The Future of Automation

The robot invasion isn’t coming. It’s already here. One would be hard-pressed to find anything in modern “industrialized” society that doesn’t rely on a substantial level of automation during its life cycle—whether in its production, consumption, use, or (most probably) all of the above. Regardless of the definition du jour, “robots” are indeed well on their way to taking over—and not in the terrifying, apocalyptic, “Skynet” kind of way, but in a way that will universally improve the human condition.

Of course, the success of this r/evolution relies on an almost incomprehensible level of compounding innovations and advancements accompanied by a mountain of associated technical complexities and challenges. The good news is many of these challenges have already been addressed—albeit in a piecemeal manner—by focused professionals in their respective fields. The real obstacle to progress, therefore, ultimately lies in the compilation and integration of a variety of technologies and techniques from heterogeneous industries, with the end goal being a collection of cohesive systems that can be easily and intuitively implemented in industry.

Two of the most promising and critical aspects of robotics and automation today are human-machine collaboration and flexible manufacturing. Interestingly (and, perhaps, fortuitously), their problem sets are virtually identical, as the functionality of both systems inherently revolves around constantly changing and wildly unpredictable environments and tasks. These machines, therefore, have to be heavily adaptable to and continuously “aware” of their surroundings in order to maintain not only a high level of performance, but also to consistently perform safely and reliably.

Not unlike humans, machines rely on their ability to collect, analyze, and act on external data, oftentimes in a deterministic fashion—in other words, certain things must happen in a pre-defined amount of time for the system to perform as intended. These data can range from the very slow and simple (e.g., calculating temperature by reading the voltage of a thermocouple once a second) to the extremely fast and complex (e.g., running control loops for eight brushless electric motors 25,000-plus times a second). Needless to say, giving a machine the ability to perceive—be it through sight, sound, and/or touch—and act on its surroundings in “real time” is no easy task.

Read more Tech the Future essays and get inspired!

Computer vision (sight and perception), speech recognition (sound and language), and precision motion control (touch and motor skills) are things most people take for granted, as they are collectively fundamental to survival. Machines, however, are not “born” with—nor have they evolved—these abilities. Piling on additional layers of complexity like communication and the ability to acquire knowledge/learn new tasks, and it becomes menacingly apparent how substantial the challenge of creating intelligent and connected automated systems really is.

While the laundry list of requirements might seem nearly impossible to address, fortunately the tools used for integrating these exceedingly complex systems have undergone their own period of hyper growth in the last several years. In much the same way developers, researchers, engineers, and entrepreneurs have picked off industry- and application-specific problems related to the aforementioned technical hurdles, as have the people behind the hardware and software that make it possible for these independently developed, otherwise standalone solutions to be combined and interwoven, thus resulting in truly world-changing innovations.

For developers, only in the last few years has it become practical to leverage the combination of embedded technologies like the power-efficient, developer-friendly mobile application processor with the flexibility and raw “horsepower” of programmable logic (i.e., field-programmable gate arrays, which have historically been reserved for the aerospace/defense and telecommunication industries) at scales never previously imagined. And with rapidly growing developer communities, the platforms built around these technologies are directly facilitating the advancement of automation, and doing it all under a single silicon “roof.” There’s little doubt that increasing access to these new tools will usher in a more nimble, intelligent, safe, and affordable wave of robotics.

Looking forward, automation will undoubtedly continue to play an ever-increasingly central role in day-to-day life. As a result, careful consideration must be given to facilitating human-machine (and machine-machine) collaboration in order to accelerate innovation and overcome the technical and societal impacts bred from the disruption of the status quo. The pieces are already there, now it’s time to assemble them.

This article appears in Circuit Cellar 320.

