Autonomous Mobile Robot (Part 1): Overview & Hardware

Welcome to “Robot Boot Camp.” In this two-part article series, I’ll explain what you can do with a basic mobile machine, a few sensors, and behavioral programming techniques. Behavioral programming provides distinct advantages over other programming techniques. It is independent of any environmental model, and it is more robust in the face of sensor error, and the behaviors can be stacked and run concurrently.

My objectives for my recent robot design were fairly modest. I wanted to build a robot that could cruise on its own, avoid obstacles, escape from inadvertent collisions, and track a light source. I knew that if I could meet such objective other more complex behaviors would be possible (e.g., self-docking on low power). There certainly many commercial robots on the market that could have met my requirements. But I decided that my best bet would be to roll my own. I wanted to keep things simple, and I wanted to fully understand the sensors and controls for behavioral autonomous operation. The TOMBOT is the fruit of that labor (see Photo 1a). A colleague came up with the name TOMBOT in honor of its inventor, and the name kind of stuck.

Photo 1a—The complete TOMBOT design. b—The graphics display is nice feature.

In this series of articles, I’ll present lessons learned and describe the hardware/software design process. The series will detail TOMBOT-style robot hardware and assembly, as well as behavior programming techniques using C code. By the end of the series, I’ll have covered a complete behavior programming library and API, which will be available for experimentation.

DESIGN BASICS

The TOMBOT robot is certainly minimal, no frills: two continuous-rotation, variable-speed control servos; two IR (850 nm) analog distance measurement sensors (4- to 30-cm range); two CdS photoconductive cells with good lux response in visible spectrum; and, finally, a front bumper (switch-activated) for collision detection. The platform is simple: servos and sensors on the left and right side of two level platforms. The bottom platform houses bumper, batteries, and servos. The top platform houses sensors and microcontroller electronics. The back part of the bottom platform uses a central skid for balance between the two servos (see Photo 1).

Given my background as a Microchip Developer and Academic Partner, I used a Microchip Technology PIC32 microcontroller, a PICkit 3 programmer/debugger, and a free Microchip IDE and 32-bit complier for TOMBOT. (Refer to the TOMBOT components list at the end of this article.)

It was a real thrill to design and build a minimal capability robot that can—with stacking programming behaviors—emulate some “intelligence.” TOMBOT is still a work in progress, but I recently had the privilege of demoing it to a first grade class in El Segundo, CA, as part of a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiative. The results were very rewarding, but more on that later.

BEHAVIORAL PROGRAMMING

A control system for a completely autonomous mobile robot must perform many complex information-processing tasks in real time, even for simple applications. The traditional method to building control systems for such robots is to separate the problem into a series of sequential functional components. An alternative approach is to use behavioral programming. The technique was introduced by Rodney Brooks out of the MIT Robotics Lab, and it has been very successful in the implementation of a lot of commercial robots, such as the popular Roomba vacuuming. It was even adopted for space applications like NASA’s Mars Rover and military seekers.

Programming a robot according to behavior-based principles makes the program inherently parallel, enabling the robot to attend simultaneously to all hazards it may encounter as well as any serendipitous opportunities that may arise. Each behavior functions independently through sensor registration, perception, and action. In the end, all behavior requests are prioritized and arbitrated before action is taken. By stacking the appropriate behaviors, using arbitrated software techniques, the robot appears to show (broadly speaking) “increasing intelligence.” The TOMBOT modestly achieves this objective using selective compile configurations to emulate a series of robot behaviors (i.e., Cruise, Home, Escape, Avoid, and Low Power). Figure 1 is a simple model illustration of a behavior program.

Figure 1: Behavior program

Joseph Jones’s Robot Programming: A Practical Guide to Behavior-Based Robotics (TAB Electronics, 2003) is a great reference book that helped guide me in this effort. It turns out that Jones was part of the design team for the Roomba product.

Debugging a mobile platform that is executing a series of concurrent behaviors can be daunting task. So, to make things easier, I implemented a complete remote control using a wireless link between the robot and a PC. With this link, I can enable or disable autonomous behavior, retrieve the robot sensor status and mode of operations, and curtail and avoid potential robot hazard. In addition to this, I implemented some additional operator feedback using a small graphics display, LEDs, and a simple sound buzzer. Note the TOMBOT’s power-up display in Photo 1b. We take Robot Boot Camp very seriously.

Minimalist System

As you can see in the robot’s block diagram (see Figure 2), the TOMBOT is very much a minimalist system with just enough components to demonstrate autonomous behaviors: Cruise, Escape, Avoid, and Home. All these behaviors require the use of left and right servos for autonomous maneuverability.

Figure 2: The TOMBOT system

The Cruise behavior just keeps the robot in motion in lieu of any stimulus. The Escape behavior uses the bumper to sense a collision and then 180° spin with reverse. The Avoid behavior makes use of continuous forward-looking IR sensors to veer left or right upon approaching a close obstacle. The Home behavior utilizes the front optical photocells to provide robot self-guidance to a strong light highly directional source. It all should add up to some very distinct “intelligent” operation. Figure 3 depicts the basic sensor and electronic layout.

Figure 3: Basic sensor and electronic layout

TOMBOT Assembly

The TOMBOT uses the low-cost robot platform (ArBot Chassis) and wheel set (X-Wheel assembly) from Budget Robotics (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: The platform and wheel set

A picture is worth a thousand words. Photo 2 shows two views of the TOMBOT prototype.

Photo 2a: The TOMBOT’s Sharp IR sensors, photo assembly, and more. b: The battery pack, right servo, and more.

Photo 2a shows dual Sharp IR sensors. Just below them is the photocell assembly. It is a custom board with dual CdS GL5528 photoconductive cells and 2.2-kΩ current-limiting resistors. Below this is a bumper assembly consisting of two SPDT Snap-action switches with lever (All Electronics Corp. CAT# SMS-196, left and right) fixed to a custom pre-fab plastic front bumper. Also shown is the solderless breakout board and left servo. Photo 2b shows the rechargeable battery pack that resides on the lower base platform and associated power switch. The electronics stack is visible. Here the XBee/Buzzer and graphics card modules residing on the 32-bit Experimenter. The Experimenter is plugged into a custom carrier board that allows for an interconnection to the solderless breakout to the rest of the system. Finally, note that the right servo is highlighted. The total TOMBOT package is not ideal; but remember, I’m talking about a prototype, and this particular configuration has held up nicely in several field demos.

I used Parallax (Futaba) continuous-rotation servos. They use a three-wire connector (+5 V, GND, and Control).

Figure 5 depicts a second-generation bumper assembly.  The same snap-action switches with extended levers are bent and fashioned to interconnect a bumper assembly as shown.

Figure 5: Second-generation bumper assembly

TOMBOT Electronics

A 32-bit Micro Experimenter is used as the CPU. This board is based the high-end Microchip Technology PIC32MX695F512H 64-pin TQFP with 128-KB RAM, 512-KB flash memory, and an 80-MHz clock. I did not want to skimp on this component during the prototype phase. In addition the 32-bit Experimenter supports a 102 × 64 monographic card with green/red backlight controls and LEDs. Since a full graphics library was already bundled with this Experimenter graphics card, it also represented good risk reduction during prototyping phase. Details for both cards are available on the Kiba website.

The Experimenter supports six basic board-level connections to outside world using JP1, JP2, JP3, JP4, BOT, and TOP headers.  A custom carrier board interfaces to the Experimenter via these connections and provides power and signal connection to the sensors and servos. The custom carrier accepts battery voltage and regulates it to +5 VDC. This +5 V is then further regulated by the Experimenter to its native +3.3-VDC operation. The solderless breadboard supports a resistor network to sense a +9-V battery voltage for a +3.3-V PIC processor. The breadboard also contains an LM324 quad op-amp to provide a buffer between +3.3-V logic of the processor and the required +5-V operation of the servo. Figure 6 is a detailed schematic diagram of the electronics.

Figure 6: The design’s circuitry

A custom card for the XBee radio carrier and buzzer was built that plugs into the Experimenter’s TOP and BOT connections. Photo 3 shows the modules and the carrier board. The robot uses a rechargeable 1,600-mAH battery system (typical of mid-range wireless toys) that provides hours of uninterrupted operation.

