Q&A: Andrew Spitz (Co-Designer of the Arduino-Based Skube)

Andrew Spitz is a Copenhagen, Denmark-based sound designer, interaction designer, programmer, and blogger studying toward a Master’s interaction design at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID). Among his various innovative projects is the Arduino-based Skube music player, which is an innovative design that enables users to find and share music.

The Arduino-based Skube

Spitz worked on the design with Andrew Nip, Ruben van der Vleuten, and Malthe Borch. Check out the video to see the Skube in action.

On his blog SoundPlusDesign.com, Spitz writes:

It is a fully working prototype through the combination of using ArduinoMax/MSP and an XBee wireless network. We access the Last.fm API to populate the Skube with tracks and scrobble, and using their algorithms to find similar music when in Discover mode.

The following is an abridged  version of an interview that appears in the December 2012 issue of audioXpress magazine, a sister publication of Circuit Cellar magazine..

SHANNON BECKER: Tell us a little about your background and where you live.

Andrew Spitz: I’m half French, half South African. I grew up in France, but my parents are South African so when I was 17, I moved to South Africa. Last year, I decided to go back to school, and I’m now based in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’m earning a master’s degree at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CID).

SHANNON: How did you become interested in sound design? Tell us about some of your initial projects.

Andrew: From the age of 16, I was a skydiving cameraman and I was obsessed with filming. So when it was time to do my undergraduate work, I decided to study film. I went to film school thinking that I would be doing cinematography, but I’m color blind and it turned out to be a bigger problem than I had hoped. At the same time, we had a lecturer in sound design named Jahn Beukes who was incredibly inspiring, and I discovered a passion for sound that has stayed with me.

Shannon: What do your interaction design studies at CIID entail? What do you plan to do with the additional education?

Andrew: CIID is focused on a user-centered approach to design, which involves finding intuitive solutions for products, software, and services using mostly technology as our medium. What this means in reality is that we spend a lot of time playing, hacking, prototyping, and basically building interactive things and experiences of some sort.

I’ve really committed to the shift from sound design to interaction design and it’s now my main focus. That said, I feel like I look at design from the lens of a sound designer as this is my background and what has formed me. Many designers around me are very visual, and I feel like my background gives me not only a different approach to the work but also enables me to see opportunities using sound as the catalyst for interactive experiences. Lots of my recent projects have been set in the intersection among technology, sound, and people.

SHANNON: You have worked as a sound effects recordist and editor, location recordist and sound designer for commercials, feature films, and documentaries. Tell us about some of these experiences?

ANDREW: I love all aspects of sound for different reasons. Because I do a lot of things and don’t focus on one, I end up having more of a general set of skills than going deep with one—this fits my personality very well. By doing different jobs within sound, I was able to have lots of different experiences, which I loved! nLocation recording enabled me to see really interesting things—from blowing up armored vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to interviewing famous artists and presidents. And, documentaries enabled me to travel to amazing places such as Rwanda, Liberia, Mexico, and Nigeria. As a sound effects recordist on Jock of the Bushvelt, a 3-D animation, I recorded animals such as lions, baboons, and leopards in the South African bush. With Bakgat 2, I spent my time recording and editing rugby sounds to create a sound effects library. This time in my life has been a huge highlight, but I couldn’t see myself doing this forever. I love technology and design, which is why I made the move...

SHANNON: Where did the idea for Skube originate?

Andrew: Skube came out of the Tangible User Interface (TUI) class at CIID where we were tasked to rethink audio in the home context. So understanding how and where people share music was the jumping-off point for creating Skube.

We realized that as we move more toward a digital and online music listening experience, current portable music players are not adapted for this environment. Sharing mSkube Videousic in communal spaces is neither convenient nor easy, especially when we all have such different taste in music.

The result of our exploration was Skube. It is a music player that enables you to discover and share music and facilitates the decision process of picking tracks when in a communal setting.

audioXpress is an Elektor International Media publication.

Debugging USB Firmware

You’ve written firmware for your USB device and are ready to test it. You attach the device to a PC and the hardware wizard announces: “The device didn’t start.” Or, the device installs but doesn’t send or receive data. Or, data is being dropped, the throughput is low, or some other problem presents itself. What do you do?

This article explores tools and techniques to debug the USB devices you design. The focus is on USB 2.0 devices, but much of the information also applies to developing USB 3.0 (SuperSpeed) devices and USB hosts for embedded systems.


If you do anything beyond a small amount of USB developing, a USB protocol analyzer will save you time and trouble. Analyzers cost less than they used to and are well worth the investment.

A hardware-based analyzer connects in a cable segment upstream from the device under test (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: The device under test connects to the analyzer, which
captures the data and passes it unchanged to the device’s host. The
cable on the back of the analyzer carries the captured data to the
analyzer’s host PC for display.

You can view the data down to each packet’s individual bytes and see exactly what the host and device did and didn’t send (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: This bus capture shows the host’s request for a configuration
descriptor and the bytes the device sent in response. Because the endpoint’s
maximum packet size is eight, the device sends the first 8 bytes in one
transaction and the final byte in a second transaction.

An analyzer can also decode data to show standard USB requests and class-specific data (see Photo 3).

Photo 3: This display decodes a received configuration descriptor and its subordinate descriptors.

To avoid corrupted data caused by the electrical effects of the analyzer’s connectors and circuits, use short cables (e.g., 3’ or less) to connect the analyzer to the device under test.

Software-only protocol analyzers, which run entirely on the device’s host PC, can also be useful. But, this kind of analyzer only shows data at the host-driver level, not the complete packets on the bus.


The first rule for developing USB device firmware is to remember that the host computer controls the bus. Devices just need to respond to received data and events. Device firmware shouldn’t make assumptions about what the host will do next.

For example, some flash drives work under Windows but break when attached to a host with an OS that sends different USB requests or mass-storage commands, sends commands in a different order, or detects errors Windows ignores. This problem is so common that Linux has a file, unusual_devs.h, with fixes for dozens of misbehaving drives.

The first line of defense in writing USB firmware is the free USB-IF Test Suite from the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the trade group that publishes the USB specifications. During testing, the suite replaces the host’s USB driver with a special test driver. The suite’s USB Command Verifier tool checks for errors (e.g., malformed descriptors, invalid responses to standard USB requests, responses to Suspend and Resume signaling, etc.). The suite also provides tests for devices in some USB classes, such as human interface devices (HID), mass storage, and video.

Running the tests will usually reveal issues that need attention. Passing the tests is a requirement for the right to display the USB-IF’s Certified USB logo.


Like networks, USB communications have layers that isolate different logical functions (see Table 1).

Table 1: USB communications use layers, which are each responsible for a
specific logical function.

The USB protocol layer manages USB transactions, which carry data packets to and from device endpoints. A device endpoint is a buffer that is a source or sink of data at the device. The host sends data to Out endpoints and receives data from In endpoints. (Even though endpoints are on devices, In and Out are defined from the host’s perspective.)

The device layer manages USB transfers, with each transfer moving a chunk of data consisting of one or more transactions. To meet the needs of different peripherals, the USB 2.0 specification defines four transfer types: control, interrupt, bulk, and isochronous.

The function layer manages protocols specific to a device’s function (e.g., mouse, printer, or drive). The function protocols may be a combination of USB class, industry, and vendor-defined protocols.


The layers supported by device firmware vary with the device hardware. At one end of the spectrum, a Future Technology Devices International (FTDI) FT232R USB UART controller handles all the USB protocols in hardware. The chip has a USB device port that connects to a host computer and a UART port that connects to an asynchronous serial port on the device.

Device firmware reads and writes data on the serial port, and the FT232R converts it between the USB and UART protocols. The device firmware doesn’t have to know anything about USB. This feature has made the FT232R and similar chips popular!

An example of a chip that is more flexible but requires more firmware support is Microchip Technology’s PIC18F4550 microcontroller, which has an on-chip, full-speed USB device controller. In return for greater firmware complexity, the PIC18F4550 isn’t limited to a particular host driver and can support any USB class or function.

Each of the PIC18F4550’s USB endpoints has a series of registers—called a buffer descriptor table (BDT)—that store the endpoint buffer’s address, the number of bytes to send or receive, and the endpoint’s status. One of the BDT’s status bits determines the BDT’s ownership. When the CPU owns the BDT, firmware can write to the registers to prepare to send data or to retrieve received data. When the USB module owns the BDT, the endpoint can send or receive data on the bus.

To send a data packet from an In endpoint, firmware stores the bytes’ starting address to send and the number of bytes and sets a register bit to transfer ownership of the BDT to the USB module. The USB module sends the data in response to a received In token packet on the endpoint and returns BDT ownership to the CPU so firmware can set up the endpoint to send another packet.

To receive a packet on an Out endpoint, firmware stores the buffer’s starting address for received bytes and the maximum number of bytes to receive and transfers ownership of the BDT to the USB module. When data arrives, the USB module returns BDT ownership to the CPU so firmware can retrieve the data and transfer ownership of the BDT back to the USB module to enable the receipt of another packet.

Other USB controllers have different architectures and different ways of managing USB communications. Consult your controller chip’s datasheet and programming guide for details. Example code from the chip vendor or other sources can be helpful.


A USB 2.0 transaction consists of a token packet and, as needed, a data packet and a handshake packet. The token packet identifies the packet’s type (e.g., In or Out), the destination device and endpoint, and the data packet direction.

The data packet, when present, contains data sent by the host or device. The handshake packet, when present, indicates the transaction’s success or failure.

The data and handshake packets must transmit quickly after the previous packet, with only a brief inter-packet delay and bus turnaround time, if needed. Thus, device hardware typically manages the receiving and sending of packets within a transaction.

