choosing users as well.

After I left the cushy world of HP Labs with a team of firmware engineers, several electrical engineers, and a large team of software engineers who were willing to help design and debug, I went to a start-up with fewer than 50 people. There was no electrical engineer (except for the EE who followed from HP). There was a brilliant algorithms guy but his software skills were more MATLAB-based than embedded C. I was the only software/firmware engineer. This was the sort of company that didn’t have source version control (until after my first day). It was terrifying being on my own and working without a net.

I recently did a podcast about how to deal with code problems that feel insurmountable. While the examples were all from recent work, the memories of how to push through when there is no one else who can help came from this job.

Elecia is shown recording a Making Embedded Systems episode with the founders of electronics educational start-up Light Up. From left to right: Elecia’s husband and producer Christopher White, host Elecia White, and guests Josh Chan and Tarun Pondicherry.

Elecia is shown recording a Making Embedded Systems episode with the founders of electronics educational start-up Light Up. From left to right: Elecia’s husband and producer Christopher White, host Elecia White, and guests Josh Chan and Tarun Pondicherry.

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

ELECIA: I have a few personal projects I’m working on: a T-shirt that monitors my posture and a stuffed animal that sends me a “check on Lois” text if an elderly neighbor doesn’t pat it every day. These don’t get nearly enough of my attention these days as I’ve been very focused on my podcast: Making Embedded Systems on iTunes, Instacast, Stitcher, or direct from http://embedded.fm.

The podcast started as a way to learn something new. I was going to do a half-dozen shows so I could understand how recording worked. It was a replacement for my normal community center classes on stained glass, soldering, clay, hula hooping, laser cutting, woodshop, bookbinding, and so forth.

However, we’re way beyond six shows and I find I quite enjoy it. I like engineering and building things. I want other people to come and play in this lovely sandbox. I do the show because people continue to share their passion, enthusiasm, amusement, happiness, spark of ingenuity, whatever it is, with me.

To sum up why I do a podcast, in order of importance: to talk to people who love their jobs, to share my passion for engineering, to promote the visibility of women in engineering, and to advertise for Logical Elegance (this reason is just in case our accountant reads this since we keep writing off expenses).

NAN: What are your go-to embedded platforms? Do you have favorites, or do you use a variety of different products?

ELECIA: I suppose I do have favorites but I have a lot of favorites. At any given time, my current favorite is the one that is sitting on my desk. (Hint!)

I love Arduino although I don’t use it much except to get other people excited. I appreciate that at the heart of this beginner’s board (and development system) is a wonderful, useful processor that I’m happy to work on.

I like having a few Arduino boards around, figuring that I can always get rid of the bootloader and use the Atmel ATmega328 on its own. In the meantime, I can give them to people who have an idea they want to try out.

For beginners, I think mbed’s boards are the next step after Arduino. I like them but they still have training wheels: nice, whizzy training wheels but still training wheels. I have a few of those around for when friends’ projects grow out of Arduinos. While I’ve used them for my own projects, their price precludes the small-scale production I usually want to do.

Professionally, I spend a lot of time with Cortex-M3s, especially those from STMicroelectronics and NXP Semiconductors. They seem ubiquitous right now. These are processors that are definitely big enough to run an RTOS but small enough that you don’t have to. I keep hearing that Cortex-M0s are coming but the price-to-performance-to-power ratio means my clients keep going to the M3s.

Finally, I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for Texas Instruments’s C2000 line, which is currently in the Piccolo and Delfino incarnations. The 16-bit byte is horrible (especially if you need to port code to another processor), but somehow everything else about the DSP does just what I want. Although, it may not be about the processor itself: if I’m using a DSP, I must be doing something mathy and I like math.

NAN: Do you have any predictions for upcoming “hot topics?”

ELECIA: I’m most excited about health monitoring. I’m surprised that Star Trek and other science fiction sources got tricorders right but missed the constant health monitoring we are heading toward with the rise of wearables and the interest in quantified self.
I’m most concerned about connectivity. The Internet of Things (IoT) is definitely coming, but many of these devices seem to be more about applying technology to any device that can stand the price hit, whether it makes sense or not.

Worse, the methods for getting devices connected keeps fracturing as the drive toward low-cost and high functionality leads the industry in different directions. And even worse, the ongoing battle between security and ease of use manages to give us things that are neither usable nor secure. There isn’t a good solution (yet). To make progress we need to consider the application, the user, and what they need instead of applying what we have and hoping for the best.

