New User-Friendly Platform for Designing Embedded Solutions

Applied Micro Circuits Corp. recently announced the availability of the HeliX 2 Development Kit to support its HeliX 2 family of 64-bit multicore processors. A complete hardware and software solution, the new kit is user-friendly platform for designing embedded systems.

The kit’s features and specs include:

  • Mini-ITX board form factor
  • Quad-core HeliX 2 processor running up to 2.0 GHz
  • Two DDR3 DIMMS
  • One PCIe 3.0 (x4) and two PCIe 3.0 (x1)
  • One SFP+ Ethernet connector to support 10 GbE
  • Four 1 GbE ports
  • One SATA 3.0 port
  • Support for USB 3.0, I2C, SPI, SDIO and UARTs
  • SMP Linux and full suite of development tools
  • On-board JTAG connector interfaces to third party tools for run-time debugging

The HeliX 2 Development Kit is available via AppliedMicro’s channel partners.

Source: Applied Micro Circuits Corporation

 

Q&A: Jack Ganssle, Electronics Entrepreneur

Jack Ganssle is a well-known engineer, author, lecturer, and consultant. After learning about oscilloscopes, transistors, and capacitors in his father’s engineering lab, Jack went on to write hundreds of articles and several books about embedded development-related topics. He also started and sold three electronics companies, worked on classified government projects, and founded The Ganssle Group, based in Reisterstown, MD. I recently spoke with Jack about some of his career highlights, his current work, and what’s next in the embedded design industry.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: You’ve been interested in electronics since the age of 9. Give us a little background information. What was your first project?

Jack Ganssle

Jack Ganssle

JACK: My first project was a crystal radio with the inductor wound on the quintessential Quaker oatmeal box! It was really exciting to get AM reception over that. Back then, pretty much no one had FM. AM was it.

Later I learned to repair TVs and made pocket money doing that. Those sets were all vacuum tubes. Usually there was just a bad tube or dried out capacitor. But from there, my friends and I learned to design amplifiers (the Beatles were very hot and everyone was starting a band). For graduation from eighth grade, my dad gave me an old oscilloscope he had built from a kit years earlier.

He was part of a startup when I was in my early teens. We kids were coerced into being the (unpaid) janitors for the place. That was annoying at first. But, we were allowed to keep anything we swept up. The engineering lab’s floor was always covered in resistors, capacitors, transistors, and the like, so my parts collection grew. (ICs existed then, but were rare.)

When I was 16 I got a ham license, built  various transmitters, and used WWII surplus receivers. One day an angry letter arrived from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They had picked me up on my second harmonic clear across the country. I was really proud of that contact.

But it wasn’t long before some resistor-transistor logic (RTL) digital ICs came my way. Projects included controls for tube transmitters, Estes model rocket telemetry, and even a crude TV camera that used a photomultiplier tube to scan a spiral set of holes in a spinning disk. A couple of us worked on a ham radio moon bounce, but I accidentally shorted out a resistor and my only hydrogen thyratron (sort of a tube version of an SCR) blew up. There was no money for a replacement, so that project died. The transmitter used a little lighthouse tube that had a maximum rating of a couple of watts, but it worked OK when pulsing it for a few microseconds at 1 kW.

Senior year of high school a friend and I hitchhiked from Maryland to Boston to go to a surplus store. I bought a core memory plane that was 13,000 bits in a 6 in2 cube. Long hair didn’t help. We were picked up on the New Jersey Turnpike and strip searched. The cops never believed my explanation that the thing was computer memory.

A few years later, I had a 6501 microprocessor in the glove compartment of my Volkswagen bus (which I lived in for a year while saving for a sailboat). Coming into a sleepy Maine town from Canada that event was repeated when the border cops searched the bus and found the chip. They didn’t believe in computers on a chip. But the PC was years away and computers were mostly seen in science fiction films.

Freshman year of college, I designed and built a 12-bit computer using hundreds of TTL chips soldered together using phone company wire on vectorboards. For I/O there was an old Model 15 teletype using 5-bit Baudot codes that my software drove via bit banging. The OS, such as it was, lived in a pair of 1702 EPROMs, which each held 256 bytes. The computer worked great! And then the 8008, the first 8-bit microcontroller, came out and the thing was obsolete. I junked it, and now I wish I had saved at least the schematics.

But by then I had been working part-time as an electronics technician for a few years and the company needed to update its analog products to digital. No one knew anything about computers, so they promoted me to engineer. Eventually I ran the digital group there. We designed one of the first floppy disk controllers, insanely high-resolution graphics controllers, and a lot of other products. We also integrated minicomputers (Data General Novas and DEC PDP-11s) into systems with microprocessors. We bought a 5-MB disk drive for a Nova. It cost $5,000 (back when that was a lot of money) and weighed 500 lb. How things have changed.

NAN: Tell us about The Ganssle Group (www.ganssle.com). When and why did you start the company? What types of services do you provide?

JACK:  I formed The Ganssle Group in 1997 after 15 years of running an in-circuit emulator company. Working 70 h a week was getting old and I wanted more time with my kids. So my objective was to reverse the usual model. Instead of fitting life around a job, I wanted to fit the job into life.

Goal 1: Four months of vacation a year. It turns out that is elusive, in no small part due to the cool stuff going on around here, but most years we do manage two to three months off. My wife, Marybeth, works with me. She takes care of all of the administrative/travel and the like.

Goal 2: No commute. So we work out of the house (for the first few years, we worked out of the houseboat where we raised two kids).

Now the kids are grown, so there’s a Goal 3: Have as much fun as possible with Marybeth, so when I travel to new or interesting places she often accompanies me. There’s a lot more to life than work. Some of my side projects are available at www.ganssle.com/jack.

I’m not really sure what I do. I write—a lot. Readers are incredibly smart and vocal. The dialogue with them is a highlight of my day. I also give one- and two-day seminars on pretty much every continent (except Antarctica—so far!) about ways to get better firmware done faster. Sometimes I do an expert witness gig. Those are always fascinating as one gets to dig deeply into products and learn about the law. On rare occasions, I’ll do a day or three of consulting if the problem is particularly interesting. And there’s always some experiment I’m working on, which sometimes gets written up as an article.

NAN: Speaking of articles, you’ve written hundreds—including nine for Circuit Cellar magazine—on topics ranging from the history of the embedded systems programming industry, to memory management, to using programmable logic devices (PLDs). You also write a column for Embedded (www.embedded.com) and you are editor of the biweekly newsletter The Embedded Muse. Tell us about the types of projects you enjoy constructing and writing about.

The breadboard is discharging batteries. To the left, a battery is soldered to some coax. Using the waveform generator in the oscilloscope I’m measuring the battery's reactance (which, it turns out, is entirely capacitive). The IAR tool is profiling current consumption of an evaluation board.

The breadboard is discharging batteries. To the left, a battery is soldered to some coax. Using the waveform generator in the oscilloscope I’m measuring the battery’s reactance (which, it turns out, is entirely capacitive). The IAR tool is profiling current consumption of an evaluation board.

