CC275: Shape The Future

In January, Circuit Cellar introduced a new section, Tech the Future, which dedicates page 80 of our magazine to the insights of innovators in groundbreaking technologies.

We’ve reached out to a number of graduate students, professors, researchers, engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs, asking them to write short essays on their fields of expertise, with an emphasis on future trends.

Their topics have included high-speed data acquisition, Linux home automation, research into new materials to replace traditional silicon-based CMOS for circuitry design, control system theory for electronic device DIYers, and how open-source hardware will make world economies more democratic and efficient.

Our contributors have been diverse in more than just their topics. They have been talented

Tech the Future essayist Fergus Dixon designed this DNA sequencer, the subject of an article in the May 2013 issue of Circuit Cellar.

young researchers and seasoned professionals. Male and female. American, Portuguese, Italian, Indian, and Australian.

The one thing they have in common? They keep a close eye on the ever-changing landscape of technological change. And their essays have helped our readers focus on what to watch. We compensate authors for the essays we choose to publish, and we are eager to hear your suggestions on subjects for Tech the Future.

If you are an innovator interested in writing an essay for Tech the Future, e-mail me (editor@circuitcellar.com) with the topic you’d like to address and some information about yourself. If you are a reader who wants to hear from someone in particular through Tech the Future or has a suggestion for an essay topic, please contact me.

The work of those we’ve featured so far can be found online at circuitcellar.com/category/tech-the-future. Here are just a few of the innovators you will find there:

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio, a designer of data acquisition software for physics-related experiments and industrial applications, discussing the future of data acquisition technology.

Saptarshi Das, a nano materials researcher who holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University, focusing on the urgent need for alternatives to silicon-based CMOS. These alternative materials, now the subject of extensive scientific research, will be game changers for the microelectronics and nanoelectronics industries, he says.

Fergus Dixon, an Australian entrepreneur and designer of the popular software program “Simulator for Arduino,” explaining why open-source hardware is a valuable tool in the development of new medical devices. Design opportunities for such devices are countless. Hot technologies developed for 3-D printing and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have direct medical applications, including 3-D-printed prosthetic ears and nanorobots that utilize UAV technology.

Enjoy these articles and others online. In the meantime, I’ll be checking my e-mail for what you would like to see featured in Tech the Future.

Electrical Engineer Crossword (Issue 275)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s June electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

2.    UNIFIEDMODELING—Language that standardizes software specifications
3.    KELVINBRIDGE—Compares low resistance values [two words]
6.    THINCLIENT—A codependent program [two words]
10.    BANANAPLUG—Makes electrical connections [two words]
11.    CONDENSER—aka capacitor
13.    ASTABLE—A multivibrator circuit
15.    FLIPFLOP—A fundamental building block [two words]
18.    AMMETER—Used to calibrate current
19.    CLOCKGATING—Method of lowering dynamic power dissipation [two words]
20.    THERMIONICVALVE—Uses a vacuum to control electric current [two words]

Down

1.    VISITORPATTERN—Keeps an algorithm away from an object structure
4.    RUNTIME—Multi-lingual computer system
5.    FIELDEFFECT—This type is unipolar [two words]
7.    LISSAJOUSCURVE—An oscilloscope trace [two words]
8.    NONMASKABLE—Cannot be ignored
9.    CASCODECIRCUIT—Provides amplification [two words]
12.    CRON—Keeps things on schedule
14.    ROENTGEN—Radiation measurement
16.    RETFIE—Instruction that enables new interrupts to occur
17.    SELSYN—aka mag-slip

New Products: June 2013

C-Programmable Autonomous Mobile Robot System

The RP6v2 is a C-programmable autonomous mobile robot system designed for hobbyists and educators at universities, trade schools, and high schools. The system includes a CD with software, an extensive manual, plenty of example programs, and a large C function library. All library and example programs are open-source GNU general public license (GPL).

The autonomous mobile robot system has a large payload capacity and expansion boards, which may be stacked as needed. It receives infrared (IR) codes in RC5 format and includes integrated light, collision, speed, and IR-obstacle sensors. Its powerful tank drive train can drive up steep ramps and over obstacles.

The RP6v2’s features include an Atmel ATmega32 8-bit RISC microcontroller, AVR-GCC and RobotLoader open-source software for use with Windows and Linux, six PCB expansion areas, two 7.2-VDC motors, an I2C bus expansion system, and a USB interface for easy programming and communication.
The fully assembled RP6v2 robotic system costs $199.

Global Specialties
www.globalspecialties.com


Smart Panels with Powerful CPU and Multiple OS Support

The SP-7W61 and the SP-1061 smart panels are based on the Texas Instruments 1-GHz Sitara AM3715 Cortex-A8 processor and an Imagination Technologies integrated PowerVR SGX graphics accelerator. The products support multiple OSes—including Linux 2.6.37, Android 2.3.4, and Windows Compact 7—making them well suited for communications, medical and industrial control, human-machine interface (HMI), and transportation applications.

The SP-7W61 (7” and 16:9) and the SP-1061 (10” and 4:3) have a low-power, slim, fanless mechanical design and a high-value cost/performance (C/P) panel PC module that uses powerful and efficient components. Compared with other x86 HMI or open-frame products, the SP-7W61 and the SP-1061 successfully keep power consumption to less than 5.9 W, which is half the typical rate. The smart panels feature multiple display sizes and low power consumption options. They can be implemented into slim and thin chassis types (e.g., for HMI, control panels, or wall-mount controllers).

ADLINK provides full support on software customization based on different platforms. A virtual machine or software development kit (SDK) is provided with related documentation for different platforms, so users can easily set up the software environment.
Contact ADLINK for pricing.