Photo 3: The modules and the carrier board

PIC32 On-Chip Peripherals

The major PIC32 peripheral connection for the Experimenter to rest of the system is shown. The TOMBOT uses PWM for servo, UART for XBee, SPI and digital for LCD, analog input channels for all the sensors, and digital for the buzzer and bumper detect. The key peripheral connection for the Experimenter to rest of the system is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7: Peripheral usage

The PIC32 pinouts and their associated Experimenter connections are detailed in Figure 8.

Figure 8: PIC32 peripheral pinouts and EXP32 connectors

The TOMBOT Motion Basics and the PIC32 Output Compare Peripheral

Let’s review the basics for TOMBOT motor control. The servos use the Parallax (Futaba) Continuous Rotation Servos. With two-wheel control, the robot motion is controlled as per Table 1.

Table 1: Robot motion

The servos are controlled by using a 20-ms (500-Hz) pulse PWM pattern where the PWM pulse can from 1.0 ms to 2.0 ms. The effects on the servos for the different PWM are shown in Figure 9.

Figure 9: Servo PWM control

The PIC32 microcontroller (used in the Experimenter) has five Output Compare modules (OCX, where X =1 , 2, 3, 4, 5). We use two of these peripherals, specifically OC3, OC4 to generate the PWM to control the servo speed and direction. The OCX module can use either 16 Timer2 (TMR2) or 16 Timer3 (TMR3) or combined as 32-bit Timer23 as a time base and for period (PR) setting for the output pulse waveform. In our case, we are using Timer23 as a PR set to 20 ms (500 Hz). The OCXRS and OCXR registers are loaded with a 16-bit value to control width of the pulse generated during the output period. This value is compared against the Timer during each period cycle. The OCX output starts high and then when a match occurs OCX logic will generate a low on output. This will be repeated on a cycle-by-cycle basis (see Figure 10).

Figure 10: PWM generation

Next Comes Software

We set the research goals and objectives for our autonomous robot. We covered the hardware associated with this robot and in the next installment we will describe the software and operation.

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

2012 ESC Boston: Tech from Microchip, Fujitsu, & More

The 2012 Embedded Systems Conference in Boston started September 17 and ends today. Here’s a wrap-up of the most interesting news and products.

MICROCHIP TECHNOLOGY

Microchip Technology announced Monday morning the addition of 15 new USB PIC microcontrollers to its line of full-speed USB 2.0 Device PIC MCUs. In a short presentation, Microchip product marketing manager Wayne Freeman introduced the three new 8-bit, crystal-free USB PIC families.

The PIC16F145x family (three devices) features the Microchip’s lowest-cost MCUs. The devices are available in 14- and 20-pin packages, support full-speed USB communication, don’t require external crystals, include PWM with complement generation, and more. They’re suitable for applications requiring USB connectivity and cap sense capabilities.

Microchip’s three PIC18F2x/4xK50 devices (available in 28- and 40/44-pins) enable “easy migration” from legacy PIC18 USB devices. In addition to 1.8- to 5-V operation, they feature a Charge Time Measurement Unit (CTMU) for cap-touch sensing, which makes them handy for data logging systems for tasks such as temperature and humidity measurement.

The nine devices in the PIC18F97J94 family are available in 64-, 80-, and 100-pin packages. Each device includes a 60 × 8 LCD controller and also integrates a real-time clock/calendar (RTCC) with battery back-up. Systems such as hand-held scanners and home automation panels are excellent candidates for these devices.

Several interesting designs were on display at the Microchip booth.

  • The M2M PICtail module was used in an SMS texting system.

This SMS text messaging system was featured at Microchip’s Machine-to-Machine (M2M) station. The M2M PICtail module (located on the bottom left) costs around $200.

  • Microchip featured its PIC MCU iPod Accessory Kit in glucose meter design. It was one of several healthcare-related systems that exhibitors displayed at the conference.

The interface can be an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.

Visit www.microchip.com for more information.

RENESAS

As most of you know, the entry period for the Renesas RL78 Green Energy Challenge ended on August 31 and the judges are now reviewing the entries. Two particular demos on display at the Renesas booth caught my attention.

  • A lemon powering an RL78 L12 MCU:

Lemon power and the RL78

  • An R8C capacitive touch system:

Cap touch technology is on the minds of countless electrical engineers.

Go to www.am.renesas.com.

FREESCALE

I was pleased to see a reprint of Mark Pedley’s recent Circuit Cellar article, “eCompass” (August 2012), on display at Freescale’s booth. The article covers the topics of building and calibrating a tilt‐compensating electronic compass.

A Circuit Cellar reprint for attendees

Two of the more interesting projects were:

  • An Xtrinsic sensor demo:

Xtrinsic and e-compass

  • A Tower-based medical suitcase, which included a variety of boards: MED-BPM (a dev board for blood pressure monitor applications), MED-EKG (an aux board for EKG and heart rate monitoring applications), and more.

Tower System-based medical suitcase

STMicro

I stopped by the STMicro booth for a look at the STM32F3DISCOVERY kit, but I quickly became interested in the Dual Interface EEPROM station. It was the smartphone that caught my attention (again). Like other exhibitors, STMicro had a smartphone-related application on hand.

  • The Dual EEPROMs enable you to access memory via either  wired or RF interfaces. Energy harvesting is the new function STMicro is promoting. According to the documentation, “It also features an energy harvesting and RF status function.”

The Dual Interface EEPROM family has an RF and I2C interface

  • According to STMicro’s website, the DATALOG-M24LR-A PCB (the green board, top left) “features an M24LR64-R Dual Interface EEPROM IC connected to an STM8L101K3 8-bit microcontroller through an I2C bus on one side, and to a 20 mm x 40 mm 13.56 MHz etched RF antenna on the other one side. The STM8L101K3 is also interfaced with an STTS75 temperature sensor and a CR2330 coin cell battery.”

FUJITSU

I’m glad I spend a few moments at the Fujitsu booth. We rarely see Circuit Cellar authors using Fujitsu parts, so I wanted to see if there was something you’d find intriguing. Perhaps the following images will pique your interest in Fujitsu technologies.

The FM3 family, which features the ARM Cortext-M3 core, is worth checking out. FM3 connectivity demonstration

Connectivity demo

Check out Fujitsu’s System Memory site and document ion to see if its memory products and solutions suit your needs. Access speed comparison: FRAM vs. SRAM vs. EEPROM

Access speed comparison

The ESC conference site has details about the other exhibitors that had booths in the exhibition hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Member Profile: Richard Lord

Richard Lord is an engineer, author, and photographer whose article series on an innovative digital camera controller project will begin in the October issue of Circuit Cellar.  Lord’s Photo-Pal design is an electronic flash-trigger camera controller built around a Microchip Technology PIC16F873. It features four modes of operation: triggered shutter, triggered flash, multiple flash, and time lapse. Now you too can take sound-triggered photos.

The Photo-Pal enables Richard to take amazing photos like this and capture high-speed action.

  • Member Name: Richard H. Lord
  • Location: Durham, NH, United States
  • Education: BS Electrical Engineering 1969, MS Biomedical Engineering, 1971
  • Occupation: Retired electronics hardware design engineer
  • Member Status: Richard said he has subscribed to Circuit Cellar for at least 14 years, maybe longer.
  • Technical Interests: Richard’s interests include photography, model railroading, and microcontroller projects.
  • Most Recent Embedded Tech-Related Purchase: Richard’s most recent purchase was a Microchip Technology dsPIC30F4013 digital signal controller.
  • Current Project: Richard is working on a Microchip PIC16F886-based multipurpose front panel interface controller.
  • Thoughts on the Future of Embedded Technology: “With the ready availability of prepackaged 32-bit processor modules, it’s easy to forget there are many applications where 8-bit controllers are more appropriate”, Richard said. He continued by saying he gets a lot of enjoyment from the challenge of working within the capabilities and constraints of the smaller microcontrollers.