JACK: I have one experiment that’s running right now. For the last four months I’ve been discharging coin cells. It sounds dull, but some microcontroller vendors are making outrageous claims about battery life that are on the surface true but irrelevant in real circuits. This circuit runs a complex profile on the batteries, tossing different loads on for a few milliseconds, and an ARM microcontroller samples the batteries’ voltage (as well as the transistors, VCE drop) into a log file. That data goes into a spreadsheet for further analysis. I’m making a much bigger version of this now, which will handle far more batteries at a time. I recently gave some preliminary results at a talk in Asilomar, CA, which garnered a lot of interest. More results will be forthcoming soon…I promise!

Another aspect of this is leakage. Does handling a battery leave finger oils that can affect the decades-long life claimed by the vendors? To test this, I built a femtoammeter. A polypropylene capacitor is charged and feeds a super-low bias current op-amp. Another ARM board monitors the op-amp voltage to watch the capacitor discharge as various contaminants are electrically connected to the capacitor. With no contaminants connected, even after 48 h, the cap discharged less than 1 mV. The thing resolves to better than 10 fA. (One fA is a millionth of a nanoamp, or about 6,000 electrons/second).

In fact, the ADC’s transfer function is a proxy for temperature. We heat the house with wood and you could see a perfect correlation of op-amp output and temperature throughout the day. (It’s lowest in the morning as the fire burns out overnight.)

NAN: You wrote the two-part Circuit Cellar article series, “Writing a Real-Time Operating System” (Issue 7 and 8, 1989) about the Hitachi HD64180 Z80-based embedded microprocessor nearly 15 years ago. Circuit Cellar also featured another HD64180-based article, “Huge Arrays on the HD64180: Taking Advantage of Memory Management” (Issue 16, 1990). What was your fascination with the HD64180? Also, is either of these projects still current? Have you changed any of the design components?

JACK: Gee, I have no idea. I wrote those using Microsoft Works, but the file format has changed and Works can no longer open those articles. Alas, the HD64180 is quite obsolete. It was a grown-up version of the Z80 and very popular in its day.

In 1974, Intel introduced the 8080, which was the first really decent 8-bit microprocessor. But it needed two clocks and three power supplies. The folks at Zilog came out with the Z80 a year later. It could run 8080 code, but had one clock, a single 5-V supply, and it offered additional instructions that massively improved code density. Intel responded with the 8085, but it was really an 8080 in drag. The couple of new instructions added just couldn’t give the Z80 a run for its money. Eventually Zilog came out with the Z180, and Hitachi the 64180 clone, which included on-board peripherals and a memory management unit to address 1 MB using standard Z80 instructions. It was a great idea, but since there was no on-board memory, it couldn’t compete with microcontrollers such as the ancient, and still-going-strong, 8051.

NAN: In addition to writing, you lecture and teach at conferences and symposiums worldwide. Tell us about your one-day “Better Firmware Faster” seminar. How did it begin? What can attendees expect to gain from it?

JACK: I’m completely frustrated with the state of firmware. It’s inevitably late and buggy. While there’s no doubt that crafting firmware is extremely difficult—after all, software is the most complex engineered product ever invented—we can and must do better. It’s astonishing that so few groups keep even the simplest metrics, yet engineering is all about numbers.

The seminar is a fast-paced event that shows developers better ways to get their code to market. It covers process issues, as well as a lot of technology areas unique to embedded systems, such as managing memory and dealing with tough real-time problems.

What can attendees get from it? It varies from very little to a lot. Some groups refuse to change anything, so will always maintain the status quo. Others do better. Some report 40% improvements to the schedule and up to an order of magnitude of reduction in shipped bugs.

NAN: You started three high-tech companies prior to The Ganssle Group. Tell us about your work experience. Any highlights?

JACK: Well, there was one instrument that used infrared light to measure protein in cow poop. Though it was interesting technology, it’s hard to call that a highlight. The design I’m most proud of was my first emulator, which had only 17 ICs and used insanely complex code. Eventually we offered emulators that required hundreds of chips, but those cost $7,000, while the first one sold for $600.

Some of the government work I’ve done was very interesting and used extremely sophisticated electronics. But I can’t talk about those projects. A buddy and I did the White House security system during the Reagan administration. It was fun to work in the basement there, but the bureaucracy was stifling. We lost our White House passes the same day Oliver North did, but he got more press.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the embedded design industry? Is there a particular technology that you’ve used or seen that will change the way engineers design in the coming months and years?

JACK: Everything is going to change for us over the next five to 10 years. We will have tools that automatically find lots of bugs. Everyone is familiar (and has a love/hate relationship) with lint. But static analyzers can today find lots of runtime bugs. These are currently expensive and frustrating, but they demonstrate that such products can, and will, exist. When the issues are resolved, I expect they’ll be as common as IDEs. Debugging manually is hugely expensive.

Another tool is slowly gaining acceptance: so-called virtualization products (e.g., from Wind River and others). These are not the hypervisors people think about when using the word “virtualization.” Rather, they are complete software models of a target system. You can run all—and I mean all—of your code on the model. The hardware is always late. These tools will permit debugging to start at the beginning of the project. The tools are also expensive and somewhat clumsy, but will get better over time.

A modern smartphone has more than 10 million lines of code. Automobiles often have more. One thing is certain: Firmware will continue to grow in size and complexity. The current techniques we use to develop code will change as well.

 

Embedded Sensor Innovation at MIT

During his June 5 keynote address at they 2013 Sensors Expo in Chicago, Joseph Paradiso presented details about some of the innovative embedded sensor-related projects at the MIT Media Lab, where he is the  Director of the Responsive Environments Group. The projects he described ranged from innovative ubiquitous computing installations for monitoring building utilities to a small sensor network that transmits real-time data from a peat bog in rural Massachusetts. Below I detail a few of the projects Paradiso covered in his speech.

DoppleLab

Managed by the Responsive Enviroments group, the DoppelLab is a virtual environment that uses Unity 3D to present real-time data from numerous sensors in MIT Media Lab complex.

The MIT Responsive Environments Group’s DoppleLab

Paradiso explained that the system gathers real-time information and presents it via an interactive browser. Users can monitor room temperature, humidity data, RFID badge movement, and even someone’s Tweets has he moves throughout the complex.

Living Observatory

Paradiso demoed the Living Observatory project, which comprises numerous sensor nodes installed in a peat bog near Plymouth, MA. In addition to transmitting audio from the bog, the installation also logs data such as temperature, humidity, light, barometric pressure, and radio signal strength. The data logs are posted on the project site, where you can also listen to the audio transmission.

The Living Observatory (Source: http://tidmarsh.media.mit.edu/)

GesturesEverywhere

The GesturesEverywhere project provides a real-time data stream about human activity levels within the MIT Media Lab. It provides the following data and more:

  • Activity Level: you can see the Media Labs activity level over a seven-day period.
  • Presence Data: you can see the location of ID tags as people move in the building

The following video is a tracking demo posted on the project site.

The aforementioned projects are just a few of the many cutting-edge developments at the MIT Media Lab. Paradiso said the projects show how far ubiquitous computing technology has come. And they provide a glimpse into the future. For instance, these technologies lend themselves to a variety of building-, environment-, and comfort-related applications.

