The Sun Chaser Energy-Harvesting System

When Sjoerd Brandsma entered the 2012 Renesas Green Energy Challenge, he wanted to create a fun project that would take advantage of his experience at a company that heavily uses GPS.

Brandsma, who lives in Kerkwijk, The Netherlands, has worked as a software engineer and is currently an R&D manager at CycloMedia, which produces 360° street-level panoramic images with geographic information system (GIS) accuracy.

Ultimately, Brandsma’s Sun Chaser project won third prize in the Renesas Green Energy Challenge. The Sun Chaser is an energy-harvesting system that automatically orients a solar panel to face the sun.

Photo 1: The Sun Chaser’s stepper motor controls the solar panel‘s “tilting.”

Photo 1: The Sun Chaser’s stepper motor controls the solar panel‘s “tilting.”

“The Sun Chaser perfectly follows the sun’s path and keeps the battery fully charged when there’s enough sunlight,” Brandsma says in his article about the project, which appears in Circuit Cellar’s June issue. ”It can power a small electronics system as long as there’s enough sunlight and no rain, which would damage the system due to lack of protection. This project also demonstrates that it’s possible to build an interesting green-energy system with a tight budget and a limited knowledge of  electronics.”

A registered GPS calculates the orientation of the Sun Chaser’s solar panel, which is mounted on a rotating disc. “You can use an external compass, the internal accelerometer, a DC motor, and a stepper motor to determine the solar panel’s exact position,” Brandsma says. “The Sun Chaser uses Renesas Electronics’s RDKRL78G13 evaluation board running the Micriµm µC/OS-III real-time kernel.”

The following article excerpt describes the GPS reference station and evaluation board in greater detail. The issue with Brandsma’s full article is available online for membership download or single-issue purchase.

GPS REFERENCE STATION
Whenever you want to know where you are, you can use a GPS receiver that provides your position. A single GPS receiver can provide about 10 to 15 m (i.e., 33’ to 50’) position accuracy. While this is sufficient for many people, some applications require positioning with significantly higher accuracy. In fact, GPS can readily produce positions that are accurate to 1 m (3’), 0.5 m (18”), or even 1 to 2 cm (less than 1“). A technique called “differential GPS” can be used to achieve higher accuracy.

The differential technique requires one GPS receiver to be located at a known position (often called a control or reference point) and a second “rover” receiver at the location to be measured. The information from the two GPS receivers (rover and control) is combined to determine the rover’s position. That’s where a GPS reference station comes in. It functions as the control point and serves potentially unlimited users and applications. Leica Geosystems has published an excellent introductory guide about GPS reference stations (Refer to the Resources at the end of this article.)

The GPS reference station should always be located at a position with a broad sight. In some situations it can be difficult to provide a decent power supply to the system. When regular power isn’t available, a solar panel can power the GPS reference station.

My Sun Chaser GPS reference station uses a 10-W solar panel connected to a 12-V battery to provide enough power. To increase the energy harvesting, the solar panel is mounted on a rotating disc that can be controlled by a DC motor to point in the desired direction. A stepper motor controls the solar panel’s “tilting.” Photo 1 highlights the main components.

USING THE EVALUATION BOARD
The RDKRL78G13 is an evaluation and demonstration tool for Renesas Electronics’s RL78 low-power microcontrollers. A set of human-machine interfaces (HMIs) is tightly integrated with the RL78’s features. I used several of these interfaces to control other devices, read sensors, or store data.

Most of the system’s hardware is related to placing the solar panel in the correct position. Figure 1 shows the top-level components used to store the GPS information and position the solar panel.

Figure 1: The Sun Chaser’s components include a Renesas Electronics RDKRL78G13 evaluation board, a GPS receiver, a stepper motor, and an SD card.

Figure 1: The Sun Chaser’s components include a Renesas Electronics RDKRL78G13 evaluation board, a GPS receiver, a stepper motor, and an SD card.

The RDKRL78G13 evaluation board has an on-board temperature and light sensor. Both sensor values are stored on the SD card. The on-board light sensor is used to determine if rotating/tilting makes sense (at night it’s better to sleep). For this project, the temperature values are stored just for fun so I could make some graphs or do some weather analysis.

A micro-SD memory card slot on the RDKRL78G13 evaluation board provides file system data storage. I used it to store all incoming data and log messages using the FAT16/FAT32 file system.

The on-board Renesas Electronics RQK0609CQDQS MOSFET controls the DC motor that rotates the evaluation board. The DC motor can be controlled by applying a PWM signal generated from one of the RL78’s timers. The MOSFET is controlled by the RL78’s TO05 port and powered from the 12-V battery. A PWM signal is generated on TO05 by using Timer4 as a master and Timer5 as a slave. It’s only necessary to rotate clockwise, so additional hardware to rotate the platform counterclockwise is not required.

A digital compass is needed to determine the evaluation board’s rotated position or heading (see Figure 2). The Honeywell HMC5883L is a widely used and low-cost compass. This I2C-based compass has three-axis magnetoresistive sensors and a 12-bit ADC on board. It can read out values at a 160-Hz rate, which is more than enough for this project.

Figure 2: A Honeywell HMC5883L digital compass verifies the evaluation board’s rotated position or heading.

Figure 2: A Honeywell HMC5883L digital compass verifies the evaluation board’s rotated position or heading.

The compass uses the RL78’s IICA0 port through the Total Phase Beagle debug header, which is mounted on the RDKRL78G13 evaluation board. The Beagle analyzer provides easy access to this I2C port, which increases the flexibility to change things during prototyping.

The HMC5883L compass turned out to be a very sensitive device. Even the slightest change in the hardware setup seemed to influence the results when rotating. This meant some sort of calibration was needed to ensure the output was consistent every time the system started. [Brandsman’s full article descibes how how the HMC5883L can be calibrated. It’s important to know that every time the system starts, it makes a full turn to calibrate the compass.

A GPS module must be connected to the system to provide the system’s current location. I wanted the GPS module to be inexpensive, 3.3-V based, and have an easy and accessible interface (e.g., UART).

Figure 3 shows a schematic of a Skylab M&C Technology SKM53 GPS module, which is based on the MediaTek 3329 GPS receiver module. This module supports NMEA messages and the MTK NMEA Packet Protocol interface to control things such as power saving, output message frequency, and differential global positioning system (DGPS).

Unfortunately, the 3329 receiver can’t output “raw” GPS data (e.g., pseudorange, integrated carrier phase, Doppler shift, and satellite ephemeris), which would significantly improve the GPS reference station’s capabilities. Due to budget and time limitations (it takes some more software development effort to handle this raw data), I didn’t use a receiver that could output raw GPS data.