CC266: Microcontroller-Based Data Management

Regardless of your area of embedded design or programming expertise, you have one thing in common with every electronics designer, programmer, and engineering student across the globe: almost everything you do relates to data. Each workday, you busy yourself with acquiring data, transmitting it, repackaging it, compressing it, securing it, sharing it, storing it, analyzing it, converting it, deleting it, decoding it, quantifying it, graphing it, and more. I could go on, but I won’t. The idea is clear: manipulating and controlling data in its many forms is essential to everything you do.

The ubiquitous importance of data is what makes Circuit Cellar’s Data Acquisition issue one of the most popular each year. And since you’re always seeking innovative ways to obtain, secure, and transmit data, we consider it our duty to deliver you a wide variety of content on these topics. The September 2012 issue (Circuit Cellar 266) features both data acquisition system designs and tips relating to control and data management.

On page 18, Brian Beard explains how he planned and built a microcontroller-based environmental data logger. The system can sense and record relative light intensity, barometric pressure, relative humidity, and more.

a: This is the environmental data logger’s (EDL) circuit board. b: This is the back of the EDL.

Data acquisition has been an important theme for engineering instructor Miguel Sánchez, who since 2005 has published six articles in Circuit Cellar about projects such as a digital video recorder (Circuit Cellar 174), “teleporting” serial communications via the ’Net (Circuit Cellar 193), and a creative DIY image-processing system (Circuit Cellar 263). An informative interview with Miguel begins on page 28.

Turn to page 38 for an informative article about how to build a compact acceleration data acquisition system. Mark Csele covers everything you need to know from basic physics to system design to acceleration testing.

This is the complete portable accelerometer design. with the serial download adapter. The adapter is installed only when downloading data to a PC and mates with an eight pin connector on the PCB. The rear of the unit features three powerful
rare-earth magnets that enable it to be attached to a vehicle.

In “Hardware-Accelerated Encryption,” Patrick Schaumont describes a hardware accelerator for data encryption (p. 48). He details the advanced encryption standard (AES) and encourages you to consider working with an FPGA.

This is the embedded processor design flow with FPGA. a: A C program is compiled for a softcore CPU, which is configured in an FPGA. b: To accelerate this C program, it is partitioned into a part for the software CPU, and a part that will be implemented as a hardware accelerator. The softcore CPU is configured together with the hardware accelerator in the FPGA.

Are you now ready to start a new data acquisition project? If so, read George Novacek’s article “Project Configuration Control” (p. 58), George Martin’s article “Software & Design File Organization” (p. 62), and Jeff Bachiochi’s article “Flowcharting Made Simple” (p. 66) before hitting your workbench. You’ll find their tips on project organization, planning, and implementation useful and immediately applicable.

Lastly, on behalf of the entire Circuit Cellar/Elektor team, I congratulate the winners of the DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge. Turn to page 32 to learn about Dean Boman’s First Prize-winning energy-monitoring system, as well as the other exceptional projects that placed at the top. The complete projects (abstracts, photos, schematic, and code) for all the winning entries are posted on the DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge website.

Build a Microcontroller-Based Mail Client

Does the sheer amount of junk mail that fills your Inbox make you hate everything about e-mail? If so, it’s time to have a little fun with electronic mail by building a compact microcontroller-based mail client system. Alexander Mann designed a system that uses an Atmel ATmega32 and a Microchip Technology ENC28J60 Ethernet controller to check continuously for e-mail. When a message arrives, he can immediately read it on the system’s LCD and respond with a standard keyboard.

Mann writes:

My MiniEmail system is a compact microcontroller-based mail client (see Photo 1). The silent, easy-to-use system doesn’t require a lot of power and it is immune to mail worms. Another advantage is the system’s short start-up time. If you want to write a quick e-mail but your PC is off, you can simply switch on the miniature e-mail client and start writing without having to wait for your PC to boot up and load the necessary applications. All you need is an Ethernet connection and the MiniEmail system.

Photo 1: The complete MiniEmail system includes an LCD, a keyboard, and several connections. (A. Mann, Circuit Cellar 204)

HARDWARE

The hardware for the MiniEmail system is inexpensive. It cost me about $50. The LCD is the most expensive part. To keep things simple, I left the system’s power supply, 5- to 3.3-V conversion crystals, and latch out of Figure 1.

Figure 1: This is a block diagram of MiniEmail’s hardware. The arrows indicate the directions of data flow between the devices. The rounded boxes indicate parts that do not sit on the circuit board.

The main components are an Atmel ATmega32 microcontroller and a Microchip Technology ENC28J60 Ethernet controller. Because a mail client is a piece of complex software, you need a fast microcontroller that has a considerable amount of program space. The MiniEmail system uses almost all of the ATmega32’s features, including the SPI, internal EEPROM and SRAM, counters, USART interface, sleep modes, all 32 I/O lines, and most of the 32 KB of program memory. The ENC28J60 is a stand-alone Ethernet controller that provides basic functionality for transmitting frames over an Ethernet connection. It has 8 KB of built-in SRAM, which can be divided into transmit and receive buffers as desired, and it provides several interrupt sources (e.g., when new packets have arrived). The ATmega32 also has 128 KB of external SRAM connected as well as an LCD, which is a standard module with a resolution of 128 × 64 pixels.

Take a look at the ATmega32’s pin connections in Figure 2. Ports A and C are used as 8-bit-wide general I/O ports, one of which is latched using an NXP Semiconductors 74HC573.

Figure 2: Here’s the complete schematic for the MiniEmail. The LF1S022 is the RJ-45 connector for the Ethernet connection.

The two ports provide data connections to the LCD and SRAM (U3). For the SRAM, you need three additional wires: write (*RAM_WR), read strobe (*RAM_RD), and the seventeenth bit of the address (ADDR16). The LCD connector (CON1) uses five additional wires (for the signals CS1, CS2, DI, EN, and RW). CS1 and CS2 are taken from the general I/O port A (DATA6 and DATA7) and determine which of the two halves of the LCD is selected (i.e., the two controllers on the LCD module you are talking to). RW (where you can use ADDR16 again) sets the direction of the LCD access (read or write). DI describes the type of instruction sent to the LCD. EN is the enable signal for read and write cycles. For the keyboard, you need only two pins: KEY_DATA and KEY_CLOCK. The clock signal must be connected to an external interrupt pin, INT1. One additional wire is needed to switch the latch (LE).

You are left with eight I/O pins on the ATmega32’s ports B and D. RXD and TXD are connected to a MAX232, an RS-232 level converter that also provides the negative supply voltage needed for the LCD (LCD_VOUT in Figure 2). The ATmega32’s USART functionality is used as a debugging interface. It isn’t needed for normal operation.

SOFTWARE

The firmware for this project is posted on the Circuit Cellar FTP site. I wrote the firmware in C language with a few small parts of inline assembler. I used the open-source software suite WinAVR, which includes the GNU GCC compiler with special libraries for AVR devices and avrdude, a tool for the in-system programming of AVR microcontrollers…

USER INTERFACE

The user interface consists of three control elements: menus, edit fields, and an elaborate text editor. A special screen (the Mail Menu) enables you to quickly browse through your mailbox. After power-up, the system displays a greeting message. After a short while, the Main menu appears (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: This is a screenshot of MiniEmail’s main menu. In the upper-right corner, a clock shows the current time, which is retrieved from the Internet. An arrow to the left of the menu items indicates the selected item. (A. Mann, Circuit Cellar 204)

The Compose Mail, Check Mailbox, and Configuration submenus form a hierarchical menu structure. When the other items listed beneath the respective menu titles in the diagram are activated (e.g., start the text editor), they enable you to input data, such as a username and password, or retrieve mail from the mail server. “Standby” is the only action that is accessible directly from the main menu. All other actions are grouped by function in the submenus.

WRITING MAIL

With respect to the firmware, sending mail is much easier than reading it, so let’s first focus on the Compose Mail menu. The first item in the menu starts the text editor so you can enter the body of your letter. You then enter the recipient’s mailing address and the subject of your e-mail, just like you would do when sending e-mail from your PC. Additional fields, such as CC or BCC are not included, but since this requires only one more line in the header of the mail, it is not difficult. Your e-mail also needs a reply address, so the recipient knows who sent the mail. The reply address is normally the same for all of the messages you write. The text you enter in this edit field is stored in the ATmega32’s EEPROM, so you don’t have to type it every time you write a letter. After you select the last menu item, “Send” initiates the dispatch of the mail and displays a message that indicates whether or not it was successful.