ADLINK Technology, Inc.
www.adlinktech.com


Fast-Switching 0.65-TO-20-GHz Synthesizer

The APSYN420B is a 0.65-to-20-GHz frequency synthesizer with a 0.001-Hz resolution and 0.1° phase resolution. The synthesizer provides a nominal output power of 13 dBm into 50 ?. The module features a high-stability internal reference that can be phase-locked to a user-configurable external reference or used in a master-slave configuration for high phase coherence.

The APSYN420B’s key features include low phase noise, fast switching (settling time is typically 20 µs with a 20-µs frequency update), and an internal OCXO reference that can be configured for high phase coherence between multiple sources. The synthesizer offers USB and LAN interfaces and consumes less than 10 W when powered from an external 6-VDC supply.

The APSYN420B’s modulation capabilities include angle, pulse, pulse trains, and pulsed chirps. Linear, logarithmic, or random-frequency sweeps can be performed with combined modulation running. Frequency chirps (linear ramp, up/down) can also be accomplished. The device can accept external reference signals from 1 to 250 MHz.

Applications for the APSYN420B include automatic test equipment, satellite, and other telecommunications needs. The APSYN420B is designed for a 0°C-to-45°C operating temperature range and weighs less than 2 lb in a compact 2.4” × 4.2” × 8.3” enclosure.
Contact Saelig for pricing.

Saelig Co., Inc.
www.saelig.com


SoC for Next-Generation Multimedia and Navigation Systems

The R-Car H2 is the latest member of Renesas’s R-Car series of automotive system-on-a-chip (SoC) offerings. The SoC delivers more than 25,000 Dhrystone million instructions per second (DMIPS) and provides high-performance and state-of-the-art 3-D graphics capabilities for high-end multimedia and automotive navigation systems.
The R-Car H2 is powered by the ARM Cortex A-15 quad-core configuration running an additional ARM Cortex A-7 quad core. The SoC also features Imagination Technologies’s PowerVR Series6 G6400 graphics processing unit (GPU). The GPU supports open technologies (e.g., OpenGL ES 2.0) and the OpenGL ES 3.0 and OpenCL standards.
The R-Car H2’s bus architecture includes dedicated CPU and IP caches, which reduce the double data rate type three (DDR3) memory bandwidth consumption. To ensure adequate memory bandwidth, the R-Car H2 is equipped with two independent DDR3-1600 32-bit interfaces.

The R-Car H2 integrates advanced automotive interfaces including Ethernet audio video bridging (AVB), MOST150, and CAN and mass storage interfaces such as serial advanced technology attachment (SATA), USB 3.0/2.0, secure digital (SD) card, and PCI Express for system expansion. As a device option, the GPS baseband engine handles all modern navigation standards. The R-Car H2’s additional features include 24-bit digital signal processing (DSP) for codec, high-quality audio processing with hardware sample rate converters, and audio mixing. Its multi-core architecture enables you to implement real-time features (e.g., quick-boot, backup camera support, and media processing) parallel to the execution of advanced OSes, such as QNX Neutrino RTOS, Windows Embedded Automotive, or Linux.

The SoC’s media hardware accelerators enable features such as 4× HD 1080p video encoding/decoding including Blu-ray support at 60 frames per second, image/voice recognition, and high-resolution 3-D graphics with almost no CPU load. These implemented hardware modules also execute the display content improvements needed for HMI/navigation data similar to movie/DVD handling.
Contact Renesas for pricing.

Renesas Electronics Corp.
www.renesas.com


KNX Device Control

The KNX Gateway enables HAI by Leviton’s Omni and Lumina Ethernet-based controllers to communicate with and control KNX devices through KNX’s standardized network communications bus protocol. You can use an HAI by Leviton interface or automated controller programming to control KNX devices (e.g., lighting devices, temperature and energy management, motors for window coverings, shades, and shutters) in homes and businesses.

The KNX Gateway maps specific data points of each KNX device to a unit or thermostat number on the HAI by Leviton controller. The interface between the KNX Gateway and the HAI by Leviton controller utilizes a RS-485 serial connection.

Compatible controllers include HAI’s OmniPro II home-control system, Omni IIe, Omni LTe, Lumina Pro, and Lumina. The KNX Gateway is powered by either a power over Ethernet (PoE) connection or a 12-to-24-V AC/DC converter.
Contact Leviton for pricing.

Leviton Manufacturing Co., Inc.
www.leviton.com


DC/DC Controller Uses Only a Single Inductor

The LTC3863 is a high-voltage inverting DC/DC controller that uses a single inductor to produce a negative voltage from a positive-input voltage. All of the controller’s interface signals are positive ground referenced. None of the LTC3863’s pins are connected to a negative voltage, enabling the output voltage to be limited by only the external components selection.

Operating over a 3.5-to-60-V input supply range, the LTC3863 protects against high-voltage transients, operates continuously during automotive cold crank, and covers a broad range of input sources and battery chemistries. The controller helps increase the runtime in battery-powered applications.

It has a low 70-µA quiescent current in Standby mode with the output enabled in Burst Mode operation. The LTC3863’s output voltage can be set from –0.4 to 150 V or lower at up to 3 A typical, making it well suited for 12-or-24-V automotive, heavy equipment, industrial control, telecommunications, and robotic applications.

The LTC3863 drives an external P-channel MOSFET, operates with a selectable fixed frequency between 50 and 850 kHz, and is synchronizable to an external clock from 75 to 750 kHz. Its current-mode architecture provides easy loop compensation, fast transient response, cycle-by-cycle overcurrent protection, and excellent line regulation. Output current sensing is accomplished by measuring the voltage drop across a sense resistor.
The LTC3863’s additional features include programmable soft start or tracking, overvoltage protection, short-circuit protection, and failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) verification for adjacent pin opens and shorts.

The LTC3863 is offered in 12-pin thermally enhanced MSOP and 3-mm × 4-mm QFN packages. The controllers cost $2.06 in 1,000-unit quantities.