A Workspace for “Engineering Magic”

Brandsma_workspace2

Photo 1—Brandsma describes his workspace as his “little corner where the engineering magic happens.”

Sjoerd Brandsma, an R&D manager at CycloMedia, enjoys designing with cameras, GPS receivers, and transceivers. His creates his projects in a small workspace in Kerkwijk, The Netherlands (see Photo 1). He also designs in his garage, where he uses a mill and a lathe for some small and medium metal work (see Photo 2).

Brandsma_lathe_mill

Photo 2—Brandsma uses this Weiler lathe for metal work.

The Weiler lathe has served me and the previous owners for many years, but is still healthy and precise. The black and red mill does an acceptable job and is still on my list to be converted to a computer numerical control (CNC) machine.

Brandsma described some of his projects.

Brandsma_cool_projects

Photo 3—Some of Brandsma’s projects include an mbed-based camera project (left), a camera with an 8-bit parallel databus interface (center), and an MP3 player that uses a decoder chip that is connected to an mbed module (right).

I built a COMedia C328 UART camera with a 100° lens placed on a 360° servomotor (see Photo 3, left).  Both are connected to an mbed module. When the system starts, the camera takes a full-circle picture every 90°. The four images are stored on an SD card and can be stitched into a panoramic image. I built this project for the NXP mbed design challenge 2010 but never finished the project because the initial idea involved doing some stitching on the mbed module itself. This seemed to be a bit too complicated due to memory limitations.

I built this project built around a 16-MB framebuffer for the Aptina MT9D131 camera (see Photo 3, center). This camera has an 8-bit parallel databus interface that operates on 6 to 80 MHz. This is way too fast for most microcontrollers (e.g., Arduino, Atmel AVR, Microchip Technology PIC, etc.). With this framebuffer, it’s possible to capture still images and store/process the image data at a later point.

This project involves an MP3 player that uses a VLSI VS1053 decoder chip that is connected to an mbed module (see Photo 3, right). The great thing about the mbed platform is that there’s plenty of library code available. This is also the case for the VS1053. With that, it’s a piece of cake to build your own MP3 player. The green button is a Skip button. But beware! If you press that button it will play a song you don’t like and you cannot skip that song.

He continued by describing his test equipment.

Brandma_test_equipment

Photo 4—Brandsma’s test equipment collection includes a Tektronix TDS220 oscilloscope (top), a Total Phase Beagle protocol analyzer (second from top), a Seeed Technology Open Workbench Logic Sniffer (second from bottom), and a Cypress Semiconductor CY7C68013A USB microcontroller (bottom).

Most of the time, I’ll use my good old Tektronix TDS220 oscilloscope. It still works fine for the basic stuff I’m doing (see Photo 4, top). The Total Phase Beagle I2C/SPI protocol analyzer Beagle/SPI is a great tool to monitor and analyze I2C/SPI traffic (see Photo 4, second from top).

The red PCB is a Seeed Technology 16-channel Open Workbench Logic Sniffer (see Photo 4, second from bottom). This is actually a really cool low-budget open-source USB logic analyzer that’s quite handy once in a while when I need to analyze some data bus issues.

The board on the bottom is a Cypress CY7C68013A USB microcontroller high-speed USB peripheral controller that can be used as an eight-channel logic analyzer or as any other high-speed data-capture device (see Photo 4, bottom). It’s still on my “to-do” list to connect it to the Aptina MT9D131 camera and do some video streaming.

Brandsma believes that “books tell a lot about a person.” Photo 5 shows some books he uses when designing and or programming his projects.

Brandsma_books

Photo 5—A few of Brandsma’s “go-to” books are shown.

The technical difficulty of the books differs a lot. Electronica echt niet moeilijk (Electronics Made Easy) is an entry-level book that helped me understand the basics of electronics. On the other hand, the books about operating systems and the C++ programming language are certainly of a different level.

An article about Brandsma’s Sun Chaser GPS Reference Station is scheduled to appear in Circuit Cellar’s June issue.

HMI Development on Intelligent Displays

4dsystems_HRES4D Systems and Future Technology Devices International Limited (FTDI) (aka, FTDI Chip) recently introduced the 4DLCD-FT843. The intelligent display solution incorporates FTDI Chip’s FT800 Embedded Video Engine (EVE) with the subsequent introduction of two additional products. This combined product gives design engineers a foundation on which to quickly and easily construct human-machine interfaces (HMIs).

