January Circuit Cellar: Sneak Preview

Happy New Years! The January issue of Circuit Cellar magazine is coming soon. Don’t miss this 1st issue of Circuit Cellar 2019. Enjoy pages and pages of great, in-depth embedded electronics articles.

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Here’s a sneak preview of January 2019 Circuit Cellar:

TRENDS & CHOICES IN EMBEDDED COMPUTING

Comms and Control for Drones
Consumer and commercial drones represent one of the most dynamic areas of embedded design today. Chip, board and system suppliers are offering improved ways for drones to do more processing on board the drone, while also providing solutions for implementing the control and communication subsystems in drones. This article by Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief Jeff Child looks at the technology and products available today that are advancing the capabilities of today’s drones.

Choosing an MPU/MCU for Industrial Design
By Microchip Technology’s Jacko Wilbrink
As MCU performance and functionality improve, the traditional boundaries between MCUs and microprocessor units (MPUs) have become less clear. In this article, Jacko examines the changing landscape in MPU vs. MCU capabilities, OS implications and the specifics of new SiP and SOM approaches for simplifying higher-performance computing requirements in industrial applications.

Product Focus: COM Express Boards
The COM Express architecture has found a solid and growing foothold in embedded systems. COM Express boards provide a complete computing core that can be upgraded when needed, leaving the application-specific I/O on the baseboard. This Product Focus section updates readers on this technology and provides a product album of representative COM Express products.

MICROCONTROLLERS ARE DOING EVERYTHING

Connecting USB to Simple MCUs
By Stuart Ball
Sometimes you want to connect a USB device such as a flash drive to a simple microcontroller. Problem is most MCUs cannot function as a USB host. In this article, Stuart steps through the technology and device choices that solve this challenge. He also puts the idea into action via a project that provides this functionality.

Vision System Enables Overlaid Images
By Daniel Edens and Elise Weir
In this project article, learn how these two Cornell students designed a system to overlay images from a visible light camera and an infrared camera. They use software running on a PIC32 MCU to interface the two types of cameras. The MCU does the computation to create the overlaid images, and displays them on an LCD screen.

DATA ACQUISITION AND MEASUREMENT

Data Acquisition Alternatives
By Jeff Child
While the fundamentals of data acquisition remain the same, its interfacing technology keeps evolving and changing. USB and PCI Express brought data acquisition off the rack, and onto the lab bench top. Today solutions are emerging that leverage Mini PCIe, Thunderbolt and remote web interfacing. Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, dives into the latest technology trends and product developments in data acquisition.

High-Side Current Sensing
By Jeff Bachiochi
Jeff says he likes being able to measure things—for example, being able to measure load current so he can predict how long a battery will last. With that in mind, he recently found a high-side current sensing device, Microchip’s EMC1701. In his article, Jeff takes you through the details of the device and how to make use of it in a battery-based system.

Power Analysis Capture with an MCU
By Colin O’Flynn
Low-cost microcontrollers integrate many powerful peripherals in them. You can even perform data capture directly to internal memory. In his article, Colin uses the ChipWhisperer-Nano as a case study in how you might use such features which would otherwise require external programmable logic.

TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES FOR EMBEDDED SYSTEM DESIGN

Easing into the IoT Cloud (Part 2)
By Brian Millier
In Part 1 of this article series Brian examined some of the technologies and services available today enabling you to ease into the IoT cloud. Now, in Part 2, he discusses the hardware features of the Particle IoT modules, as well as the circuitry and program code for the project. He also explores the integration of a Raspberry Pi solution with the Particle cloud infrastructure.

Hierarchical Menus for Touchscreens
By Aubrey Kagan
In his December article, Aubrey discussed his efforts to build a display subsystem and GUI for embedded use based on a Noritake touchscreen display. This time he shares how he created a menu system within the constraints of the Noritake graphical display system. He explains how he made good use of Microsoft Excel worksheets as a tool for developing the menu system.

Real Schematics (Part 2)
By George Novacek
The first part of this article series on the world of real schematics ended last month with wiring. At high frequencies PCBs suffer from the same parasitic effects as any other type of wiring. You can describe a transmission line as consisting of an infinite number of infinitesimal resistors, inductors and capacitors spread along its entire length. In this article George looks at real schematics from a transmission line perspective.