Linear Technology Corp.
www.linear.com


Enhanced Web-Based Monitoring Software

HOBOlink is a web-enabled software platform that provides 24/7 data access and remote management for Onset Computer’s web-based HOBO U30 data logging systems. The software’s enhanced version enables users to schedule automatic delivery of exported data files in CSV or XLSX format, via e-mail or FTP.

HOBOlink can configure exported data export in a customized manner. For example, a user with four HOBO U30 systems measuring multiple parameters may configure HOBOlink to automatically export temperature data only. The time range may also be specified.

HOBOlink also enables users to easily access current and historical data, set alarm notifications and relay activations, and manage and control HOBO U30 systems without going into the field. An application programming interface (API) is available to organizations that want to integrate energy and environmental data from HOBOlink web servers with custom software applications.
Contact Onset for pricing.

Onset Computer Corp.
www.onsetcomp.com


Digitally Tunable Capacitors for LTE Smartphones

Peregrine Semiconductor expanded its DuNE digitally tunable capacitor (DTC) product line with six second-generation devices for antenna tuning in 4G long-term evolution (LTE) smartphones. The PE623060, PE623070, PE623080, and PE623090 (PE6230x0) DTCs have a 0.6-to-7.7-pF capacitance range and support main antenna power handling of up to 34 dBm. The PE621010 and the PE621020 (PE6210x0) DTCs have a 1.38-to-14-pF capacitance range and are optimized for power handling up to 26 dBm, making them well suited for diversity antennas. The highly versatile devices support a variety of tuning circuit topologies, particularly impedance-matching and aperture-tuning applications.
The PE6230x0 DTCs are optimized for key cellular frequency bands from 700 to 2,700 MHz, featuring direct battery voltage operation with consistent performance enabled by on-chip voltage regulation.

The 5-bit, 32-state PE623060/70/80 DTCs have a 0.9-to-4.6-pF capacitance range. The 4-bit, 16-state PE623090 DTC has a 0.6-to-2.35-pF capacitance range. The PE623090 DTC’s lower minimum capacitance solves a critical problem in high-frequency tuning. The 5-bit, 32-state PE6210x0 DTCs support the 100-to-3,000-MHz frequency range. These DTCs extend the range of diversity antennas and improve data rates by optimizing the antenna performance at the operating frequency. The PE621010 DTC has a 1.38-to-5.90-pF capacitance range.

The PE6230x0 and PE6210x0 product families enable designers to develop smaller, higher-performing antennas. The product’s antenna-tuning functions—including bias generation, integrated radio frequency (RF) filtering and bypassing, control interface, and electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection of 2-kV human body model (HBM)—are incorporated into a slim, 0.55-mm × 2-mm × 2-mm package. All decoding and biasing are integrated on-chip, and no external bypassing or filtering components are required.
Contact Peregrine for pricing.

Peregrine Semiconductor Corp.
www.psemi.com

A Real-Time Fuel Consumption Monitor

Jeff Bachiochi’s real-time fuel consumption monitor for his Jeep.

Circuit Cellar columnist Jeff Bachiochi has enjoyed driving his wife’s Prius, in part because of the real-time feedback it gives him on the miles per gallon he is getting. It made him aware of how he could save gas with simple and immediate adjustments to his driving style.

With that in mind, he thought it would be a good idea to build an effective and affordable monitoring device that would give him the same real-time mpg for his Jeep.  After all, he can’t always borrow his wife’s car.

In the June issue, he shares what he came up with for an onboard diagnostics display. He explains below how he tapped into his own experience, as well as that of another Circuit Cellar author, to build the device for Jeep

“In the summer of 2011, I presented a three-part series about the on-board diagnostic system (OBD-II) built into every automobile produced since 1996 (Circuit Cellar 251–253)….”

“In 2005, Bruce D. Lightner wrote an article about his winning entry in the 2004 Atmel AVR design contest (“AVR-Based Fuel Consumption Gauge,” Circuit Cellar 183, 2005). Lightner’s project altered an analog tachometer gauge as a display for miles per gallon. I wanted to show a little more information, so my project uses a Parallax Propeller microcontroller to interrogate the OBD interpreter and drive a composite LCD.

“You can get a composite color display from Parallax or an online source. While I had a small 2.5” display to work with, I was looking for something a bit bigger. For less than $50, I found a 7” LCD, which happened to be combined with a camera (for mounting on a vehicle’s rear license plate frame)…

“I dug out my Propeller Proto Board and blew off the dust…. The Propeller microcontroller design includes eight 32-bit parallel processors (i.e., cogs) and peripheral support, including access to the 32 I/O pins, two counters, and a video generator per cog.  It is the video generator support that makes this project possible with a minimal component count…. only three resistors are required to develop a composite video output.“

To read more about Bachiochi’s OBD device, check out his article in the June issue.

 

New CC Columnist to Focus on Programmable Logic

We’d like to introduce you to Colin O’Flynn, who will begin writing a bimonthly column titled “Programmable Logic In Practice” for Circuit Cellar beginning with our October issue.

Colin at his workbench

You may have already “met.” Since 2002, Circuit Cellar has published five articles from this Canadian electrical engineer, who is also a lecturer at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a product developer.

Colin has been fascinated with embedded electronics since he was a child and his father gave him a few small “learn to solder” kits. Since then, he has constructed many projects, earned his master’s in applied science from Dalhousie, pursued graduate studies in cryptographic systems, and become an engineering consultant. Over the years, he has developed broad skills ranging from electronic assembly (including SMDs), to FPGA design in Verilog and VHDL, to high-speed PCB design.

And he likes to share what he knows, which makes him a good choice for Circuit Cellar.

Binary Explorer

One of his most recent  projects was a Binary Explorer Board, which he developed for use  in teaching a digital logic course at Dalhousie. It fulfilled his (and his students’) need for a simple programmable logic board with an integrated programmer, several switches and LEDs, and an integrated breadboard. He is working to develop the effective and affordable board into a product.

In the meantime, he is also planning some interesting column topics for Circuit Cellar.