CHECKING FOR MAIL

What makes this part more sophisticated is the ability to handle not only one e-mail at a time, but also fetch mail from the server. The system can determine which messages are new and which messages have been read. It can also extract data such as the sender, subject, or sent date from the header of the mail and then display the information.

The amount of mail the firmware can handle is limited by the size of the external SRAM. The maximum number of e-mails is currently 1,024. (If you’ve got more mail, you will be so busy answering it that you won’t have time to build your own MiniEmail client—or you should delete some old mail). Note that 1,024 is the number of unique identifiers that the system can remember. The server assigns a unique identifier to each piece of mail. The system uses the identifiers to keep track of which letters are new on the server, which have already been read, and which have been marked for deletion.

All of the header data for all of the 1,024 messages cannot be held in SRAM at once; only the most recent (about 50) mail headers are held. When you want to browse through older e-mails, the firmware automatically reconnects to the server and fetches the headers of the next 50 e-mails.

When you select Check Mailbox in the main menu, you get to a submenu where you can retrieve and read mail. Before you can collect your mail, you must enter your username and password, which can be stored in EEPROM for your convenience. The firmware then retrieves the headers and displays the Mail Menu, where you can browse through your e-mail. Apart from the size and the date, the first 42 characters of the subject and the mail sender are shown. In the first row, additional icons indicate (from left to right) whether a message is new, has been marked for deletion, or has been read. You can view the content of the selected message by pressing Return. When the mail is fetched from the server, it is prepared for viewing. The header and HTML tags, as well as long runs of the same character, are stripped from the mail and base64 decoding (used to encode 8-bit characters) is performed, so the content of the message is as readable as plain text. Binary attachments (e.g., images) can’t be handled. Following this, the mail is viewed in the text editor (with editing disabled).

A similar action is performed when you press “r” in the Mail Menu. In that case, you can edit the text so you can add your reply. Leaving the text editor will bring you back to the Send Mail menu, where the reply address and subject will be filled in so your mail will be clear for take-off. To delete a message, simply press D to mark it for deletion….

OUTLOOK

I hadn’t imagined how many details would need to be considered when I started this project more than a year ago. It has been a very interesting and challenging project. It has also been a lot of fun.

The MiniEmail system provides all of the basics for communicating via email, but such a project is never really finished. There are still dozens of items on my to-do list. Fortunately, the ATmega32 can be replaced with a new member of the AVR family, the Atmel ATmega644, which is pin-compatible to the ATmega32 and has twice the flash memory (and internal SRAM). That will provide enough space for many of my new ideas. I want to get rid of the static IP address, add CC and BCC fields, use a bigger display or a smaller (variable-width) font, improve the filtering and display of mail content and attachments, and add an address book (it would be best in combination with an additional external EEPROM with an SPI, such as the AT25256).

This project proves, rather impressively, that the ATmega32 and the ENC28J60 are a powerful combination. They can be used for many useful Internet applications. My e-mail client system is surely one of the most exciting. I can think of many other interesting possibilities. At the moment, my MiniEmail assembly serves as an online thermometer so I can check my room’s temperature from anywhere in the world…

Mann’s entire article appears in Circuit Cellar 204, 2007. Type “miniemailopen”  to access the password-protected article.

Q&A: Guido Ottaviani (Roboticist, Author)

Guido Ottaviani designs and creates innovative microcontroller-based robot systems in the city from which remarkable innovations in science and art have originated for centuries.

Guido Ottaviani

By day, the Rome-based designer is a technical manager for a large Italian editorial group. In his spare time he designs robots and interacts with various other “electronics addicts.” In an a candid interview published in Circuit Cellar 265 (August 2012), Guido described his fascination with robotics, his preferred microcontrollers, and some of his favorite design projects. Below is an abridged version of the interview.

NAN PRICE: What was the first MCU you worked with? Where were you at the time? Tell us about the project and what you learned.

GUIDO OTTAVIANI: The very first one was not technically an MCU, that was too early. It was in the mid 1980s. I worked on an 8085 CPU-based board with a lot of peripherals, clocked at 470 kHz (less than half a megahertz!) used for a radio set control panel. I was an analog circuits designer in a big electronics company, and I had started studying digital electronics on my own on a Bugbook series of self-instruction books, which were very expensive at that time. When the company needed an assembly programmer to work on this board, I said, “Don’t worry, I know the 8085 CPU very well.” Of course this was not true, but they never complained, because that job was done well and within the scheduled time.

I learned a lot about how to optimize CPU cycles on a slow processor. The program had very little time to switch off the receiver to avoid destroying it before the powerful transmitter started.

Flow charts on paper, a Motorola developing system with the program saved on an 8” floppy disk, a very primitive character-based editor, the program burned on an external EPROM and erased with a UV lamp. That was the environment! When, 20 years later, I started again with embedded programming for my hobby, using Microchip Technology’s MPLAB IDE (maybe still version 6.xx) and a Microchip Technology PIC16F84, it looked like paradise to me, even if I had to relearn almost everything.

But, what I’ve learned about code optimization—both for speed and size—is still useful even when I program the many resources on the dsPIC33F series…

NAN: You worked in the field of analog and digital development for several years. Tell us a bit about your background and experiences.

GUIDO: Let me talk about my first day of work, exactly 31 years ago.

Being a radio amateur and electronics fan, I went often to the surplus stores to find some useful components and devices, or just to touch the wonderful receivers or instruments: Bird wattmeters, Collins or Racal receivers, BC 312, BC 603 or BC 1000 military receivers and everything else on the shelves.

The first day of work in the laboratory they told to me, “Start learning that instrument.” It was a Hewlett-Packard spectrum analyzer (maybe an HP85-something) that cost more than 10 times my annual gross salary at that time. I still remember the excitement of being able to touch it, for that day and the following days. Working in a company full of these kinds of instruments (the building even had a repair and calibration laboratory with HP employees), with more than a thousand engineers who knew everything from DC to microwaves to learn from, was like living in Eden. The salary was a secondary issue (at that time).

I worked on audio and RF circuits in the HF to UHF bands: active antennas, radiogoniometers, first tests on frequency hopping and spread spectrum, and a first sample of a Motorola 68000-based GPS as big as a microwave oven.

Each instrument had an HPIB (or GPIB or IEEE488) interface to the computer. So I started approaching this new (for me) world of programming an HP9845 computer (with a cost equivalent to 5 years of my salary then) to build up automatic test sets for the circuits I developed. I was very satisfied when I was able to obtain a 10-Hz frequency hopping by a Takeda-Riken frequency synthesizer. It was not easy with such a slow computer, BASIC language, and a bus with long latencies. I had to buffer each string of commands in an array and use some special pre-caching features of the HPIB interface I found in the manual.

Every circuit, even if it was analog, was interfaced with digital ports. The boards were full of SN74xx (or SN54xx) ICs, just to make some simple functions as switching, multiplexing, or similar. Here again, my lack of knowledge was filled with the “long history experience” on Bugbook series.

Well, audio, RF, programming, communications, interfacing, digital circuits. What was I still missing to have a good background for the next-coming hobby of robotics? Ah! Embedded programming. But I’ve already mentioned this experience.

After all these design jobs, because my knowledge started spreading on many different projects, it was natural to start working as a system engineer, taking care of all the aspects of a complex system, including project management.

NAN: You have a long-time interest in robotics and autonomous robot design. When did you first become interested in robots and why?

GUIDO: I’ve loved the very simple robots in the toy store windows since I was young, the same I have on my website (Pino and Nino). But they were too simple. Just making something a little bit more sophisticated required too much electronics at that time.