For example, if an endpoint’s buffer has room to accept a data packet, the endpoint stores the received data and returns ACK in the handshake packet. Device firmware can then retrieve the data from the buffer. If the buffer is full because firmware didn’t retrieve previously received data, the endpoint returns NAK, requiring the host to try again. In a similar way, an In endpoint will NAK transactions until firmware has loaded the endpoint’s buffer with data to send.

Fine tuning the firmware to quickly write and retrieve data can improve data throughput by reducing or eliminating NAKs. Some device controllers support ping-pong buffers that enable an endpoint to store multiple packets, alternating between the buffers, as needed.


In all but isochronous transfers, a data-toggle value in the data packet’s packet identification (PID) field guards against missed or duplicate data packets. If you’re debugging a device where data is transmitting on the bus and the receiver is returning ACK but ignoring or discarding the data, chances are good that the device isn’t sending or expecting the correct data-toggle value. Some device controllers handle the data toggles completely in hardware, while others require some firmware control.

Each endpoint maintains its own data toggle. The values are DATA0 (0011B) and DATA1 (1011B). Upon detecting an incoming data packet, the receiver compares its data toggle’s state with the received data toggle. If the values match, the receiver toggles its value and returns ACK, causing the sender to toggle its value for the next transaction.

The next received packet should contain the opposite data toggle, and again the receiver toggles its bit and returns ACK. Except for control transfers, the data toggle on each end continues to alternate in each transaction. (Control transfers always use DATA0 in the Setup stage, toggle the value for each transaction in the Data stage, and use DATA1 in the Status stage.)

If the receiver returns NAK or no response, the sender doesn’t toggle its bit and tries again with the same data and data toggle. If a receiver returns ACK, but for some reason the sender doesn’t see the ACK, the sender thinks the receiver didn’t receive the data and tries again using the same data and data toggle. In this case, the repeated data receiver ignores the data, doesn’t toggle the data toggle, and returns ACK, resynchronizing the data toggles. If the sender mistakenly sends two packets in a row with the same data-toggle value, upon receiving the second packet, the receiver ignores the data, doesn’t toggle its value, and returns ACK.


All USB devices must support control transfers and may support other transfer types. Control transfers provide a structure for sending requests but have no guaranteed delivery time. Interrupt transfers have a guaranteed maximum latency (i.e., delay) between transactions, but the host permits less bandwidth for interrupt transfers compared to other transfer types. Bulk transfers are the fastest on an otherwise idle bus, but they have no guaranteed delivery time, and thus can be slow on a busy bus. Isochronous transfers have guaranteed delivery time but no built-in error correction.

A transfer’s amount of data depends in part on the higher-level protocol that determines the data packets’ contents. For example, a keyboard sends keystroke data in an interrupt transfer that consists of one transaction with 8 data bytes. To send a large file to a drive, the host typically uses one or more large transfers consisting of multiple transactions. For a high-speed drive, each transaction, except possibly the last one, has 512 data bytes, which is the maximum-allowed packet size for high-speed bulk endpoints.

What determines a transfer’s end varies with the USB class or vendor protocol. In many cases, a transfer ends with a short packet, which is a packet that contains less than the packet’s maximum-allowed data bytes. If the transfer has an even multiple of the packet’s maximum-allowed bytes, the sender may indicate the end of the transfer with a zero-length packet (ZLP), which is a data packet with a PID and error-checking bits but no data.

For example, USB virtual serial-port devices in the USB communications device class use short packets to indicate the transfer’s end. If a device has sent data that is an exact multiple of the endpoint’s maximum packet size and the host sends another In token packet, the endpoint should return a ZLP to indicate the data’s end.


Upon device attachment, in a process called enumeration, the host learns about the device by requesting a series of data structures called descriptors. The host uses the descriptors’ information to assign a driver to the device.

If enumeration doesn’t complete, the device doesn’t have an assigned driver, and it can’t perform its function with the host. When Windows fails to find an appropriate driver, the setupapi.dev.log file in Windowsinf (for Windows 7) can offer clues about what went wrong. A protocol analyzer shows if the device returned all requested descriptors and reveals mistakes in the descriptors.

During device development, you may need to change the descriptors (e.g., add, remove, or edit an endpoint descriptor). Windows has the bad habit of remembering a device’s previous descriptors on the assumption that a device will never change its descriptors. To force Windows to use new descriptors, uninstall then physically remove and reattach the device from Windows Device Manager. Another option is to change the device descriptor’s product ID to make the device appear as a different device.


Unlike the other transfer types, control transfers have multiple stages: setup, (optional) data, and status. Devices must accept all error-free data packets that follow a Setup token packet and return ACK. If the device is in the middle of another control transfer and the host sends a new Setup packet, the device must abandon the first transfer and begin the new one. The data packet in the Setup stage contains important information firmware should completely decode (see Table 2).

Table 2: Device firmware should fully decode the data received in a control transfer’s Setup stage. (Source: USB Implementers Forum, Inc.)

The wLength field specifies how many bytes the host wants to receive. A device shouldn’t assume how much data the host wants but should check wLength and send no more than the requested number of bytes.

For example, a request for a configuration descriptor is actually a request for the configuration descriptor and all of its subordinate descriptors. But, in the first request for a device’s configuration descriptor, the host typically sets the wLength field to 9 to request only the configuration descriptor. The descriptor contains a wTotalLength value that holds the number of bytes in the configuration descriptor and its subordinate descriptors. The host then resends the request setting wLength to wTotalLength or a larger value (e.g., FFh). The device returns the requested descriptor set up to wTotalLength. (Don’t assume the host will do it this way. Always check wLength!)

Each Setup packet also has a bmRequestType field. This field specifies the data transfer direction (if any), whether the recipient is the device or an interface or endpoint, and whether the request is a standard USB request, a USB class request, or a vendor-defined request. Firmware should completely decode this field to correctly identify received requests.

A composite device has multiple interfaces that function independently. For example, a printer might have a printer interface, a mass-storage interface for storing files, and a vendor-specific interface to support vendor-defined capabilities. For requests targeted to an interface, the wIndex field typically specifies which interface applies to the request.


For interrupt endpoints, the endpoint descriptor contains a bInterval value that specifies the endpoint’s maximum latency. This value is the longest delay a host should use between transaction attempts.

A host can use the bInterval delay time or a shorter period. For example, if a full-speed In endpoint has a bInterval value of 10, the host can poll the endpoint every 1 to 10 ms. Host controllers typically use predictable values, but a design shouldn’t rely on transactions occurring more frequently than the bInterval value.

Also, the host controller reserves bandwidth for interrupt endpoints, but the host can’t send data until a class or vendor driver provides something to send. When an application requests data to be sent or received, the transfer’s first transaction may be delayed due to passing the request to the driver and scheduling the transfer.

Once the host controller has scheduled the transfer, any additional transaction attempts within the transfer should occur on time, as defined by the endpoint’s maximum latency. For this reason, sending a large data block in a single transfer with multiple transactions can be more efficient than using multiple transfers with a portion of the data in each transfer.


Most devices’ functions fit a defined USB class (e.g., mass storage, printer, audio, etc.). The USB-IF’s class specifications define protocols for devices in the classes.

For example, devices in the HID class must send and receive all data in data structures called reports. The supported report’s length and the meaning of its data (e.g., keypresses, mouse movements, etc.) are defined in a class-specific report descriptor.

If your HID-class device is sending data but the host application isn’t seeing the data, verify the number of bytes the device is sending matches the number of bytes in a defined report. The device should prepend a report-ID byte to the data only if the HID supports report IDs other than the zero default value.

In many devices, class specifications define class-specific requests or other requirements. For example, a mass storage device that uses the bulk-only protocol must provide a unique serial number in a string descriptor. Carefully read and heed any class specifications that apply to your device!

Many devices also support industry protocols to perform higher-level functions. Printers typically support one or more printer-control languages (e.g., PCL and Postscript). Mass-storage devices support SCSI commands to transfer data blocks and a file system (e.g., FAT32) to define a directory structure.

The higher-level industry protocols don’t depend on a particular hardware interface, so there is little about debugging them that is USB-specific. But, because these protocols can be complicated, example code for your device can be helpful.

In the end, much about debugging USB firmware is like debugging any hardware or software. A good understanding of how the communications should work provides a head start on writing good firmware and finding the source of any problems that may appear.

Jan Axelson is the author of USB Embedded Hosts, USB Complete, and Serial Port Complete. Jan’s PORTS web forum is available at www.lvr.com.


Jan Axelson’s Lakeview Research, “USB Development Tools: Protocol analyzers,” www.lvr.com/development_tools.htm#analyzers.

This article appears in Circuit Cellar 268 (November 2012).

DIY Green Energy Design Projects

Ready to start a low-power or energy-monitoring microcontroller-based design project? You’re in luck. We’re featuring eight award-winning, green energy-related designs that will help get your creative juices flowing.

The projects listed below placed at the top of Renesas’s RL78 Green Energy Challenge.

Electrostatic Cleaning Robot: Solar tracking mirrors, called heliostats, are an integral part of Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants. They must be kept clean to help maximize the production of steam, which generates power. Using an RL78, the innovative Electrostatic Cleaning Robot provides a reliable cleaning solution that’s powered entirely by photovoltaic cells. The robot traverses the surface of the mirror and uses a high voltage AC electric field to sweep away dust and debris.

Parts and circuitry inside the robot cleaner

Cloud Electrofusion Machine: Using approximately 400 times less energy than commercial electrofusion machines, the Cloud Electrofusion Machine is designed for welding 0.5″ to 2″ polyethylene fittings. The RL78-controlled machine is designed to read a barcode on the fitting which determines fusion parameters and traceability. Along with the barcode data, the system logs GPS location to an SD card, if present, and transmits the data for each fusion to a cloud database for tracking purposes and quality control.