“In the early days of ubiquitous computing, it was all healthcare,” Paradiso said. “The next frontier is obviously energy.”

Microcontroller-Based Heating System Monitor

Checking a heating system’s consumption is simple enough.

Heating system monitor

Determining a heating system’s output can be much more difficult, unless you have this nifty design. This Atmel ATmega microcontroller-based project enables you to measure heat output as well as control a circulation pump.

Heating bills often present unpleasant surprises. Despite your best efforts to economise on heating, they list tidy sums for electricity or gas consumption. In this article we describe a relatively easy way to check these values and monitor your consumption almost continuously. All you need in order to determine how much heat your system delivers is four temperature sensors, a bit of wiring, and a microcontroller. There’s no need to delve into the electrical or hydraulic components of your system or modify any of them.

A bit of theory
As many readers probably remember from their physics lessons, it’s easy to calculate the amount of heat transferred to a medium such as water. It is given by the product of the temperature change ΔT, the volume V of the medium, and the specific heat capacity CV of the medium. The power P, which is amount of energy transferred per unit time, is:

P= ΔT × CV × V // Δt

With a fluid medium, the term V // Δt can be interpreted as a volumetric flow Vt. This value can be calculated directly from the flow velocity v of the medium and the inner diameter r of the pipe. In a central heating system, the temperature difference ΔT is simply the difference between the supply (S) and return (R) temperatures. This yields the formula:

P = (TS – TR) × CV × v × pr2

The temperatures can easily be measured with suitable sensors. Flow transducers are available for measuring the flow velocity, but installing a flow transducer always requires drilling a hole in a pipe or opening up the piping to insert a fitting.

Measuring principle
Here we used a different method to determine the flow velocity. We make use of the fact that the supply and return temperatures always vary by at least one to two degrees due to the operation of the control system. If pairs of temperature sensors separated by a few metres are mounted on the supply and return lines, the flow velocity can be determined from the time offset of the variations measured by the two sensors…

As the water flows through the pipe with a speed of only a few metres per second, the temperature at sensor position S2 rises somewhat later than the temperature at sensor position S, which is closer to the boiler.

An ATmega microcontroller constantly acquires temperature data from the two sensors. The time delay between the signals from a pair of sensors is determined by a correlation algorithm in the signal processing software, which shifts the signal waveforms from the two supply line sensors relative to each other until they virtually overlap.The temperature signals from the sensors on the return line are correlated in the same manner, and ideally the time offsets obtained for the supply and return lines should be the same.

To increase the sensitivity of the system, the return line sensor signals are applied to the inputs of a differential amplifier, and the resulting difference signal is amplified. This difference signal is also logged as a function of time. The area under the curve of the difference signal is a measure of the time offset of the temperature variations…

Hot water please
If the heating system is also used to supply hot water for domestic use, additional pipes are used for this purpose. For this reason, the PCB designed by the author includes inputs for additional temperature sensors. It also has a switched output for driving a relay that can control a circulation pump.

Under certain conditions, controlling the circulation pump can save you a lot of money and significantly reduce CO2 emissions. This is because some systems have constant hot water circulation so users can draw hot water from the tap immediately. This costs electricity to power the pump, and energy is also lost through the pipe walls. This can be remedied by the author’s circuit, which switches on the circulation pump for only a short time after the hot water tap is opened. This is detected by the temperature difference between the hot water and cold water supply lines…

Circuit description
The easiest way to understand the schematic diagram is to follow the signal path. It starts at the temperature sensors connected to the circuit board, which are NTC silicon devices.

Heating system monitor schematic

Their resistance varies by around 0.7–0.8% per degree K change in temperature. For example, the resistance of a KT110 sensor is approximately 1.7 kΩ at 5 °C and approximately 2.8 kΩ at 70 °C.

The sensor for supply temperature S forms a voltage divider with resistor R37. This is followed by a simple low-pass filter formed by R36 and C20, which filters out induced AC hum. U4a amplifies the sensor signal by a factor of approximately 8. The TL2264 used here is a rail-to-rail opamp, so the output voltage can assume almost any value within the supply voltage range. This increases the absolute measurement accuracy, since the full output signal amplitude is used. U4a naturally needs a reference voltage on its inverting input. This is provided by the combination of R20, R26 and R27. U5b acts as an impedance converter to minimise the load on the voltage divider…

Thermal power

PC connection
The circuit does not have its own display unit, but instead delivers its readings to a PC via an RS485 bus. Its functions can also be controlled from the PC. IC U8 looks after signal level conversion between the TTL transmit and receive lines of the ATmega microcontroller’s integrated UART and the differential RS485 bus. As the bus protocol allows several connected (peer) devices to transmit data on the bus, transmit mode must be selected actively via pin 3. Jumper JP3 must be fitted if the circuit is connected to the end of the RS485 bus. This causes the bus to be terminated in 120 Ω, which matches the characteristic impedance of a twisted-pair line…

[Via Elektor-Projects.com]

Electrostatic Cleaning Robot Project

How do you clean a clean-energy generating system? With a microcontroller (and a few other parts, of course). An excellent example is US designer Scott Potter’s award-winning, Renesas RL78 microcontroller-based Electrostatic Cleaning Robot system that cleans heliostats (i.e., solar-tracking mirrors) used in solar energy-harvesting systems. Renesas and Circuit Cellar magazine announced this week at DevCon 2012 in Garden Grove, CA, that Potter’s design won First Prize in the RL78 Green Energy Challenge.

This image depicts two Electrostatic Cleaning Robots set up on two heliostats. (Source: S. Potter)

The nearby image depicts two Electrostatic Cleaning Robots set up vertically in order to clean the two heliostats in a horizontal left-to-right (and vice versa) fashion.

The Electrostatic Cleaning Robot in place to clean

Potter’s design can quickly clean heliostats in Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants. The heliostats must be clean in order to maximize steam production, which generates power.

The robot cleaner prototype

Built around an RL78 microcontroller, the 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

Object oriented C++ software, developed with the IAR Embedded Workbench and the RL78 Demonstration Kit, controls the device.

IAR Embedded Workbench IDE

The RL78 microcontroller uses the following for system control:

• 20 Digital I/Os used as system control lines

• 1 ADC monitors solar cell voltage

• 1 Interval timer provides controller time tick

• Timer array unit: 4 timers capture the width of sensor pulses

• Watchdog timer for system reliability

• Low voltage detection for reliable operation in intermittent solar conditions

• RTC used in diagnostic logs

• 1 UART used for diagnostics

• Flash memory for storing diagnostic logs

The complete project (description, schematics, diagrams, and code) is now available on the Challenge website.

 

Electrical Engineering Tools & Preparation (CC 25th Anniversary Issue Preview)

Electrical engineering is frequently about solving problems. Success requires a smart plan of action and the proper tools. But as all designers know, getting started can be difficult. We’re here to help.