After a big gap in my electronics activity, I discovered a newly published robotic magazine, with an electronic parts supplement. This enabled me to build a programmable robot based on a Microchip PIC16F84. A new adventure started. I felt much younger. Suddenly, all the electronics-specialized neurons inside my brain, after being asleep for many years, woke up and started running again. Thanks to the Internet (not yet available when I left professional electronics design), I discovered a lot of new things: MCUs, free IDEs running even on a simple computer, free compilers, very cheap programming devices, and lots of documentation freely available. I threw away the last Texas Instruments databook I still had on my bookshelf and started studying again. There were a lot of new things to know, but, with a good background, it was a pleasant (if frantic) study. I’ve also bought some books, but they became old before I finished reading them.

Within a few months, jumping among all the hardware and software versions Microchip released at an astonishing rate, I found Johann Borenstein et al’s book Where Am I?: Systems and Methods for Mobile Robot Positioning (University of Michigan, 1996). This report and Borenstein’s website taught me a lot about autonomous navigation techniques. David P. Anderson’s “My Robots” webpage (www.geology.smu.edu/~dpa-www/myrobots.html) inspired all my robots, completed or forthcoming.

I’ve never wanted to make a remote-controlled car, so my robots must navigate autonomously in an unknown environment, reacting to the external stimuli. …

NAN: Robotics is a focal theme in many of the articles you have contributed to Circuit Cellar. One of your article series, “Robot Navigation and Control” (224–225, 2009), was about a navigation control subsystem you built for an autonomous differential steering explorer robot. The first part focused on the robotic platform that drives motors and controls an H-bridge. You then described the software development phase of the project. Is the project still in use? Have you made any updates to it?

The “dsNavCon” system features a Microchip Technology dsPIC30F4012 motor controller and a general-purpose dsPIC30F3013. (Source: G. Ottaviani, CC224)

GUIDO: After I wrote that article series, that project evolved until the beginning of this year. There is a new switched power supply, a new audio sensor, the latest version of dsNav dsPIC33-based board became commercially available online, some mechanical changing, improvements on telemetry console, a lot of modifications in the firmware, and the UMBmark calibration performed successfully.

The goal is reached. That robot was a lab to experiment sensors, solutions, and technologies. Now I’m ready for a further step: outdoors.

NAN: You wrote another robotics-related article in 2010 titled, “A Sensor System for Robotics Applications” (Circuit Cellar 236). Here you describe adding senses—sight, hearing, and touch—to a robotics design. Tell us about the design, which is built around an Arduino Diecimila board. How does the board factor into the design?

An Arduino-based robot platform (Source: G. Ottavini, CC236)

GUIDO: That was the first time I used an Arduino. I’ve always used PICs, and I wanted to test this well-known board. In that case, I needed to interface many I2C, analog sensors, and an I2C I/O expander. I didn’t want to waste time configuring peripherals. All the sensors had 5-V I/O. The computing time constraints were not so strict. Arduino fits perfectly into all of these prerequisites. The learning curve was very fast. There was already a library of every device I’ve used. There was no need for a voltage level translation between 3.3 and 5 V. Everything was easy, fast, and cheap. Why not use it for these kinds of projects?

NAN: You designed an audio sensor for a Rino robotic platform (“Sound Tone Detection with a PSoC Part 1 and Part 2,” Circuit Cellar 256–257, 2011). Why did you design the system? Did you design it for use at work or home? Give us some examples of how you’ve used the sensor.

GUIDO: I already had a sound board based on classic op-amp ICs. I discovered the PSoC devices in a robotic meeting. At that moment, there was a special offer for the PSoC1 programmer and, incidentally, it was close to my birthday. What a perfect gift from my relatives!

This was another excuse to study a completely different programmable device and add something new to my background. The learning curve was not as easy as the Arduino one. It is really different because… it does a very different job. The new PSoC-based audio board was smaller, simpler, and with many more features than the previous one. The original project was designed to detect a fixed 4-kHz tone, but now it is easy to change the central frequency, the band, and the behavior of the board. This confirms once more, if needed, that nowadays, this kind of professional design is also available to hobbyists. …

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

GUIDO: As often happens, the “big thing” is one of the smallest ones. Many manufacturers are working on micro-nano-pico watt devices. I’ve done a little but not very extreme experimenting with my Pendulum project. Using the sleeping features of a simple PIC10F22P with some care, I’ve maintained the pendulum’s oscillation bob for a year with a couple of AAA batteries and it is still oscillating behind me right now.

Because of this kind of MCU, we can start seriously thinking about energy harvesting. We can get energy from light, heat, any kind of RF, movement or whatever, to have a self-powered, autonomous device. Thanks to smartphones, PDAs, tablets, and other portable devices, the MEMS sensors have become smaller and less expensive.

In my opinion, all this technology—together with supercapacitors, solid-state batteries or similar—will spread many small devices everywhere to monitor everything.

The entire interview is published in Circuit Cellar 265 (August 2012).

DIY, Microcontroller-Based Battery Monitor for RC Aircraft

I’ve had good cause to be reading and perusing a few old Circuit Cellar articles every day for the past several weeks. We’re preparing the upcoming 25th anniversary issue of Circuit Cellar, and part of the process is reviewing the company’s archives back to the first issue. As I read through Circuit Cellar 143 (2002) the other day I thought, why wait until the end of the year to expose our readers to such intriguing articles? Since joining Elektor International Media in 2009, thousands of engineers and students across the globe have become familiar with our magazine, and most of them are unfamiliar with the early articles. It was in those articles that engineers set the foundation for the development of today’s embedded technologies.

Over the next few months, I will highlight some past articles here on CircuitCellar.com as well as in our print magazine. I encourage long-time readers to revisit these articles and projects and reflect on their past and present use values. Newer readers should not regard them as simply historical documents detailing outdated technologies. Not only did the technologies covered lead to the high-level engineering you do today, many of those technologies are still in use.

The article below is about Thomas Black’s “BatMon” battery monitor for RC applications (Circuit Cellar 143, 2002). I am leading with it simply because it was one of the first I worked on.

For years, hobbyists have relied on voltmeters and guesswork to monitor the storage capacity of battery packs for RC models. Black’s precise high-tech battery monitor is small enough to be mounted in the cockpit of an RC model helicopter. Black writes:

I hate to see folks suffer with old-fashioned remedies. After three decades of such anguish, I decided that enough is enough. So what am I talking about? Well, my focus for today’s pain relief is related to monitoring the battery packs used in RC models. The cure comes as BatMon, the sophisticated battery monitoring accessory shown in Photo 1.

Photo 1: The BatMon is small enough to fit in most RC models. The three cables plug into the model’s RC system. A bright LED remotely warns the pilot of battery trouble. The single character display reports the remaining capacity of the battery.

Today, electric model hobbyists use the digital watt-meter devices, but they are designed to monitor the heavy currents consumed by electric motors. I wanted finer resolution so I could use it with my RC receiver and servos. With that in mind, a couple of years ago, I convinced my firm that we should tackle this challenge…My solution evolved into the BatMon, a standalone device that can mount in each model aircraft (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Installation in an RC model is as simple as plugging in three cables. Multiple point measurements allow the system to detect battery-related trouble. Voltage detection at the RC receiver even helps detect stalled servos and electrical issues.

This is not your typical larger-than-life Gotham City solution. It’s only 1.3″ × 2.8″ and weighs one ounce. But the BatMon does have the typical dual persona expected of a super hero. For user simplicity, it reports battery capacity as a zero to nine (0% to 90%) level value. This is my favorite mode because it works just like a car’s gas gauge. However, for those of you who must see hard numbers, it also reports the actual remaining capacity—up to 2500 mAH—with 5% accuracy. In addition, it reports problems associated with battery pack failures, bad on/off switches, and defective servos. A super-bright LED indicator flashes if any trouble is detected. Even in moderate sunlight this visual indicator can be seen from a couple hundred feet away, which is perfect for fly-by checks. The BatMon is compatible with all of the popular battery sizes. Pack capacities from 100 mAH to 2500 mAH can be used. They can be either four-cell or five-cell of either NiCD or NiMH chemistries. The battery parameters are programmed by using a push button and simple menu interface. The battery gauging IC that I used is from Dallas Semiconductor (now Maxim). There are other firms that have similar parts (Unitrode, TI, etc.), but the Dallas DS2438 Smart Battery Monitor was a perfect choice for my RC application (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: A battery fuel gauging IC and a microcontroller are combined to accurately measure the current consumption of an RC system. The singlecharacter LCD is used to display battery data and status messages.