December Circuit Cellar: Sneak Preview

The December issue of Circuit Cellar magazine is coming soon. Don’t miss this last issue of Circuit Cellar in 2018. Pages and pages of great, in-depth embedded electronics articles prepared for you to enjoy.

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Here’s a sneak preview of December 2018 Circuit Cellar:

AI, FPGAs and EMBEDDED SUPERCOMPUTING

Embedded Supercomputing
Gone are the days when supercomputing levels of processing required a huge, rack-based systems in an air-conditioned room. Today, embedded processors, FPGAs and GPUs are able to do AI and machine learning kinds of operation, enable new types of local decision making in embedded systems. In this article, Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, looks at these technology and trends driving embedded supercomputing.

Convolutional Neural Networks in FPGAs
Deep learning using convolutional neural networks (CNNs) can offer a robust solution across a wide range of applications and market segments. In this article written for Microsemi, Ted Marena illustrates that, while GPUs can be used to implement CNNs, a better approach, especially in edge applications, is to use FPGAs that are aligned with the application’s specific accuracy and performance requirements as well as the available size, cost and power budget.

NOT-TO-BE-OVERLOOKED ENGINEERING ISSUES AND CHOICES

DC-DC Converters
DC-DC conversion products must juggle a lot of masters to push the limits in power density, voltage range and advanced filtering. Issues like the need to accommodate multi-voltage electronics, operate at wide temperature ranges and serve distributed system requirements all add up to some daunting design challenges. This Product Focus section updates readers on these technology trends and provides a product gallery of representative DC-DC converters.

Real Schematics (Part 1)
Our magazine readers know that each issue of Circuit Cellar has several circuit schematics replete with lots of resistors, capacitors, inductors and wiring. But those passive components don’t behave as expected under all circumstances. In this article, George Novacek takes a deep look at the way these components behave with respect to their operating frequency.

Do you speak JTAG?
While most engineers have heard of JTAG or have even used JTAG, there’s some interesting background and capabilities that are so well know. Robert Lacoste examines the history of JTAG and looks at clever ways to use it, for example, using a cheap JTAG probe to toggle pins on your design, or to read the status of a given I/O without writing a single line of code.

PUTTING THE INTERNET-OF-THINGS TO WORK

Industrial IoT Systems
The Industrial Internet-of-Things (IIoT) is a segment of IoT technology where more severe conditions change the game. Rugged gateways and IIoT edge modules comprise these systems where the extreme temperatures and high vibrations of the factory floor make for a demanding environment. Here, Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, looks at key technology and product drives in the IIoT space.

Internet of Things Security (Part 6)
Continuing on with his article series on IoT security, this time Bob Japenga returns to his efforts to craft a checklist to help us create more secure IoT devices. This time he looks at developing a checklist to evaluate the threats to an IoT device.

Applying WebRTC to the IoT
Web Real-time Communications (WebRTC) is an open-source project created by Google that facilitates peer-to-peer communication directly in the web browser and through mobile applications using application programming interfaces. In her article, Callstats.io’s Allie Mellen shows how IoT device communication can be made easy by using WebRTC. With WebRTC, developers can easily enable devices to communicate securely and reliably through video, audio or data transfer.

WI-FI AND BLUETOOTH IN ACTION

IoT Door Security System Uses Wi-Fi
Learn how three Cornell students, Norman Chen, Ram Vellanki and Giacomo Di Liberto, built an Internet connected door security system that grants the user wireless monitoring and control over the system through a web and mobile application. The article discusses the interfacing of a Microchip PIC32 MCU with the Internet and the application of IoT to a door security system.

Self-Navigating Robots Use BLE
Navigating indoors is a difficult but interesting problem. Learn how these two Cornell students, Jane Du and Jacob Glueck, used Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI) of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) 4.0 chips to enable wheeled, mobile robots to navigate towards a stationary base station. The robot detects its proximity to the station based on the strength of the signal and moves towards what it believes to be the signal source.

