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)

Q&A: Dave Jones (Engineer, EEVBlog)

Are you an electrical engineer, hacker, or maker looking for a steady dose of reliable product reviews, technical insight, and EE musings? If so, Dave Jones is your man. The Sydney, Australia-based engineer’s video blog (EEVblog) and podcast (The Amp Hour, which he co-hosts with Chris Gammell) are quickly becoming must-subscribe feeds for plugged-in inquisitive electronics enthusiasts around the world.

Dave Jones: engineer, video blogger, and podcaster

The April issue of Circuit Cellar features an interview with Jones, who describes his passion for electronics, reviewing various technologies, and his unscripted approach to video blogging and podcasting. Below is an abridged version of the interview.

David L. Jones is a risk taker. In addition to jumping off cliffs in the name of product testing, the long-time engineer recently switched to full-time blogging. In February 2012, Dave and I discussed his passion for electronics, his product review process, and what it means to be a full-time video blogger.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: When did you first start working with electronics?

DAVE: The video story can be found at “EEVblog #54 – Electronics – When I was a boy…” I was very young, maybe six or so, when I was taking apart stuff to see how it worked, so my parents got me a 50-in-1Tandy (RadioShack) electronics kit and that was it, I was hooked, electronics became my life. And indeed, this seems to be fairly typical of how many engineers of the era got started.

By the time I was eight, I already had my own lab and was working on my own projects. All my pocket money went into tools, parts, and magazines.

The electronics magazine industry was everything back then before the Internet and communications revolution. I would eagerly await every issue of the Australian electronics magazines like Electronics Australia, Electronics Today International (ETI), Applied and Australian Electronics Monthly (AEM), Talking Electronics, and later Silicon Chip.

NAN: Tell us about some of your early projects.

DAVE: Given that it was over 30 years ago, it’s hard to recall I’m afraid. Unfortunately, I just didn’t think to use a (film) camera back then to record stuff, it just wasn’t something that you did as a kid. The family camera only came out on special occasions. So those projects have been lost in the annals of time.

My first big published magazine project was a digital storage oscilloscope (DSO) adapter for PCs, in a 1993 issue of Electronics Australia. I originally designed this in the late 1980s. (See “,

NAN: You have many interests and talents. What made you choose engineering as your full-time gig?

DAVE: There was no choice, electronics has been my main hobby since I can remember, so electronics engineering was all I ever wanted to do to. I’ve branched out into a few other hobbies over the years, but electronics has always remained what I’ve wanted to do.

NAN: The Electronics Engineering Video Blog—EEVBlog—is touted as “an off-the-cuff video blog for electronics engineers, hobbyists, hackers, and makers.” Tell us about EEVBlog and what inspired you to begin it.

DAVE: I’ve always been into sharing my electronics, either through magazines, via my website, or on newsgroups, so I guess it’s natural that I’d end up doing something like this.

In early 2009 I saw that (WordPress-type) blogs were really taking off for all sorts of topics and some people were even doing “video blogs” on YouTube. I wondered if there were any blogs for electronics, and after a search I found a lot of text-based blogs, but it seemed like no one was doing a video blog about electronics, like a weekly show that people could watch … So I thought it’d be fun to do an electronics video blog and blaze a new trail and see what happened.

Being fairly impulsive, I didn’t think about it much; I just dusted off a horrible old 320 × 240 webcam, sat down in front of my computer, and recorded 10 minutes (the YouTube limit back then) of whatever came into my head. I figured a product review, a book review, a chip review, and some industry news was a good mix … I’ve had constant linear growth since then, and now have a regular weekly audience of over 10,000 viewers and over 4 million views on YouTube. Not to mention that it’s now my full-time job.

The complete April issue of Circuit Cellar is now available. For more information about Dave Jones, his video blog, and podcast, visit and

Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge

Up for an international design challenge? It’s time for the Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge! Renesas has partnered with IAR Systems to deliver engineers a power-house combo of low-power devices and high-quality software. They’re steering a great, green revolution and are challenging you to transform how the world experiences energy efficiency by developing a unique, low-power application using the RL78 MCU and IAR toolchain. Succeed and win a share of $17,500 in Grand Prizes from Renesas! * The Renesas Grand Prize winner will also win a free trip to Renesas DevCon in October where winners will be announced.