He is interested in a range of possible topics, including circuit board layout for high-speed FPGAs; different methods of configuring an FPGA; design of memory into FPGA circuits;

Colin’s LabJack-based battery tester

use of tools such as Altera’s OpenCV libraries to design programmable logic using C code; use of vendor-provided and open-source soft-core microcontrollers; design of a PCI-Express interface for your FPGA; and addition of a USB 3.0 interface to your FPGA.

That’s just a short list reflecting his interest in programmable logic technologies, which have become increasingly popular with engineers and designers.

To learn more about Colin’s interests, check out our February interview with him, his YouTube channel of technical videos, and, of course, his upcoming columns in Circuit Cellar.

 

 

DIY Surface-Mount Circuit Boards

James Lyman, an engineer with degrees in Aerospace, Electrical Engineering, and Systems Design, has more than 35 years of design experience but says he was “dragged” over the past decade into using surface-mount devices (SMD) in his prototypes. He had a preference for using through-hole technology whenever possible.

“The reasons are simple,” he says in an article appearing in the June issue of Circuit Cellar magazine. “It’s much easier to use traditional components for building and reworking prototype circuits than it is to use wire to make the connections. Plus, the devices are large and easy to handle. But time and technology don’t leave anyone at peace, so my projects have gradually drifted toward surface-mount design.”

In his article, Lyman shares the techniques he developed for designing prototypes using SMD components. He thought sharing what he learned would make the transition less daunting for other designers.

This accompanying photo shows one of his completed circuit board designs.

Lyman’s techniques developed out of trial and error. One trial involved keeping small components in place during the building of his prototype.

“When I built my first few surface-mount boards, I did what so many amateurs and technicians do. I carefully placed each minute component on the circuit board in its correct position, and then spent several minutes playing ‘SMD hockey,’ ” Lyman says. “With nothing holding the component in place, I’d take my soldering iron and heat the pad component while touching the solder to the junction. Just as the solder was about to melt, that little component would turn into a ‘puck’ and scoot away. Using the soldering iron’s tip as a ‘hockey stick,’ I’d chase the little puck back to its pads and try again, which was maddening. Finally, I’d get a drop of solder holding one end of the puck in place, usually with the other end sticking away from its pad. Then I could reheat the solder joint while holding the puck and position it correctly. I would have to start over with the next component, all the while yearning for that wonderful old through-hole technology.

“It slowly occurred to me that I needed something to hold each part in place while soldering—something that would glue them in place. Commercial houses glue the components down on the boards and then use a wave soldering machine, which does all the soldering at once. That’s exactly what I started doing. I use J-B Weld, a common off-the-shelf epoxy.”

Using an easy-to-get epoxy is just one of the tips in Lyman’s article. For the rest, check out his full article in the June issue of Circuit Cellar.

 

Electrical Engineer Crossword (Issue 274)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s May electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.Across

1.            MOSIPROTOCOL—Adds a state indicating ownership [two words]

3.            SPECTROMETER—Measures wavelengths

8.            SHELL—Protects an operating system’s kernel

10.          CHARGE—Q

12.          ASSIGN—A FORTRAN control statement

13.          HALL—American physicist (1855–1938) who had an “effect” [two words]

15.          FIELDPROGRAMMABLE—Configurable after purchase [two words]

17.          MOUNTPOINT—In a Linux system, create this first to access the queue [two words]

19.          CORDIC—Calculate digit by digit

20.          MEISSNEREFFECT—Flux jumping [two words]

 

Down

2.            INTERPROCESSCOMMUNICATION—Data exchanging method [two words]

4.            SQUIRRELCAGE—Commonly used in asynchronous motors [two words]

5.            DEGLITCHER—Type of delay circuit, serves as a pulse generator

6.            MERCURYARC—Emits  bright bluish-green light [two words]

7.            BALLGRIDARRAY—Packages ICs [three words]

9.            THREADEDCODE—A compiler technique [two words]

11.          DARAF—Unit of elastance

14.          AMPEREHOUR—3,600 coulombs [two words]

16.          RIPPLE—Unwanted undulation

18.          NIXIE—Used for numeric display

 

Q&A: Scott Potter (Engineering a Way To Clean Solar Mirrors)

Designer and technology executive Scott Potter won first prize in the 2012 RL78 Green Energy Challenge, presented by Renesas Electronics in partnership with Circuit Cellar and Elektor magazines. The global contest called on participants to develop green energy designs utilizing Renesas’s RL78 microcontrollers. Scott won with his solar-powered electrostatic cleaning robot, which removes dust and debris from the tracking mirrors of large-scale concentrating solar power plants.—Mary Wilson, Managing Editor

Scott Potter

MARY: Where do you live and what is your current occupation?

SCOTT: I live in Los Gatos, CA, and I’m a senior director at Jasper Wireless, a company providing machine-to-machine (M2M) data communications services. I have been with Jasper since the beginning in 2005 when the company started with four people and a plan. Now Jasper is approaching 150 employees and we are a global company. I have served many roles at Jasper, working on location technology, device middleware, back-end reporting, and front-end software.

My other job is as an inventor at Taft Instruments. We are just now forming around the technology I developed for the RL78 design challenge. We are finding there is a big need for this solution in the solar industry, which is poised for tremendous growth in the next few years.

MARY: How did you first become interested in embedded electrical design? What is your educational background?

SCOTT: I started working for my father at his startup in the basement of our home in Long Island when I was a teenager (child labor laws were more lax back then). We were doing embedded electronics design along with mechanical modeling and prototyping. I learned from the best and it has stuck with me all these years. I went on to get a BSEE from Tufts University and I toyed with the idea of business school, but it never gripped me like engineering.

MARY: Why did you enter the 2012 Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge? What about its focus appealed to you?

SCOTT: The green energy design challenge came along at the perfect time. I had been working on the cleaning robot for a few months when I saw the challenge. The microcontroller I had originally picked was turning out to be not a great choice, and the challenge made me take a look at the RL78. The part was perfect, and the challenge gave me a goal to work toward.