IN-DEPTH PROJECT ARTICLES WITH ALL THE DETAILS

Sun Tracking Project
Most solar panel arrays are either fixed-position, or have a limited field of movement. In this project article, Jeff Bachiochi set out to tackle the challenge of a sun tracking system that can move your solar array to wherever the sun is coming from. Jeff’s project is a closed-loop system using severs, opto encoders and the Microchip PIC18 microcontroller.

Designing a Display System for Embedded Use
In this project article, Aubrey Kagan takes us through the process of developing an embedded system user interface subsystem—including everything from display selection to GUI development to MCU control. For the project he chose a 7” Noritake GT800 LCD color display and a Cypress Semiconductor PSoC5LP MCU.

November Circuit Cellar: Sneak Preview

The November issue of Circuit Cellar magazine is coming soon. Clear your decks for a new stack of in-depth embedded electronics articles prepared for you to enjoy.

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SOLUTIONS FOR SYSTEM DESIGNS

3D Printing for Embedded Systems
Although 3D printing for prototyping has existed for decades, it’s only in recent years that it’s become a mainstream tool for embedded systems development. Today the ease of use of these systems has reached new levels and the types of materials that can be used continues to expand. This article by Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child looks at the technology and products available today that enable 3D printing for embedded systems.

Add GPS to Your Embedded System
We certainly depend on GPS technology a lot these days, and technology advances have brought fairly powerful GPS functionally into our pockets. Today’s miniaturization of GPS receivers enables you to purchase an inexpensive but capable GPS module that you can add to your embedded system designs. In this article, Stuart Ball shows how to do this and take advantage of the GPS functionality.

FCL for Servo Drives
Servo drives are a key part of many factory automation systems. Improving their precision and speed requires attention to fast-current loops and related functions. In his article, Texas Instruments’ Ramesh Ramamoorthy gives an overview of the functional behavior of the servo loops using fast current loop algorithms in terms of bandwidth and phase margin.

FOCUS ON ANALOG AND POWER

Analog and Mixed-Signal ICs
Analog and mixed-signal ICs play important roles in a variety of applications. These applications depend heavily on all kinds of interfacing between real-world analog signals and the digital realm of processing and control. Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, dives into the latest technology trends and product developments in analog and mixed-signal chips.

Sleeping Electronics
Many of today’s electronic devices are never truly “off.” Even when a device is in sleep mode, it draws some amount of power—and drains batteries. Could this power drain be reduced? In this project article, Jeff Bachiochi addresses this question by looking at more efficient ways to for a system to “play dead” and regulate power.

BUILDING CONNECTED SYSTEMS FOR THE IoT EDGE

Easing into the IoT Cloud (Part 1)
There’s a lot of advantages for the control/monitoring of devices to communicate indirectly with the user interface for those devices—using some form of “always-on” server. When this server is something beyond one in your home, it’s called the “cloud.” Today it’s not that difficult to use an external cloud service to act as the “middleman” in your system design. In this article, Brian Millier looks at the technologies and services available today enabling you to ease in to the IoT cloud.

Sensors at the Intelligent IoT Edge
A new breed of intelligent sensors has emerged aimed squarely at IoT edge subsystems. In this article, Mentor Graphics’ Greg Lebsack explores what defines a sensor as intelligent and steps through the unique design flow issues that surround these kinds of devices.

FUN AND INTERESTING PROJECT ARTICLES

MCU-Based Project Enhances Dance Game
Microcontrollers are perfect for systems that need to process analog signals such as audio and do real-time digital control in conjunction with those signals. Along just those lines, learn how two Cornell students Michael Solomentsev and Drew Dunne recreated the classic arcade game “Dance Dance Revolution” using a Microchip Technology PIC32 MCU. Their version performs wavelet transforms to detect beats from an audio signal to synthesize dance move instructions in real-time without preprocessing.

Building an Autopilot Robot (Part 2)
In part 1 of this two-part article series, Pedro Bertoleti laid the groundwork for his autopiloted four-wheeled robot project by exploring the concept of speed estimation and speed control. In part 2, he dives into the actual building of the robot. The project provides insight to the control and sensing functions of autonomous electrical vehicles.