Inside the electrofusion machine (Source: M. Hamilton)

The Sun Chaser: A GPS Reference Station: The Sun Chaser is a well-designed, solar-based energy harvesting system that automatically recalculates the direction of a solar panel to ensure it is always facing the sun. Mounted on a rotating disc, the solar panel’s orientation is calculated using the registered GPS position. With an external compass, the internal accelerometer, a DC motor and stepper motor, you can determine the solar panel’s exact position. The system uses the Renesas RDKRL78G13 evaluation board running the Micrium µC/OS-III real-time kernel.

[Video: ]

Water Heater by Solar Concentration: This solar water heater is powered by the RL78 evaluation board and designed to deflect concentrated amounts of sunlight onto a water pipe for continual heating. The deflector, armed with a counterweight for easy tilting, automatically adjusts the angle of reflection for maximum solar energy using the lowest power consumption possible.

RL78-based solar water heater (Source: P. Berquin)

Air Quality Mapper: Want to make sure the air along your daily walking path is clean? The Air Quality Mapper is a portable device designed to track levels of CO2 and CO gasses for constructing “Smog Maps” to determine the healthiest routes. Constructed with an RDKRL78G13, the Mapper receives location data from its GPS module, takes readings of the CO2 and CO concentrations along a specific route and stores the data in an SD card. Using a PC, you can parse the SD card data, plot it, and upload it automatically to an online MySQL database that presents the data in a Google map.

Air quality mapper design (Source: R. Alvarez Torrico)

Wireless Remote Solar-Powered “Meteo Sensor”: You can easily measure meteorological parameters with the “Meteo Sensor.” The RL78 MCU-based design takes cyclical measurements of temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, and supply voltage, and shares them using digital radio transceivers. Receivers are configured for listening of incoming data on the same radio channel. It simplifies the way weather data is gathered and eases construction of local measurement networks while being optimized for low energy usage and long battery life.

The design takes cyclical measurements of temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, and supply voltage, and shares them using digital radio transceivers. (Source: G. Kaczmarek)

Portable Power Quality Meter: Monitoring electrical usage is becoming increasingly popular in modern homes. The Portable Power Quality Meter uses an RL78 MCU to read power factor, total harmonic distortion, line frequency, voltage, and electrical consumption information and stores the data for analysis.

The portable power quality meter uses an RL78 MCU to read power factor, total harmonic distortion, line frequency, voltage, and electrical consumption information and stores the data for analysis. (Source: A. Barbosa)

High-Altitude Low-Cost Experimental Glider (HALO): The “HALO” experimental glider project consists of three main parts. A weather balloon is the carrier section. A glider (the payload of the balloon) is the return section. A ground base section is used for communication and display telemetry data (not part of the contest project). Using the REFLEX flight simulator for testing, the glider has its own micro-GPS receiver, sensors and low-power MCU unit. It can take off, climb to pre-programmed altitude and return to a given coordinate.

High-altitude low-cost experimental glider (Source: J. Altenburg)

CC268: The History of Embedded Tech

At the end of September 2012, an enthusiastic crew of electrical engineers and journalists (and significant others) traveled to Portsmouth, NH, from locations as far apart as San Luis Obispo, CA,  and Paris, France, to celebrate Circuit Cellar’s 25th anniversary. Attendees included Don Akkermans (Director, Elektor International Media), Steve Ciarcia (Founder, Circuit Cellar), the current magazine staff, and several well-known engineers, editors, and columnists. The event marked the beginning of the next chapter in the history of this long-revered publication. As you’d expect, contributors and staffers both reminisced about the past and shared ideas about its future. And in many instances, the conversations turned to the content in this issue, which was at that time entering the final phase of production. Why? We purposely designed this issue (and next month’s) to feature a diversity of content that would represent the breadth of coverage we’ve come to deliver during the past quarter century. A quick look at this issue’s topics gives you an idea of how far embedded technology has come. The topics also point to the fact that some of the most popular ’80s-era engineering concerns are as relevant as ever. Let’s review.

In the earliest issues of Circuit Cellar, home control was one of the hottest topics. Today, inventive DIY home control projects are highly coveted by professional engineers and newbies alike. On page 16, Scott Weber presents an interesting GPS-based time server for lighting control applications. An MCU extracts time from GPS data and transmits it to networked devices.

The time-broadcasting device includes a circuit board that’s attached to a GPS module. (Source: S. Weber, CC268)

Thiadmer Riemersma’s DIY automated component dispenser is a contemporary solution to a problem that has frustrated engineers for decades (p. 26). The MCU-based design simplifies component management and will be a welcome addition to any workbench.

The DIY automated component dispenser. (Source: T. Riemersma, CC268)

USB technology started becoming relevant in the mid-to-late 1990s, and since then has become the go-to connection option for designers and end users alike. Turn to page 30 for Jan Axelson’s  tips about debugging USB firmware. Axelson covers controller architectures and details devices such as the FTDI FT232R USB UART controller and Microchip Technology’s PIC18F4550 microcontroller.

Debugging USB firmware (Source: J. Axelson, CC268)

Electrical engineers have been trying to “control time” in various ways since the earliest innovators began studying and experimenting with electric charge. Contemporary timing control systems are implemented in a amazing ways. For instance, Richard Lord built a digital camera controller that enables him to photograph the movement of high-speed objects (p. 36).

Security and product reliability are topics that have been on the minds of engineers for decades. Whether you’re working on aerospace electronics or a compact embedded system for your workbench (p. 52), you’ll want to ensure your data is protected and that you’ve gone through the necessary steps to predict your project’s likely reliability (p. 60).

The issue’s last two articles detail how to use contemporary electronics to improve older mechanical systems. On page 64 George Martin presents a tachometer design you can implement immediately in a machine shop. And lastly, on page 70, Jeff Bachiochi wraps up his series “Mechanical Gyroscope Replacement.” The goal is to transmit reliable data to motor controllers. The photo below shows the Pololu MinIMU-9.

The Pololu MinIMU-9’s sensor axes are aligned with the mechanical gyro so the x and y output pitch and roll, respectively. (Source: J. Bachiochi, CC268)

CC266: Microcontroller-Based Data Management

Regardless of your area of embedded design or programming expertise, you have one thing in common with every electronics designer, programmer, and engineering student across the globe: almost everything you do relates to data. Each workday, you busy yourself with acquiring data, transmitting it, repackaging it, compressing it, securing it, sharing it, storing it, analyzing it, converting it, deleting it, decoding it, quantifying it, graphing it, and more. I could go on, but I won’t. The idea is clear: manipulating and controlling data in its many forms is essential to everything you do.

The ubiquitous importance of data is what makes Circuit Cellar’s Data Acquisition issue one of the most popular each year. And since you’re always seeking innovative ways to obtain, secure, and transmit data, we consider it our duty to deliver you a wide variety of content on these topics. The September 2012 issue (Circuit Cellar 266) features both data acquisition system designs and tips relating to control and data management.

On page 18, Brian Beard explains how he planned and built a microcontroller-based environmental data logger. The system can sense and record relative light intensity, barometric pressure, relative humidity, and more.

a: This is the environmental data logger’s (EDL) circuit board. b: This is the back of the EDL.

Data acquisition has been an important theme for engineering instructor Miguel Sánchez, who since 2005 has published six articles in Circuit Cellar about projects such as a digital video recorder (Circuit Cellar 174), “teleporting” serial communications via the ’Net (Circuit Cellar 193), and a creative DIY image-processing system (Circuit Cellar 263). An informative interview with Miguel begins on page 28.

Turn to page 38 for an informative article about how to build a compact acceleration data acquisition system. Mark Csele covers everything you need to know from basic physics to system design to acceleration testing.

This is the complete portable accelerometer design. with the serial download adapter. The adapter is installed only when downloading data to a PC and mates with an eight pin connector on the PCB. The rear of the unit features three powerful
rare-earth magnets that enable it to be attached to a vehicle.

In “Hardware-Accelerated Encryption,” Patrick Schaumont describes a hardware accelerator for data encryption (p. 48). He details the advanced encryption standard (AES) and encourages you to consider working with an FPGA.

This is the embedded processor design flow with FPGA. a: A C program is compiled for a softcore CPU, which is configured in an FPGA. b: To accelerate this C program, it is partitioned into a part for the software CPU, and a part that will be implemented as a hardware accelerator. The softcore CPU is configured together with the hardware accelerator in the FPGA.

Are you now ready to start a new data acquisition project? If so, read George Novacek’s article “Project Configuration Control” (p. 58), George Martin’s article “Software & Design File Organization” (p. 62), and Jeff Bachiochi’s article “Flowcharting Made Simple” (p. 66) before hitting your workbench. You’ll find their tips on project organization, planning, and implementation useful and immediately applicable.

Lastly, on behalf of the entire Circuit Cellar/Elektor team, I congratulate the winners of the DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge. Turn to page 32 to learn about Dean Boman’s First Prize-winning energy-monitoring system, as well as the other exceptional projects that placed at the top. The complete projects (abstracts, photos, schematic, and code) for all the winning entries are posted on the DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge website.

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.

DIY Internet-Enabled Home Control System

Why shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars on various home control systems (HCS) when you have the skills and resources to build your own? You can design and implement sophisticated Internet-enabled systems with free tools and some careful planning.

John Breitenbach did just that. He used a microcontroller, free software, and a cloud-based data platform to construct a remote monitoring system for his home’s water heater. The innovative design can email or text status messages and emergency alerts to a smartphone. You can build a similar system to monitor any number of appliances, rooms, or buildings.

An abridged version of Breitenbach’s article, “Internet-Enabled Home Control” (Circuit Cellar 264, July 2012), appears below. (A link to the entire article and an access password are noted at the end of this post.) Breitenbach writes:

Moving from the Northeast to North Carolina, my wife and I were surprised to find that most homes don’t have basements. In the north, the frost line is 36˝–48 ˝ below the surface. To prevent frost heave, foundations must be dug at least that deep. So, digging down an extra few feet to create a basement makes sense. Because the frost line is only 15 ˝ in the Raleigh area, builders rarely excavate the additional 8’ to create basements.