MARY: How did the idea of designing a robot to clean solar-tracking mirrors (i.e., heliostats) for solar power plants come to you?

SCOTT: I can’t say it came to me all at once. I have participated in solar technology development sporadically throughout my career, and I have always tried to stay abreast of the latest developments. After the lessons learned from the parabolic trough concentrators, the move to high-concentration concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, which more efficiently convert solar power to electrical power, struck me as the right thing to do.

The high-concentration CSP plant utilizes hundreds of thousands of mirrors spread over many acres. The mirrors reflect sunlight onto a centrally located tower, which creates intense heat that drives a steam turbine generator.

The efficiency gains from the higher temperatures will make this the dominant technology for utility scale power generation. But there is a high maintenance cost associated with all of those mirror surfaces, especially in environments where water is scarce. A number of people have realized this and proposed various solutions to keeping the surfaces clean. Unfortunately, none of the proposed solutions will work well at the scale of a large utility plant.

I experimented with quite a few waterless cleaning techniques before coming back to electrostatics. It was my wife, Dia, who reminded me that NASA had been cleaning dust off panels on space missions for years using electrostatic principles. She convinced me to stop working with the forced-air concept I was doing at the time and switch to electrostatics. It was definitely the right choice.

MARY: What does the system do? What problems does it solve for power plants? How is the device different from what is already available for the task of cleaning heliostats?

SCOTT: Our patent-pending device is unique in many ways. It is completely autonomous, requiring no external power or water. The installation time is less than 10 s per heliostat, after which the device will remain attached and operating maintenance free for the life of the plant. We borrowed a marketing term from the military for this: “Set it and forget it.”

Most of the competing products have a long installation time and require some external wiring and maintenance. These can be logistical problems in a field of hundreds of thousands of mirrors.

Our device is also unique in that it cleans continuously. This prevents accumulation of organic materials on the surface, which can mix with dew and make a bio-film on the surface. That film bakes on and requires vigorous scrubbing to remove. We also have a feature to handle the dew, or frost, if it’s present.

MARY: What were some of your design challenges along the way and how did you address them?

SCOTT: They were numerous. The first challenge was the power source. It is important that this device be entirely self-powered to avoid having to install any wiring. I had to find a solar-panel configuration that provided enough power at the right voltage levels. I started with lower voltages and had a lot of trouble with the boost converters.

I also couldn’t use any battery storage because of the life requirement. This means that everything has to operate intermittently, gracefully shutting down when the sun fades and then coming up where it left off when the sun returns.

The next challenge was the mechanical drive. This had to grip the mirror tightly enough to resist a stream of water from a cleaning hose (infrequent cleaning with water will probably still be performed). And it had to do this with no power applied.

Another big challenge was the high-voltage electronics. It turns out there is little off-the-shelf technology available for the kind of high-voltage circuitry I needed. Large line output power transformers (LOPTs) for old cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are too large and expensive.

Some of the resonant high-voltage circuits used for cold cathode fluorescent lighting (CCFL) can be used as building blocks, but I had to come up with quite a few innovations to be able to control this voltage to perform the cleaning task. I had more than a few scorched breadboards before arriving at the current design, which is very small, light, and powerful.

MARY: You recently formed Taft Instruments (click here for Taft website). Who are the players in the company and what services does it provide?

SCOTT: We formed Taft instruments to commercialize this cleaning technology. We have been very fortunate to attract a very talented team that has made tremendous progress promoting the company in industry and attracting investment.

We have Steve Gluck and Gary Valinoti, both highly respected Wall Street executives who have galvanized the company and provided opportunities I could never have imagined. They are now recruiting the rest of the team and we are talking to some extremely qualified people. And of course my wife, Dia, is making numerous contributions that she will probably never get credit for.

MARY: How’s business? How would you describe the market for your product and the potential for growth and reach (both domestically and globally)?

SCOTT: We are not at the commercial deployment stage just yet. Our immediate focus is on the field trials we are starting with a number of industry players and the US Department of Energy National Laboratories. We fully expect the trials to be successful and for our large-scale rollouts to begin in about a year.

The market potential for this is tremendous. I’m not sure anyone fully realizes yet the global transformation that is about to take place. Now that the “grid parity” point is near (the point where the cost of solar power is competitive with fossil fuels), solar will become one of the fastest-growing markets we have seen in a century.

Entire national energy pictures will change from single-digit percentages to being dominated by solar. It is a very exciting time in the solar industry, and we are very happy to be part of it.

MARY: Are you individually—or is your company—developing any new designs? If so, can you tell us something about them?

SCOTT: Yes. I can’t say much, but we are working on some very interesting new technologies that will improve on the electrostatic cleaning principles. This technology will vastly expand the base that we can work with.

MARY: You describe yourself as a “serial entrepreneur” with a strong technical background in electronics, software, hardware, and systems design. That combination of skills comes in handy when establishing a new business. But it also helped you land your day job eight years ago as Director of Location Technology at Jasper Wireless. What do you see as future key trends in M2M communications?

SCOTT: M2M has really taken off since we began in 2005. Back then, there were only a few applications people had envisioned taking wireless. That list has exploded, and some analysts are predicting volumes of M2M endpoints that exceed the human population by tenfold!

We have seen large growth in a number of different verticals over the years, the most apparent one right now being automotive, with all the car companies providing connected services. Jasper is uniquely positioned to offer a global solution to these companies through our carrier partners.

MARY: Over the years, you have gained expertise in areas ranging from embedded electronics and wireless, to applications of the global positioning and geographic information systems (GPS and GIS). What do you enjoy most and what are some career highlights? Is one your involvement in the development of a GPS for the New York fire department’s recovery operations after the collapse of the World Trade Center?