But that’s not all. Earn additional prizes like developments tools, Pmods, Wi-Fi modules, embedded systems books, and more from Contest Partners through weekly prize drawings. Follow Renesas on Twitter and Facebook for weekly challenge questions from official Contest Partners. Weekly Partner Challenges, and the respective winners, will be announced every Monday throughout the competition.

So, do you have a great idea for a remote device that monitors pollution? What about a box collecting data on home power usage or an energy harvesting biometric design? Perhaps your grand plan is for a low power controller scavenging heat from an oven or furnace, a meter reading biomass parameters, or a braking system for a wind turbine? It’s up to you! Send us your best RL78 based ideas to help make the world a better place.

The Challenge starts March 26, 2012 and ends on August 31, 2012. Winners will be announced in October at Renesas’ DevCon 2012.

Hundreds of free RL78/G13 development kits (“RDK”s), loaded with IAR’s Kickstart edition, are being distributed to those who qualify. Click here to see if you qualify for a complimentary RDK!

*Prizes in U.S. dollars.

Circuit Cellar, Inc. and Elektor International Media is the Contest Administrator.


Build a CNC Panel Cutter Controller

Want a CNC panel cutter and controller for your lab, hackspace, or workspace? James Koehler of Canada built an NXP Semiconductors mbed-based system to control a three-axis milling machine, which he uses to cut panels for electronic equipment. You can customize one yourself.

Panel Cutter Controller (Source: James Koehler)

According to Koehler:

Modern electronic equipment often requires front panels with large cut-outs for LCD’s, for meters and, in general, openings more complicated than can be made with a drill. It is tedious to do this by hand and difficult to achieve a nice finished appearance. This controller allows it to be done simply, quickly and to be replicated exactly.

Koehler’s design is an interesting alternative to a PC program. The self-contained controller enables him to run a milling machine either manually or automatically (following a script) without having to clutter his workspace with a PC. It’s both effective and space-saving!

The Controller Setup (Source: James Koehler)

How does it work? The design controls three stepping motors.

The Complete System (Source: James Koehler)

Inside the controller are a power supply and a PCB, which carries the NXP mbed module plus the necessary interface circuitry and a socket for an SD card.

The Controller (Source: James Koehler)

Koehler explains:

In use, a piece of material for the panel is clamped onto the milling machine table and the cutting tool is moved to a starting position using the rotary encoders. Then the controller is switched to its ‘automatic’ mode and a script on the SD card is then followed to cut the panel. A very simple ‘language’ is used for the script; to go to any particular (x, y) position, to lift the cutting tool, to lower the cutting tool, to cut a rectangle of any dimension and to cut a circle of any dimension, etc. More complex instructions sequences such as those needed to cut the rectangular opening plus four mounting holes for a LCD are just combinations, called macros, of those simple instructions; every new device (meter mounting holes, LCD mounts, etc.) will have its own macro. The complete script for a particular panel can be any combination of simple commands plus macros. The milling machine, a Taig ‘micro mill’, with stepping motors is shown in Figure 2. In its ‘manual’ mode, the system can be used as a conventional three axis mill controlled via the rotary encoders. The absolute position of the cutting tool is displayed in units of either inches, mm or thousandths of an inch.

Click here to read Koehler’s project abstract. Click here to read his complete documentation PDF, which includes block diagrams, schematics, and more.

This project won Third Place in the 2010 NXP mbed Design Challenge and is posted as per the terms of the Challenge.



Fundamental Amplifier Techniques with Electron Tubes

Want tips on designing electron tube amplifiers? Fundamental Amplifier Techniques with Electron Tubes might be the book for you. The author, Rudolf Moers carefully details the science of hollow-state design as applied to amplifiers and power supplies.

The book is an Elektor group publication. So, I asked tube amp aficionado Richard Honeycutt to provide an unbiased review the book. (I asked him to do this prior to taking him on as a columnist for audioXpress magazine.) He agreed, and here’s the review, which is also available in audioXpress April 2012:

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, if you wanted to learn about vacuum tube amplifiers, you could read the Radiotron Designer’s Handbook, a 1,500-page behemoth that covered all kinds of vacuum tube circuits that were known at the time, and also included abundant information on passive components as well. Or you could use the introductory material and example schematics in the RCA Receiving Tube Manual—much shorter and less expensive, and also far less comprehensive. Of course, it did include data on most tubes then being manufactured by RCA. If you just wanted to build your own amplifiers, but were not interested in designing, there was the Mullard  Circuits for Audio Amplifiers. For a more scholarly approach, you could check out an electrical engineering textbook such as Analysis and Design of Electronic Circuits by Paul Chirlian.