The lack of basements means builders must find unique locations for a home’s mechanical systems including the furnace, AC unit, and water heater. I was shocked to find that my home’s water heater is located in the attic, right above one of the bedrooms (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: My home’s water heater is located in our attic. (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)

During my high school summers I worked for my uncle’s plumbing business (“Breitenbach Plumbing—We’re the Best, Don’t Call the Rest”) and saw firsthand the damage water can do to a home. Water heaters can cause some dramatic end-of-life plumbing failures, dumping 40 or more gallons of water at once followed by the steady flow of the supply line.

Having cleaned up the mess of a failed water heater in my own basement up north, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I discovered the water heater in my North Carolina attic. For peace of mind, especially when traveling, I instrumented my attic so I could be notified immediately if water started to leak. My goal was to use a microcontroller so I could receive push notifications via e-mails or text messages. In addition to emergency messages, status messages sent on a regular basis reassure me the system is running. I also wanted to use a web browser to check the current status at any time.


The attic monitor is based on Renesas Electronics’s YRDKRX62N demonstration kit, which features the RX62N 32-bit microcontroller (see Photo 2). Renesas has given away thousands of these boards to promote the RX, and the boards are also widely available through distributors. The YRDK board has a rich feature set including a graphics display, push buttons, and an SD-card slot, plus Ethernet, USB, and serial ports. An Analog Devices ADT7420 digital I2C temperature sensor also enables you to keep an eye on the attic temperature. I plan to use this for a future addition to the project that compares this temperature to the outside air temperature to control an attic fan.

Photo 2: The completed board, which is based on a Renesas Electronics YRDKRX62N demonstration kit. (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)


Commercial water-detection sensors are typically made from two exposed conductive surfaces in close proximity to each other on a nonconductive surface. Think of a single-sided PCB with no solder mask and tinned traces (see Photo 3).

Photo 3: A leak sensor (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)

These sensors rely on the water conductivity to close the circuit between the two conductors. I chose a sensor based on this type of design for its low cost. But, once I received the sensors, I realized I could have saved myself a few bucks by making my own sensor from a couple of wires or a piece of proto-board.

When standing water on the sensor shorts the two contacts, the resistance across the sensor drops to between 400 kΩ and 600 kΩ. The sensor is used as the bottom resistor in a voltage divider with a 1-MΩ resistor up top. The output of the divider is routed to the 12-bit analog inputs on the RX62N microcontroller. Figure 1 shows the sensor interface circuit. When the voltage read by the analog-to-digital converter (ADC) drops below 2 V, it’s time to start bailing. Two sensors are connected: one in the catch pan under the water heater, and a second one just outside the catch pan to detect failures in the small expansion tank.

Figure 1: The sensor interface to the YRDK RX62N board


One of my project goals was to push notifications to my cell phone because Murphy’s Law says water heaters are likely to fail while you’re away for the weekend. Because I wanted to keep the project costs low, I used my home’s broadband connection as the gateway for the attic monitor. The Renesas RX62N microcontroller includes a 100-Mbps Ethernet controller, so I simply plugged in the cable to connect the board to my home network. The open-source µIP stack supplied by Renesas with the YRDK provides the protocol engine needed to talk to the Internet.

There were a couple of complications with using my home network as the attic monitor’s gateway to the world. It is behind a firewall built into my router and, for security reasons, I don’t want to open up ports to the outside world.

My Internet service provider (ISP) occasionally changes the Internet protocol (IP) address associated with my cable modem. So I would never know what address to point my web browser. I needed a solution that would address both of these problems. Enter Exosite, a company that provides solutions for cloud-based, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.


Exosite provides a number of software components and services that enable M2M communications via the cloud. This is a different philosophy from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems I’ve used in the past. The control systems I’ve worked on over the years typically involve a local host polling the hundreds or thousands of connected sensors and actuators that make up a commercial SCADA system. These systems are generally designed to be monitored locally at a single location. In the case of the attic monitor, my goal was to access a limited number of data points from anywhere, and have the system notify me rather than having to continuously poll. Ideally, I’d only hear from the device when there was a problem.

Exosite is the perfect solution: the company publishes a set of simple application programming interfaces (APIs) using standard web protocols that enable smart devices to push data to their servers in the cloud in real time. Once the data is in the cloud, events, alerts, and scripts can be created to do different things with the data—in my case, to send me an e-mail and SMS text alert if there is anything wrong with my water heater. Connected devices can share data with each other or pull data from public data sources, such as public weather stations. Exosite has an industrial-strength platform for large-scale commercial applications. It provides free access to it for the open-source community. I can create a free account that enables me to connect one or two devices to the Exosite platform.

Embedded devices using Exosite are responsible for pushing data to the server and pulling data from it. Devices use simple HTTP requests to accomplish this. This works great in my home setup because the attic monitor can work through my firewall, even when my Internet provider occasionally changes the IP address of my cable modem. Figure 2 shows the network diagram.

Figure 2: The cloud-based network


Web-based dashboards hosted on Exosite’s servers can be built and configured to show real-time and historical data from connected devices. Controls, such as switches, can be added to the dashboards to push data back down to the device, enabling remote control of embedded devices. Because the user interface is “in the cloud,” there is no need to store all the user interface (UI) widgets and data in the embedded device, which greatly reduces the storage requirements. Photo 4 shows the dashboard for the attic monitor.

Photo 4: Exosite dashboard for the attic monitor

Events and alerts can be added to the dashboard. These are logical evaluations Exosite’s server performs on the incoming data. Events can be triggered based on simple comparisons (e.g., a data value is too high or too low) or complex combinations of a comparison plus a duration (e.g., a data value remains too high for a period of time). Setting up a leak event for one of the sensors is shown in Photo 5.

Photo 5: Creating an event in Exosite

In this case, the event is triggered when the reported ADC voltage is less than 2 V. An event can also be triggered if Exosite doesn’t receive an update from the device for a set period of time. This last feature can be used as a watchdog to ensure the device is still working.

When an event is triggered, an alert can optionally be sent via e-mail. This is the final link that enables an embedded device in my attic to contact me anywhere, anytime, to alert me to a problem. Though I have a smartphone that enables me to access my e-mail account, I can also route the alarm message to my wife’s simpler phone through her cellular provider’s e-mail-to-text-message gateway. Most cellular providers offer this service, which works by sending an e-mail to a special address containing the cell phone number. On the Verizon network, the e-mail address is <yourcellularnumber>@vtext.com. Other providers have similar gateways.

The attic monitor periodically sends heartbeat messages to Exosite to let me know it’s still working. It also sends the status of the water sensors and the current temperature in the attic. I can log in to Exosite at any time to see my attic’s real-time status. I have also configured events and alarms that will notify me if a leak is detected or if the temperature gets too hot…

The complete article includes details such about the Internet engine, reading the cloud, tips for updating the design, and more.  You can read the entire article by typing netenabledcontrol to open the password-protected PDF.

Build a Microcontroller-Based Mail Client

Does the sheer amount of junk mail that fills your Inbox make you hate everything about e-mail? If so, it’s time to have a little fun with electronic mail by building a compact microcontroller-based mail client system. Alexander Mann designed a system that uses an Atmel ATmega32 and a Microchip Technology ENC28J60 Ethernet controller to check continuously for e-mail. When a message arrives, he can immediately read it on the system’s LCD and respond with a standard keyboard.

Mann writes:

My MiniEmail system is a compact microcontroller-based mail client (see Photo 1). The silent, easy-to-use system doesn’t require a lot of power and it is immune to mail worms. Another advantage is the system’s short start-up time. If you want to write a quick e-mail but your PC is off, you can simply switch on the miniature e-mail client and start writing without having to wait for your PC to boot up and load the necessary applications. All you need is an Ethernet connection and the MiniEmail system.

Photo 1: The complete MiniEmail system includes an LCD, a keyboard, and several connections. (A. Mann, Circuit Cellar 204)


The hardware for the MiniEmail system is inexpensive. It cost me about $50. The LCD is the most expensive part. To keep things simple, I left the system’s power supply, 5- to 3.3-V conversion crystals, and latch out of Figure 1.

Figure 1: This is a block diagram of MiniEmail’s hardware. The arrows indicate the directions of data flow between the devices. The rounded boxes indicate parts that do not sit on the circuit board.

The main components are an Atmel ATmega32 microcontroller and a Microchip Technology ENC28J60 Ethernet controller. Because a mail client is a piece of complex software, you need a fast microcontroller that has a considerable amount of program space. The MiniEmail system uses almost all of the ATmega32’s features, including the SPI, internal EEPROM and SRAM, counters, USART interface, sleep modes, all 32 I/O lines, and most of the 32 KB of program memory. The ENC28J60 is a stand-alone Ethernet controller that provides basic functionality for transmitting frames over an Ethernet connection. It has 8 KB of built-in SRAM, which can be divided into transmit and receive buffers as desired, and it provides several interrupt sources (e.g., when new packets have arrived). The ATmega32 also has 128 KB of external SRAM connected as well as an LCD, which is a standard module with a resolution of 128 × 64 pixels.

Take a look at the ATmega32’s pin connections in Figure 2. Ports A and C are used as 8-bit-wide general I/O ports, one of which is latched using an NXP Semiconductors 74HC573.

Figure 2: Here’s the complete schematic for the MiniEmail. The LF1S022 is the RJ-45 connector for the Ethernet connection.