SCOTT: What I enjoy most is working with motivated teams to create compelling products and services. One of my proudest moments was when our team at Links Point rose to the 9/11 challenge. At the time, I was a founder and the chief technology officer of Links Point, which provided GPS and location mapping.

When the request came from the New York fire department for a solution to locating remains at the recovery site, the team dedicated themselves to providing a solution no first responder had ever had access to previously. And we did that in record time. We had to come up with a proposal in a half-day and implement it within three days. You have to realize that GPS and PDAs were very new at the time and there were a lot of technical challenges. We also had to compete with some other companies that were proposing more accurate surveying equipment, such as laser ranging.

Our product, a PDA with a GPS attachment, won out in the end. The advantages of our handheld devices were that they were rugged and that firefighters could easily carry them into Ground Zero. We got the opportunity and honor of serving the  FDNY because of the extreme talent, dedication, and professionalism of my team. I would like to mention them: Jerry Kochman, Bill Campbell, Murray Levine, Dave Mooney, and Lucas Hjelle.

MARY: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to someone trying to make a marketable product of his or her design for an electrical device?

SCOTT: Whatever the device, make sure you are passionate about it and committed to seeing it come through. There is a quote that Dia framed for me hanging in my lab—this is attributed to Goethe, but there is some question about that. Anyway, the quote is very inspirational:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” I

Editor’s note: For more details, schematics, and a video of Scott Potter’s solar-powered electrostatic cleaning robot, click here.

Wi-Fi-Connected Home Energy Monitor

The Kunzig brothers of Pennsylvania use the word “retired” loosely.

Donald and Robert are both retired—each from long careers in the telecommunications industry. And after retirement, each took on a new job (Donald developing software to track and manage clinical trials managed by BioClinica, Inc., and Robert at a large data center).

So while other semi-retirees might prefer relaxing in poolside chairs or on the couch, what do these two do? They eagerly take on some technologies they haven’t worked with before and build a Wi-Fi-connected device to monitor a home’s power usage. And after two years of trial, error, and, finally, success, they develop an e-commerce website to sell it.

“Robert’s son, Jay, a design engineer working in San Jose, CA, suggested the project,” the two brothers say in article they wrote for the May 2013 edition of Circuit Cellar. “The main purpose was to design a Wi-Fi-connected monitor that would be able to measure usage from both a utility and an alternate source of power such as solar or wind.”

Their article describes how they designed a usable device that offers programmability and function. They used a Microchip MRF24WB0MB 802.11 transceiver for Wi-Fi access and a Microchip Technology PIC24FJ256GB108 microprocessor in their design. They eventually wrote the article about the ups and downs of the process (which included five prototypes) because they felt elements of their work would help readers developing their own embedded electronics devices.

“All this effort has been rewarding, perhaps not financially (yet), but certainly intellectually,” the brothers say. “After almost two years of effort, we have produced a product with an excellent hardware design, coupled with software that is better than average. The platform can be used for just about any implementation.”

“We wanted to produce an energy monitor that was fully wireless, very accurate, extremely easy to use, and based on hardware and software that is very stable. We think we were successful on all counts.”

Check out the May issue of Circuit Cellar for their article. And for more information, visit their e-commerce website at www.wattsmyusage.com.

G-Code CNC Router Controller

Brian Millier constructed a microcontroller-based, G-code controller for a CNC router. So, we gave the retired instrumentation engineer space to publish a two-part series about his project.

In Part 1 (Millier-CC-2013-04-Issue 273), Millier explains the basics of G-code and how it is converted into three-axis motion, via the router’s three stepper motors. In Part 2, he describes his design of the router’s axis controller (powered by three small microcontrollers) and the host controller (powered by a more powerful microcontroller).

He calls the project one of the most challenging he has ever tackled.

So why bother? Especially when the combination of a PC and ArtSoft’s Mach3 software is a common and affordable approach to running a CNC router? Well, like most DIYers, Millier couldn’t resist an opportunity to learn.

“I want to be upfront and say that this is probably not the most practical project I have ever done,” Millier says in Part 1. “You can usually pick up a used PC for free, and the Mach3 software is professional-grade and handles much more complex G-code programs than my DIY controller will. However, it did provide me with a challenging programming task, and I learned a lot about designing a program with many concurrent tasks, all of which are quite time critical. Even if you are not interested in building such a controller, you may find interesting some of the techniques and tricks I used to provide the multi-axis stepper-motor motion.”

Millier’s two articles focus on the two main tasks of his project.

“The first was to understand the G-code language used to program CNC machines well enough to be able to write the firmware that would parse the G-code commands into something that a microcontroller could use to control the stepper motors used for each of the three axes,” he says. “The second task was to design the hardware/firmware that would actually control the three stepper motors, all of which had to move synchronously at accurate, ramped speeds.”

Millier wraps up his project by saying: “This was probably the most challenging project I’ve tackled, outside of work projects, in many years. In particular, the Basic program code for both of the controllers ran beyond 3,500 lines.”

You can Millier-CC-2013-04-Issue 273. The second article is available via Circuit Cellar’s webshop.

CC274: A Sensory Experience

The May issue of Circuit Cellar provides a number of articles focusing on how to utilize measurements and sensors in your designs.

Knowing how to generate a magnetic field to calibrate a sensor can help with a number of

Winding 25 turns of 26 AWG enamel wire on a toroid is normally difficult, but that slit made it very easy. You would wind much smaller wire on a toroid used as an inductor.

DIY projects. Most electronic devices use inductors or transformers that depend on magnetic fields. In the May issue, Ed Nisley describes how he used a small ferrite toroid to produce a known magnetic field, which he utilized to calibrate some cheap Hall-effect sensors he obtained on eBay (p. 52).

“While the results certainly don’t transform cheap sensors into laboratory instruments, you can use them for tech jewelry with a clear conscience,” Nisley says. “You’ll also have a better understanding of magnetic fields, which may come in handy when you’re building inductors.”

