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

Colin O’Flynn

NAN: Where are you located?

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

NAN: How did you become interested in electronics?

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

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

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

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

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

RadioBlocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Binary Explorer Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin’s Workbench

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

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

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

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

SMD Organization

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

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

Infrared Communications for Atmel Microcontrollers

Are you planning an IR communications project? Do you need to choose a microcontroller? Check out the information Cornell University Senior Lecturer Bruce Land sent us about inexpensive IR communication with Atmel ATmega microcontrollers. It’s another example of the sort of indispensable information covered in Cornell’s excellent ECE4760 course.

Land informed us:

I designed a basic packet communication scheme using cheap remote control IR receivers and LED transmitters. The scheme supports 4800 baud transmission,
with transmitter ID and checksum. Throughput is about twenty 20-character packets/sec. The range is at least 3 meters with 99.9% packet receive and moderate (<30 mA) IR LED drive current.

On the ECE4760 project page, Land writes:

I improved Remin’s protocol by setting up the link software so that timing constraints on the IR receiver AGC were guaranteed to be met. It turns out that there are several types of IR reciever, some of which are better at short data bursts, while others are better for sustained data. I chose a Vishay TSOP34156 for its good sustained data characteristics, minimal burst timing requirements, and reasonable data rate. The system I build works solidly at 4800 baud over IR with 5 characters of overhead/packet (start token, transmitter number, 2 char checksum , end token). It works with increasing packet loss up to 9000 baud.

Here is the receiver circuit.

The receiver circuit (Source: B. Land, Cornell University ECE4760 Infrared Communications
for Atmel Mega644/1284 Microcontrollers)

Land explains:

The RC circuit acts a low-pass filter on the power to surpress spike noise and improve receiver performance. The RC circuit should be close to the receiver. The range with a 100 ohm resistor is at least 3 meters with the transmitter roughly pointing at the receiver, and a packet loss of less then 0.1 percent. To manage burst length limitations there is a short pause between characters, and only 7-bit characters are sent, with two stop bits. The 7-bit limit means that you can send all of the printing characters on the US keyboard, but no extended ASCII. All data is therefore sent as printable strings, NOT as raw hexidecimal.

Land’s writeup also includes a list of programs and packet format information.

Game On with the Arduino Esplora

Every time the Arduino team is about to release a new board, we expect something great in terms of better specs, more I/Os, a faster processor, more memory—or, well, just something to “fill the gap,” such as small-scale versions. With “Esplora” the Arduino team pleasantly surprises us again!

Arduino Esplora

The brand new Esplora is targeted toward gaming applications. It consists of a gamepad-shaped development board that includes an Arduino-compatible Atmel ATmega32U4, a light sensor, a temperature sensor, an accelerometer, a joystick, push buttons, a slider, an RGB LED, and a buzzer.

The Esplora is as a ready-to-use solution for designers who don’t want to deal with soldering or prototyping by means of discrete components. In fact, it comes preprogrammed with a controller script, so you only have to connect it to a PC, download the free game “Super Tux Cart,” and have fun.

An additional color LCD will be released soon in order to create a portable console. The only drawback is you can’t directly connect standard Arduino shields to it , mainly because of space limitations. Nevertheless, the board itself includes enough features to make it interesting.

The Esplora should enable you to implement a controller for almost any application you dream up. In our case, we’re sure it will bring back nice memories of the time when we were too young for soldering irons but already pros with gamepads!—Jaime González Arintero Berciano, Elektor International Media

 

CC269: Break Through Designer’s Block

Are you experiencing designer’s block? Having a hard time starting a new project? You aren’t alone. After more than 11 months of designing and programming (which invariably involved numerous successes and failures), many engineers are simply spent. But don’t worry. Just like every other year, new projects are just around the corner. Sooner or later you’ll regain your energy and find yourself back in action. Plus, we’re here to give you a boost. The December issue (Circuit Cellar 269) is packed with projects that are sure to inspire your next flurry of innovation.