… AND MORE FROM OUR EXPERT COLUMNISTS

Embedded System Security: Live from Las Vegas
This month Colin O’Flynn summarizes a few interesting presentations from the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. He walks you through some attacks on bitcoin wallets, x86 backdoors and side channel analysis work—these and other interesting presentations from Black Hat.

Highly Accelerated Product Testing
It’s a fact of life that every electronic system eventually fails. Manufacturers use various methods to weed out most of the initial failures before shipping their product. In this article, George Novacek discusses engineering attempts to bring some predictability into the reliability and life expectancy of electronic systems. In particular, he focuses on Highly Accelerated Lifetime Testing (HALT) and Highly Accelerated Stress Screening (HASS).

September Circuit Cellar: Sneak Preview

The September issue of Circuit Cellar magazine is coming soon. Clear your decks for a new stack of in-depth embedded electronics articles prepared for you to enjoy.

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Here’s a sneak preview of September 2018 Circuit Cellar:

MOTORS, MOTION CONTROL AND MORE

Motion Control for Robotics
Motion control technology for robotic systems continues to advance, as chip- and board-level solutions evolve to meet new demands. These involve a blending of precise analog technologies to control position, torque and speed with signal processing to enable accurate, real-time motor control. Here, Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, looks the latest technology and product advances in motion control for robotics.

Electronic Speed Control (Part 3)
Radio-controlled drones are one among many applications that depend on the use of an Electronic Speed Controller (ESC) as part of its motor control design. After observing the operation of a number of ESC modules, in this part Jeff Bachiochi focuses in more closely on the interaction of the ESC with the BLDC motor.

BUILDING CONNECTED SYSTEMS

Product Focus: IoT Gateways
IoT gateways are a smart choice to facilitate bidirectional communication between IoT field devices and the cloud. Gateways also provide local processing and storage capabilities for offline services as well as near real-time management and control of edge devices. This Product Focus section updates readers on these technology trends and provides a product gallery of representative IoT gateways.

Wireless Weather Station
Integrating wireless technologies into embedded systems has become much easier these days. In this project article, Raul Alvarez Torrico describes his home-made wireless weather station that monitors ambient temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and wind direction, using Arduino and a pair of cheap Amplitude Shift Keying (ASK) radio modules.

FOCUS ON ANALOG AND POWER TECHNOLOGY

Frequency Modulated DDS
Prompted by a reader’s query, Ed became aware that you can no longer get crystal oscillator modules tuned to specific frequencies. With that in mind, Ed set out to build a “Channel Element” replacement around a Teensy 3.6 board and a DDS module. In this article, Ed Nisley explains how the Teensy’s 32-bit datapath and 180 MHz CPU clock affect the DDS frequency calculations. He then explores some detailed timings.

Power Supplies / Batteries
Sometimes power decisions are left as an afterthought in system designs. But your choice of power supply or battery strategy can have a major impact on your system’s capabilities. Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, dives into the latest technology trends and product developments in power supplies and batteries.

Murphy’s Laws in the DSP World (Part 3)
Unpredictable issues crop up when you move from the real world of analog signals and enter the world of digital signal processing (DSP). In Part 3 of this article series, Mike Smith and Mai Tanaka focuses on strategies for how to—or how to try to—avoid Murphy’s Laws when doing DSP.

SYSTEM DESIGN ISSUES IN VIDEO AND IMAGING

Virtual Emulation for Drones
Drone system designers are integrating high-definition video and other features into their SoCs. Verifying the video capture circuitry, data collection components and UHD-4K streaming video capabilities found in drones is not trivial. In his article, Mentor’s Richard Pugh explains why drone verification is a natural fit for hardware emulation because emulation is very efficient at handling large amounts of streamed data.

LIDAR 3D Imaging on a Budget
Demand is on the rise for 3D image data for use in a variety of applications, from autonomous cars to military base security. That has spurred research into high precision LIDAR systems capable of creating extremely clear 3D images to meet this demand. Learn how Cornell student Chris Graef leveraged inexpensive LIDAR sensors to build a 3D imaging system all within a budget of around $200.