Whether you’re designing a small controller for your own use or an electronic device for mass production, it’s important to keep “testability” in mind. So, it’s a good idea to make a dedicated tester for your product part of the design process at the outset. Such a tester can ensure your device is working properly in your workshop—before it ships to a customer. On page 56, George Novacek describes how an inexpensive tester can bolster an electronic device’s reliability and increase its marketability.

Brothers Robert and Donald Kunzig, both with backgrounds in the telecommunications industry, stepped outside the technologies most familiar to them when they took on an ambitious project—to produce an accurate and easy to use wireless, energy-usage monitor. They also wanted the monitor to hold its collected data even during a power outage or a router issue. Did they succeed? Check out their article on page 18 to find out.

The DNA sequencer’s design includes a motor controller, a light sensor amplifier, and an injector driver circuit.

While DNA, the molecule that provides genetic instruction to all living organisms, is complex, building a DNA sequencer can be relatively simple. Fergus Dixon used a light sensor amplifier,  a motor controller, and an injector driver circuit to fulfill a customer’s request for a DNA sequencer with a color screen and full connectivity via Ethernet or Bluetooth (p. 26)

If you’re a DIYer who is nervous about possible levels of radiation in your home, find out how to build a hand-held radiation sensor on page 60.

Also, Jesús Calviño-Fraga describes how he built a serial port-to-SPI bridge programmer, the “S2S Dongle,” which functions without a pre-programmed microntroller (p. 34).

Finally, this issue includes articles that wrap up intriguing projects Circuit Cellar introduced in April.

Last month, Jeff Bachiochi explored the musical instrument digital interface (MIDI). In Part

An Atmel ATmega88 microcontroller is at the heart of the CNC router controller.

2, he focuses on a hardware circuit that can monitor the MIDI messages sent between his project’s MIDI devices, which include a Harmonix drum kit used with the Xbox version of the Rock Band video game (p. 68).

Brian Millier calls his construction of a microcontroller-based, G-code controller for a CNC router one of his most challenging DIY projects. The second article in his series focuses on two functional blocks: the axis controller and the host controller (p. 42.)

Electrical Engineer Crossword (Issue 273)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s April electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

1.         BITDENSITY—Bits per inch of magnetic tape, for example [two words]

3.         KALMANFILTER—aka LQE [two words]

5.         EMBEDDEDSECURITY—Circuit Cellar columnist Patrick Schaumont covers this topic with articles about authentication, encryption, and electronic signatures [two words]

7.         HAMMING—Error-correcting code

8.         SPURIOUS—Unintentional

11.       LAND—Electronics and Computer Engineering professor at Cornell University and Circuit Cellar frequent contributor (many of his students contribute to Circuit Cellar as well)

13.       CLAPP—American inventor who developed an oscillator frequency standard

14.       ELECTRODE—Able to interact with nonmetallic circuit parts

16.       RINGOSCILLATOR—A feedback structure with an odd number of digital inverters [two words]

17.       PLESIOCHRONOUS—A system that’s not quite in synch

18.       OSCILLOGRAPH—Takes electric current measurements

19.       REFLECTEDBINARYCODE—Created by Bell Labs physicist and researcher Frank Gray [three words]

 

Down

2.         DEADBAND—Potentiometer’s part shortened by a tap [two words]

4.         BECHTOLSHEIM—Electronics engineer and co-founder of the company that created Java

6.         CHIPBIOMETRICS—Digital fingerprints [two words]

9.         INCANDESCENT—Illuminating

10.       ALOHANET—Computer networking system from the 1970s

12.       EEVBLOG—Where to find electronics engineer David L. Jones’s off-the-cuff online videos

15.       EULERMETHOD—Solves equations [two words]

17.       POPOV—Helped make electromagnetic radio waves more useful

Build a Simple Dedicated Tester

Whether you’re planning a small controller for your own use or an electronic device for mass production, you need to keep “testability” in mind. So, it’s a good idea to make a dedicated tester for your product part of its initial design.

Such a tester can ensure your device is functioning smoothly in your workshop—before it ships to a customer.

A dedicated tester (with the white panel) simulates inputs and loads for an embedded controller. A breakout box (with the red terminals on the panel) allows access to every interface line.

In the upcoming May issue of Circuit Cellar, columnist and engineer George Novacek discusses how to build a simple and inexpensive dedicated tester for a product.

“According to old engineering wisdom, every new project should begin with test design,” Novacek says in his column. “If you don’t follow this advice, your product may have features that are too awkward, too time-consuming, or impossible to test. You always need to keep testability in mind. Ultimately, it improves reliability, reduces manufacturing cost, minimizes field returns, speeds up production, and reduces the cost of repairs.”

Engineers certainly have access to a broad range of general testing equipment, from oscilloscopes to signal generators and analyzers.

“While these instruments are sufficient for testing, working with them solely may be slow and cumbersome,” Novacek says. “Imagine an embedded controller with a number of input and output devices, all of which need to be monitored while different signals are injected for the test. That’s where the dedicated tester comes in. Companies with deep pockets can purchase various types of automatic test equipment (ATE), but this may be too expensive for a small operation. Or, it may not be practical because of the complex setup for a low-volume production. Building a dedicated, inexpensive tester can solve the problem by ensuring an efficient and repeatable test.”

Check out the May issue of Circuit Cellar for more of Novacek’s guidance on why and how you should build a dedicated tester.

Novacek plans to continue examining product testability in upcoming issues, addressing topics that include the design of hardware and software that enables a product to be efficiently tested.

The Future of Open-Source Hardware for Medical Devices

Medical technology is changing at a rapid pace, but regulatory compliance is also becoming increasingly harder. Regulatory compliance can act as a barrier to innovation, but it is a necessary check to ensure quality medical care. For small companies, aligning innovation with regulatory compliance can only help.