You don’t have to procrastinate or spend a fortune on tools to start building your own electronic circuits. As engineer/columnist Jeff Bachiochi has proved countless times during the past 25 years,  there are hardware and software tools that fit any budget. In Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, he offers some handy tips on building a tool set for successful electrical engineering. Bachiochi writes:

In this essay, I’ll cover the “build” portion of the design process. For instance, I’ll detail various tips for prototyping, circuit wiring, enclosure preparation, and more. I’ll also describe several of the most useful parts and tools (e.g., protoboards, scopes, and design software) for working on successful electronic design projects. When you’re finished with this essay, you’ll be well on your way to completing a successful electronic design project.

The Prototyping Process

Prototyping is an essential part of engineering. Whether you’re working on a complicated embedded system or a simple blinking LED project, building a prototype can save you a lot of time, money, and hassle in the long run. You can choose one of three basic styles of prototyping: solderless breadboard, perfboard, and manufactured PCB. Your project goals, your schedule, and your circuit’s complexity are variables that will influence your choice. (I am not including styles like flying leads and wire-wrapping.)

Prototyping Tools

The building phase of a design might include wiring up your circuit design and altering an enclosure to provide access to any I/O on the PCB. Let’s begin with some tools that you will need for circuit prototyping.

The nearby photo shows a variety of small tools that I use when wiring a perfboard or assembling a manufactured PCB. The needle-nose pliers/cutter is the most useful.

These are my smallest hand tools. With them I can poke, pinch, bend, cut, smooth, clean, and trim parts, boards, and enclosures. I can use the set of special driver tips to open almost any product that uses security screws.

Don’t skimp on this; a good pair will last many years. …

Once everything seems to be in order, you can fill up the sockets. You might need to provide some stimulus if you are building something like a filter. A small waveform generator is great for this. There are even a few hand probes that will provide outputs that can stimulate your circuitry. An oscilloscope might be the first “big ticket” item in which you invest. There are some inexpensive digital scope front ends that use an app running on a PC for display and control, but I suggest a basic analog scope (20 MHz) if you can swing it (starting at less than $500).

If the circuit doesn’t perform the expected task, you should give the wiring job a quick once over. Look to see if something is missing, such as an unconnected or misconnected wire. If you don’t find something obvious, perform a complete continuity check of all the components and their connections using an ohmmeter.

I use a few different meters. One has a transistor checker. Another has a high-current probe. For years I used a small battery-powered hand drill before purchasing the Dremel and drill press. The tweezers are actually an SMT parts measurer. Many are unmarked and impossible to identify without using this device (and the magnifier).

It usually will be a stupid mistake. To do a complete troubleshooting job, you’ll need to know how the circuit is supposed to work. Without that knowledge, you can’t be expected to know where to look and what to look for.

Make a Label

You’ll likely want to label your design… Once printed, you can protect a label by carefully covering it with a single strip of packing tape.

The label for this project came straight off a printer. Using circuit-mount parts made assembling the design a breeze.

A more expensive alternative is to use a laminating machine that puts your label between two thin plastic sheets. There are a number of ways to attach your label to an enclosure. Double-sided tape and spray adhesive (available at craft stores) are viable options.”

Ready to start innovating? There’s no time like now to begin your adventure.

Check out the upcoming anniversary issue for Bachiochi’s complete essay.

Game On with the Arduino Esplora

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

Arduino Esplora

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

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

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

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

 

The Future of 8-Bit Chips (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Ever since the time when a Sony Walkman retailed for around $200, engineers of all backgrounds and skill levels have been prognosticating the imminent death of 8-bit chips. No matter your age, you’ve likely heard the “8-bit is dead” argument more than once. And you’ll likely hear it a few more times over the next several years.

Long-time Circuit Cellar contributor Tom Cantrell has been following the 8-bit saga for the last 25 years. In Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, he offers his thoughts on 8-bit chips and their future. Here’s a sneak peek. Cantrell writes:

“8-bit is dead.”  Or so I was told by a colleague. In 1979. Ever since then, reports of the demise of 8-bit chips have been greatly, and repeatedly, exaggerated. And ever since then, I’ve been pointing out the folly of premature eulogizing.

I’ll concede the prediction is truer today than in 1979—mainly, because it wasn’t true at all then. Now, some 30-plus years later, let’s reconsider the prospects for our “wee” friends…

Let’s start the analysis by putting on our Biz101 hats. If you Google “Product Life Cycle” and click on “Images,” you’ll see a variety of somewhat similar graphs showing how products pass through stages of growth, maturity, and decline. Though all the graphs tell a rise-and-fall story, it’s interesting to note the variations. Some show a symmetrical life cycle that looks rather like a normal distribution. But the majority of the graphs show a “long-tail” variation in which the maturity phase lasts somewhat longer and the decline is relatively gradual.

Another noteworthy difference is how some graphs define life and death in terms of “sales” and others “profits.” It stands to reason that no business will continue to sell at a loss indefinitely, but the market knows how to fix that. Even if some suppliers wave the white flag, those that remain can raise prices and maintain profitability as long as there is still demand.

One of the more interesting life cycle variations shows that innovation, like a fountain of youth, can stave off death indefinitely. An example that comes to mind is the recent introduction of ferroelectric RAM (FRAM) MCUs. FRAM has real potential to reduce power consumption and also streamlines the supply chain because a single block of FRAM can be arbitrarily partitioned to emulate any mix of read-mostly or random access memory (see Photo 1). They may be “mature” products, but today the Texas Instruments MSP430 and Ramtron 8051 are leading the way with FRAM.

Photo 1: Ongoing innovation, such as the FRAM-based “Wolverine” MCU from Texas Instruments, continues to expand the market for mini-me MCUs. (Source: Cantrell CC25)

And “innovation” isn’t limited to just the chips themselves. For instance, consider the growing popularity of the Arduino SBC. There’s certainly nothing new about the middle-of-the-road, 8-bit Atmel AVR chip it uses. Rather, the innovations are with the “tools” (simplified IDE), “open-source community,” and “sales channel” (e.g., RadioShack). You can teach an old chip new tricks!

Check out the upcoming anniversary issue for the rest of Cantrell’s essay. Be sure to let us know what you think about the future of the 8-bit chip.

Do Small-RAM Devices Have a Future? (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

What does the future hold for small-RAM microcontrollers? Will there be any reason to put up with the constraints of parts that have little RAM, no floating point, and 8-bit registers? The answer matters to engineers who have spent years programming small-RAM MCUs. It also matters to designers who are hoping to keep their skills relevant as their careers progress in the 21st century.

In the upcoming Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue—which is slated for publication in early 2013—University of Utah professor John Regehr shares his thoughts on the future of small-RAM devices. He writes:

For the last several decades, the role of small-RAM microcontrollers has been clear: they are used to perform fixed (though sometimes very sophisticated) functionality in environments where cost, power consumption, and size need to be minimized. They exploit the low marginal cost of additional transistors to integrate volatile RAM, nonvolatile RAM, and numerous peripherals into the same package as the processor core, providing a huge amount of functionality in a small, cheap package. Something that is less clear is the future of small-RAM microcontrollers. The same fabrication economics that make it possible to put numerous peripherals on a single die also permit RAM to be added at little cost. This was brought home to me recently when I started using Raspberry Pi boards in my embedded software class at the University of Utah. These cost $25 to $35 and run a full-sized Linux distribution including GCC, X Windows, Python, and everything else—all on a system-on-chip with 256 MB of RAM that probably costs a few dollars in quantity.