Figure 3:A Skylab M&C Technology SKM53 GPS receiver obtains the system’s current location.

Figure 3:A Skylab M&C Technology SKM53 GPS receiver obtains the system’s current location.

The SKM53 GPS receiver is connected to the RL78’s UART2. All data from the GPS receiver is stored on the SD card. As soon as a valid GPS position is received, the system calculates the sun’s position and moves the platform into the most ideal position.

A compact stepper motor is needed to tilt the platform in very small steps. The platform had to be tilted from fully vertical to fully horizontal in approximately 6 h when the sun was exactly following the equator, so speed wasn’t really an issue. I wanted to do very fine tilting, so I also needed a set of gears to slow down the platform tilting.

I used an inexpensive, easy-to-use, generic 5-V 28BYJ-48 stepper motor (see Figure 4). According to the specifications, the 28BYJ-48 stepper motor has a 1/64 gear reduction ratio and 64 steps per rotation (5.625°/step) of its internal motor shaft.

An important consideration here is that you don’t want to retain power on the stepper motor to keep it in position. This particular stepper motor has some internal gears that prevent the platform from flipping back when the stepper motor is not powered.

The stepper motor can be controlled by the well-known ULN2003 high-voltage high-current Darlington transistor array. The ULN2003 is connected to P71-P74. Each of the ULN2003’s four outputs is connected to one of the stepper motor’s coils. When two neighbor coils are set high (e.g., P72 and P73), the stepper motor will step in that direction.

When it comes to solar panels, you can build your own panel out of individual solar cells or buy a fully assembled one with known specifications. I used a no-name 10-W solar panel. The size (337 mm long × 205 mm wide × 18 mm high) was acceptable and it delivered more than enough energy. I used a charge controller to protect the battery from overcharging and to prevent it from supplying power to the solar panel at night.

Like solar panels, many charge controllers and battery protectors can be used in such a system. I chose the lazy approach: Just take one off the shelf. The CMP12/24 charge controller is specially designed for small solar systems. It has a stabilized 12-V output, which is taken from the connected battery. It can handle up to 12 A of charging or load current and, according to the specifications, it consumes about 20 mA of quiescent current. There is some room for improvement, but it worked for my project.

I had some 7805 voltage regulators lying around, which I figured could do the job and supply just enough power when the system was starting up. However, when it comes to power saving, the 7805 is not the way to go. It’s a linear regulator that works by taking the difference between the input and output voltages and burning it up as wasted heat.

What I needed was a switching regulator or a buck converter. I used a National Semiconductor (now Texas Instruments) LM2596. Note: The LM2596 is made by several companies and is available in inexpensive, high-quality modules (most cost a little more than $1 per converter). These ready-to-use modules already have the necessary capacitors, diodes, and so forth on board, so it’s really a matter of plug and play.

I used a lead acid RT1219 12-V 1.9-AH battery for power storage. You can use any 12-V battery with sufficient capacity.

Editor’s Note: Check out other projects from the 2012 Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge.

Build an Automated Vehicle Locator

Several things inspired Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Chris Coulston and his team at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, to create an online vehicle-tracking system. Mainly, the team wanted to increase ridership on a shuttle bus the local transit authority provided to serve the expanding campus. Not enough students were “on board,” in part because it was difficult to know when the bus would be arriving at each stop.

So Coulston’s team created a system in which a mobile GPS tracker on the bus communicates its location over a radio link to a base station. Students, professors, or anyone else carrying a smartphone can call up the bus tracker web page, find out the bus’ current location, and receive reliable estimates of the bus’ arrival time at each of its stops. Coulston, computer engineering student Daniel Hankewycz, and computer science student Austin Kelleher wrote an article about the system, which appears in our June issue.

Circuit Cellar recently asked Coulston if the system, implemented in the fall 2013 semester, had accomplished its goals and might be expanded.

“The bus tracker team is tracking usage of the web site using Google Analytics,” Coulston said. “The data reveals that we get on average 100 hits a day during cold weather and fewer on warmer days. Ridership has increased during this past year, helping assure the long-term presence of the shuttle on our campus.”

“Over winter break, shuttle service was increased to a distant location on campus,” he added. “In order to better track the location of the shuttle, a second base station was added. The additional base station required a significant rework of the software architecture. The result is that the software is more modular and can accept an arbitrary number of base stations. There are no plans at present to add a second bus—a good thing, because this change would require another significant rework of the software architecture.”

Initially, Coulston looked to other real-time vehicle trackers for inspiration: “There are a variety of live bus trackers that motivated my early ideas, including the University of Utah’s Live Tracker  and the Chicago Transit Authority’s CTA Bus Tracker. Given our single bus route on campus, I was motivated to keep the interface simple and clean to minimize the amount of time needed to figure out where the bus is and how long it’s going to take to get to my stop.”

The system, as it was originally implemented in August 2013, is fully described in the June issue, now available for single-issue purchase or membership download. The following article excerpt provides a broad overview and a description of the team’s hardware choices.

THE BIG PICTURE
Figure 1 shows the bus tracker’s hardware, which consists of three components: the user’s smartphone, the base station placed at a fixed location on campus, and the mobile tracker that rides around on the bus.

The bus tracking system includes a Digi International XTend radio, a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer.

Figure 1: The bus tracking system includes a Digi International XTend radio, a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer.

Early on, we decided against a cellular-based solution (think cell phone) as the mobile tracker. While this concept would have benefited from wide-ranging cellular coverage, it would have incurred monthly cellar network access fees. Figure 1 shows the final concept, which utilizes a 900-MHz radio link between the mobile tracker and the base station.

Figure 2 shows the software architecture running on the hardware from Figure 1. When the user’s smartphone loads the bus tracker webpage, the JavaScript on the page instructs the user’s web browser to use the Google Maps JavaScript API to load the campus map. The smartphone also makes an XMLHttpRequests request for a file on the server (stamp.txt) containing the bus’ current location and breadcrumb index.

Figure 2: The bus tracker’s software architecture includes a GPS, the mobile tracker, a smartphone, and the base station.

Figure 2: The bus tracker’s software architecture includes a GPS, the mobile tracker, a smartphone, and the base station.

This information along with data about the bus stops is used to position the bus icon on the map, determine the bus’ next stop, and predict the bus’ arrival time at each of the seven bus stops. The bus’ location contained in stamp.txt is generated by a GPS receiver (EM-408) in the form of an NMEA string. This string is sent to a microcontroller and then parsed. When the microcontroller receives a request for the bus’ location, it formats a message and sends it over the 900-MHz radio link. The base station compares the bus position against a canonical tour of campus (breadcrumb) and writes the best match to stamp.txt.