AND MORE FROM OUR EXPERT COLUMNISTS

Velocity and Speed Sensors
Automatic systems require real-life physical attributes to be measured and converted to electrical quantities ready for electronic processing. Velocity is one such attribute. In this article, George Novacek steps through the math, science and technology behind measuring velocity and the sensors used for such measurements.

Recreating the LPC Code Protection Bypass
Microcontroller fuse bits are used to protect code from being read out. How well do they work in practice? Some of them have been recently broken. In this article Colin O’Flynn takes you through the details of such an attack to help you understand the realistic threat model.

August Circuit Cellar: Sneak Preview

The August issue of Circuit Cellar magazine is coming soon. Be on the lookout for a whole shipload of top-notch embedded electronics articles for you to enjoy.

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Here’s a sneak preview of August 2018 Circuit Cellar:

FPGAs REDEFINE THE DEFINITION OF “SYSTEM”

FPGA System Design
Long gone now are the days when FPGAs were thought of as simple programmable circuitry for interfacing and glue logic. Today, FPGAs are powerful system chips with on-chip processors, signal processing functionality and rich offerings or high-speed connectivity. Here, Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, looks at the latest technology and trends in FPGA system design.

Managing FPGA Design Complexity
Modern FPGAs can contain millions of logic gates and thousands of embedded DSP processors allowing FPGA hardware designers to create extremely sophisticated and complex application-specific hardware functions. In this article, Pentek’s Bob Sgandurra explores how today’s FPGA technology has revamped the roles of both hardware and software engineers as well as how dealing with on-chip IP adds new layers of complexity.

HIGH-INTEGRATION AT THE CHIP-
AND BOARD-LEVEL

Product Focus: Small and Tiny Embedded Boards
An amazing amount of computing functionality can be squeezed on to a small form factor board these days. These company—and even tiny—board-level products meet the needs of applications where extremely low SWaP (size, weight and power) beats all other demands. This Product Focus section updates readers on this technology trend and provides a product album of representative small and tiny embedded boards.

Microcontrollers and Processors
Today’s crop of microcontrollers and embedded processors provide a rich continuum of features, functions and capabilities. It’s hard to tell anymore where the dividing line is, especially when a lot of them use the same CPU cores. Circuit Cellar’s Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Child, delves into the technology and product trends of MCUs and embedded processors.

CAN’T STOP THE SIGNAL

Murphy’s Laws in the DSP World (Part 2)
Many unexpected issues come into play when you move from the real world of analog signals and enter the world of digital signal processing (DSP). Part 2 of this article series by Michael Smith, Mai Tanaka and Ehsan Shahrabi Farahani charges forward introducing “Murphy’s Laws of DSP” #7, #8 and #9 and looks at the spectral analysis of DSP signals.

Signature Analyzer Uses NXP MCU
Doing a signature analysis of a signal used to require an oscilloscope to display your results. In this article, Brian Millier shows how you can build a free-standing tester that uses mostly just the internal peripherals of an NXP ARM microcontroller. He described how the tester operates and how he implemented it using a Teensy 3.5 development module and an intelligent 4.3-inch TFT touch-screen display.

Pitfalls of Filtering Pulsed Signals
Filtering pulsed signals can be a tricky prospect. Using a recent customer implementation as an example, Robert Lacoste highlights various alternative approaches and describes the key concepts involved. Simulation results are provided to help readers understand what’s going on.

PROJECT-BASED STORIES WITH ALL THE DETAILS

Electronic Speed Control (Part 2)
In Part 1, Jeff Bachiochi discussed the mechanical differences between DC brushed and brushless DC (BLDC) motors. This time he dives into basics of an Electronic Speed Controller’s operations and its circuitry. And all this is illustrated via his ESC-based project that uses a Microchip PIC MCU.

Build an Audio Response Light Display
Light shows have been a part of entertainment situations seemingly forever, but the technology has evolved over time. These light shows have their origin in the primitive “light organs” of the 1960s in which each spectral band had its own color that pulsed in intensity with audio amplitudes within its range of frequencies. In this article, Devlin Gualtieri discusses his circuit design that implements a light organ using today’s IC and LED technologies.