The first of these products is the ADAM (Arduino Display Adaptor Module). This 47.5-mm × 53.4-mm Arduino-compatible shield permits communication between the Arduino via the SPI. The shield is suitable for use with Arduino Uno, Due, Duemilanove, Leonardo, Mega 1280/2560, and Pro 5V. The shield’s micro-SD card provides the Arduino-based display system with ample data storage. The 4DLCD-FT843 can use the micro-SD card to retrieve objects (e.g., images, sounds, fonts, etc.). Drawing power from the Arduino’s 5-V bus, the ADAM regulates the 4DLCD-FT843’s supply to 3.3 V. The FT800 EVE controller can handle many of the graphics functions that would otherwise need to be managed by the Arduino.

The ADAM is complemented by the 4DLCD-FT843-Breakout. With a 26.5-mm × 12-mm footprint, this simple breakout module enables the 4DLCD-FT843 to be attached to a general host or breadboard for prototyping purposes. It features a 10-way FPC connection for attachment with the 4DLCD-FT843 along with a 10-way, 2.54-mm pitch male pin header that enables it to directly connect to the host board. Both products support a –10°C-to-70°C operational temperature range.

The EVE-driven 4DLCD-FT843 has a 4.3” TFT QWVGA display with a four-wire resistive touchscreen. It features a 64-voice polyphonic sound synthesizer, a mono PWM audio output, a programmable interrupt controller, a PWM dimming controller for the display’s backlight, and a flexible ribbon connector.

Contact 4D Systems or FTDI Chip for pricing.

4D Systems
www.4dsystems.com.au

Future Technology Devices International Limited (FTDI) (aka, FTDI Chip)
www.ftdichip.com

Using Arduino for Prototypes (EE Tip #121)

Arduino is an open-source development kit with a cult following. Open source means the software and hardware design files are available for free download. This begs the question of how the Arduino team can turn a profit, and the answer is the trademark and reputation of the Arduino name and symbol.

Arduino Uno PosterWhile there are now many Arduino clones, the original Arduino boards still outperform most. Arduino is very useful for prototyping. A recent example in my own work is adding a gyroscope sensor to a project. First, I purchased a gyroscope board from Pololu for a small amount. I plugged it into an Arduino breadboard shield purchased from eBay for roughly $5, and wired up the four pins: VCC (3.3 V), GND, SCL, and SDA. Pololu’s website has a link to some demo firmware and I downloaded this from GitHub. The library folders were extracted and renamed according to the instructions and then the example was run. The Arduino serial monitor then showed the gyroscope data in real-time, and the entire process took no more than 30 minutes.

Editor’s note: This EE Tip was written by Fergus Dixon of Sydney, Australia. Dixon runs Electronic System Design, a website set up to promote easy to use and inexpensive development kits. The Arduino Uno pictured above is a small portion of a full Arduino blueprint poster available for free download here.

32-Bit Arm Cortex-M3 C Development Kit

ImageCraftThe CorStarter-STM32 is a complete 32-bit ARM Cortex-M3 C development kit. It includes hardware and software to develop and debug C programs in a simple to use package.

The CorStarter-STM32 base board is powered by a 72-MHz STM32 device with 256-KB flash and 64-KB SRAM. With 8-bit Arduino Shield-compatible headers, hundreds of Arduino Shields may be used to expand the system’s capabilities. Remaining I/O pins are brought out to the header, enabling access to full-power 32-bit embedded computing. The CorStarter-STM32 base board includes open-source hardware design files.

Fast code download and hardware debugging support are provided by either the industrial standard Segger JLINK-Edu or ST-LINK/V2. These JTAG/SWD pods enable full access to Cortex-M devices and seamless debugging without source code modification.

To complement the hardware, the CorStarter-STM32 kit also includes an ImageCraft non-commercial C compiler (ICCV8 for Cortex) license. The C compiler includes a professional IDE with an integrated flash downloader and a source-level debugger. The compiler can also be used for other Cortex-M development projects. The kit also includes example projects and libraries for various Arduino Shields.

The CorStarter-STM32 kit costs $99. The CorStarter-STM32 base board alone costs $55. For educators teaching embedded system courses, the kit costs $1.

ImageCraft
http://imagecraft.com