Early in the project development, we decided to collect the bus’ position and heading information at 2-s intervals during the bus’ campus tour. This collection of strings is called “breadcrumbs” because, like the breadcrumbs dropped by Hansel and Gretel in the eponymously named story, we hope they will help us find our way around campus. Figure 3 shows a set of breadcrumbs (b1 through b10), which were collected as the bus traveled out and back along the same road.

Figure 3: Breadcrumbs (b1 through b10) containing the bus’ position and orientation information were taken every 2 s during a test-run campus tour.

Figure 3: Breadcrumbs (b1 through b10) containing the bus’ position and orientation information were taken every 2 s during a test-run campus tour.

The decision to collect breadcrumbs proved fortuitous as they serve an important role in each of the three hardware components shown in Figure 1.

MOBILE TRACKER
The bus houses the mobile tracker (see Photo 1). Figure 4 shows the schematic, which is deceptively simple. What you see is the third iteration of the mobile tracker hardware.

Figure 4: The mobile tracker includes a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, a Micrel MIC5205 regulator, a Digi International XTend RF module, and a Texas Instruments TXS0102 bidirectional translator

Figure 4: The mobile tracker includes a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, a Micrel MIC5205 regulator, a Digi International XTend RF module, and a Texas Instruments TXS0102 bidirectional translator

An important starting point in the design was how to step down the bus’ 12-V supply to the 5-V required by our circuit. In terms of hardware, the best decision we made was to abandon the idea of trying to integrate a 12-to-5-V converter onto the mobile tracker PCB. Instead we purchased a $40 CUI VYB15W-T DC-DC converter and fed the mobile tracker 5-V inputs…

We used Micrel’s MIC5205 regulator to step down the 5 V for the 3.3-V GPS receiver, which easily supplied its peak 80 mA. Since we ran a Digi International XTend radio at 5 V for the best range, we ended up with mixed voltage signals. We used a Texas Instruments TXS0102 bidirectional voltage-level translator, which handles voltage-interfacing duties between the 5-V radio and the 3.3-V microcontroller.

The mobile tracker unit

Photo 1: The mobile tracker unit

We selected Microchip Technology’s PIC18F26K22 because it has two hardware serial ports, enabling it to simultaneously communicate with the GPS module and the radio modem when the bus is traveling around campus. We placed two switches in front of the serial ports. One switch toggles between the GPS module and the Microchip Technology PICkit 3 programming pins, which are necessary to program the microcontroller. The second switch toggles between the radio and a header connected to a PC serial port (via a Future Technology Devices FT232 USB-to-serial bridge). This is useful when debugging at your desk. An RGB LED in a compact PLCC4 package provides state information about the mobile tracker.

The XTend RF modules are the big brothers to Digi International’s popular XBee series. These radios come with an impressive 1 W of transmitting power over a 900-MHz frequency, enabling ranges up to a mile in our heavily wooded campus environment. The radios use a standard serial interface requiring three connections: TX, RX, and ground. They are simple to set up. You just drop them into the Command mode, set the module’s source and destination addresses, store this configuration in flash memory, and exit. You never have to deal with them again. Any character sent to the radio appears on the destination modem’s RX line.

The GPS receiver utilizes the CSR SiRFstarIII chipset, which is configured to output a recommended minimum specific (RMC) string every 2 s…

The mobile tracker’s firmware listens for commands over the serial port and generates appropriate replies. Commands are issued by the developer or by the base station…

Burning breadcrumbs into the mobile tracker’s flash memory proved to be a good design decision. With this capability, the mobile tracker can generate a simulated tour of campus while sitting on the lab bench.

BASE STATION
The base station consists of an XTend RF module connected to a Raspberry Pi’s serial port (see Photo 2). The software running on the Raspberry Pi does everything from running an Nginx open-source web server to making requests for data from the mobile tracker.

From Figure 1, the only additional hardware associated with the base station is the 900-MHz XTend radio connected to the Raspberry Pi over a dedicated serial port on pins 8 (TX) and 10 (RX) of the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header.

The only code that runs on the base station is the Python program, which periodically queries the mobile tracker to get the bus’ position and heading. The program starts by configuring the serial port in the common 9600,8,N,1 mode. Next, the program is put into an infinite loop to query the mobile tracker’s position every 2 s.

Photo 2: The base station includes an interface board, a Raspberry Pi, and a radio modem.

Photo 2: The base station includes an interface board, a Raspberry Pi, and a radio modem.

June Issue: Vehicle Tracking, Bit Banging, and More

Circuit Cellar’s June issue is now online, outlining DIY projects ranging from an automated real-time vehicle locator to a  GPS-oriented solar tracker and offering solid advice on bit banging, FPGA reconfiguration, customizing the Linux kernel, and more.

June issueA persistent problem typically sparks the invention of projects featured in our magazine. For example, when the campus at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, had a growth spurt, the local transit authority provided a shuttle bus to help students who were rushing from class to class. But ridership was low because of the bus’ unpredictable schedule.

So a college engineering team constructed a mobile application to track the bus. That system inspired the cover of our June issue and complements its communications theme.

The three-part system consists of a user’s smartphone running a HTML5-compatible browser, a base station consisting of an XTend 900-MHz radio connected to a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, and a mobile tracker including a GPS receiver, a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, and an XTend module.

The Raspberry Pi runs a web server to handle requests from a user’s smartphone. The user then receives accurate bus arrival times.

Also aligning with June’s theme, we present an article about implementing serial data transmission through bit banging. You’ll gain a better understanding of how serial data is transmitted and received by a microprocessor’s hardware UART peripheral. You’ll also learn how bit banging can achieve serial communication in software, which is essential when your embedded system’s microprocessor lacks a built-in UART.

Recognizing a rapidly unfolding communications trend, this issue includes an inventor’s essay about how the presence of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) in the latest mobile devices is sparking a big boom in innovative hardware/sensor add-ons that use your smartphone or tablet as an interface. Other communications-related articles include Part 2 of a close look at radio-frequency identification (RFID). This month’s installment describes the front-end analog circuitry for the RFID base station of a secure door-entry project.

In addition, we offer articles about adjusting your FPGA design while it’s operating, modifying the Linux kernel to suit your hardware and software designs, tools and techniques to boost your power supply, digital data encoding in wireless systems, GPS orientation of a solar panel, and an interview with Quinn Dunki, an embedded applications consultant and hacker.

The June issue is available for membership download or single-issue purchase.

Eco-Friendly Home Automation Controller

The 2012 DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge invited engineers from around the world to submit eco-friendly projects using the Digilent chipKIT Max32 development board. Manuel Iglesias Abbatemarco of Venezuela won honorable mention with his autonomous home-automation controller. His design enables users to monitor and control household devices and to log and upload temperature, humidity, and energy-use sensor data to “the cloud” (see Photo 1).