Fergus Dixon

When designing any new product, the FDA-recommended process is a great reference. First, the design input requirements must be written down. After the device has been designed and prototyped, verification and validation (V&V) will ensure that the device meets the design input. The device is then documented, creating the design output or device master record (DMR). Each device made is checked against the DMR and documented in the device history record (DHR). So all the details on how to make the device are contained in the DMR, and the results and traceability are recorded in the DHR.

My company recently asked an overseas company to design and manufacture an existing product. After many e-mails, the overseas company managed to build a working unit and immediately requested an order for 1,000. Before ordering even one unit, there was the matter of V&V. So what is V&V? Verification is the act of ensuring that the circuit acts as it should, as the circuit designer intended. This involves testing to a predetermined criteria, where the pass/fail is clearly defined. Testing happens by varying the inputs and checking the outputs to test the device as close to 100% as reasonably possible. When the inputs fall outside a normal range (e.g., a 10-VDC instead of 12-VDC battery voltage), the device must still work or it must provide a message showing why the device will not work (e.g., low battery light). Validation is the act of ensuring the circuit works as the customer or patient requires. This involves field testing, feedback, and rework—lots of it.

Working for medical device companies can be very rewarding. Smaller companies tend to work at the cutting edge. Larger companies are more secure and have stable products, but they can be less agile. With one company, we had a device that used smart batteries. During testing, we discovered that the batteries would not charge below 15ºC. After many meetings and e-mails to the manufacturers, the problem went to management, who decided to change the manual to say: “Do not charge below 15ºC.” Smaller dynamic companies can attract the best scientists, which is great until a connector fails and there is a roomful of highly intelligent people with no soldering iron experience. Every technology company can benefit from having at least one experienced technician or engineer. A few hours spent playing with an Arduino is a great way to get this experience.

What about open-source hardware (OSHW) for medical devices? For home hobbyists and students, OSHW is great. There is free access to working circuits, programs, and sketches. C compilers, which once cost several thousand dollars, are mostly free. For the manufacturers, the benefits are plenty of feedback, which can be used to improve products. There is one roadblock, and that involves the loss of intellectual property (IP), which means anyone can copy the hardware. Creative Commons has addressed this with an agreement that any copies must reference the original work. Closed-source hardware can also be good and present fewer issues with losing IP. Apple is a great example. Rather than use feedback to improve products, it makes smart decisions about future products. The iOS vs. Android battle can be viewed as a closed-source vs. open-source struggle that still hasn’t produced a winner. Medical devices and OSHW will have to meet up sometime.

Fergus Dixon’s embedded DNA sequencer project (Source: F. Dixon)

What about the future of medical devices? Well, the best is yet to come with brighter organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, a multitude of wireless connectivity options (all using the serial interface), and 32-bit ARM cores. DNA is gradually being unlocked with even “junk DNA” becoming meaningful. The latest hot topics of 3-D printing and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have direct medical applications with 3-D printed prosthetic ears and medical nanorobotics ready to benefit from UAV technology. Using a new sensor (e.g., a gyroscope) now means visiting an online seller such as Pololu, which offers ready-built development kits at reasonable prices. A recent design was a manually assisted CPR device project, which was abandoned due to lack of funding. How great would it be to have a device that could not only improve the current 10% survival rate with CPR (5% without CPR) but also could measure a patient’s health to determine whether CPR was helping and, even more importantly, when to stop administering it? Now that would be a good OSHW project.

CC273: Necessity and Invention

Tom Cantrell wanted to stop fiddling with his sprinklers as he tried to balance conserving water in California and keeping his lawn green. So he asked himself if he could craft a weather-savvy sprinkler controller.

In the April issue of Circuit Cellar, he describes how to weatherize an embedded app. He uses a Texas Instruments MSP430 microcontroller and a WIZnet W5200 smart Ethernet chip to access National Weather Service forecasts and data (p. 36).

Engineer and entrepreneur Michael Hamilton also has found that necessity breeds invention—which in turn can start a new business. “While working for Ashland Chemical in clean room environments, I realized there was a need for an accurate humidity controller,” he says. “This led me to design my own temperature and humidity controller and form my first company, A&D Technologies.”

In our interview, he talks about what he has done since, including founding another company and becoming an award-winning designer in the RL78 Green Energy Challenge (p. 44).

A shift in the timing signal—or jitter—of a digital transmission can adversely affect your high-speed designs. It’s been an issue for at least 40 years, with the advent of the first all-digital telecommunications networks such as PDH. But you may not have dealt with it in your designs. In the April magazine, Robert Lacoste explains how to diagnose a case of the jitters (p. 54).

Jeff Bachiochi isn’t a musician. But he didn’t need to be one to work with the musical instrument digital interface (MIDI), which relays instructions on how to play a piece directly to an instrument (bypassing the musician). In the April issue, he describes the circuitry needed to connect to MIDI communication and display messages between devices (p. 60).

Atmel’s ATmega88 and ATmega1284 microcontrollers are at the heart of the CNC controller.

Also, Brian Millier describes how he built a microcontroller-based G-code controller for a CNC router. Even if you are not interested in building such a controller, you can learn from the techniques he used to provide the multi-axis stepper-motor motion (p. 30).

You also might find Scott Weber’s experience instructive. After placing microcontroller-based devices throughout his home, he found he needed a control panel to enable him to update the devices and check on their operation. He shares his panel’s basic structure and its software design. Its display shows him all the information he needs (p. 22).

While wear and tear affect the reliability of hardware, software reliability is different. Whatever causes software to fail is built-in, through errors ranging from poor coding to typos to omissions. On page 51, George Novacek shares some methods of calculating the probability of faults in your firmware.

Also in the April issue, Bob Japenga continues looking at concurrency in embedded systems. In the sixth article of his series, he discusses two Linux mechanisms for creating embedded systems—POSIX FIFOs and message queues (p. 48).

Finally, “From the Archives” features a 2003 article by Mark Balch about Verilog HDL. He discusses how to use it in your custom logic designs for digital systems (p. 68).