AND MORE FROM OUR EXPERT COLUMNISTS

Internet of Things Security (Part 4)
In this next part of his article series on IoT security, Bob Japenga looks at how checklists and the common criteria framework can help us create more secure IoT devices. He covers how to create a list of security assets and to establish threat checklists that identify all the threats to your security assets.

Thermoelectric Cooling (Part 2)
In Part 1 George Novacek described how he built a test chamber using some electronics combined with components salvaged from his thermoelectric water cooler. To confirm his test results, he purchased another thermoelectric cooler and repeated the tests. In Part 2 he covers the results of these tests along with some theoretical performance calculations.

Pulse-Shaping Basics

Pulse shaping (i.e., base-band filtering) can vastly improve the behavior of wired or wireless communication links in an electrical system. With that in mind, Circuit Cellar columnist Robert Lacoste explains the advantages of filtering and examines Fourier transforms; random non-return-to-zero NRZ signaling; and low-pass, Gaussian, Nyquist, and raised-cosine filters.

Lacoste’s article, which appears in Circuit Cellar’s April 2014 issue, includes an abundance of graphic simulations created with Scilab Enterprises’s open-source software. The simulations will help readers grasp the details of pulse shaping, even if they aren’t math experts. (Note: You can download the Scilab source files Lacoste developed for his article from Circuit Cellar’s FTP site.)

Excerpts from Lacoste’s article below explain the importance of filtering and provide a closer look at low-pass filters:

WHY FILTERING?
I’ll begin with an example. Imagine you have a 1-Mbps continuous digital signal you need to transmit between two points. You don’t want to specifically encode these bits; you just want to transfer them one by one as they are.

Before transmission, you will need to transform the 1 and 0s into an actual analog signal any way you like. You can use a straightforward method. Simply define a pair of voltages (e.g., 0 and 5 V) and put 0 V on the line for a 0-level bit and put 5 V on the line for a 1-level bit.


This method is pedantically called non-return-to-zero (NRZ). This is exactly what a TTL UART is doing; there is nothing new here. This analog signal (i.e., the base-band signal) can then be sent through the transmission channel and received at the other end (see top image in Figure 1).


Note: In this article I am not considering any specific transmission channel. It could range from a simple pair of copper wires to elaborate wireless links using amplitude, frequency and/or phase modulation, power line modems, or even optical links. Everything I will discuss will basically be applicable to any kind of transmission as it is linked to the base-band signal encoding prior to any modulation.

Directly transmitting a raw digital signal, such as this 1-Mbps non-return-to-zero (NRZ) stream (at top), is a waste of bandwidth. b—Using a pulse-shaping filter (bottom) reduces the required bandwidth for the same bit rate, but with a risk of increased transmission errors.

Figure 1: Directly transmitting a raw digital signal, such as this 1-Mbps non-return-to-zero (NRZ) stream (top), is a waste of bandwidth. Using a pulse-shaping filter (bottom) reduces the required bandwidth for the same bit rate, but with a risk of increased transmission errors.


Now, what is the issue when using simple 0/5-V NRZ encoding? Bandwidth efficiency. You will use more megahertz than needed for your 1-Mbps signal transmission. This may not be an issue if the channel has plenty of extra capacity (e.g., if you are using a Category 6 1-Gbps-compliant shielded twisted pair cable to transmit these 1 Mbps over a couple of meters).


Unfortunately, in real life you will often need to optimize the bandwidth. This could be for cost reasons, for environmental concerns (e.g., EMC perturbations), for regulatory issues (e.g., RF channelization), or simply to increase the effective bit rate as much as possible for a given channel.


Therefore, a good engineering practice is to use just the required bandwidth through a pulse-shaping filter. This filter is fitted between your data source and the transmitter (see bottom of Figure 1).


The filter’s goal is to reduce as much as possible the occupied bandwidth of your base-band signal without affecting the system performance in terms of bit error rate. These may seem like contradictory requirements. How can you design such a filter? That’s what I will try to explain in this article….


LOW-PASS FILTERS

A base-band filter is needed between the binary signal source and the transmission media or modulator. But what characteristics should this filter include? It must attenuate as quickly as possible the unnecessary high frequencies. But it must also enable the receiver to decode the signal without errors, or more exactly without more errors than specified. You will need a low-pass filter to limit the high frequencies. As a first example, I used a classic Butterworth second-order filter with varying cut-off frequencies to make the simulation. Figure 2 shows the results. Let me explain the graphs.