We might ask: Given that it is already the case that a Raspberry Pi costs about the same as an Arduino board, in the future will there be any reason to put up with the constraints of an architecture like Atmel’s AVR, where we have little RAM, no floating point, and 8-bit registers? The answer matters to those of us who enjoy programming small-RAM MCUs and who have spent years fine-tuning our skills to do so. It also matters to those of us who hope to keep our skills relevant through the middle of the 21st century. Can we keep writing C code, or do we need to start learning Java, Python, and Haskell? Can we keep writing stand-alone “while (true)” loops, or will every little MCU support a pile of virtual machines, each with its own OS?

Long & Short Term

In the short term, it is clear that inertia will keep the small-RAM parts around, though increasingly they will be of the more compiler-friendly varieties, such as AVR and MSP430, as opposed to earlier instruction sets like Z80, HC11, and their descendants. But will small-RAM microcontrollers exist in the longer term (e.g., 25 or 50 years)? I’ll attempt to tackle this question by separately discussing the two things that make small-RAM parts attractive today: their low cost and their simplicity.

If we assume a cost model where packaging and soldering costs are fixed but the marginal cost of a transistor (not only in terms of fabrication, but also in terms of power consumption) continues to drop, then small-RAM parts will eventually disappear. In this case, several decades from now even the lowliest eight-pin package, costing a few pennies, will contain a massive amount of RAM and will be capable of running a code base containing billions of lines…

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.

Pi-Face: A New Raspberry Pi Accessory

Ready for the Pi-Face Digital? What’s that? you ask.

Pi-Face at Electronica 2012 (Source: Elektor.tv)

Pi Interface Digital, or Pi-Face Digital, is a Raspberry Pi accessory board Premier Farnell will begin distributing in early 2013. You can plug it into a Raspberry Pi and start designing immediately. Plus, you can connect sensors to Pi-Face Digital for a variety of purposes, such as temperature- or pressure-monitoring applications.

The following useful information is posted at the University of Manchester’s School of Computer Science site.

Pi-Face Digital is the first of a range of interfaces to allow the Raspberry Pi to control and manipulate the real world. It allows the Raspberry Pi to read switches connected to it – a door sensor or pressure pad perhaps, a microswitch or reed switch, or a hand held button. With appropriate easy to write code, the Raspberry Pi then drives outputs, powering motors, actuator, LEDs, light bulbs or anything you can imagine to respond to the inputs… The hardware provides an easy and consistent programming interface, in Scratch (as shown running on a Raspberry Pi in the photograph) and Python with good observability to promote easy development, and reduce technology barriers.

It will cost approximately €20 to €30. You can register at element14.

Want to see Pi-Face in action? Check it out on Elektor.tv!

CircuitCellar.com is an Elektor International Media publication.

Microcontroller-Based Markov Music Box

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

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

Land writes:

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

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

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

Principles of Embedded System Design (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

You have an idea an idea for an innovative microcontroller-based design? Once you start start soldering and wiring, you might want to keep an eye on Bob Japenga’s checklist of essential embedded system design principle. His complete list will appear in Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, which will be available in early 2013. But since many of you will be attempting to complete projects before January 1, we’re giving you a sneak peek.

Japenga writes:

We all know that old adage: “If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, where do you find the time to do it right the second?” But this is the nature of developing robust embedded systems. There are literally thousands of little decisions that we make even in the simplest of projects. How can we minimize repeating mistakes?

So my goal in this article is twofold: to celebrate with Circuit Cellar 25 years of great service to us engineers and to hammer home some of those principles that we so often forget. I will divide the essentials into four categories: general essentials, essentials that exist because things (i.e., us and our designs) fail, essentials about testing, and essentials about memory use.

General Essentials

KISS & No Simpler“Keep it simple stupid (KISS).” How often do I need to hear this? I like the saying about KISS that’s often attributed to Albert Einstein but was actually Roger Session’s paraphrase: “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I am counting these as our first and second essentials.  Keep it simple is number one and no simpler is the second. I find this an immense challenge. When we are faced with schedule deadlines and tight budgets, it is costly to make a design simple. Some people have a gift at taking a problem and abstracting an elegant and simple solution. I remember giving a design specification to one of my employees a number of years ago when I worked for an aerospace company. After several days he came back with over 20 pages of algorithms and charts defining how the specification should be met in software. I wasn’t smart enough to know why it was too complex, but my gut feeling was: “This is too complex. Make it simpler.” Later, I turned it over to another young man who returned with an elegant two-page algorithm that worked perfectly.

How do we do that? “As simple as possible” can get us in trouble if we make it too simple. For example, just recently we were designing a multi-drop serial interface to be incorporated into a medical device. A strong case could be made for the simplicity of using a single-ended interface. But experience tells us that a differential interface will be more robust in the face of defibrillators and all the various noisy electronic instruments it will to play with. Which meets the KISS principle? The same tough decision comes when you’re trying to decide whether to go with a two-wire or a four-wire interface. Two wires has less cabling, but it’s more complex in the interface and forces single-duplex operation. Again, which meets the principle?

Sometimes the trade-off can come down to what you already have in the house. If you have well-debugged libraries for handling the two-wire 485 protocols, the reduced number of wires reduces the overall system complexity even though the software will in fact be more complex.

Sometimes when dealing with algorithm development, the KISS principle can also present ambiguous alternatives. At times, a straightforward linear programming approach can be many times more lines of code and more complex than an elegant algorithm. But the elegant algorithm may be obscure, difficult to maintain, or take too long to come up with. Therein lies the challenge to Keep It Simple Stupid but No Simpler.

Define the Problem/Create Clear SpecsHaving a clear set of specs is essential to every part of a design. We all know this and we always belly ache about how we don’t have perfect specifications. But get with it. You won’t always have perfect specs from your customer. But it is essential that you make them as good as possible. And in writing. If your customer is willing, keep pushing back and keep writing it down and refining it as you go.

I’ve found that essential for every phase of a project. Whether it is hardware or software, writing out the spec (on the schematic or in the code) is a wonderful act of discipline. Write out the spec for the module. Write out the spec for the algorithm. Write out the spec for the circuit. Writing it out forces you to think it through. End the belly-aching about the lack of good specs. Start creating them.

Don’t Skimp on the ToolsTools are our life blood. If you are a manager and your designers don’t have the best tools, you are wasting your money on their salaries. That said, we are not talking about buying tools you don’t use, tools that don’t pay for themselves, or tools that you can rent more cost effectively. Last week we were discussing a problem where one of our cell modem designs exceeded the limit for the second harmonic in spurious emissions. In talking over the problem with the test lab, I discovered that they had a tool that they brought inside the anechoic chamber that could tell the cell modem to transmit on such and such a frequency at maximum power. Naively, I asked, “Shouldn’t we have such a tool?” Someone responded: “Yes, but they cost almost a million dollars.” Oh. But we found we could rent one for $1,000 a day. So, I am not talking about being unwise with our money.