The two ports provide data connections to the LCD and SRAM (U3). For the SRAM, you need three additional wires: write (*RAM_WR), read strobe (*RAM_RD), and the seventeenth bit of the address (ADDR16). The LCD connector (CON1) uses five additional wires (for the signals CS1, CS2, DI, EN, and RW). CS1 and CS2 are taken from the general I/O port A (DATA6 and DATA7) and determine which of the two halves of the LCD is selected (i.e., the two controllers on the LCD module you are talking to). RW (where you can use ADDR16 again) sets the direction of the LCD access (read or write). DI describes the type of instruction sent to the LCD. EN is the enable signal for read and write cycles. For the keyboard, you need only two pins: KEY_DATA and KEY_CLOCK. The clock signal must be connected to an external interrupt pin, INT1. One additional wire is needed to switch the latch (LE).

You are left with eight I/O pins on the ATmega32’s ports B and D. RXD and TXD are connected to a MAX232, an RS-232 level converter that also provides the negative supply voltage needed for the LCD (LCD_VOUT in Figure 2). The ATmega32’s USART functionality is used as a debugging interface. It isn’t needed for normal operation.


The firmware for this project is posted on the Circuit Cellar FTP site. I wrote the firmware in C language with a few small parts of inline assembler. I used the open-source software suite WinAVR, which includes the GNU GCC compiler with special libraries for AVR devices and avrdude, a tool for the in-system programming of AVR microcontrollers…


The user interface consists of three control elements: menus, edit fields, and an elaborate text editor. A special screen (the Mail Menu) enables you to quickly browse through your mailbox. After power-up, the system displays a greeting message. After a short while, the Main menu appears (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: This is a screenshot of MiniEmail’s main menu. In the upper-right corner, a clock shows the current time, which is retrieved from the Internet. An arrow to the left of the menu items indicates the selected item. (A. Mann, Circuit Cellar 204)

The Compose Mail, Check Mailbox, and Configuration submenus form a hierarchical menu structure. When the other items listed beneath the respective menu titles in the diagram are activated (e.g., start the text editor), they enable you to input data, such as a username and password, or retrieve mail from the mail server. “Standby” is the only action that is accessible directly from the main menu. All other actions are grouped by function in the submenus.


With respect to the firmware, sending mail is much easier than reading it, so let’s first focus on the Compose Mail menu. The first item in the menu starts the text editor so you can enter the body of your letter. You then enter the recipient’s mailing address and the subject of your e-mail, just like you would do when sending e-mail from your PC. Additional fields, such as CC or BCC are not included, but since this requires only one more line in the header of the mail, it is not difficult. Your e-mail also needs a reply address, so the recipient knows who sent the mail. The reply address is normally the same for all of the messages you write. The text you enter in this edit field is stored in the ATmega32’s EEPROM, so you don’t have to type it every time you write a letter. After you select the last menu item, “Send” initiates the dispatch of the mail and displays a message that indicates whether or not it was successful.


What makes this part more sophisticated is the ability to handle not only one e-mail at a time, but also fetch mail from the server. The system can determine which messages are new and which messages have been read. It can also extract data such as the sender, subject, or sent date from the header of the mail and then display the information.

The amount of mail the firmware can handle is limited by the size of the external SRAM. The maximum number of e-mails is currently 1,024. (If you’ve got more mail, you will be so busy answering it that you won’t have time to build your own MiniEmail client—or you should delete some old mail). Note that 1,024 is the number of unique identifiers that the system can remember. The server assigns a unique identifier to each piece of mail. The system uses the identifiers to keep track of which letters are new on the server, which have already been read, and which have been marked for deletion.

All of the header data for all of the 1,024 messages cannot be held in SRAM at once; only the most recent (about 50) mail headers are held. When you want to browse through older e-mails, the firmware automatically reconnects to the server and fetches the headers of the next 50 e-mails.

When you select Check Mailbox in the main menu, you get to a submenu where you can retrieve and read mail. Before you can collect your mail, you must enter your username and password, which can be stored in EEPROM for your convenience. The firmware then retrieves the headers and displays the Mail Menu, where you can browse through your e-mail. Apart from the size and the date, the first 42 characters of the subject and the mail sender are shown. In the first row, additional icons indicate (from left to right) whether a message is new, has been marked for deletion, or has been read. You can view the content of the selected message by pressing Return. When the mail is fetched from the server, it is prepared for viewing. The header and HTML tags, as well as long runs of the same character, are stripped from the mail and base64 decoding (used to encode 8-bit characters) is performed, so the content of the message is as readable as plain text. Binary attachments (e.g., images) can’t be handled. Following this, the mail is viewed in the text editor (with editing disabled).

A similar action is performed when you press “r” in the Mail Menu. In that case, you can edit the text so you can add your reply. Leaving the text editor will bring you back to the Send Mail menu, where the reply address and subject will be filled in so your mail will be clear for take-off. To delete a message, simply press D to mark it for deletion….


I hadn’t imagined how many details would need to be considered when I started this project more than a year ago. It has been a very interesting and challenging project. It has also been a lot of fun.

The MiniEmail system provides all of the basics for communicating via email, but such a project is never really finished. There are still dozens of items on my to-do list. Fortunately, the ATmega32 can be replaced with a new member of the AVR family, the Atmel ATmega644, which is pin-compatible to the ATmega32 and has twice the flash memory (and internal SRAM). That will provide enough space for many of my new ideas. I want to get rid of the static IP address, add CC and BCC fields, use a bigger display or a smaller (variable-width) font, improve the filtering and display of mail content and attachments, and add an address book (it would be best in combination with an additional external EEPROM with an SPI, such as the AT25256).

This project proves, rather impressively, that the ATmega32 and the ENC28J60 are a powerful combination. They can be used for many useful Internet applications. My e-mail client system is surely one of the most exciting. I can think of many other interesting possibilities. At the moment, my MiniEmail assembly serves as an online thermometer so I can check my room’s temperature from anywhere in the world…

Mann’s entire article appears in Circuit Cellar 204, 2007. Type “miniemailopen”  to access the password-protected article.

DIY Solar-Powered, Gas-Detecting Mobile Robot

German engineer Jens Altenburg’s solar-powered hidden observing vehicle system (SOPHECLES) is an innovative gas-detecting mobile robot. When the Texas Instruments MSP430-based mobile robot detects noxious gas, it transmits a notification alert to a PC, Altenburg explains in his article, “SOPHOCLES: A Solar-Powered MSP430 Robot.”  The MCU controls an on-board CMOS camera and can wirelessly transmit images to the “Robot Control Center” user interface.

Take a look at the complete SOPHOCLES design. The CMOS camera is located on top of the robot. Radio modem is hidden behind the camera so only the antenna is visible. A flexible cable connects the camera with the MSP430 microcontroller.

Altenburg writes:

The MSP430 microcontroller controls SOPHOCLES. Why did I need an MSP430? There are lots of other micros, some of which have more power than the MSP430, but the word “power” shows you the right way. SOPHOCLES is the first robot (with the exception of space robots like Sojourner and Lunakhod) that I know of that’s powered by a single lithium battery and a solar cell for long missions.

The SOPHOCLES includes a transceiver, sensors, power supply, motor
drivers, and an MSP430. Some block functions (i.e., the motor driver or radio modems) are represented by software modules.

How is this possible? The magic mantra is, “Save power, save power, save power.” In this case, the most important feature of the MSP430 is its low power consumption. It needs less than 1 mA in Operating mode and even less in Sleep mode because the main function of the robot is sleeping (my main function, too). From time to time the robot wakes up, checks the sensor, takes pictures of its surroundings, and then falls back to sleep. Nice job, not only for robots, I think.

The power for the active time comes from the solar cell. High-efficiency cells provide electric energy for a minimum of approximately two minutes of active time per hour. Good lighting conditions (e.g., direct sunlight or a light beam from a lamp) activate the robot permanently. The robot needs only about 25 mA for actions such as driving its wheel, communicating via radio, or takes pictures with its built in camera. Isn’t that impossible? No! …

The robot has two power sources. One source is a 3-V lithium battery with a 600-mAh capacity. The battery supplies the CPU in Sleep mode, during which all other loads are turned off. The other source of power comes from a solar cell. The solar cell charges a special 2.2-F capacitor. A step-up converter changes the unregulated input voltage into 5-V main power. The LTC3401 changes the voltage with an efficiency of about 96% …

Because of the changing light conditions, a step-up voltage converter is needed for generating stabilized VCC voltage. The LTC3401 is a high-efficiency converter that starts up from an input voltage as low as 1 V.

If the input voltage increases to about 3.5 V (at the capacitor), the robot will wake up, changing into Standby mode. Now the robot can work.

The approximate lifetime with a full-charged capacitor depends on its tasks. With maximum activity, the charging is used after one or two minutes and then the robot goes into Sleep mode. Under poor conditions (e.g., low light for a long time), the robot has an Emergency mode, during which the robot charges the capacitor from its lithium cell. Therefore, the robot has a chance to leave the bad area or contact the PC…

The control software runs on a normal PC, and all you need is a small radio box to get the signals from the robot.

The Robot Control Center serves as an interface to control the robot. Its main feature is to display the transmitted pictures and measurement values of the sensors.

Various buttons and throttles give you full control of the robot when power is available or sunlight hits the solar cells. In addition, it’s easy to make short slide shows from the pictures captured by the robot. Each session can be saved on a disk and played in the Robot Control Center…

The entire article appears in Circuit Cellar 147 2002. Type “solarrobot”  to access the password-protected article.

Great Plains Super Launch

Contributed by Mark Conner

The Great Plains Super Launch (GPSL) is an annual gathering of Amateur Radio high-altitude ballooning enthusiasts from the United States and Canada. The 2012 event was held in Omaha, Nebraska from June 7th to the 9th and was sponsored by Circuit Cellar and Elektor. Around 40 people from nine states and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan attended Friday’s conference and around 60 attended the balloon launches on Saturday.