The design comprised a Digilent chipKIT board (bottom), my MPPT charger board (chipSOLAR, middle), and my wireless board (chipWIRELESS, top).

Photo 1: The design comprised a Digilent chipKIT board (bottom), my MPPT charger board (chipSOLAR, middle), and my wireless board (chipWIRELESS, top).

The system, built around the chipKIT Arduino-compatible board, connects to Abbatemarco’s custom-made “chipSOLAR” board that uses a solar panel and two rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-on) cells to provide continuous power. The board implements a maximum power point tracking (MPPT) charger that deals with a solar panel’s nonlinear output efficiency. A “chipWIRELESS” board integrating a Quad Band GSM/GPRS modem, an XBee socket, an SD card connector, and a real-time clock and calendar (RTCC) enables home sensor and cloud connectivity. The software was written using chipKIT MPIDE, and the SD card logs the data from sensors.

“Since the contest, I have made some additions to the system,” Abbatemarco says. “The device’s aim is uninterrupted household monitoring and control. To accomplish this, I focused on two key features: the power controller and the communication with external devices (e.g., sensors). I used DesignSpark software to create two PCBs for these features.”

Abbatemarco describes his full project, including his post-contest addition of a web server, in his article appearing in Circuit Cellar’s May issue. In the meantime, you’ll find descriptions of his overall design, power management board, and wireless board in the following article excerpts.

DESIGN OVERVIEW
The system’s design is based on a Digilent chipKIT Max32 board, which is an Arduino-compatible board with a Microchip Technology 32-bit processor and 3.3-V level I/O with almost the same footprint as an Arduino Mega microcontroller. The platform has all the computational power needed for the application and enough peripherals to add all the required external hardware.

I wanted to have a secure and reliable communication channel to connect with the outside world, so I incorporated general packet radio service (GPRS). This enables the device to use a TCP/IP client to connect to web services. It can also use Short Message Service (SMS) to exchange text messages to cellular phones. The device uses a serial port to communicate with the chipKIT board.

I didn’t want to deal with cables for the internal-sensor home network, so I decided to make the system wireless. I used XBee modules, as they offer a good compromise between price and development time. Also, if properly configured, they don’t consume too much energy. The XBee device uses a serial port to communicate with the chipKIT board.
To make the controller”green,” I designed a power-management board that can work with a solar panel and several regulated DC voltages. I chose a hardware implementation of an MPPT controller because I wanted to make my application as reliable as possible and have more software resources for the home controller task.

One board provides power management and the other enables communication, which includes additional hardware such as an SD card, an XBee module, and an RTCC. Note: I included the RTCC since the chipKIT board does not come with a crystal oscillator. I also included a prototyping area, which later proved to be very useful.

I was concerned about how users inside a home would interact with the device. The idea of a built-in web server to help configure and interact with the device had not materialized before I submitted the contest entry. This solution is very practical, since you can access the device through its built-in server to configure or download log files while you are on your home network.

POWER MANAGEMENT BOARD
To make the system eco-friendly, I needed to enable continuous device operation using only a solar panel and a rechargeable Li-ion battery. The system consumes a considerable amount of power, so it needed a charge controller. Its main task was to control the battery-charging process. However, to work properly, it also had to account for the solar panel’s characteristics.

A solar panel can’t deliver constant power like a wall DC adapter does. Instead, power varies in a complex way according to atmospheric conditions (e.g., light and temperature).
For a given set of operational conditions, there is always a single operating point where the panel delivers its maximum power. The idea is to operate the panel in the maximum power point regardless of the external conditions.

I used Linear Technology’s LT3652 MPPT charger IC, which uses an input voltage regulation loop. The chip senses the panel output voltage and maintains it over a value by adjusting the current drawn. A voltage divider network is used to program the setpoint.
You must know the output voltage the panel produces when operated at the maximum power point. I couldn’t find the manufacturer’s specification sheet for the solar panel, but the distributor provides some experimental numbers. Because I was in a hurry to meet the contest deadline, I used that information. Based on those tests, the solar panel can produce approximately 8 V at 1.25 A, which is about 10 W of power.

I chose 8 V as the panel’s maximum power point voltage. The resistor divider output is connected to the LT3652’s VIN_REG pin. The chip has a 2.7-V reference, which means the charge current is reduced when this pin’s voltage goes below 2.7 V.

I used a two-cell Li-ion battery, but since the LTC3652 works with two, three, and four cells, the same board with different components can be used with a three- or four-cell battery. The LT3652 requires an I/O voltage difference of at least 3.3 V for reliable start-up, and it was clear that the panel’s 8-V nominal output would not be enough. I decided to include a voltage step-up stage in front of the LT3652.

I used Linear Technology’s LT3479 DC/DC converter to get the panel output to around 18 V to feed the MPPT controller. This only works if the LT3562’s voltage control loop still takes the VIN_REG reference directly from the panel output. Figures 1 and 2 show the circuit.

Power management board

Figure 1: Power management board

Figure 2: Power management board

Figure 2: Power management board

I could have fed the chipKIT on-board 5-V linear regulator with the battery, but I preferred to include another switching regulator to minimize losses. I used Linear Technology’s LTC3112 DC/DC converter. The only problem was that I needed to be able to combine its output with the chipKIT board’s 5 V, either through the USB port or the DC wall adapter option.

The chipKIT board includes a Microchip Technology MCP6001 op-amp in comparator configuration to compare USB voltage against a jack DC input voltage, enabling only one to be the 5-V source at a given time. Something similar was needed, so I included a Linear Technology LTC4411 IC, which is a low-loss replacement ORing diode, to solve the problem.

To my knowledge, when I designed the board a battery gauge for two-cell lithium batteries (e.g., a coulomb counter that can indicate accumulated battery charge and discharge) wasn’t available. The available options needed to handle most of the computational things in software, so I decided it was not an option. I included a voltage buffer op-amp to take advantage of the LTC3112’s dedicated analog voltage output, which gives you an estimate of the instantaneous current being drawn. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get it to work. So I ended up not using it.

Building this board was a challenge, since most components are 0.5-mm pitch with exposed pads underneath. IC manufacturers suggest using a solid inner ground layer for switching regulators, so I designed a four-layer board. If you have soldering experience, you can imagine how hard it is to solder the board using only a hot air gun and a soldering iron. That’s why I decided it was time to experiment with a stencil, solder paste, and a convection oven. I completed the board by using a commercially available kitchen convection oven and manually adjusting the temperature to match the reflow profile since I don’t have a controller (see Photo 2).