Many years ago while at the aerospace company, I was recommending an HP64000 system that appeared to be a very powerful tool for our software development team. I wrote up the proposal and presented it to the vice president of engineering. His question has haunted me ever since. “Would you buy it if it were your money?” I said then, and continue to say now, “Get the best tools that will allow you to do the job as quickly as possible. If a 200-man-hour job can be done for 100 hours with a $10,000 instrument, is it worth it. Absolutely.”

Read the DocumentationLast year we had a problem that showed up only after we started making the product in 1,000-piece runs. The problem was that some builds of the system took a very long time to power up. We had built about 10 prototypes, tested the design over thousands of power ups, and it tested just fine (thanks to POC-IT). Then the 1,000-piece run uncovered about a half-dozen units that had variable power-up times—ranging from a few seconds to more than an hour! Replacing the watchdog chip that controlled the RESET line to an ARM9 processor fixed the problem. But why did these half dozen fail? Many hours into the analysis we discovered that the RESET line out of the watchdog chip on the failed units would pulse but stay low for long periods of time. A shot of cold air instantly caused the chip to release the RESET. Was it a faulty chip lot? Nope. Upon a closer read of the documentation, we found that you cannot have a pull-up resister on the RESET line. For years we always had pull-ups on RESET lines. We’d missed that in the documentation.

Like it or not, we have to pour over the documentation of the chips and software library calls we use. We have to digest the content carefully. We cannot rely on what is intuitive.

Finally, and this is much more necessary than in years past, we have to pour over the errata sheets. And we need to do it before we commit the design. A number of years ago, a customer designed a major new product line around an Atmel ARM9. This ARM9 had the capability of directly addressing NOR memory up to 128 MB.  Except for the fact that the errata said that due to a bug it could only address 16 MB.  Ouch! Later we had problems with the I2C bus in the same chip. At times, the bus would lock up and nothing except a power cycle would unlock it. Enter the errata. Under some unmentioned conditions the I2C state machine can lock up. Ouch! In this case, we were able to use a bit-bang algorithm rather than the built-in I2C—but obviously at the cost of money, scheduling, and real time.

If You Can’t Explain it to Mom, It Ain’t ClearThat’s another way to say: “Assume no one reads the user manual.” I recently read a blog post about the City of Boston’s electronic parking meters (http://usabilitylessons.wordpress.com/category/general/). Truly, one wonders who reviewed that user interface. If you want to make robust embedded systems with a user interface, they need to have intuitive interfaces, or you may be surprised at what the user comes up with. This takes time and effort, but it’s well worth it. Try it out on the uninitiated. Engineers are the worst kind of people for testing user interfaces. Try it on kids. My business partner’s one-year-old son found the first bug in our first product.

Be sure to get your hands on the upcoming anniversary issue to learn about the reset of the principles. He covers “Things Fail Essentials,” “Testing Essentials,” “Memory Management Essentials,” and more. Consider using it to create your own design principles checklist that you can keep at your workbench.

Prevent Embedded Design Errors (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Attention, electrical engineers and programmers! Our upcoming 25th Anniversary Issue (available in early 2013) isn’t solely a look back at the history of this publication. Sure, we cover a bit of history. But the issue also features design tips, projects, interviews, and essays on topics ranging from user interface (UI) tips for designers to the future of small RAM devices, FPGAs, and 8-bit chips.

Circuit Cellar’s 25th Anniversary issue … coming in early 2013

Circuit Cellar columnist Robert Lacoste is one of the engineers whose essay will focus on present-day design tips. He explains that electrical engineering projects such as mixed-signal designs can be tedious, tricky, and exhausting. In his essay, Lacoste details 25 errors that once made will surely complicate (at best) or ruin (at worst) an embedded design project. Below are some examples and tips.

Thinking about bringing an electronics design to market? Lacoste highlights a common error many designers make.

Error 3: Not Anticipating Regulatory Constraints

Another common error is forgetting to plan for regulatory requirements from day one. Unless you’re working on a prototype that won’t ever leave your lab, there is a high probability that you will need to comply with some regulations. FCC and CE are the most common, but you’ll also find local regulations as well as product-class requirements for a broad range of products, from toys to safety devices to motor-based machines. (Refer to my article, “CE Marking in a Nutshell,” in Circuit Cellar 257 for more information.)

Let’s say you design a wireless gizmo with the U.S. market and later find that your customers want to use it in Europe. This means you lose years of work, as well as profits, because you overlooked your customers’ needs and the regulations in place in different locals.

When designing a wireless gizmo that will be used outside the U.S., having adequate information from the start will help you make good decisions. An example would be selecting a worldwide-enabled band like the ubiquitous 2.4 GHz. Similarly, don’t forget that EMC/ESD regulations require that nearly all inputs and outputs should be protected against surge transients. If you forget this, your beautiful, expensive prototype may not survive its first day at the test lab.

Watch out for errors

Here’s another common error that could derail a project. Lacoste writes:

Error 10: You Order Only One Set of Parts Before PCB Design

I love this one because I’ve done it plenty of times even though I knew the risk.

Let’s say you design your schematic, route your PCB, manufacture or order the PCB, and then order the parts to populate it. But soon thereafter you discover one of the following situations: You find that some of the required parts aren’t available. (Perhaps no distributor has them. Or maybe they’re available but you must make a minimum order of 10,000 parts and wait six months.) You learn the parts are tagged as obsolete by its manufacturer, which may not be known in advance especially if you are a small customer.

If you are serious about efficiency, you won’t have this problem because you’ll order the required parts for your prototypes in advance. But even then you might have the same issue when you need to order components for the first production batch. This one is tricky to solve, but only two solutions work. Either use only very common parts that are widely available from several sources or early on buy enough parts for a couple of years of production. Unfortunately, the latter is the only reasonable option for certain components like LCDs.

Ok, how about one more? You’ll have to check out the Anniversary Issue for the list of the other 22 errors and tips. Lacoste writes:

Error 12: You Forget About Crosstalk Between Digital and Analog Signals

Full analog designs are rare, so you have probably some noisy digital signals around your sensor input or other low-noise analog lines. Of course, you know that you must separate them as much as possible, but you can be sure that you will forget it more than once.

Let’s consider a real-world example. Some years ago, my company designed a high-tech Hi-Fi audio device. It included an on-board I2C bus linking a remote user interface. Do you know what happened? Of course, we got some audible glitches on the loudspeaker every time there was an I2C transfer. We redesigned the PCB—moving tracks and adding plenty of grounded copper pour and vias between sensitive lines and the problem was resolved. Of course we lost some weeks in between. We knew the risk, but underestimated it because nothing is as sensitive as a pair of ears. Check twice and always put guard-grounded planes between sensitive tracks and noisy ones.

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.

 

 

 

 

Autonomous Mobile Robot (Part 2): Software & Operation

I designed a microcontroller-based mobile robot that can cruise on its own, avoid obstacles, escape from inadvertent collisions, and track a light source. In the first part of this series, I introduced my TOMBOT robot’s hardware. Now I’ll describe its software and how to achieve autonomous robot behavior.