Turn to page 16 to learn how Dan Karmann built the “EBikeMeter” Atmel ATmega328-P-based bicycle computer. He details the hardware and firmware, as well as the assembly process. The monitoring/logging system can acquire and display data such as Speed/Distance, Power, and Recent Log Files.

The Atmel ATmega328-P-based “EBikeMeter” is mounted on the bike’s handlebar.

Another  interesting project is Joe Pfeiffer’s bell ringer system (p. 26). Although the design is intended for generating sound effects in a theater, you can build a similar system for any number of other uses.

You probably don’t have to be coerced into getting excited about a home control project. Most engineers love them. Check out Scott Weber’s garage door control system (p. 34), which features a MikroElektronika RFid Reader. He built it around a Microchip Technology PIC18F2221.

The reader is connected to a breadboard that reads the data and clock signals. It’s built with two chips—the Microchip 28-pin PIC and the eight-pin DS1487 driver shown above it—to connect it to the network for testing. (Source: S. Weber, CC269)

Once considered a hobby part, Arduino is now implemented in countless innovative ways by professional engineers like Ed Nisley. Read Ed’s article before you start your next Arduino-related project (p. 44). He covers the essential, but often overlooked, topic of the Arduino’s built-in power supply.

A heatsink epoxied atop the linear regulator on this Arduino MEGA board helped reduce the operating temperature to a comfortable level. This is certainly not recommended engineering practice, but it’s an acceptable hack. (Source: E. Nisley, CC269)

Need to extract a signal in a noisy environment? Consider a lock-in amplifier. On page 50, Robert Lacoste describes synchronous detection, which is a useful way to extract a signal.

This month, Bob Japenga continues his series, “Concurrency in Embedded Systems” (p. 58). He covers “the mechanisms to create concurrently in your software through processes and threads.”

On page 64, George Novacek presents the second article in his series, “Product Reliability.” He explains the importance of failure rate data and how to use the information.

Jeff Bachiochi wraps up the issue with a article about using heat to power up electronic devices (p. 68). Fire and a Peltier device can save the day when you need to charge a cell phone!

Set aside time to carefully study the prize-winning projects from the Reneas RL78 Green Energy Challenge (p. 30). Among the noteworthy designs are an electrostatic cleaning robot and a solar energy-harvesting system.

Lastly, I want to take the opportunity to thank Steve Ciarcia for bringing the electrical engineering community 25 years of innovative projects, essential content, and industry insight. Since 1988, he’s devoted himself to the pursuit of EE innovation and publishing excellence, and we’re all better off for it. I encourage you to read Steve’s final “Priority Interrupt” editorial on page 80. I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s no better way to begin the next 25 years of innovation than by taking a moment to understand and celebrate our past. Thanks, Steve.

Microcontroller-Based Markov Music Box

Check out the spectrogram for two FM notes produced by FM modulation. Red indicates higher energy at a given time and frequency.

Cornell University senior lecturer Bruce Land had two reasons for developing an Atmel AVR micrcontroller-based music box. One, he wanted to present synthesis/sequencing algorithms to his students. And two, he wanted the challenge of creating an interactive music box. Interactive audio is becoming an increasingly popular topic among engineers and designers, as we recently reported.

Land writes:

Traditional music boxes play one or two tunes very well, but are not very interactive. Put differently, they have a high quality of synthesis, but a fixed-pattern note sequencer and fixed tonal quality. I wanted to build a device which would play an interesting music-like note sequence, which constantly changed and evolved, with settable timbre, tempo, and beat… To synthesize nice sounding musical notes you need to control spectral content of the note, the rise time (attack), fall time (decay), and the change in spectral content during attack and decay.  Also it is nice to have at least two independent musical voices. And all of this has to be done using the modest arithmetic capability of an 8-bit microcontroller.

Land’s students subsequently used the music box for other projects, such as an auto-composing piano, as shown in the following video.

In early 2013 Circuit Cellar will run Land’s in-depth article on the Markov music box project. Stay tuned for more information.