Photo 3: Custom chipSOLAR board

Photo 2: Custom chipSOLAR board

WIRELESS BOARD
The wireless board has all the components for GPRS communication and the 802.15.4 home network, as well as additional components for the SD file system and the RTCC. Figure 3 shows the circuit.

Figure 3: The communication board schematic is shown.

Figure 3: The communication board schematic is shown.

At the time of the contest, I used a SIMCom Wireless Solutions SIM340 GPRS modem. The company now offers a replacement, the SIM900B. The only physical differences are the board-to-board connectors, but the variations are so minimal that you can use the same footprint for both connectors.

During the contest, I only had the connector for the SIM340 on hand, so I based almost all the firmware on that model. Later, I got the SIM900B connector and modified the firmware. The Project Files include the #if defined clause for SIM900 or SIM340 snippets.

A couple of things made me want to test the SIM900B module, among them the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) server functionality and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS). Ultimately, I discovered that my 32-MB flash memory version of the SIM900B was not suitable for those firmware versions. The 64-MB version of the hardware is required.
The subscriber identity module (SIM) card receptacle and associated ESD protection circuitry are located on the upper side of the board. The I/O lines connected to the modem are serial TX, RX, and a power-on signal using a transistor.

The chipKIT Max32 board does not have a 32,768-Hz crystal, so Microchip Technology’s PIC32 internal RTCC was not an option. I decided to include Microchip Technology’s MCP79402 RTCC with a super capacitor, mainly for service purposes as the system is already backed up with the lithium battery.

I should have placed the SD card slot on the top of the board. That could have saved me some time during the debugging stage, when I have had some problems with SD firmware that corrupts the SD file system. When I designed the board, I was trying to make it compatible with other platforms, so I included level translators for the SD card interface. I made the mistake of placing a level translator at the master input slave output (MISO), which caused a conflict in the bus with other SPI devices. I removed it and wire-wrapped the I/O lines.

Another issue with this board was the XBee module’s serial port net routing, but it was nothing that cutting some traces and wire wrap could not fix. Photo 3 shows all the aforementioned details and board component location.

Photo 3: This communication board includes several key components to enable wireless communication with sensors,  the Internet, and cellular networks.

Photo 3: This communication board includes several key components to enable wireless communication with sensors,the Internet, and cellular networks.

Editor’s Note: Visit here to read about other projects from the 2012 DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge.

MCU-Based Experimental Glider with GPS Receiver

When Jens Altenburg found a design for a compass-controlled glider in a 1930s paperback, he was inspired to make his own self-controlled model aircraft (see Photo 1)

Photo 1: This is the cover of an old paperback with the description of the compass-controlled glider. The model aircraft had a so-called “canard” configuration―a very modern design concept. Some highly sophisticated fighter planes are based on the same principle. (Photo used with permission of Ravensburger.)

Photo 1: This is the cover of an old paperback with the description of the compass-controlled glider. The model aircraft had a so-called “canard” configuration―a very modern design concept. Some highly sophisticated fighter planes are based on the same principle. (Photo used with permission of Ravensburger.)

His excellent article about his high-altitude, low-cost (HALO) experimental glider appears in Circuit Cellar’s April issue. The MCU-based glider includes a micro-GPs receiver and sensors and can climb to a preprogrammed altitude and find its way back home to a given coordinate.

Altenburg, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Bingen in Germany, added more than a few twists to the 80-year-old plan. An essential design tool was the Reflex-XTR flight simulation software he used to trim his 3-D glider plan and conduct simulated flights.

Jens also researched other early autopilots, including the one used by the Fiesler Fi 103R German V-1 flying bomb. Known as buzz bombs during World War II, these rough predecessors of the cruise missile were launched against London after D-Day. Fortunately, they were vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, but their autopilots were nonetheless mechanical engineering masterpieces (see Figure 1)

“Equipped with a compass, a single-axis gyro, and a barometric pressure sensor, the Fiesler Fi 103R German V-1 flying bomb flew without additional control,” Altenburg says. “The compass monitored the flying direction in general, the barometer controlled the altitude, and the gyro responded to short-duration disturbances (e.g., wind gusts).”

Figure 1: These are the main components of the Fieseler Fi 103R German V-1 flying bomb. The flight controller was designed as a mechanical computer with a magnetic compass and barometric pressure sensor for input. Short-time disturbances were damped with the main gyro (gimbal mounted) and two auxiliary gyros (fixed in one axis). The “mechanical” computer was pneumatically powered. The propeller log on top of the bomb measured the distance to the target.

Figure 1: These are the main components of the Fieseler Fi 103R German V-1 flying bomb. The flight controller was designed as a mechanical computer with a magnetic compass and barometric pressure sensor for input. Short-time disturbances were damped with the main gyro (gimbal mounted) and two auxiliary gyros (fixed in one axis). The “mechanical” computer was pneumatically powered. The propeller log on top of the bomb measured the distance to the target.

Altenburg adapted some of the V-1’s ideas into the flight control system for his 21st century autopilot glider. “All the Fi 103R board system’s electromechanical components received an electronic counterpart,” he says. “I replaced the mechanical gyros, the barometer, and the magnetic compass with MEMS. But it’s 2014, so I extended the electronics with a telemetry system and a GPS sensor.” (See Figure 2)

Figure 2: This is the flight controller’s block structure. The main function blocks are GPS, CPU, and power. GPS data is processed as a control signal for the servomotor.

Figure 2: This is the flight controller’s block structure. The main function blocks are GPS, CPU, and power. GPS data is processed as a control signal for the servomotor.

His article includes a detailed description of his glider’s flight-controller hardware, including the following:

Highly sophisticated electronics are always more sensitive to noise, power loss, and so forth. As discussed in the first sections of this article, a glider can be controlled by only a magnetic compass, some coils, and a battery. What else had to be done?

I divided the electronic system into different boards. The main board contains only the CPU and the GPS sensor. I thought that would be sufficient for basic functions. The magnetic and pressure sensor can be connected in case of extra missions. The telemetry unit is also a separate PCB.

Figure 3 shows the main board. Power is provided by a CR2032 lithium coin-cell battery. Two low-dropout linear regulators support the hardware with 1.8 and 2.7 V. The 1.8-V line is only for the GPS sensor. The second power supply provides the CPU with a stable voltage. The 2.7 V is the lowest voltage for the CPU’s internal ADC.

It is extremely important for the entire system to save power. Consequently, the servomotor has a separate power switch (Q1). As long as rudder movement isn’t necessary, the servomotor is powered off. The servomotor’s gear has enough drag to hold the rudder position without electrical power. The servomotor’s control signal is exactly the same as usually needed. It has a 1.1-to-2.1-ms pulse time range with about a 20-ms period. Two connectors (JP9 and JP10) are available for the extension boards (compass and telemetry)..