Amateur Radio high-altitude ballooning (ARHAB) involves the launching, tracking, and recovery of balloon-borne scientific and electronic equipment. The Amateur Radio portion of ARHAB is used for transmitting and receiving location and other data from the balloon to chase teams on the ground. The balloon is usually a large latex weather balloon, though other types such as polyethylene can also be used. A GPS unit in the balloon payload calculates the location, course, speed, and altitude in real time, while other electronics, usually custom-built, handle conversion of the digital data into radio signals. These signals are then converted back to data by the chase teams’ receivers and computers. The balloon rises at about 1000 feet per minute until the balloon pops (if it’s latex) or a device releases the lifting gas (if it’s PE). Maximum altitudes are around 100,000 feet and the flight typically takes two to three hours.

Prepping for the launch – Photo courtesy of Mark Conner

On Thursday the 7th, the GPSL attendees visited the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Ashland, about 20 minutes southwest of Omaha. The museum features a large number of Cold War aircraft housed in two huge hangars, along with artifacts, interactive exhibits, and special events. The premiere aircraft exhibit is the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird suspended from the ceiling in the museum’s atrium. A guided tour was provided by one of the museum’s volunteers and greatly enjoyed by all.

Friday featured the conference portion of the Super Launch. Presentations were given on stabilization techniques for in-flight video recordings, use of ballooning projects in education research, lightweight transmitters for tracking the balloon’s flight, and compressed gas safety. Bill Brown showed highlights from his years of involvement in ARHAB dating back to his first flights in 1987. The Edge of Space Sciences team presented on a May launch from Coors Field in Denver for “Weather and Science Day” prior to an afternoon Colorado Rockies game. Several thousand students witnessed the launch, which required meticulous planning and preparation.

EOSS ready for launch – Photo courtesy of Mark Conner

Saturday featured the launch of five balloons from a nearby high school early that morning. While the winds became gusty for the last two launches, all of the flights were successfully released into a brilliant sunny June sky. All five of the flights were recovered without damage in the corn and soybean fields of western Iowa between 10 and 25 miles from launch. The SABRE team from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan took the high flight award, reaching over 111,000 ft during their three-hour flight.

The view from one of the balloons. Image credit: “Project Traveler / Zack Clobes”.

The 2013 GPSL will be held in Pella, Iowa, on June 13-15. Watch the website superlaunch.org for additional information as the date approaches.

Microcontroller-Based Digital Thermometer Display

With the proper microcontroller, a digital temperature sensor, an SD memory card, and a little know-how, you can build a custom outdoor digital thermometer display. Tommy Tyler’s article in the July issue of Circuit Cellar explains how he built such a system. He carefully details the hardware, firmware, and construction process.

The following is an abridged version of Tyler’s project article. (The complete article appears in Circuit Cellar 264.)

Build an MCU-Based Digital Thermometer

by Tommy Tyler

Wondering what to do with your unused digital photo frame? With a little effort, a tiny circuit board assembly can be installed in the frame to transform the colorful thin film transistor (TFT) screen into the “ultimate” outdoor thermometer display (see Photo 1). Imagine a thermometer with real numeric digits (not seven-segment stick figures) large enough to be read from 40¢ to 50¢ away under any lighting conditions. Combine that with a glare-free, high-contrast screen, wide viewing angles, and an accuracy of ±0.5°F without calibration, and you have a wonderful thermometer that is more a work of art than an instrument, and can be customized and proudly displayed.

Almost any size and brand digital photo frame can be used, although one with 4.5″ or 7″ (diagonal) screen size is ideal for 2″-high digits. If you don’t have a discarded frame to use, some bargains are available for less than $30, if you look for them. Search online for overstocked, refurbished, or open-box units. The modifications are easy. Just drill a few holes and solder a few wires. The postage-stamp size PCB is designed with surface-mount components, so it’s small enough to tuck inside the frame. None of the modifications prevent you from using the frame as it was originally intended, to display photographs.

Photo 1: A TFT screen is easily transformed into an outdoor thermometer with the addition of a small circuit board.


Although digital photo frames vary in details and features, their basic functions are similar. Nearly all of them can store pictures in external memory, usually a small SD card like those used in digital cameras. Most have a half dozen or so push-button switches that control how the frame operates and select what is being displayed. There’s usually a Menu button, an Enter or Select button, and several cursor buttons for navigating through on-screen menus.

Photo frames feature a slideshow viewing mode that automatically steps through pictures in sequence. You can set the time each picture is displayed to your preference. You can also turn off the timer and have a manual, single-step slideshow mode where a selected picture is continuously displayed until another is selected with a button press. That’s the mode of operation used for the thermometer, and it is key to its accuracy.

The photo frame is loaded with images showing every possible temperature, in precise ascending order. Following power-up, the frame enters Slideshow mode displaying the first image in memory, which provides a known starting point. Based on repeated temperature measurements, the frame keeps incrementing or decrementing the image, 1° at a time, until the display matches the true temperature. After this initial synchronization, the display is simply incremented or decremented whenever the temperature rises or falls by 1° or more.

The frame responds so reliably, the display never gets out of sync with the true temperature. Following a power interruption, the thermometer automatically resynchronizes itself. In fact, for an interesting and reassuring demonstration at any time, just momentarily turn off power. Synchronization might take a minute or so due to the system’s response time, but that’s not considered a problem because presumably power interruptions will be infrequent.


Figure1 shows a schematic of the thermometer. A Microchip Technology PIC18F14K22 microprocessor U1 periodically polls U3, a factory-calibrated “smart” temperature sensor that transmits the digital value of the current temperature via I/O pin RC5. PIC output pins RC4 and RC3 drive sections of U2, a Texas Instruments TS3A4751 quad SPST analog switch with extremely low on-state resistance. Two of these solid-state switches are wired in parallel with the mechanical switches in the frame that increment and decrement the displayed temperature. RC6 provides an auxiliary output in case you are working with a rare photo frame that requires a third switch be actuated to enter Slideshow mode…

Figure 1: This schematic of the thermometer shows a portion of the Coby DP700 photo frame with a voltage comparator input that responds to different voltage levels from its >and< switches.

Figure 1 includes a portion of the Coby DP700 schematic showing such an arrangement. Switches SW3 (>) and SW4 (<) share input Pin 110 of the frame processor chip (U100). SW3 pulls the voltage down to about 1.5 V to increment the display, and SW4 pulls it all the way down to 0 V to decrement it. If you can gain access to the solder terminals of these switches, you can build this project. Using a solid-state analog switch for U2 enables the PIC control board to work with virtually any model photo frame, without having to worry about voltage, polarity, or switch circuit configuration.

PIC output RB7 continually transmits a running narrative of everything the thermometer is doing. Transistor Q1 provides a standard RS-232 serial output at 38400 bps, no parity, and two Stop bits using the DTR pin for pull-up voltage. This is mainly for testing, troubleshooting, or possibly experimenting with firmware changes. The board also includes a standard in-circuit serial programming (ICSP) interface for programming the PIC with a Microchip PICkit2 development programmer/debugger or similar programming tool.

Photo2 shows the thermometer circuit board assembly…

Photo 2: The thermometer circuit board assembly. The five-pin header is a direct plug-in for a Microchip PICkit2 programmer. The three-pin header is the diagnostic serial output.


I used a Coby DP700 photo frame as an example for the project because it is widely available, easy to modify, and has excellent quality for a low price. Figure 2 shows the basic components of this frame…

Figure 2: The Colby DP700 photo frame’s basic components

The ribbon cable is long enough to enable the display to swing open about 90°, but not much more. That makes it awkward to hold it open while making wiring connections, unless you have more hands than I do. One solution is to use a holding fixture made from a scrap of lumber to protect the ribbon cable from stress or damage during modification and testing.

Cut a piece of ordinary 1″ × 4″ pine board exactly 7.5″ long. Chamfer opposite ends of the board at the bottom on one side, and cut a notch in the center of that edge (see Photo 3a). Loosen the bezel and slide it up just far enough so that you can insert the board into the rear enclosure near the bottom, below the lower edge of the bezel (see Photo 3b).

Photo 3a: The lower edge of a pine board is notched and chamfered. b: The board is attached to the rear enclosure near the bottom, below the lower edge of the bezel.

The board’s chamfered corners should clear the inside radius of the rear enclosure. Temporarily tape the bezel and rear enclosure together while you fasten the board in place with two of the four bezel screws. Leave the board installed until you have completed the entire project, including all testing.

When you need to access the main circuit board to solder wires and install the PIC board, swing the bezel and display perpendicular to the rear enclosure like an open book and secure it firmly to the fixture board with masking tape (see Photo 4a). Later, during set up and testing when you need to see the screen, swing the bezel and display back down and secure them to the rear enclosure with masking tape (see Photo 4b).

Photo 4a: The bezel and display are firmly secured to the fixture board with masking tape. b: During setup and testing the bezel and display can be swung down and secured to the rear enclosure with masking tape.


The only mechanical modification is adding a 3.5-mm stereo jack to connect the remote temperature sensor. You may be able to drill a 0.25″ hole in the frame and attach the jack with its knurled ring nut. But sometimes the stereo plug sticks out in a way that spoils the appearance of the frame or interferes with mounting it on a wall. Here’s a way to install the jack that keeps it and the sensor cable flat against the rear of the frame and out of sight.

Cut a piece of perforated project board 0.6″ × 0.7″ and enlarge the three to five holes that line up with the terminals on the side of the jack with a 3/32″ drill (see Figure3). The perforated board acts as a spacer for the stereo plug when cemented to the enclosure.

Figure 3: The perforated board spaces the jack away from the rear enclosure to clear the stereo plug.