This eight-pin coulomb counting chip contains an A/D-based current accumulator, A/D voltage convertor, and a slew of other features that are needed to get the job done. The famous Dallas one-wire I/O method provides an efficient interface to a PIC16C63 microcontroller…In the BatMon, the one-wire bus begins at pin 6 (port RA4) of the PIC16C63 microcontroller and terminates at the DS2438’s DQ I/O line (pin 8). Using bit-banging I/O, the PIC can read and write the necessary registers. The timing is critical, but the PIC is capable of handling the chore…The BatMon is not a good candidate for perfboard construction. A big issue is that RC models present a harsh operating environment. Vibration and less than pleasant landings demand that you use rugged electronic assembly techniques. My vote is that you design a circuit board for it. It is not a complicated circuit, so with the help of a freeware PCB program you should be on your way…The connections to the battery pack and receiver are made with standard RC hobby servo connectors. They are available at most RC hobby shops. You will need a 22-AWG, two-conductor female cable for the battery (J1), a 22-AWG, two-conductor male for the RC switch (J2), and a three-conductor (any AWG) for the Aux In (J3) connector…The finished unit is mounted in the model’s cockpit using double-sided tape or held with rubber bands (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: Here's how the battery monitor looks installed in the RC model helicopter’s cockpit. You can use the BatMon on RC airplanes, cars, and boats too. Or, you could adapt the design for battery monitoring applications that aren’t RC-related.

Thomas Black designs and supports high-tech devices for the consumer and industrial markets. He is currently involved in telecom test products. During his free time, he can be found flying his RC models. Sometimes he attempts to improve his models by creating odd electronic designs, most of which are greeted by puzzled amusement from his flying pals.

The complete article is now available.

Microcontroller-Based Digital Thermometer Display

With the proper microcontroller, a digital temperature sensor, an SD memory card, and a little know-how, you can build a custom outdoor digital thermometer display. Tommy Tyler’s article in the July issue of Circuit Cellar explains how he built such a system. He carefully details the hardware, firmware, and construction process.

The following is an abridged version of Tyler’s project article. (The complete article appears in Circuit Cellar 264.)

Build an MCU-Based Digital Thermometer

by Tommy Tyler

Wondering what to do with your unused digital photo frame? With a little effort, a tiny circuit board assembly can be installed in the frame to transform the colorful thin film transistor (TFT) screen into the “ultimate” outdoor thermometer display (see Photo 1). Imagine a thermometer with real numeric digits (not seven-segment stick figures) large enough to be read from 40¢ to 50¢ away under any lighting conditions. Combine that with a glare-free, high-contrast screen, wide viewing angles, and an accuracy of ±0.5°F without calibration, and you have a wonderful thermometer that is more a work of art than an instrument, and can be customized and proudly displayed.

Almost any size and brand digital photo frame can be used, although one with 4.5″ or 7″ (diagonal) screen size is ideal for 2″-high digits. If you don’t have a discarded frame to use, some bargains are available for less than $30, if you look for them. Search online for overstocked, refurbished, or open-box units. The modifications are easy. Just drill a few holes and solder a few wires. The postage-stamp size PCB is designed with surface-mount components, so it’s small enough to tuck inside the frame. None of the modifications prevent you from using the frame as it was originally intended, to display photographs.

Photo 1: A TFT screen is easily transformed into an outdoor thermometer with the addition of a small circuit board.

PHOTO FRAME DISPLAY

Although digital photo frames vary in details and features, their basic functions are similar. Nearly all of them can store pictures in external memory, usually a small SD card like those used in digital cameras. Most have a half dozen or so push-button switches that control how the frame operates and select what is being displayed. There’s usually a Menu button, an Enter or Select button, and several cursor buttons for navigating through on-screen menus.

Photo frames feature a slideshow viewing mode that automatically steps through pictures in sequence. You can set the time each picture is displayed to your preference. You can also turn off the timer and have a manual, single-step slideshow mode where a selected picture is continuously displayed until another is selected with a button press. That’s the mode of operation used for the thermometer, and it is key to its accuracy.

The photo frame is loaded with images showing every possible temperature, in precise ascending order. Following power-up, the frame enters Slideshow mode displaying the first image in memory, which provides a known starting point. Based on repeated temperature measurements, the frame keeps incrementing or decrementing the image, 1° at a time, until the display matches the true temperature. After this initial synchronization, the display is simply incremented or decremented whenever the temperature rises or falls by 1° or more.

The frame responds so reliably, the display never gets out of sync with the true temperature. Following a power interruption, the thermometer automatically resynchronizes itself. In fact, for an interesting and reassuring demonstration at any time, just momentarily turn off power. Synchronization might take a minute or so due to the system’s response time, but that’s not considered a problem because presumably power interruptions will be infrequent.

CIRCUIT DESCRIPTION

Figure1 shows a schematic of the thermometer. A Microchip Technology PIC18F14K22 microprocessor U1 periodically polls U3, a factory-calibrated “smart” temperature sensor that transmits the digital value of the current temperature via I/O pin RC5. PIC output pins RC4 and RC3 drive sections of U2, a Texas Instruments TS3A4751 quad SPST analog switch with extremely low on-state resistance. Two of these solid-state switches are wired in parallel with the mechanical switches in the frame that increment and decrement the displayed temperature. RC6 provides an auxiliary output in case you are working with a rare photo frame that requires a third switch be actuated to enter Slideshow mode…

Figure 1: This schematic of the thermometer shows a portion of the Coby DP700 photo frame with a voltage comparator input that responds to different voltage levels from its >and< switches.

Figure 1 includes a portion of the Coby DP700 schematic showing such an arrangement. Switches SW3 (>) and SW4 (<) share input Pin 110 of the frame processor chip (U100). SW3 pulls the voltage down to about 1.5 V to increment the display, and SW4 pulls it all the way down to 0 V to decrement it. If you can gain access to the solder terminals of these switches, you can build this project. Using a solid-state analog switch for U2 enables the PIC control board to work with virtually any model photo frame, without having to worry about voltage, polarity, or switch circuit configuration.

PIC output RB7 continually transmits a running narrative of everything the thermometer is doing. Transistor Q1 provides a standard RS-232 serial output at 38400 bps, no parity, and two Stop bits using the DTR pin for pull-up voltage. This is mainly for testing, troubleshooting, or possibly experimenting with firmware changes. The board also includes a standard in-circuit serial programming (ICSP) interface for programming the PIC with a Microchip PICkit2 development programmer/debugger or similar programming tool.

Photo2 shows the thermometer circuit board assembly…

Photo 2: The thermometer circuit board assembly. The five-pin header is a direct plug-in for a Microchip PICkit2 programmer. The three-pin header is the diagnostic serial output.

WHAT’S UNDER THE HOOD?

I used a Coby DP700 photo frame as an example for the project because it is widely available, easy to modify, and has excellent quality for a low price. Figure 2 shows the basic components of this frame…

Figure 2: The Colby DP700 photo frame’s basic components

The ribbon cable is long enough to enable the display to swing open about 90°, but not much more. That makes it awkward to hold it open while making wiring connections, unless you have more hands than I do. One solution is to use a holding fixture made from a scrap of lumber to protect the ribbon cable from stress or damage during modification and testing.

Cut a piece of ordinary 1″ × 4″ pine board exactly 7.5″ long. Chamfer opposite ends of the board at the bottom on one side, and cut a notch in the center of that edge (see Photo 3a). Loosen the bezel and slide it up just far enough so that you can insert the board into the rear enclosure near the bottom, below the lower edge of the bezel (see Photo 3b).

Photo 3a: The lower edge of a pine board is notched and chamfered. b: The board is attached to the rear enclosure near the bottom, below the lower edge of the bezel.

The board’s chamfered corners should clear the inside radius of the rear enclosure. Temporarily tape the bezel and rear enclosure together while you fasten the board in place with two of the four bezel screws. Leave the board installed until you have completed the entire project, including all testing.