Ryan Cousins is cofounder and CEO of krtkl, Inc. (“critical”), a San Francisco-based embedded systems company. The krtkl team created snickerdoodle—an affordable and highly reconfigurable platform for developing mechatronic, audio/video, computer vision, networking, and wireless communication systems. Ryan has a BS in mechanical engineering from UCLA.  He has experience in R&D, project management, and business development in the medical and embedded systems industries. Learn more at or

65-V Micro-Power Buck Converters for Automation

Texas Instruments recently introduced two 65-V, 150-mA synchronous DC/DC buck converters for powering factory automation and automotive sensor applications. Featuring 10.5-µA quiescent current (IQ), the converters are intended for applications requiring high efficiency. The LM5165 (industrial-grade) and LM5165-Q1 (automotive-grade) micro-power step-down regulators feature a wide input voltage (VIN) range and dual control modes for optimizing efficiency and PCB area.TI UltraLow Buck

Features and benefits

  • Low 10.5-uA standby IQ (operating with no load) enables 90% conversion efficiency at 1-to-10-mA loads to extend battery life in “always on” applications.
  • 100% duty cycle enables low-dropout operation, while a P-channel high-side MOSFET eliminates the bootstrap diode and capacitor.
  • Dual-mode operation: a pulse frequency modulation (PFM) control mode enables the highest efficiency power supply design, while a constant on-time (COT) control mode provides higher output current and better EMI performance.
  • Fixed 3.3- and 5-V options eliminate external feedback resistor dividers to lower BOM.
  • Programmable current limit optimizes inductor size and cost.

The industrial-grade LM5165 costs $1.35 in 1,000-unit quantities. The automotive-grade LM5165-Q1 costs $1.58.

Source: Texas Instruments

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.


I/O Raspberry Pi Expansion Card

The RIO is an I/O expansion card intended for use with the Raspberry Pi SBC. The card stacks on top of a Raspberry Pi to create a powerful embedded control and navigation computer in a small 20-mm × 65-mm × 85-mm footprint. The RIO is well suited for applications requiring real-world interfacing, such as robotics, industrial and home automation, and data acquisition and control.

RoboteqThe RIO adds 13 inputs that can be configured as digital inputs, 0-to-5-V analog inputs with 12-bit resolution, or pulse inputs capable of pulse width, duty cycle, or frequency capture. Eight digital outputs are provided to drive loads up to 1 A each at up to 24 V.
The RIO includes a 32-bit ARM Cortex M4 microcontroller that processes and buffers the I/O and creates a seamless communication with the Raspberry Pi. The RIO processor can be user-programmed with a simple BASIC-like programming language, enabling it to perform logic, conditioning, and other I/O processing in real time. On the Linux side, RIO comes with drivers and a function library to quickly configure and access the I/O and to exchange data with the Raspberry Pi.

The RIO features several communication interfaces, including an RS-232 serial port to connect to standard serial devices, a TTL serial port to connect to Arduino and other microcontrollers that aren’t equipped with a RS-232 transceiver, and a CAN bus interface.
The RIO is available in two versions. The RIO-BASIC costs $85 and the RIO-AHRS costs $175.

Roboteq, Inc.

OEM Host Adapter Flash Memory

Total Phase Aaardvark USB-to-I2C Host Adapter

Total Phase Aardvark USB-to-I2C Host Adapter

The Aardvark OEM Adapter is based on Total Phase’s Aardvark I2C/SPI USB-to-I2C adapter, which is a flexible tool for system design and testing. The new adapter is available in an I2C or SPI configuration and includes the Total Phase API, which enables you to create custom application GUIs.

The Aardvark OEM Adapter and API are cross-platform compatible with various OSes, including Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. In a production environment, you can use the API for automated testing or device programming.

Contact Total Phase for pricing.

Total Phase, Inc.

DIY 10.1˝ Touchscreen Home Control System

Domotics (home automation) control systems are among the most innovative and rewarding design projects creative electrical engineers can undertake. Let’s take a look at an innovative Beagle Board-based control system that enables a user to control lights with a 10.1˝ capacitive touchscreen.

Domotics control system

The design features the following modules:

• An I/O board for testing purposes
• An LED strip board for controlling an RGB LED strip
• A relay board for switching 230-VAC devices
• An energy meter for measuring on/off (and also for logging)

ELektor editor and engineer Clemens Valens recently interviewed Koen van Dongen about the design. Van Dongen describes the system’s electronics and then demonstrates how to use the touchscreen to control a light and LED strip.

As Valens explains suggests, it would be a worthwhile endeavor to incorporate a Wi-Fi connection to enable cellphone and tablet control. If you build such system, be sure to share it with our staff. Good luck! is an Elektor International Media website.