I used an STMicroelectronics LSM303DLM, which is a sensor module with a three-axis magnetometer and three-axis accelerometer. The sensor is connected by an I2C bus. The Bosch Sensortec BMP085 pressure sensor uses the same bus.

For telemetry, I applied an AXSEM AX5043 IC, which is a complete, narrow-band transceiver for multiple standards. The IC has an excellent link budget, which is the difference between output power in Transmit mode and input sensitivity in Receive mode. The higher the budget, the longer the transmission distance.

The AX5043 is also optimized for battery-powered applications. For modest demands, a standard crystal (X1, 16-MHz) is used for clock generation. In case of higher requirements, a temperature-compensated crystal oscillator (TCXO) is recommended.

The main board’s hardware with a CPU and a GPS sensor is shown. A CR2032 lithium coin-cell battery supplies the power. Two regulators provide 1.8  and 2.7 V for the GPS and the CPU. The main outputs are the servomotor’s signal and power switch.

Figure 3: The main board’s hardware with a CPU and a GPS sensor is shown. A CR2032 lithium coin-cell battery supplies the power. Two regulators provide 1.8 and 2.7 V for the GPS and the CPU. The main outputs are the servomotor’s signal and power switch.

Altenburg’s article also walks readers through the mathematical calculations needed to provide longitude, latitude, and course data to support navigation and the CPU’s most important sensor— the u-blox Fastrax UC430 GPS. He also discusses his experience using the Renesas Electronics R5F100AA microcontroller to equip the prototype board. (Altenburg’s glider won honorable mention in the 2012 Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge, see Photos 2 and 3).

The full article is in the April issue, now available for download by members or single-issue purchase.

One of the final steps is mounting the servomotor for rudder control. Thin cords connect the servomotor horn and the rudder. Two metal springs balance mechanical tolerances.

Photo 2: One of the final steps is mounting the servomotor for rudder control. Thin cords connect the servomotor horn and the rudder. Two metal springs balance mechanical tolerances.

Photo 2: This is the well-equipped high-altitude low-cost (HALO) experimental glider.

Photo 3: This is the well-equipped high-altitude low-cost (HALO) experimental glider.

Triangulation, Trilateration, or Multilateration? (EE Tip #125)

Local Positioning System (LPS) and GPS (not just the US system) both use several transmitters to enable a receiver to calculate its geographical position. Several techniques are possible, each with its advantages and drawbacks. The important thing in all these techniques is the notion of a direct path (line of sight, or LoS). In effect, if the transmitter signal has not taken the shortest path to the receiver, the distance between them calculated by the receiver will be incorrect, since the receiver does not know the route taken by the radio signal.

Three mathematical techniques are usually used for calculating the position of a receiver from signals received from several transmitters: triangulation, trilateration, and multilateration. The last two are very similar, but should not be confused.

Triangulation

Triangulation (Figure 1) is a very ancient technique, said to date from over 2,500 years ago, when it was used by the Greek philosopher and astronomer Thales of Miletus to measure (with surprising accuracy) the radius of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

Triangulation

Figure 1—Triangulation: you are at A, from where you can see B and C. If you know their geographical positions, you can find your own position with the help of a compass.

It allows an observer to calculate their position by measuring two directions towards two reference points. Since the positions of the reference points are known, it is hence possible to construct a triangle where one of the sides and two of the angles are known, with the observer at the third point. This information is enough to defi ne the triangle completely and hence deduce the position of the observer.

Using triangulation with transmitters requires the angle of incidence (angle of arrival, or AoA) of a radio signal to be measured. This can be done using several antennas placed side by side (an array of antennas, for example, Figure 2) and to measure the phase difference between the signals received by the antennas.

Antenna array

Figure 2—An antenna array makes it possible to measure the angle of incidence of a radio signal, and hence its direction.

If the distance between the antennas is small, the incident front of the signal may be considered as straight, and the calculation of the angle will be fairly accurate. It’s also possible to use a directional antenna to determine the position of a transmitter. The antenna orientation producing the strongest signal indicates the direction of the transmitter. All you then have to do is take two measurements from known transmitters in order to be able to apply triangulation.

Trilateration

This technique requires the distance between the receiver and transmitter to be measured. This can be done using a Received Signal Strength Indicator (RSSI), or else from the time of arrival (ToA)—or time of flight (ToF) Figure 3—of the signal, provided that the receiver and transmitter are synchronized — for example, by means of a common timebase, as in GPS.

Arrival time

Figure 3—The length of the arrows corresponds to the arrival time at receiver P of the signals broadcast by three transmitters A, B, and C. It forms a measurement of the distances between the transmitters and the receiver.

Thus, when receiving a signal from a single transmitter, we can situate ourselves on a circle (for simplicity, let’s confi ne ourselves to two dimensions and ideal transmission conditions) with the transmitter at the center. Not very accurate. It gets better with two transmitters — now there are only two positions possible: the two points where the circles around the two transmitters intersect. Adding a third transmitter enables us to eliminate one of these two possibilities (Figure 4).

Trilateration

Figure 4—2-D trilateration. In 3-D, another transmitter has to be added in order to determine a position unambiguously.

When we extend trilateration to three dimensions, the circles become spheres. Now we need to add one more transmitter in order to fi nd the position of the receiver, as the intersection of two spheres is no longer at two points, but is a circle (assuming we ignore the trivial point when they touch). This explains why a GPS needs to “see” at least four satellites to work.

Multilateration

Using a single receiver listening to the signals (pulses, for example) from two synchronized transmitters, it is possible to measure the difference between the arrival times (time difference of arrival, or TDoA) of the two signals at the receiver. Then the principle is similar to trilateration, except that we no longer fi nd ourselves on a circle or a sphere, but on a hyperbola (2D) or a hyperboloid (3D). Here too, we need four transmitters to enable the receiver to calculate its position accurately.

The advantage of multilateration is that the receiver doesn’t need to know at what instant the signals were transmitted—hence the receiver doesn’t need to be synchronized with the transmitters. The signals, and hence the electronics, can be kept simple. The LORAN and DECCA systems, for example, work like this.—Clemens Valens, “Geolocalization without GPS,” Elektor, February 2011.

Embedded Programming: Rummage Around In This Toolbox

Circuit Cellar’s April issue is nothing less than an embedded programming toolbox. Inside you’ll find tips, tools, and online resources to help you do everything from building a simple tracing system that can debug a small embedded system to designing with a complex system-on-a-chip (SoC) that combines programmable logic and high-speed processors.

Article contributor Thiadmer Riemersma describes the three parts of his tracing system: a set of macros to include in the source files of a device under test (DUT), a PC workstation viewer that displays retrieved trace data, and a USB dongle that interfaces the DUT with the workstation (p. 26).