Autonomous Behavior Model Overview
The TOMBOT is a minimalist system with just enough components to demonstrate some simple autonomous behaviors: Cruise, Escape, Avoid, and Home behaviors (see Figure 1). All the behaviors require left and right servos for maneuverability. In general, “Cruise” just keeps the robot in motion in lieu of any stimulus. “Escape” uses the bumper to sense a collision and then 180 spin with reverse. “Avoid” makes use of continuous forward looking IR sensors to veer left or right upon approaching a close obstacle. Finally “Home” utilizes the front optical photocells to provide robot self-guidance to a strong light highly directional source.

Figure 1: High-level autonomous behavior flow

Figure 2 shows more details. The diagram captures the interaction of TOMBOT hardware and software. On the left side of the diagram are the sensors, power sources, and command override (the XBee radio command input). All analog sensor inputs and bumper switches are sampled (every 100 ms automatically) during the Microchip Technology PIC32 Timer 1 interrupt. The bumper left and right switches undergo debounce using 100 ms as a timer increment. The analog sensors inputs are digitized using the PIC32’s 10-bit ADC. Each sensor is assigned its own ADC channel input. The collected data is averaged in some cases and then made available for use by the different behaviors. Processing other than averaging is done within the behavior itself.

Figure 2: Detailed TOMBOT autonomous model

All behaviors are implemented as state machines. If a behavior requests motor control, it will be internally arbitrated against all other behaviors before motor action is taken. Escape has the highest priority (the power behavior is not yet implemented) and will dominate with its state machine over all the other behaviors. If escape is not active, then avoid will dominate as a result of its IR detectors are sensing an object in front of the TOMBOT less than 8″ away. If escape and avoid are not active, then home will overtake robot steering to sense track a light source that is immediately in front of TOMBOT. Finally cruise assumes command, and takes the TOMBOT in a forward direction temporarily.

A received command from the XBee RF module can stop and start autonomous operation remotely. This is very handy for system debugging. Complete values of all sensors and battery power can be viewed on graphics display using remote command, with LEDs and buzzer, announcing remote command acceptance and execution.

Currently, the green LED is used to signal that the TOMBOT is ready to accept a command. Red is used to indicate that the TOMBOT is executing a command. The buzzer indicates that the remote command has been completed coincident with the red led turning on.

With behavior programming, there are a lot of considerations. For successful autonomous operation, calibration of the photocells and IR sensors and servos is required. The good news is that each of these behaviors can be isolated (selectively comment out prior to compile time what is not needed), so that phenomena can be isolated and the proper calibrations made. We will discuss this as we get a little bit deeper into the library API, but in general, behavior modeling itself does not require accurate modeling and is fairly robust under less than ideal conditions.

TOMBOT Software Library
The TOMBOT robot library is modular. Some experience with C programming is required to use it (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: TOMBOT Library

The entire library is written using Microchip’s PIC32 C compiler. Both the compiler and Microchip’s 8.xx IDE are available as free downloads at www.microchip.com. The overall library structure is shown. At a highest level library has three main sections: Motor, I/O and Behavior. We cover these areas in some detail.

TOMBOT Motor Library
All functions controlling the servos’ (left and right wheel) operation is contained in this part of the library (see Listing1 Motor.h). In addition the Microchip PIC32 peripheral library is also used. Motor initialization is required before any other library functions. Motor initialization starts up both left and right servo in idle position using PIC32 PWM peripherals OC3 and OC4 and the dual Timer34 (32 bits) for period setting. C Define statements are used to set pulse period and duty cycle for both left and right wheels. These defines provide PWM varies from 1 to 2 ms for different speed CCW rotation over a 20-ms period and from 1.5 ms to 1 ms for CC rotation.

Listing 1: All functions controlling the servos are in this part of the library.

V_LEFT and V_RIGHT (velocity left and right) use the PIC32 peripheral library function to set duty cycle. The other motor functions, in turn, use V_LEFT and V_RIGHT with the define statements. See FORWARD and BACKWARD functions as an example (see Listing 2).

Listing 2: Motor function code examples

In idle setting both PWM set to 1-ms center positions should cause the servos not to turn. A servo calibration process is required to ensure center position does not result in any rotation. For the servos we have a set screw that can be used to adjust motor idle to no spin activity with a small Philips screwdriver.

TOMBOT I/O Library

This is a collection of different low level library functions. Let’s deal with these by examining their files and describing the function set starting with timer (see Listing 3). It uses Timer45 combination (full 32 bits) for precision timer for behaviors. The C defines statements set the different time values. The routine is noninterrupt at this time and simply waits on timer timeout to return.

Listing 3: Low-level library functions

The next I/O library function is ADC. There are a total of five analog inputs all defined below. Each sensor definition corresponds to an integer (32-bit number) designating the specific input channel to which a sensor is connected. The five are: Right IR, Left IR, Battery, Left Photo Cell, Right Photo Cell.

The initialization function initializes the ADC peripheral for the specific channel. The read function performs a 10-bit ADC conversion and returns the result. To faciliate operation across the five sensors we use SCAN_SENSORS function. This does an initialization and conversion of each sensor in turn. The results are placed in global memory where the behavior functions can access . SCAN_SENOR also performs a running average of the last eight samples of photo cell left and right (see Listing 4).

Listing 4: SCAN_SENOR also performs a running average of the last eight samples

The next I/O library function is Graphics (see Listing 5). TOMBOT uses a 102 × 64 monchrome graphics display module that has both red and green LED backlights. There are also red and green LEDs on the module that are independently controlled. The module is driven by the PIC32 SPI2 interface and has several control lines CS –chip select, A0 –command /data.

Listing 5: The Graphics I/O library function

The Graphics display relies on the use of an 8 × 8 font stored in as a project file for character generation. Within the library there are also cursor position macros, functions to write characters or text strings, and functions to draw 32 × 32 bit maps. The library graphic primitives are shown for intialization, module control, and writing to the module. The library writes to a RAM Vmap memory area. And then from this RAM area the screen is updated using dumpVmap function. The LED and backlight controls included within these graphics library.

The next part of I/O library function is delay (see Listing 6). It is just a series of different software delays that can be used by other library function. They were only included because of legacy use with the graphics library.

Listing 6: Series of different software delays

The next I/O library function is UART-XBEE (see Listing 7). This is the serial driver to configure and transfer data through the XBee radio on the robot side. The library is fairly straightforward. It has an initialize function to set up the UART1B for 9600 8N1, transmit and receive.

Listing 7: XBee library functions

Transmission is done one character at a time. Reception is done via interrupt service routine, where the received character is retrieved and a semaphore flag is set. For this communication, I use a Sparkfun XBee Dongle configured through USB as a COM port and then run HyperTerminal or an equivalent application on PC. The default setting for XBee is all that is required (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: XBee PC to TOMBOT communications

The next I/O library function is buzzer (see Listing 8). It uses a simple digital output (Port F bit 1) to control a buzzer. The functions are initializing buzzer control and then the on/off buzzer.