Figure 2: This random non-return-to-zero (NRZ) signal (top row) was passed through a second-order Butterworth low-pass filter. When the cut-off frequency is low (310 kHz), the filtered signal (middle row) is distorted and the eye diagram is closed. With a higher cutoff (410 kHz, bottom row), the intersymbol interference (ISI) is lower but the frequency content is visible up to 2 MHz.

Figure 2: This random non-return-to-zero (NRZ) signal (top row) was passed through a second-order Butterworth low-pass filter. When the cut-off frequency is low (310 kHz), the filtered signal (middle row) is distorted and the eye diagram is closed. With a higher cutoff (410 kHz, bottom row), the intersymbol interference (ISI) is lower but the frequency content is visible up to 2 MHz.

The leftmost column shows the signal frequency spectrum after filtering with the filter frequency response in red as a reference. The middle column shows a couple of bits of the filtered signal (i.e., in the time domain), as if you were using an oscilloscope. Last, the rightmost column shows the received signal’s so-called “eye pattern.” This may seem impressive, but the concept is very simple.

Imagine you have an oscilloscope. Trigger it on any rising or falling front of the signal, scale the display to show one bit time in the middle of the screen, and accumulate plenty of random bits on the screen. You’ve got the eye diagram. It provides a visual representation of the difficulty the receiver will have to recover the bits. The more “open” the eye, the easier it is. Moreover, if the successive bits’ trajectories don’t superpose to each other, there is a kind of memory effect. The voltage for a given bit varies depending on the previously transmitted bits. This phenomenon is called intersymbol interference (ISI) and it makes life significantly more difficult for decoding.


Take another look at the Butterworth filter simulations. The first line is the unfiltered signal as a reference (see Figure 2, top row). The second line with a 3-dB, 310-kHz cut-off frequency shows a frequency spectrum significantly reduced after 1 MHz but with a high level of ISI. The eye diagram is nearly closed (see Figure 2, middle row). The third line shows the result with a 410-kHz Butterworth low-pass filter (see Figure 2, bottom row). Its ISI is significantly lower, even if it is still visible. (The successive spot trajectories don’t pass through the same single point.) Anyway, the frequency spectrum is far cleaner than the raw signal, at least from 2 MHz.

Lacoste’s article serves as solid introduction to the broad subject of pulse-shaping. And it concludes by re-emphasizing a few important points and additional resources for readers:

Transmitting a raw digital signal on any medium is a waste of bandwidth. A filter can drastically improve the performance. However, this filter must be well designed to minimize intersymbol interference.

The ideal solution, namely the Nyquist filter, enables you to restrict the used spectrum to half the transmitted bit rate. However, this filter is just a mathematician’s dream. Raised cosine filters and Gaussian filters are two classes of real-life filters that can provide an adequate complexity vs performance ratio.

At least you will no longer be surprised if you see references to such filters in electronic parts’ datasheets. As an example, see Figure 3, which is a block diagram of Analog Devices’s ADF7021 high-performance RF transceiver.

This is a block diagram of Analog Devices’s ADF7021 high-performance transceiver. On the bottom right there is a “Gaussian/raised cosine filter” block, which is a key factor in efficient RF bandwidth usage.

Figure 3: This is a block diagram of Analog Devices’s ADF7021 high-performance transceiver. On the bottom right there is a “Gaussian/raised cosine filter” block, which is a key factor in efficient RF bandwidth usage.

The subject is not easy and can be easily misunderstood. I hope this article will encourage you to learn more about the subject. Bernard Sklar’s book Digital Communications: Fundamentals and Applications is a good reference. Playing with simulations is also a good way to understand, so don’t hesitate to read and modify the Scilab examples I provided for you on Circuit Cellar’s FTP site.  

Lacoste’s full article is in the April issue, now available for membership download or single issue purchase. And for more information about improving the efficiency of wireless communication links, check out Lacoste’s 2011 article “Line-Coding Techniques,” Circuit Cellar 255, which tells you how you can encode your bits before transmission.