Traveling With a “Portable Workspace”

As a freelance engineer, Raul Alvarez spends a lot of time on the go. He says the last four or five years he has been traveling due to work and family reasons, therefore he never stays in one place long enough to set up a proper workspace. “Whenever I need to move again, I just pack whatever I can: boards, modules, components, cables, and so forth, and then I’m good to go,” he explains.

Raul_Alvarez_Workspace _Photo_1

Alvarez sits at his “current” workstation.

He continued by saying:

In my case, there’s not much of a workspace to show because my workspace is whichever desk I have at hand in a given location. My tools are all the tools that I can fit into my traveling backpack, along with my software tools that are installed in my laptop.

Because in my personal projects I mostly work with microcontroller boards, modular components, and firmware, until now I think it didn’t bother me not having more fancy (and useful) tools such as a bench oscilloscope, a logic analyzer, or a spectrum analyzer. I just try to work with whatever I have at hand because, well, I don’t have much choice.

Given my circumstances, probably the most useful tools I have for debugging embedded hardware and firmware are a good-old UART port, a multimeter, and a bunch of LEDs. For the UART interface I use a Future Technology Devices International FT232-based UART-to-USB interface board and Tera Term serial terminal software.

Currently, I’m working mostly with Microchip Technology PIC and ARM microcontrollers. So for my PIC projects my tiny Microchip Technology PICkit 3 Programmer/Debugger usually saves the day.

Regarding ARM, I generally use some of the new low-cost ARM development boards that include programming/debugging interfaces. I carry an LPC1769 LPCXpresso board, an mbed board, three STMicroelectronics Discovery boards (Cortex-M0, Cortex-M3, and Cortex-M4), my STMicroelectronics STM32 Primer2, three Texas Instruments LaunchPads (the MSP430, the Piccolo, and the Stellaris), and the following Linux boards: two BeagleBones (the gray one and a BeagleBone Black), a Cubieboard, an Odroid-X2, and a Raspberry Pi Model B.

Additionally, I always carry an Arduino UNO, a Digilent chipKIT Max 32 Arduino-compatible board (which I mostly use with MPLAB X IDE and “regular” C language), and a self-made Parallax Propeller microcontroller board. I also have a Wi-Fi 3G TP-LINK TL-WR703N mini router flashed   with OpenWRT that enables me to experiment with Wi-Fi and Ethernet and to tinker with their embedded Linux environment. It also provides me Internet access with the use of a 3G modem.

Raul_Alvarez_Workspace _Photo_2

Not a bad set up for someone on the go. Alvarez’s “portable workstation” includes ICs, resistors, and capacitors, among other things. He says his most useful tools are a UART port, a multimeter, and some LEDs.

In three or four small boxes I carry a lot of sensors, modules, ICs, resistors, capacitors, crystals, jumper cables, breadboard strips, and some DC-DC converter/regulator boards for supplying power to my circuits. I also carry a small video camera for shooting my video tutorials, which I publish from time to time at my website ( I have installed in my laptop TechSmith’s Camtasia for screen capture and Sony Vegas for editing the final video and audio.

Some IDEs that I have currently installed in my laptop are: LPCXpresso, Texas Instruments’s Code Composer Studio, IAR EW for Renesas RL78 and 8051, Ride7, Keil uVision for ARM, MPLAB X, and the Arduino IDE, among others. For PC coding I have installed Eclipse, MS Visual Studio, GNAT Programming Studio (I like to tinker with Ada from time to time), QT Creator, Python IDLE, MATLAB, and Octave. For schematics and PCB design I mostly use CadSoft’s EAGLE, ExpressPCB, DesignSpark PCB, and sometimes KiCad.

Traveling with my portable rig isn’t particularly pleasant for me. I always get delayed at security and customs checkpoints in airports. I get questioned a lot especially about my circuit boards and prototypes and I almost always have to buy a new set of screwdrivers after arriving at my destination. Luckily for me, my nomad lifestyle is about to come to an end soon and finally I will be able to settle down in my hometown in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The first two things I’m planning to do are to buy a really big workbench and a decent digital oscilloscope.