Listing 8: The functions initialize buzzer control

TOMBOT Behavior Library
The Behavior library is the heart of the autonomous TOMBOT and where integrated behavior happens. All of these behaviors require the use of left and right servos for autonomous maneuverability. Each behavior is a finite state machine that interacts with the environment (every 0.1 s). All behaviors have a designated priority relative to the wheel operation. These priorities are resolved by the arbiter for final wheel activation. Listing 9 shows the API for the entire Behavior Library.

Listing 9: The API for the entire behavior library

Let’s briefly cover the specifics.

  • “Cruise” just keeps the robot in motion in lieu of any stimulus.
  • “Escape” uses the bumper to sense a collision and then 180° spin with reverse.
  • “Avoid” makes use of continuous forward looking IR sensors to veer left or right upon approaching a close obstacle.
  • “Home” utilizes the front optical photocells to provide robot self-guidance to a strong light highly directional source.
  • “Remote operation” allows for the TOMBOT to respond to the PC via XBee communications to enter/exit autonomous mode, report status, or execute a predetermined motion scenario (i.e., Spin X times, run back and forth X times, etc.).
  • “Dump” is an internal function that is used within Remote.
  • “Arbiter” is an internal function that is an intrinsic part of the behavior library that resolves different behavior priorities for wheel activation.

Here’s an example of the Main function-invoking different Behavior using API (see Listing 10). Note that this is part of a main loop. Behaviors can be called within a main loop or “Stacked Up”. You can remove or stack up behaviors as you choose ( simply comment out what you don’t need and recompile). Keep in mind that remote is a way for a remote operator to control operation or view status.

Listing 10: TOMBOT API Example

Let’s now examine the detailed state machine associated with each behavior to gain a better understanding of behavior operation (see Listing 11).

Listing 11:The TOMBOT’s arbiter

The arbiter is simple for TOMBOT. It is a fixed arbiter. If either during escape or avoid, it abdicates to those behaviors and lets them resolve motor control internally. Home or cruise motor control requests are handled directly by the arbiter (see Listing 12).

Listing 12: Home behavior

Home is still being debugged and is not yet a final product. The goal is for the TOMBOT during Home is to steer the robot toward a strong light source when not engaged in higher priority behaviors.

The Cruise behavior sets motor to forward operation for one second if no other higher priority behaviors are active (see Listing 13).

Listing 13: Cruise behavior

The Escape behavior tests the bumper switch state to determine if a bump is detected (see Listing 14). Once detected it runs through a series of states. The first is an immediate backup, and then it turns around and moves away from obstacle.

Listing 14: Escape behavior

This function is a response to the remote C or capture command that formats and dumps (see Listing 15) to the graphics display The IR left and right, Photo left and Right, and battery in floating point format.

Listing 15: The dump function

This behavior uses the IR sensors and determines if an object is within 8″ of the front of TOMBOT (see Listing 16).

Listing 16: Avoid behavior

If both sensors detect a target within 8″ then it just turns around and moves away (pretty much like escape). If only the right sensor detects an object in range spins away from right side else if on left spins away on left side (see Listing 17).

Listing 17: Remote part 1

Remote behavior is fairly comprehensive (see Listing 18). There are 14 different cases. Each case is driven by a different XBee received radio character. Once a character is received the red LED is turned on. Once the behavior is complete, the red LED is turned off and a buzzer is sounded.

Listing 18: Remote part 2

The first case toggles Autonomous mode on and off. The other 13 are prescribed actions. Seven of these 13 were written to demonstrate TOMBOT mobile agility with multiple spins, back and forwards. The final six of the 13 are standard single step debug like stop, backward, and capture. Capture dumps all sensor output to the display screen (see Table 1).

Table 1: TOMBOT remote commands

Early Findings & Implementation
Implementation always presents a choice. In my particular case, I was interested in rapid development. At that time, I selected to using non interrupt code and just have linear flow of code for easy debug. This amounts to “blocking code.” Block code is used throughout the behavior implementation and causes the robot to be nonresponsive when blocking occurs. All blocking is identified when timeout functions occur. Here the robot is “blind” to outside environmental conditions. Using a real-time operating system (e.g., Free RTOS) to eliminate this problem is recommended.

The TOMBOT also uses photocells for homing. These sensitive devices have different responses and need to be calibrated to ensure correct response. A photocell calibration is needed within the baseline and used prior to operation.

TOMBOT Demo

The TOMBOT was successfully demoed to a large first-grade class in southern California as part of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program. The main behaviors were limited to Remote, Avoid, and Escape. With autonomous operation off, the robot demonstrated mobility and maneuverability. With autonomous operation on, the robot could interact with a student to demo avoid and escape behavior.

Tom Kibalo holds a BSEE from City College of New York and an MSEE from the University of Maryland. He as 39 years of engineering experience with a number of companies in the Washington, DC area. Tom is an adjunct EE facility member for local community college, and he is president of Kibacorp, a Microchip Design Partner.

From the IBM PC AT to AVRs & Arduinos (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

During the last 25 years, hundreds of the world’s most brilliant electrical engineers and embedded developers have published articles in Circuit Cellar magazine. But only a choice few had the skill, focus, creativity, and stamina to consistently publish six or more articles per year. Ed Nisley is a member of that select group. Since Issue 1, Nisley has covered topics ranging from a video hand scanner project to X10 powerline control to Arduino-based designs to crystal characterization.

In the upcoming Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue—which is slated for publication in early 2013—Nisley describes some of his most memorable projects, such as his hand Scanner design from Issue #1. He writes:

The cable in the upper-left corner went to the serial port of my Genuine IBM PC AT. The hand-wired circuit board in front came from an earlier project: an 8031-based video digitizer that captured single frames and produced, believe it or not, RS-232 serial data. It wasn’t fast, but it worked surprisingly well and, best of all, the board was relatively inexpensive. Having built the board and written the firmware, I modified it to output compressed data from hand images, then wrote a PC program to display the results.

Combining a TV camera, a prototype 8031-based video digitizer, and an IBM PC with custom firmware and software produced a digital hand scanner for Circuit Cellar Issue 1. The aluminum case came from an external 8″ floppy drive!

The robust aluminum case originally housed an external 8″ floppy drive for one of my earlier DIY “home computers” (they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to!) and I assembled the rest of the hardware in my shop. With hardware and software in hand, I hauled everything to Circuit Cellar Galactic HQ for a demo.

Some of the work Nisley details is much more modern. For instance, the photo below shows the Arduino microcontroller boards he has been using in many of his recent projects. Nisley writes:

The processors, from the Atmel AVR microcontroller family, date to the mid-1990s, with a compiler-friendly architecture producing good performance with high-level languages. Barely more than breakout boards wrapped around the microcontrollers, Arduinos provide a convenient way to mount and wire to the microcontroller chips. The hardware may be too expensive to incorporate in a product, but it’s ideal for prototypes and demonstrations.

The Arduino microcontroller project provides a convenient basis for small-scale projects like this NiMH cell tester. Simple interconnections work well with low-speed signals and lowcurrent hardware, but analog gotchas always lie in wait.

Even better, a single person can still comprehend all of a project’s hardware and software, if only because the projects tend to be human scaled. The Arduino’s open-source licensing model fits well with my column’s readily available hardware and firmware: you can reproduce everything from scratch, then extend it to suit your needs.

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.