Thaidmer Riemersma's trace dongle is connected to a laptop and device. The dongle decodes the signal and forwards it as serial data from a virtual RS-232 port to the workstation.

Thaidmer Riemersma’s trace dongle is connected to a laptop and DUT. The dongle decodes the signal and forwards it as serial data from a virtual RS-232 port to the workstation.

Riemersma’s special serial protocol overcomes common challenges of tracing small embedded devices, which typically have limited-performance microcontrollers and scarce interfaces. His system uses a single I/O and keeps it from bottlenecking by sending DUT-to-workstation trace transmissions as compact binary messages. “The trace viewer (or trace “listener”) can translate these message IDs back to the human-readable strings,” he says.

But let’s move on from discussing a single I/0 to a tool that offers hundreds of I/0s. They’re part of the all-programmable Xilinx Zynq SoC, an example of a device that blends a large FPGA fabric with a powerful processing core. Columnist Colin O’Flynn explores using the Zynq SoC as part of the Avnet ZedBoard development board (p. 46). “Xilinx’s Zynq device has many interesting applications,” O’Flynn concludes. “This is made highly accessible by the ZedBoard and MicroZed boards.”

An Avnet ZedBoard is connected to the OpenADC. The OpenADC provides a moderate-speed ADC (105 msps), which interfaces to the programmable logic (PL) fabric in Xilinx’s Zynq device via a parallel data bus. The PL fabric then maps itself as a peripheral on the hard-core processing system (PS) in the Zynq device to stream this data into the system DDR memory.

An Avnet ZedBoard is connected to the OpenADC. (Source: C. O’Flynn, Circuit Cellar 285)

Our embedded programming issue also includes George Novacek’s article on design-level software safety analysis, which helps avert hazards that can damage an embedded controller (p. 39). Bob Japenga discusses specialized file systems essential to Linux and a helpful networking protocol (p. 52).

One of the final steps is mounting the servomotor for rudder control. Thin cords connect the servomotor horn and the rudder. Two metal springs balance mechanical tolerances.

Jens Altenburg’s project

Other issue highlights include projects that are fun as well as instructive. For example, Jens Altenburg added an MCU, GPS, flight simulation, sensors, and more to a compass-controlled glider design he found in a 1930s paperback (p. 32). Columnist Jeff Bachiochi introduces the possibilities of programmable RGB LED strips (p. 66).

Two Campuses, Two Problems, Two Solutions

In some ways, Salish Kootenai College (SKC)  based in Pablo, MT, and Penn State Erie, The Behrend College in Erie, PA, couldn’t be more different

SKC, whose main campus is on the Flathead Reservation, is open to all students but primarily serves Native Americans of the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Orellies tribes. It has an enrollment of approximately 1,400. Penn State Erie has roughly 4,300.

But one thing the schools have in common is enterprising employees and students who recognized a problem on their campuses and came up with technical solutions. Al Anderson, IT director at the SKC, and Chris Coulston, head of the Computer Science and Software Engineering department at Penn State Erie, and his team have written articles about their “campus solutions” to be published in upcoming issues of Circuit Cellar.

In the summer of 2012, Anderson and the IT department he supervises direct-wired the SKC dorms and student housing units with fiber and outdoor CAT-5 cable to provide students better  Ethernet service.

The system is designed around the Raspberry Pi device. The Raspberry Pi queries the TMP102 temperature sensor. The Raspberry Pi is queried via the SNMP protocol.

The system is designed around the Raspberry Pi device. The Raspberry Pi queries the TMP102 temperature sensor. The Raspberry Pi is queried via the SNMP protocol.

“Prior to this, students accessed the Internet via a wireless network that provided very poor service.” Anderson says. “We wired 25 housing units, each with a small unmanaged Ethernet switch. These switches are daisy chained in several different paths back to a central switch.”

To maintain the best service, the IT department needed to monitor the system’s links from Intermapper, a simple network management protocol (SNMP) software. Also, the department had to monitor the temperature inside the utility boxes, because their exposure to the sun could cause the switches to get too hot.

This is the final installation of the Raspberry Pi. The clear acrylic case can be seen along with the TMP102 glued below the air hole drilled into the case. A ribbon cable was modified to connect the various pins of the TMP102 to the Raspberry Pi.

This is the final installation of the Raspberry Pi in the SKC system. The clear acrylic case can be seen along with the TMP102 glued below the air hole drilled into the case. A ribbon cable was modified to connect the various pins of the TMP102 to the Raspberry Pi.

“We decided to build our own monitoring system using a Raspberry Pi to gather temperature data and monitor the network,” Anderson says. “We installed a Debian Linux distro on the Raspberry Pi, added an I2C Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor…, wrote a small Python program to get the temperature via I2C and convert it to Fahrenheit, installed SNMP server software on the Raspberry Pi, added a custom SNMP rule to display the temperature from the script, and finally wrote a custom SNMP MIB to access the temperature information as a string and integer.”

Anderson, 49, who has a BS in Computer Science, did all this even as he earned his MS in Computer Science, Networking, and Telecommunications through the Johns Hopkins University Engineering Professionals program.

Anderson’s article covers the SNMP server installation; I2C TMP102 temperature integration; Python temperature monitoring script; SNMP extension rule; and accessing the SNMP Extension via a custom MIB.

“It has worked flawlessly, and made it through the hot summer fine,” Anderson said recently. “We designed it with robustness in mind.”

Meanwhile, Chris Coulston, head of the Computer Science and Software Engineering department at Penn State Erie, and his team noticed that the shuttle bus

The mobile unit to be installed in the bus. bus

The mobile unit to be installed in the bus.

introduced as his school expanded had low ridership. Part of cause was the unpredictable timing of the bus, which has seven regular stops but also picks up students who flag it down.

“In order to address the issues of low ridership, a team of engineering students and faculty constructed an automated vehicle locator (AVL), an application to track the campus shuttle and to provide accurate estimates when the shuttle will arrive at each stop,” Coulston says.

The system’s three main hardware components are a user’s smartphone; a base station on campus; and a mobile tracker that stays on the traveling bus.

The base station consists of an XTend 900 MHz wireless modem connected to a Raspberry Pi, Coulston says. The Pi runs a web server to handle requests from the user’s smart phones. The mobile tracker consists of a GPS receiver, a Microchip Technology PIC 18F26K22 and an XTend 900 MHz wireless modem.

Coulston and his team completed a functional prototype by the time classes started in August. As a result, a student can call up a bus locater web page on his smartphone. The browser can load a map of the campus via the Google Maps JavaScript API, and JavaScript code overlays the bus and bus stops. You can see the bus locater page between 7:40 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST Monday through Friday.