When you need to access the main circuit board to solder wires and install the PIC board, swing the bezel and display perpendicular to the rear enclosure like an open book and secure it firmly to the fixture board with masking tape (see Photo 4a). Later, during set up and testing when you need to see the screen, swing the bezel and display back down and secure them to the rear enclosure with masking tape (see Photo 4b).

Photo 4a: The bezel and display are firmly secured to the fixture board with masking tape. b: During setup and testing the bezel and display can be swung down and secured to the rear enclosure with masking tape.

MECHANICAL MODIFICATIONS

The only mechanical modification is adding a 3.5-mm stereo jack to connect the remote temperature sensor. You may be able to drill a 0.25″ hole in the frame and attach the jack with its knurled ring nut. But sometimes the stereo plug sticks out in a way that spoils the appearance of the frame or interferes with mounting it on a wall. Here’s a way to install the jack that keeps it and the sensor cable flat against the rear of the frame and out of sight.

Cut a piece of perforated project board 0.6″ × 0.7″ and enlarge the three to five holes that line up with the terminals on the side of the jack with a 3/32″ drill (see Figure3). The perforated board acts as a spacer for the stereo plug when cemented to the enclosure.

Figure 3: The perforated board spaces the jack away from the rear enclosure to clear the stereo plug.

Before attaching anything to the perforated board, use it as a guide to drill matching terminal holes through the rear enclosure. Select a position low and to the right in the recessed area so it clears the power connector but does not extend below the lower edge of the rear enclosure (see Photo 5)…

Photo 5: Use the perforated board as a drilling guide

FINAL WIRING

Referring to the wiring diagram in Photo 6, first prep the main PCB by attaching six insulated wires about 8″ to 10″ long, one wire to 3.3 V, one wire to ground, two wires to SW4, and two wires to SW3.

Photo 6: Wiring diagram

Solder all nine wires to the PIC board—six from the main PCB and three from the stereo jack. Trim the excess wire length so the PIC board will lie easily in the empty space beside the main PCB. Route the wires so they won’t get pinched when the bezel and display are replaced. Use masking tape to hold everything in place and keep the PIC board from shorting out.

THE WEATHER-PROOF SENSOR

The Microchip DS18S20 digital temperature sensor is a three-lead package the same size as a TO-92 transistor (see Figure 4)…

Insulating short spliced leads with sleeving is always a problem because the sleeving gets in the way of soldering. One way to keep the probe small and strong is to drip a little fast-set epoxy on the soldered leads, after ensuring they aren’t touching, and rotate the unit slowly for a couple of minutes until the epoxy stops running and begins to harden. Weatherproof the entire assembly with an inch or so of 0.25″ heat-shrink tubing.

LOADING IMAGES INTO MEMORY

Some photo frames don’t have internal memory, so I used a plug-in SD memory card for the temperature images. That also makes it easy to change the appearance of the display whenever you want. Any capacity card you can find is more than adequate, since the images average only about 25 KB each and 141 of them is less than 5 MB. A good source for generic 32-MB SD cards is OEMPCWorld. Their SD cards cost less than $4 each, including free shipping via U.S. Postal Service first-class mail. Just search their site for “32-MB SD card.”

A download package is available with images in 16 × 9 format showing temperature over the range from –20 to 120°F in numerals about 2″ high. The 16 × 9 images will naturally fit the Coby screen and most other brands. There’s also a set of 4 × 3 images for frames with that format. Actually, either size will work in any frame. If you use 4 × 3 images in the 16 × 9 Coby with Show Type set up as Fit Screen, there will be bars on the sides. But if it is set up as Full Screen, the images will expand to eliminate the bars, and the numerals will be about 2-5/8” high.

The download filenames have a sequential numeric prefix from 100 to 240, so Windows will list them in order before you copy them to the SD card. Notice that the sequence of images is as follows: 70°, 71°, 72°…119°, 120°, –20°, –19°, –18°…–2°, –1°, 0°, 1°, 2°…67°, 68°, 69°. The first image is not the lowest temperature. That’s so synchronization can start from 70° instead of all the way from –20°. You can split the temperature range like this as long as there are no extraneous pictures on the SD card, because the frame treats the SD card, in effect, as an endless circular memory, wrapping around from the highest to lowest image when incrementing, and from lowest to highest when decrementing…

SETUP & FINAL TEST

It’s always best to make sure frame power is disconnected before plugging or unplugging the temperature sensor. Position the frame so that the screen is visible. Plug in the sensor and SD card, then connect power to the frame. After a few seconds, what you see on the screen will depend on how the frame was last used and set up. It may start showing pictures from internal memory, or it may start showing temperature images from the SD card. In either case, the pictures will probably start changing rapidly for a while because the frame thinks it is synchronizing its initial display to the temperature of the sensor. You can’t use on-screen menus to check the setup of the frame while it is flipping through all those pictures, so you must wait. After a couple minutes, when things settle down and the display stops rapidly changing, press Menu to bring up the main menu. Use the left or right arrow buttons to select the Set Up sub menu, then use the Enter, Left, Right, Up, and Down buttons to set up the following parameters: Interval Time = Off, Transition Effect = No Effect, Show Type = Fit Screen, Magic Slideshow = Off…

After completing all the setup adjustments, momentarily disconnect power from the frame and confirm that it properly powers up. The Coby logo should appear for a few seconds, followed by the first image in memory, the starting temperature of 70°F. About 12 s later, the display should start changing in 1° steps until it gets to the current temperature of the sensor. Warm the sensor with your hand to ensure the sensor is responding.

This is a good time to demonstrate an error indicator designed into the thermometer to alert you if the PIC can’t communicate with the temperature sensor. Disconnect power and unplug the sensor, then restore power with the sensor disconnected. The display will start at 70°F as before, but this time it will keep incrementing until it reaches 99°F, where it will stop. So if you ever notice the display stuck on 99° when you know it’s not that hot outside, check to see if the sensor is unplugged or damaged.

If everything seems to be working properly, you can skip the following section on troubleshooting. Close the frame and start thinking about how and where you will install it…

ABOUT THE FIRMWARE

Credit for design of the PIC firmware goes to Kevin R. Timmerman—a talented freelance software design engineer, and owner of the Compendium Arcana website—who collaborated with me on this project. Kevin’s backyard in Michigan, as well as mine in Colorado, were the beta-test sites for the design.

A firmware download includes the temperature.hex file needed for programming the PIC, as well as the following source files in case you want to make changes:

inverted_main.c

one_wire.c

fuses_14k22.c

one_wire.h

stdint.h

The file named one_wire.c deals exclusively with sending and receiving messages to/from the temperature sensor. If you use a photo frame other than the Coby DP700 that has some special requirements, the only file you might need to modify is inverted_main.c. The firmware is available on the Circuit Cellar FTP site.

UNLIMITED OPTIONS

When you finish the project, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you probably have the most accurate thermometer in the neighborhood—providing you take reasonable precautions in locating the sensor. Don’t place it in sunlight or near heat sources (i.e., vents or ducts). Even placing it too close to a poorly insulated wall, roof, or window can affect its accuracy. There are articles online about the best places to install outdoor thermometers.

Even after you have completed your modifications to the frame and closed it back up, there are endless ways to customize the project to your taste…

For those living overseas or accustomed to expressing temperature in Centigrade, the download includes an alternate set of images covering the range from –28.9°C to 48.9°C. Images such as 70°F, 71°F, 72°F, and so forth are replaced with their Centigrade equivalents 21.1°C, 21.7°C, 22.2°C, and so forth. The thermometer control can’t tell the difference. It goes on incrementing and decrementing images as if it were displaying the temperature in Fahrenheit. By showing temperature in tenths of Centigrade degrees, the thermometer accuracy is unchanged. The temperature sensor is inherently a Centigrade device, and one could modify the PIC firmware to use the reported temperature in degrees C without ever converting it to degrees Fahrenheit. But this method is a lot easier, and enables you to change between Centigrade and Fahrenheit by just swapping the SD card…

Tommy Tyler graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He retired after a career spanning more than 40 years managing the product design of industrial instrumentation, medical electronics, consumer electronics, and embedded robotic material transport systems. Tommy earned 17 patents from 1960 to 1995. His current hobbies are electronics, technical writing and illustration, and music. Tommy is a contributing expert to the JP1 Forum on infrared remote control technology.