Before attaching anything to the perforated board, use it as a guide to drill matching terminal holes through the rear enclosure. Select a position low and to the right in the recessed area so it clears the power connector but does not extend below the lower edge of the rear enclosure (see Photo 5)…

Photo 5: Use the perforated board as a drilling guide


Referring to the wiring diagram in Photo 6, first prep the main PCB by attaching six insulated wires about 8″ to 10″ long, one wire to 3.3 V, one wire to ground, two wires to SW4, and two wires to SW3.

Photo 6: Wiring diagram

Solder all nine wires to the PIC board—six from the main PCB and three from the stereo jack. Trim the excess wire length so the PIC board will lie easily in the empty space beside the main PCB. Route the wires so they won’t get pinched when the bezel and display are replaced. Use masking tape to hold everything in place and keep the PIC board from shorting out.


The Microchip DS18S20 digital temperature sensor is a three-lead package the same size as a TO-92 transistor (see Figure 4)…

Insulating short spliced leads with sleeving is always a problem because the sleeving gets in the way of soldering. One way to keep the probe small and strong is to drip a little fast-set epoxy on the soldered leads, after ensuring they aren’t touching, and rotate the unit slowly for a couple of minutes until the epoxy stops running and begins to harden. Weatherproof the entire assembly with an inch or so of 0.25″ heat-shrink tubing.


Some photo frames don’t have internal memory, so I used a plug-in SD memory card for the temperature images. That also makes it easy to change the appearance of the display whenever you want. Any capacity card you can find is more than adequate, since the images average only about 25 KB each and 141 of them is less than 5 MB. A good source for generic 32-MB SD cards is OEMPCWorld. Their SD cards cost less than $4 each, including free shipping via U.S. Postal Service first-class mail. Just search their site for “32-MB SD card.”

A download package is available with images in 16 × 9 format showing temperature over the range from –20 to 120°F in numerals about 2″ high. The 16 × 9 images will naturally fit the Coby screen and most other brands. There’s also a set of 4 × 3 images for frames with that format. Actually, either size will work in any frame. If you use 4 × 3 images in the 16 × 9 Coby with Show Type set up as Fit Screen, there will be bars on the sides. But if it is set up as Full Screen, the images will expand to eliminate the bars, and the numerals will be about 2-5/8” high.

The download filenames have a sequential numeric prefix from 100 to 240, so Windows will list them in order before you copy them to the SD card. Notice that the sequence of images is as follows: 70°, 71°, 72°…119°, 120°, –20°, –19°, –18°…–2°, –1°, 0°, 1°, 2°…67°, 68°, 69°. The first image is not the lowest temperature. That’s so synchronization can start from 70° instead of all the way from –20°. You can split the temperature range like this as long as there are no extraneous pictures on the SD card, because the frame treats the SD card, in effect, as an endless circular memory, wrapping around from the highest to lowest image when incrementing, and from lowest to highest when decrementing…


It’s always best to make sure frame power is disconnected before plugging or unplugging the temperature sensor. Position the frame so that the screen is visible. Plug in the sensor and SD card, then connect power to the frame. After a few seconds, what you see on the screen will depend on how the frame was last used and set up. It may start showing pictures from internal memory, or it may start showing temperature images from the SD card. In either case, the pictures will probably start changing rapidly for a while because the frame thinks it is synchronizing its initial display to the temperature of the sensor. You can’t use on-screen menus to check the setup of the frame while it is flipping through all those pictures, so you must wait. After a couple minutes, when things settle down and the display stops rapidly changing, press Menu to bring up the main menu. Use the left or right arrow buttons to select the Set Up sub menu, then use the Enter, Left, Right, Up, and Down buttons to set up the following parameters: Interval Time = Off, Transition Effect = No Effect, Show Type = Fit Screen, Magic Slideshow = Off…

After completing all the setup adjustments, momentarily disconnect power from the frame and confirm that it properly powers up. The Coby logo should appear for a few seconds, followed by the first image in memory, the starting temperature of 70°F. About 12 s later, the display should start changing in 1° steps until it gets to the current temperature of the sensor. Warm the sensor with your hand to ensure the sensor is responding.

This is a good time to demonstrate an error indicator designed into the thermometer to alert you if the PIC can’t communicate with the temperature sensor. Disconnect power and unplug the sensor, then restore power with the sensor disconnected. The display will start at 70°F as before, but this time it will keep incrementing until it reaches 99°F, where it will stop. So if you ever notice the display stuck on 99° when you know it’s not that hot outside, check to see if the sensor is unplugged or damaged.

If everything seems to be working properly, you can skip the following section on troubleshooting. Close the frame and start thinking about how and where you will install it…


Credit for design of the PIC firmware goes to Kevin R. Timmerman—a talented freelance software design engineer, and owner of the Compendium Arcana website—who collaborated with me on this project. Kevin’s backyard in Michigan, as well as mine in Colorado, were the beta-test sites for the design.

A firmware download includes the temperature.hex file needed for programming the PIC, as well as the following source files in case you want to make changes:






The file named one_wire.c deals exclusively with sending and receiving messages to/from the temperature sensor. If you use a photo frame other than the Coby DP700 that has some special requirements, the only file you might need to modify is inverted_main.c. The firmware is available on the Circuit Cellar FTP site.


When you finish the project, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you probably have the most accurate thermometer in the neighborhood—providing you take reasonable precautions in locating the sensor. Don’t place it in sunlight or near heat sources (i.e., vents or ducts). Even placing it too close to a poorly insulated wall, roof, or window can affect its accuracy. There are articles online about the best places to install outdoor thermometers.

Even after you have completed your modifications to the frame and closed it back up, there are endless ways to customize the project to your taste…

For those living overseas or accustomed to expressing temperature in Centigrade, the download includes an alternate set of images covering the range from –28.9°C to 48.9°C. Images such as 70°F, 71°F, 72°F, and so forth are replaced with their Centigrade equivalents 21.1°C, 21.7°C, 22.2°C, and so forth. The thermometer control can’t tell the difference. It goes on incrementing and decrementing images as if it were displaying the temperature in Fahrenheit. By showing temperature in tenths of Centigrade degrees, the thermometer accuracy is unchanged. The temperature sensor is inherently a Centigrade device, and one could modify the PIC firmware to use the reported temperature in degrees C without ever converting it to degrees Fahrenheit. But this method is a lot easier, and enables you to change between Centigrade and Fahrenheit by just swapping the SD card…

Tommy Tyler graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He retired after a career spanning more than 40 years managing the product design of industrial instrumentation, medical electronics, consumer electronics, and embedded robotic material transport systems. Tommy earned 17 patents from 1960 to 1995. His current hobbies are electronics, technical writing and illustration, and music. Tommy is a contributing expert to the JP1 Forum on infrared remote control technology.


DP700 Digital photo frame

Coby Electronics Corp. | www.cobyusa.com

PIC18F14K22 Microprocessor, DS18S20 digital temperature sensor, and PICkit2 development programmer/debugger

Microchip Technology, Inc. | www.microchip.com

TS3A4751 quad SPST Analog switch

Texas Instruments, Inc. | www.ti.com

The project files (firmware and images) are available on Circuit Cellar’s FTP site. The complete article appears in Circuit Cellar 264.

Free Webinar: Bridge Android & Your Electronics Projects

Do you want to add a powerful wireless Android device to your own projects? Now you can, and doing so is easier than you think.

With their high-resolution touchscreens, ample computing power, WLAN support, and telephone functions, Android smartphones and tablets are ideal for use as control centers in your projects. But until now, it has been difficult to connect them to external circuitry. Elektor’s AndroPod interface board, which adds a serial TTL port and an RS-485 port to the picture, changes this situation.

The Elektor AndroPod module

In a free webinar on June 21, 2012, Bernhard Wörndl-Aichriedler (codesigner of the AndroPod Interface) will explain how easy it is to connect your own circuitry to an Android smartphone using the AndroPod interface. Click here to register.

Elektor Academy and element14 have teamed up to bring you a series of exclusive webinars covering blockbuster projects from recent editions of Elektor magazine. Participation in these webinars is completely free!

Webinar: AndroPod – Bridging Android and Your Electronics Projects
Date: Thursday June 21, 2012
Time: 16:00 CET
Presenter: Bernhard Wörndl-Aichriedler (Codesigner of the Andropod Interface)
Language: English

CircuitCellar.com is an Elektor International Media publication.

Q&A: Lawrence Foltzer (Communications Engineer)

In the U.S., a common gift to give someone when he or she finishes school or completes a course of career training is Dr. Seuss’s book, Oh, the Place You’ll Go. I thought of the book’s title when I first read our May interview with engineer Lawrence Foltzer. After finishing electronics training in the U.S. Navy, Foltzer found himself working in such diverse locations as a destroyer in Mediterranean Sea, IBM’s Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, and Optilink, DSC, Alcatel, and Turin Networks in Petaluma, CA. Simply put: his electronics training has taken him to many interesting places!

Foltzer’s interests include fiber optic communication, telecommunications, direct digital synthesis, and robot navigation. He wrote four articles for Circuit Cellar between June 1993 and March 2012.

Lawrence Foltzer presented these frequency-domain test instruments in Circuit Cellar 254 (September 2011). An Analog Devices AD9834-based RFG is on the left. An AD5930-based SFG is on the right. The ICSP interface used to program a Microchip Technology PIC16F627A microcontroller is provided by a dangling RJ connector socket. (Source: L. Foltzer, CC254)

Below is an abridged version of the interview now available in Circuit Cellar 262 (May 2012).

NAN: You spent 30 years working in the fiber optics communication industry. How did that come about? Have you always had an interest specifically in fiber optic technology?

LARRY: My career has taken me many interesting places, working with an amazing group of people, on the cusp of many technologies. I got my first electronics training in the Navy, both operating and maintaining the various anti-submarine warfare systems including the active sonar system; Gertrude, the underwater telephone; and two fire-control electromechanical computers for hedgehog and torpedo targeting. I spent two of my four years in the Navy in schools.