Alvarez’s article “The Home Energy Gateway: Remotely Control and Monitor Household Devices” appeared in Circuit Cellar’s February issue. For more information about Alvarez, visit his website or follow him on Twitter @RaulAlvarezT.

An Engineer Who Retires to the Garage

Jerry Brown, of Camarillo, CA, retired from the aerospace industry five years ago but continues to consult and work on numerous projects at home. For example, he plans to submit an article to Circuit Cellar about a Microchip Technology PIC-based computer display component (CDC) he designed and built for a traffic-monitoring system developed by a colleague.

Jerry Brown sits at his workbench. The black box atop the workbench is an embedded controller and is part of a traffic monitoring system he has been working on.

Jerry Brown sits at his workbench. The black box atop the workbench is an embedded controller and part of  his traffic monitoring system project.

“The traffic monitoring system is composed of a beam emitter component (BEC), a beam sensor component (BSC), and the CDC, and is intended for unmanned use on city streets, boulevards, and roadways to monitor and record the accumulative count, direction of travel, speed, and time of day for vehicles that pass by a specific location during a set time period,” he says.

Brown particularly enjoys working with PWM LED controllers. Circuit Cellar editors look forward to seeing his project article. In the meantime, he sent us the following description and pictures of the space where he conceives and executes his creative engineering ideas.

Jerry's garage-based lab.

Brown’s garage-based lab.

My workspace, which I call my “lab,” is on one side of my two-car garage and is fairly well equipped. (If you think it looks a bit messy, you should have seen it before I straightened it up for the “photo shoot.”)  

I have a good supply of passive and active electronic components, which are catalogued and, along with other parts and supplies, are stored in the cabinets and shelves alongside and above the workbench. I use the computer to write and compile software programs and to program PIC flash microcontrollers.  

The photos show the workbench and some of the instrumentation I have in the lab, including a waveform generator, a digital storage oscilloscope, a digital multimeter, a couple of power supplies, and a soldering station.  

The black box visible on top of the workbench is an embedded controller and is part of the traffic monitoring system that I have been working on.

Instruments in Jerry's lab include a waveform generator, a digital storage oscilloscope, a digital multimeter, a couple of power supplies, and a soldering station.

Instruments in Brown’s lab include a waveform generator, a digital storage oscilloscope, a digital multimeter, a couple of power supplies, and a soldering station. 

Brown has a BS in Electrical Engineering and a BS in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. He worked in the aerospace industry for 30 years and retired as the Principal Engineer/Manager of a Los Angeles-area aerospace company’s electrical and software design group.

High-Tech Halloween

Still contemplating Halloween ideas? Do you have a costume yet? Is your house trick-or-treat ready? Perhaps some of these high-tech costumes and decorations will help get you in the spirit.

Recent Circuit Cellar interviewee Jeremy Blum designed a creative and high-tech costume that includes 12 individually addressable LEDs, an Adafruit microcontroller, and 3-D printing.


Custom animatronic skull


Animatronic talking raven

Looking for Halloween decoration inspiration? Peter Montgomery designed some programmable servo animation controllers built around a Freescale Semiconductor 68HC11 microcontroller and a Parallax SX28 configurable controller.

Peter’s Windows-based plastic skull is animated with RC servos controlled via a custom system. It moves at 24 or 30 frames per second over a custom RS-485 network.
This animatronic talking raven features a machined aluminum armature and moves via RC servos. The servos are controlled by a custom system using Windows and embedded controllers.

Peter’s Halloween projects were originally featured in “Servo Animation Controller” (Circuit Cellar 188, 2006). He displays the Halloween projects every year.

Feeling inspired? Share your tech-based Halloween projects with us.