Now, however, things are different. Although some of these references can be found on the Internet, they are no longer up-to-date. Happily, however, Elektor recently published Fundamental Amplifier Techniques with Electron Tubes by Rudolf Moers, which presents a 21st-century perspective on the science of hollow-state design as applied to amplifiers and power supplies. Beginning with the principles of electron emission, the book progresses through standard vacuum tube varieties: diodes, triodes, tetrodes, and pentodes, after which it covers such general principles as frequency dependent behavior, non-linear distortion, noise, and negative feedback. The book concludes with a chapter on the construction of electron tube amplifiers. Unlike many of the earlier authors of books on electron tubes, Moers is not constrained by a need to cover such specialized tubes as pentagrid converters, or circuits specifically used in radio and TV receivers. Instead, he uses his 800 pages to discuss the physics underlying electron tube operation far more comprehensively than did any of his predecessors. He does this in a way that maximizes presentation of principles while minimizing unnecessary mathematics. In many cases, the physical explanations can be skipped over by those whose only interest is design methods. For the reader who does take advantage of the physical explanations, Moers’s inclusion of an eight-page listing/definition of mathematical symbols makes the explanations easy to follow.

The focus is by no means primarily on physics, however. None of the classic texts provides anything like so comprehensive coverage of the design and operation of half- and full-wave rectifier/filter circuits, or vacuum tube phase shifters, to mention a couple of examples.

Moers’s book assumes that the reader is familiar with basic DC and AC circuit theory, and therefore does not undertake the task of educating those who lack this understanding. The book is written from a scientific perspective in that, while mentioning the disconnect between measured and perceptual performance of an amplifier, the author makes no dogmatic claims about the relationship between the two, other than to opine that most of the “tube sound” results from harmonic distortion components that some people find pleasing to the ear. (Having followed this discussion for about four decades, your reviewer partially concurs, but believes that there are other elements involved as well.) The author lightheartedly introduces the quantity “cm2 of gooseskin/watt” as an example of a measurement of perceptual phenomena.

A consequence of Moers’ scientific approach is that specific catch phrases found in many amateur-oriented publications on tube technology are conspicuously absent. For example, it is difficult to read much about tube power amplifiers without noticing mention of the “Williamson amplifier.” This circuit was developed by D. T. N. Williamson and described in articles in Wireless World in April and May, 1947. It was unique in that it applied negative feedback around the entire amplifier, including the output transformer, thus reducing nonlinear distortion. Doing this required very careful design to ensure stability, including the elimination of interstage transformers such as the phase splitter transformer used in many prior designs.

Moers does not mention the Williamson amplifier by name, but the vacuum tube phase splitter design Williamson used is discussed in detail in the book, as is the method of designing a negative feedback loop encompassing the entire amplifier. Moers also gives a unique explanation of another pivotal power amplifier circuit: the ultralinear circuit invented in 1951 by Hafler and Keroes. It’s a case of content versus jargon.

In his otherwise excellent discussion of damping factor, Moers unfortunately makes the all-too-common error of ignoring the effects of voice coil  and lead wire resistance. He gives the common equation for damping factor: DF = (loudspeaker impedance)/(amplifier output impedance). Since the amplifier (modeled as an AC generator or Thevenin source), voice coil resistance, lead wire resistance, voice coil inductance, and reflected mechanical impedance form a series circuit whose actual damping is influenced by all elements, the lead wire resistance and voice coil resistance cannot be ignored. In fact, they can easily swamp the effects of the amplifier output impedance, at least for a pentode stage using negative feedback. However, Moers does not make the further error of insisting that the damping factor be a minimum of 100 as have some earlier authors. Using an 8-Ω speaker having about  6-Ω DC resistance, the effect of a combined output impedance and lead wire resistance less than 0.5 Ω is negligible.

Two shortcomings of Fundamental Amplifier Techniques with Electron Tubes are more or less linguistic. English may well be the only Germanic language in which the verb in a sentence is not at the end of the sentence required to come. Thus syntactical intrusions from the author’s native language sometimes make the text difficult for native English speakers. Also, Moers has chosen to use terminology that is probably not standard in English (at least American English) books on electronics. For example, he uses the term “ anode static steepness” to denote “transconductance” (also commonly called “mutual conductance.”) A common-cathode (or “grounded-cathode”) amplifier stage is called a “basic cathode” stage in Moers’ book.