When I got out of the Navy in 1964, I managed to land a job with IBM. I’d applied for a job maintaining computers, but IBM sent me to the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. They gave me several tests on two different visits before hiring me. I was one of four out of forty who got a job. Mine was working in John B. Gunn’s group, preparing Gunn-oscillator samples and assisting the physicists in the group in performing both microwave and high-speed pulsed measurements.

One of my sample preparation duties was the application of AuGeNi ohmic contacts on GaAs samples. Ohmic contacts were essential to the proper operation of the Gunn effect, which is a bulk semiconductor phenomenon. Other labs at the research center were also working with GaAs for other devices: the LED, injection laser diode, and Hall-effect sensors to name a few. It turned out that the evaporated AuGeNi contact used on the Gunn devices was superior to the plated AuSnIn contact, so I soon found myself making 40,000 A per square centimeter pulsed-diode lasers. A year later I transferred to Gaithersburg, MD, to IBM-FSD where I was responsible for transferring laser diode technology to the group that made battlefield laser illuminators and optical radars. We used flexible light guides to bring the output from many lasers together to increase beam brightness.

As the Vietnam war came to an end, IBM closed down the Laser and Quantum Electronics (LQE) group I was in, but at the same time I received a job offer to join Comsat Labs, Clarksburg, MD, from an engineer for whom I had built Gunn devices for phased array studies. So back to the world of microwaves for a few years where I worked on the satellite qualification of tunnel (Asaki) diodes, Impatt diodes, step-recovery diodes, and GaAs FETs.

About a year after joining Comsat Labs, the former head of the now defunct IBM-LQE group, Bill Culver, called on me to help him prove to the army that a “single-fiber,” over-the-hill guided missile could replace the TOW missile and save soldier lives from the target tanks counterfire.

NAN: Tell us about some of your early projects and the types of technologies you used and worked on during that time.

LARRY: So, in 1973-ish, Bill Culver, Gordon Gould (Laser Inventor), and I formed Optelecom, Inc. In those days, when one spoke of fiber optics, one meant fiber bundles. Single fibers were seen as too unreliable, so hundreds of fibers were bundled together so that a loss of tens of fibers only caused a loss of a few percent of the injected light. Furthermore, bundles presented a large cross section to the primitive light sources of the day, which helped increase transmission distances.

Bill remembered seeing one of C. L. Stong’s Amateur Scientist columns in Scientific American about a beam balance based on a silica fiber suspension. In that column, Stong had shown that silica fibers could be made with tensile strengths 20 times that of steel. So a week later, Bill and I had constructed a fiber drawing apparatus in my basement and we drew the first few meters of fiber of the approximately 350 km of fiber we made in my home until we captured our first army contract and opened an office in Gaithersburg, MD.

Our first fibers were for mechanical-strength development. Optical losses measured hundreds of dBs/km in those days. But our plastic clad silica (PCS) fiber losses pretty much tracked those of Corning, Bell Labs, and ITT-EOPD (Electro-Optics Products Division). Pretty soon we were making 8 dB/km fibers up to 6 km in length. I left Optelecom when follow-on contracts with the army slowed; but by that time we had demonstrated missile payout of 4 km of signal carrying fiber at speeds of 600 ft/s, and slower speed runs from fixed-wing and Helo RPVs. The first video games were born!

At Optelecom I also worked with Gordon Gould on a CO2 laser-based secure communications system. A ground-based laser interrogated a Stark-effect based modulator and retro-reflector that returned a video signal to the ground station. I designed and developed all of that system’s electronics.

Government funding for our fiber payout work diminished, so I joined ITT-EOPD in 1976. In those days, if you needed a connector or a splice, or a pigtailed LED, laser or detector, you made it yourself; and I was good with my hands. So, in addition to running programs to develop fused fiber couplers, etc., I was also in charge of the group that built the emitters and detectors needed to support the transmission systems group.

NAN: You participated in Motorola’s IEEE-802 MAC subcommittee on token-passing access control methods. Tell us about that experience.

NAN: How long have you been designing MCU-based systems? Tell us about your first MCU-based design.

LARRY: I was in Motorola’s strategic marketing department (SMD) when the Apple 2 first came on the scene. Some of the folks in the SMD were the developers of the RadioShack color computer. Long story short, I quickly became a fan of the MC6809 CPU, and wrote some pretty fancy code for the day that rotated 3-D objects, and a more animated version of Space Invaders. I developed a menu-driven EPROM programmer that could program all of the EPROMs then available and then some. My company, Computer Accessories of AZ, advertised in Rainbow magazine until the PC savaged the market. I sold about 1,200 programmers and a few other products before closing up shop.

NAN: Circuit Cellar has published four of your articles about design projects. Your first article, “Long-Range Infrared Communications” was published in 1993 (Circuit Cellar 35). Which advances in IR technology have most impressed and excited you since then?

LARRY: Vertical cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSEL). The Japanese were the first to realize their potential, but did not participate in their early development. Honeywell Optoelectronics was the first to offer 850-nm VCSELs commercially. I think I bought my first VCSELs from Hamilton Avnet in the late 1980s for $6 a pop. But 850 nm is excluded from Telecom (Bellcore), so companies like Cielo and Picolight went to work on long wavelength parts. I worked with Cielo on 1310-nm VCSEL array technology while at Turin Networks, and actually succeeded in adding VCSEL transmitter and array receiver optics to several optical line cards. It was my hope that VCSELs would find their way into the fiber to the home (FTTH) systems of the future, delivering 1 Gbps or more for 33% of what it costs today.

Circuit Cellar 262 (May 2012) is now on newsstands.

Wireless Data Control for Remote Sensor Monitoring

Circuit Cellar has published dozens of interesting articles about handy wireless applications over the years. And now we have another innovative project to report about. Circuit Cellar author Robert Bowen contacted us recently with a link to information about his iFarm-II controller data acquisition system.

The iFarm-II controller data acquisition system (Source: R. Bowen)

The design features two main components. Bowen’s “iFarm-Remote” and the “iFarm-Base controller” work together to as an accurate remote wireless data acquisition system. The former has six digital inputs (for monitoring relay or switch contacts) and six digital outputs (for energizing a relay’s coil). The latter is a stand-alone wireless and internet ready controller. Its LCD screen displays sensor readings from the iFarm-Remote controller. When you connect the base to the Internet, you can monitor data reading via a browser. In addition, you can have the base email you notifications pertaining to the sensor input channels.

You can connect the system to the Internet for remote monitoring. The Network Settings Page enables you to configure the iFarm-Base controller for your network. (Source: R. Bowen)

Bowen writes:

The iFarm-II Controller is a wireless data acquisition system used to remotely monitor temperature and humidity conditions in a remote location. The iFarm consists of two controllers, the iFarm-Remote and iFarm-Base controller. The iFarm-Remote is located in remote location with various sensors (supports sensors that output +/-10VDC ) connected. The iFarm-Remote also provides the user with 6-digital inputs and 6-digital outputs. The digital inputs may be used to detect switch closures while the digital outputs may be used to energize a relay coil. The iFarm-Base supports either a 2.4GHz or 900Mhz RF Module.

The iFarm-Base controller is responsible for sending commands to the iFarm-Remote controller to acquire the sensor and digital input status readings. These readings may be viewed locally on the iFarm-Base controllers LCD display or remotely via an Internet connection using your favorite web-browser. Alarm conditions can be set on the iFarm-Base controller. An active upper or lower limit condition will notify the user either through an e-mail or a text message sent directly to the user. Alternatively, the user may view and control the iFarm-Remote controller via web-browser. The iFarm-Base controllers web-server is designed to support viewing pages from a PC, Laptop, iPhone, iTouch, Blackberry or any mobile device/telephone which has a WiFi Internet connection.—Robert Bowen, http://wireless.xtreemhost.com/

iFarm-Host/Remote PCB Prototype (Source: R. Bowen)

Robert Bowen is a senior field service engineer for MTS Systems Corp., where he designs automated calibration equipment and develops testing methods for customers involved in the material and simulation testing fields. Circuit Cellar has published three of his articles since 2001:

Tech Highlights from Design West: RL78, AndroPod, Stellaris, mbed, & more

The Embedded Systems Conference has always been a top venue for studying, discussing, and handling the embedded industry’s newest leading-edge technologies. This year in San Jose, CA, I walked the floor looking for the tech Circuit Cellar and Elektor members would love to get their hands on and implement in novel projects. Here I review some of the hundreds of interesting products and systems at Design West 2012.


Renesas launched the RL78 Design Challenge at Design West. The following novel RL78 applications were particularly intriguing.

  • An RL78 L12 MCU powered by a lemon:

    A lemon powers the RL78 (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

  • An RL78 kit used for motor control:

    The RL78 used for motor control (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

  • An RL78 demo for home control applications:

    The RL78 used for home control (Photo: Circuit Cellar)


Circuit Cellar members have used TI products in countless applications. Below are two interesting TI Cortex-based designs

A Cortex-M3 digital guitar (you can see the Android connection):

TI's digital guitar (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

Stellaris fans will be happy to see the Stellaris ARM Cortex -M4F in a small wireless application:

The Stellaris goes wireless (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

NXP mbed

Due to the success of the recent NXP mbed Design Challenge, I stopped at the mbed station to see what exciting technologies our NXP friends were exhibiting. They didn’t disappoint. Check out the mbed-based slingshot developed for playing Angry Birds!

mbed-Based sligshot for going after "Angry Birds" (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

Below is a video of the project on the mbedmicro YouTube page:


I was pleased to see the Elektor AndroPod hard at work at the FTDI booth. The design enables users to easily control a robotic arm with Android smartphones and tablets.

FTDI demonstrates robot control with Android (Photo: Circuit Cellar)

As you can imagine, the possible applications are endless.

The AndroPod at work! (Photo: Circuit Cellar)