“The system works remarkably well, providing reliable, accurate information about our campus bus,” Coulston says. “Best of all, it does this autonomously, with very little supervision on our part.  It has worked so well, we have received additional funding to add another base station to campus to cover an extended route coming next year.”

The base station for the mobile tracker is a sandwich of Raspberry Pi, interface board, and wireless modem.

The base station for the mobile tracker is a sandwich of Raspberry Pi, interface board, and wireless modem.

And while the system has helped Penn State Erie students make it to class on time, what does Coulston and his team’s article about it offer Circuit Cellar readers?

“This article should appeal to readers because it’s a web-enabled embedded application,” Coulston says. “We plan on providing users with enough information so that they can create their own embedded web applications.”

Look for the article in an upcoming issue. In the meantime, if you have a DIY wireless project you’d like to share with Circuit Cellar, please e-mail editor@circuitcellar.com.

 

 

 

 

Great Plains Super Launch 2013

 

Pella, IA — Spectators, visitors and participants alike all erupted into cheerful applause and exclamation after watching the weather balloons launch successfully from the launch site at Vermeer on Saturday. The onlookers observed these hydrogen/helium filled balloons rising into the air until they faded from sight, approaching extremely high altitudes.  The launch was the start of an hour and a half that the balloon spent ascending, all the way into the Earth’s ozone layer.  Another thirty five or forty minutes later the balloon popped and parachutes back to Earth.

The balloons enable us to explore the region of the atmosphere called “near space”, which is above 60,000 ft., but below the accepted altitude of space- 328,000 ft. Cosmic radiation of near space is 100 times greater than it is at sea level. The large balloons are attached to a payload, which contains GPS tracking and various sensors. The payloads contain beacons which emit radio signals. Many of the payloads in this year’s super launch were made by students dedicated to exploring near space.

This sort of active involvement is what PENS strives for. PENS is Pella’s Exploring Near Space program. Mike Morgan, the president of PENS, enjoys and commits to getting kids involved and interested in science and technologies.

“The only thing that goes higher than our balloons are astronauts and satellites. The launch of a radio balloon isn’t something you see or do every day,” Morgan said.
The payload of the balloon also includes a camera so that you can get the view from the edge of space, along with other valuable information that the payload and sensors give. They are used to test things such as barometer, pressure, temperature, UV radiation and humidity. All of these are important factors in the study of aero science.

Bill Brown, founding father of Amateur Radio, participated in the Great Plains Super Launch on Saturday. From Alabama, Brown flew the first high altitude balloon with an amateur radio and video camera in 1987. Brown has flown 400 balloons in 20 states, but each launch presents new information and stimulating challenges. Brown explains that from the edge of space, “You can see the black sky and the curve of the Earth”.

For Nick Stich, the balloon that he launched was his 188th balloon. Balloons from all over the country were launched last Saturday, including radio balloons from Nebraska Stratospheric Amateur Radio, Edge of Space Sciences, DePauw University, and Iowa High Altitude Balloon. PENS, coordinated by Jim Emmert, hosted the conference for near space explorers and enthusiasts.

By Renee Van Roekel
The Chronicle

For more information on the super launch or radio ballooning, visit www.superlaunch.org .

This article was originally published by The Pella Chronicle on June 22, 2013, and is posted here with the permission of its publisher.

CC268: The History of Embedded Tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Plains Super Launch

Contributed by Mark Conner

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

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

Prepping for the launch – Photo courtesy of Mark Conner

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

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

EOSS ready for launch – Photo courtesy of Mark Conner

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

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

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

RFI Bypasssing

With GPS technology and audio radio interfaces on his personal fleet of bikes, Circuit Cellar columnist Ed Nisley’s family can communicate to each other while sending GPS location data via an automatic packet reporting system (APRS) network. In his February 2012 article, Ed describes a project for which he used a KG-UV3D radio interface rigged with SMD capacitors to suppress RF energy. He covers topics such as test-fixture measurements on isolated capacitors and bypassing beyond VHF.

Photo 2 from the Febuary article, "RFI Bypassing (Part 1)." A pair of axial-lead resistors isolate the tracking generator and spectrum analyzer from the components under test. The 47-Ω SMD resistor, standing upright just to the right of the resistor lead junction, forms an almost perfect terminator. (Source: Ed Nisley CC259)

Ed writes:

Repeatable and dependable measurements require a solid test fixture. Although the collection of parts in Photo 2 may look like a kludge, it’s an exemplar of the “ugly construction” technique that’s actually a good way to build RF circuits. “Some Thoughts on Breadboarding,” by Wes Hayword, W7ZOI, gives details and suggestions for constructing RF projects above a solid printed circuit board (PCB) ground plane.

You can read this article now in Circuit Cellar 259. If you aren’t a subscriber, you can purchase a copy of the issue here.

 

GPS-Based Vehicle Timing & Tracking Project

The KartTracker’s Renesas kit (Source: Steve Lubbers CC259)

You can design and construct your own vehicle timing system at your workbench. Steve Lubbers did just that, and he describes his project in Circuit Cellar 259 (February 2012). He calls his design the “Kart Tracker,” which he built around a Renesas Electronics Corp. RX62N RDK. In fact, Steve writes that the kit has most of what’s need to bring such a design to fruition:

Most of the pieces of my KartTracker are already built into the Renesas Electronics RX62N development board (see Figure 1). The liquid crystal display (LCD) on the development board operates as the user interface and shows the driver what is happening as he races. The integrated accelerometer can be used to record the G forces experienced while racing. A serial port provides connections to a GPS receiver and a wireless transmitter. Removable flash memory stores all the race data so you can brag to your friends. You now have all of the pieces of my KartTracker.

The following block diagram depicts the relationship between the CPU, base station, flash drive, and other key components:

KartTracker Diagram (Source: Steve Lubbers CC259)

The software for the system is fairly straightforward. Steve writes:

The KartTracker software was built around the UART software sample provided with the RX62N development kit. To provide file system support, the Renesas microSD/Tiny FAT software was added. Finally, my custom GPS KartTracker software was added to the Renesas samples. My software consists of GPS, navigation, waypoints, and display modules. Support software was added to interface to the UART serial port, the file system, and the user display and control on the RX62N circuit board.

Pseudocode for the main processing loop (Source: Steve Lubbers CC259)

Read Steve’s article in the February issue for more details.

If you want to build a similar system, you should get familiar with the Renesas RX62N RDK. In the following video, Dave Jones of EEVBlog provides a quick and useful introduction to the RX62N RDK and its specs (Source: Renesas).

Good luck with this project. Be sure to keep Circuit Cellar posted on your progress!

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