These three small complaints pale in the face of the outstanding job the author has done in bringing together the theory, design, and practice of vacuum tube amplifiers in a single volume. Anyone who wants to go beyond the Heathkit level of tube amplifier understanding owes it to him/herself to buy and study this excellent volume.

If you’re interested purchasing the book or learning more about it, click here to visit the book’s webpage in the CC Webshop.

Fundamental Amplifier Techniques (by Rudolf Moers), audioXpress, and are Elektor group publications.


DIY Cap-Touch Amp for Mobile Audio

Why buy an amp for your iPod or MP3 player when you can build your own? With the proper parts and a proven plan of action, you can craft a custom personal audio amp to suit your needs. Plus, hitting the workbench with some chips and PCB is much more exciting than ordering an amp online.

In the April 2012 issue of Circuit Cellar, Coleton Denninger and Jeremy Lichtenfeld write about a capacitive-touch, gain-controlled amplifier while studying at Camosun College in Canada. The design features a Cypress Semiconductor CY8C29466-24PXI PSoC, a Microchip Technology mTouch microcontroller, and a Texas Instruments TPA1517.

Denninger and Lichtenfeld write:

Since every kid and his dog owns an iPod, an MP3 player, or some other type of personal audio device, it made sense to build a personal audio amplifier (see Photo 1). The tough choices were how we were going to make it stand out enough to attract kids who already own high-end electronics and how we were going to do it with a budget of around $40…

The capacitive-touch stage of the personal audio amp (Source: C. Denninger & J. Lichtenfeld)

Our first concern was how we were going to mix and amplify the low-power audio input signals from iPods, microphones, and electric guitars. We decided to have a couple of different inputs, and we wanted stereo and mono outputs. After doing some extensive research, we chose to use the Cypress Semiconductors CY8C29466-24PXI programmable system-on-chip (PSoC). This enabled us to digitally mix and vary the low-power amplification using the programmable gain amplifiers and switched capacitor blocks. It also came in a convenient 28-pin DIP package that followed our design guidelines. Not only was it perfect for our design, but the product and developer online support forums for all of Cypress’s products were very helpful.
Let’s face it: mechanical switches and pots are fast becoming obsolete in the world of consumer electronics (not to mention costly when compared to other alternatives). This is why we decided to use capacitive-touch sensing to control the low-power gain. Why turn a potentiometer or push a switch when your finger comes pre-equipped with conductive electrolytes? We accomplished this capacitive touch using Microchip Technology’s mTouch Sensing Solutions series of 8-bit microcontrollers. …


The audio mixer flowchart

Who doesn’t like a little bit of a light show? We used the same aforementioned PIC, but implemented it as a voltage unit meter. This meter averaged out our output signal level and indicated via LEDs the peaks in the music played. Essentially, while you listen to your favorite beats, the amplifier will beat with you! …
This amp needed to have a bit of kick when it came to the output. We’re not talking about eardrum-bursting power, but we wanted to have decent quality with enough power to fill an average-sized room with sound. We decided to go with a Class AB audio amplifier—the TPA1517 from Texas Instruments (TI) to be exact. The TPA1517 is a stereo audio-power amplifier that contains two identical amplifiers capable of delivering 6 W per channel of continuous average power into a 4-Ω load. This quality chip is easy to implement. And at only a couple of bucks, it’s an affordable choice!


The power amplification stage of the personal audio amp (Souce: C. Denninger & J. Lichtenfeld)

The complete article—with a schematic, diagrams, and code—will appear in Circuit Cellar 261 (April 2012).








DIY Audio Design with Tymkrs

With the growing popularity of embedded design kits and microcontroller-based platforms for rapid prototyping, it’s now easier and more affordable than ever for engineers, DIYers, musicians, audiophiles, and academics to customize electronics applications of their own. The March 2012 issue of audioXpress magazine will feature an interview with two DIYers—the duo behind—who do just that. “Atdiy” and “Whisker” provide details about, their design interests, and their recent projects. Here are some of their most interesting DIY designs:

  • SidCog Organ: Combine a programmable SID chip from the Commodore 64 and an old Hammond organ
  • Laser Audio Transmitter: Use a laser to transmit audio with a laser transmitter and a solar panel receiver
  • High-Impedance Preamplifier: A preamp designed with a JFET for loud and clean sound

Note: All photos courtesy of Tymkrs. The interview will appear in the March 2012  issue of audioXpress. audioXpress magazine (, like Circuit Cellar, is an Elektor group publication.