New Product: LED Drivers for Dimmable Bulbs

The iW3606 and the iW3608 are single-stage, solid-state lighting (SSL) LED drivers. The iW3606 (8-W output power) and the iW3608 (15-W output power) feature configurable over-temperature protection (OTP) and derating functionality to provide predictability and reliability of bulb operating life.

Designed for all retrofit bulbs, including candle and GU10 lamp replacements used in existing phase-cut dimmer installations, the LED drivers manage poor dimming performance (e.g., pop-on, popcorning, dead travel, drop-out, and flicker) and short bulb lifetime or failure. Both drivers meet or exceed global regulations for power quality and efficiency with less than 0.92 power factor (PF) and less than 20% total harmonic distortion (THD).

The LED drivers’ OTP and derating feature addresses the thermal issues caused by the high and unpredictable operating temperatures in dimmable SSL applications. iWatt’s OTP derating monitors the temperature inside sealed SSL bulbs. When thermal conditions reach a point set by the system designer, the LED drivers automatically reduce the current drive to the LEDs, lowering the power dissipation and resulting in a cooler overall operation.

The iW3606 and the iW3608 feature a wide, flicker-free dimming range from 100% to 1% of measured light to closely match incandescent bulbs’ dimming performance. This enables smooth “natural” dimming with no light drop-out at the low end of the dimming range and virtually no dead travel where the light turns off before the dimmer control reaches the bottom of its travel.

The LED drivers’ low internal power consumption enables them to start at less than 5% of light output, which is a very low dimming level. This virtually eliminates pop-on, in which the light does not turn on at low dimmer levels and, as the dimmer level is raised, the light suddenly turns on. The low power consumption also helps eliminate popcorning effects, in which various bulbs in multiple-light installations on the same dimmer circuit can turn on at different dimmer-setting thresholds.

The iW3606 costs $0.46 and the iW3608 costs $0.51, both in 1,000-unit quantities.


iWatt, Inc.

LED Characterization: An Arduino-Based Curve Tracer

Circuit Cellar columnist Ed Nisley doesn’t want to rely solely on datasheets to understand the values of LEDs in his collection. So he built a curve tracer to measure his LEDs’ specific characteristics.

Why was he so exacting?

“Most of the time, we take small light-emitting diodes for granted: connect one in series with a suitable resistor and voltage source, it lights up, then we expect it to work forever,” he says in his July column in Circuit Cellar. “A recent project prompted me to take a closer look at commodity 5-mm LEDs, because I intended to connect them in series for better efficiency from a fixed DC supply and in parallel to simplify the switching. Rather than depend on the values found in datasheets, I built a simple Arduino-based LED Curve Tracer to measure the actual characteristics of the LEDs I intended to use.”

The Arduino Pro Micro clone in this hand-wired LED Curve Tracer controls the LED current and measures the resulting voltage.

Ed decided to share the curve tracer with his Circuit Cellar readers.

“Even though this isn’t a research-grade instrument, it can provide useful data that helps demonstrate LED operation and shows why you must pay more attention to their needs,” he says.

Ed says that although he thinks of his circuit as an “LED Curve Tracer,” it doesn’t display its data.

“Instead, I create the graphs with data files captured from the Arduino serial port and processed through Gnuplot,” he says. “One advantage of that process is that I can tailor the graphs to suit the data, rather than depend on a single graphic format. One disadvantage is that I must run a program to visualize the measurements. Feel free to add a graphics display to your LED Curve Tracer and write the code to support it!”

He adds that “any circuit attached to an Arduino should provide its own power to avoid overloading the Arduino’s on-board regulator.”

“I used a regulated 7.5 VDC wall wart for both the Arduino Pro Mini board and the LED under test, because the relatively low voltage minimized the power dissipation in the Arduino regulator,” he says. “You could use a 9 VDC or 12 VDC supply.”

To read more about Ed’s curve tracer, check out Circuit Cellar’s July issue.