SOURCES

DP700 Digital photo frame

Coby Electronics Corp. | www.cobyusa.com

PIC18F14K22 Microprocessor, DS18S20 digital temperature sensor, and PICkit2 development programmer/debugger

Microchip Technology, Inc. | www.microchip.com

TS3A4751 quad SPST Analog switch

Texas Instruments, Inc. | www.ti.com

The project files (firmware and images) are available on Circuit Cellar’s FTP site. The complete article appears in Circuit Cellar 264.

MCU-Based “PHOTO-PAL” Camera Controller

A while back, I designed a camera and flash control device that will be the subject of a future Circuit Cellar magazine article.  This device, which I affectionately call Photo-Pal, allows me to use sound (or a contact closure) to trigger a high-speed electronic flash after a user specified delay. The device consists of a microphone amplifier, a Microchip Technology PIC16F873A microcontroller, a 2 × 16 character LCD, and six pushbuttons for the user interface. Delay from sound trigger input to flash trigger output can be adjusted from 1 to 59,999 ms.

The Photo-Pal design (Source: R. Lord)

The high-speed photos are taken in complete darkness with the flash as the only light source for the photo.  The Photo-Pal device also controls the camera shutter. Once the room lights have been turned off, an “arm” push button input causes Photo-Pal to remotely press the camera shutter button, causing the camera shutter to open. The sound trigger input is also enabled. The triggering sound then starts a delay countdown, which then triggers the flash output. Once the flash has fired, the Photo-Pal then releases the camera shutter. 

For the last several months, I have been experimenting with using Photo-Pal to freeze the action of a light bulb being shattered by a hammer, water droplets rebounding from a surface, and eggs being shattered by a pellet from a BB gun.

The BB gun timing setup (Source: R. Lord)

 

For the photos using the BB gun to smash an egg, I needed to make a cradle to hold the gun so that each shot would be aimed at the same location. I also needed to establish how long it took for the pellet to reach the egg.

An egg hit by a BB (Source: R. Lord)

To make the measurement, I bolted three sheets of plastic together and drilled a large “target” hole. I then sandwiched two sheets of aluminum foil between the three sheets of plastic so that the two foil layers were separated. The microphone for the Photo-Pal was attached to the cradle so that it would be triggered when the BB gun was fired. My oscilloscope was triggered by the Photo-Pal flash output with delay set at 0, and the interval was measured between the time of the trigger output and the moment when the two sheets of aluminum foil were shorted together by the pellet passing through them. With the target set 4 feet from the muzzle of the BB gun, this time interval was measured to be 25 ms. For the egg photographs, I added another 20 ms to the delay so that the flash would catch the egg in mid-burst, after it had started to fly apart. The 45-ms delay was then programmed into Photo-Pal for the photos.

Egg smashed and sound-triggered flash (Source: R. Lord)

 

The Photo-Pal device has several other modes of operation where it can produce a burst of flash outputs for a stroboscopic effect, or can activate the camera’s shutter from sound or at periodic intervals for time lapse photographs. As you can see, the Photo-Pal device is a useful photography tool that also can be a lot of fun to play with.

Richard Lord holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and an M.S. in Biomedical Engineering. During his career, he has designed digital electronics for an aerospace company and several telecommunication test equipment manufacturers. Working as a consultant in the 1980s, Richard designed several medical pulmonary test instruments and the electronics for an autonomous underwater robot. His 2011 article “Panning Control: A Digital Indexing Panoramic Tripod Head” appeared in Circuit Cellar 248.

Editor’s note: Do you have an article or tutorial you’d Circuit Cellar to consider for publication? Do you want to share photos of your personal electronics workspace, hackspace, or “circuit cellar”? Click here to submit your proposal. Write “Submission” or “Proposal” in the subject line of your email.

DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge 2012 Winners Named

The results for the DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge are now final. Dean Boman won First Prize for his chipKIT-based Energy Monitoring System, which provides users real-time home electrical usage data. A web server provides usage tracking on a circuit-by-circuit basis. It interfaces with a home automation system for long-term monitoring and data logging.

Dean Boman's Energy Monitoring System (Source: D. Boman)

Second prize went to Raul Alvarez for his Home Energy Gateway consumption monitor, which features an embedded gateway/web server that communicates with “smart” devices.

Raul Alvarezs Home Energy Gateway (Source: R. Alvarez)

Graig Pearen won Third Prize for his PV Array Tracker (Sun Seeker) project, which tracks, monitors, and adjusts PV arrays based on weather conditions.

Graig Pearen's PV Array Tracker (Source: G. Pearen)

Click HERE for a list of all the winners. You can review their project abstracts, documentation, schematics, diagrams, code, and more.

Participants in the competition were challenged develop innovative, energy-efficient designs with eco-friendly footprints. Entries were required to include an extension card developed using the DesignSpark PCB software tool and the Microchip Max32 chipKIT development board.

According to the documentation on the design challenge site:

The chipKIT™ Max32™ development platform is a 32-bit Arduino solution that enables hobbyists and academics to easily and inexpensively integrate electronics into their projects, even if they do not have an electronic-engineering background.

The platform consists of two PIC32-based development boards and open-source software that is compatible with the Arduino programming language and development environment. The chipKIT™ hardware is compatible with existing 3.3V Arduino shields and applications, and can be developed using a modified version of the Arduino IDE and existing Arduino resources, such as code examples, libraries, references and tutorials.

The chipKIT™ Basic I/O Shield (part # TDGL005) is compatible with the chipKIT™ Max32™ board, and offers users simple push buttons, switches, LEDs, I2C™ EEPROM, I2C temperature sensor, and a 128 x 32 pixel organic LED graphic display.

 

Click HERE for a list of all the winners. You can review their project abstracts, documentation, schematics, diagrams, code, and more.

Circuit Cellar/Elektor Inc. is the Contest Administrator.

Issue 263: Net-Enabled Controller, MCU-Based Blood Pressure Cuff, MOSFETs 101, & More

Although the June issue is still in production, I can report that it’s packed with projects and tips you’ll find immediately applicable. The projects include an AC tester design, an Internet-enabled controller, a DIY image-processing system, and an MCU-cased blood pressure cuff. Once you’ve had your fill of design projects, you’ll benefit from our articles on essential topics such as concurrency embedded systems, frequency mixers, MOSFET channel resistance, and “diode ORing.”

An Internet-Enabled Controller, by Fergus Dixon
Power-saving smart switches require a real-time clock-based controller. With a request for an Ethernet interface, the level of complexity increases. Once the Ethernet interface was working, connecting to the Internet was simple, but new problems arose.

Final PCB with a surface-mount Microchip Technology ENC28J60 Ethernet chip (Source: F. Dixon, CC263)

AC Tester, Kevin Gorga
The AC Tester provides a modular design approach to building a tool for repair or prototyping line voltage devices. In its simplest form, it provides an isolated variable AC voltage supply. The next step incorporates digital current and voltage meters with an electronic circuit breaker. The ultimate adds an energy meter for Watts, VA, and VAR displays.

The AC Tester powered up and running. The E meter is shown in the plastic case on the top of the tester. The series current limit bulbs are on the top. (Source: K. Gorga, CC263)

Image Processing System Development, by Miguel Sánchez
Some computer vision tasks can be accomplished more easily with the use of a depth camera. This article presents the basics on the usage of Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing device on your PC for an interactive art project.

Build an MCU-Based Automatic Blood Pressure Cuff, by Jeff Bachiochi
Personal health products are becoming more and more commonplace. They reinforce regular visits to personal physicians, and can be beneficial when diagnosing health issues. This article shows you how to convert a manual blood pressure cuff into an automatic cuff by adding an air pump, a solenoid release valve, and a pressure sensor to a Microchip Technology PIC-based circuit.

A manual blood pressure cuff adapted into an automatic cuff by adding an air pump, a solenoid release valve, and a pressure sensor to a microcontroller. (Source: J. Bachiochi, CC263)

Concurrency in Embedded Systems, by Bob Japenga
This is the first in an article series about concurrency in embedded systems. This article defines concurrency in embedded systems, discusses some pitfalls, and examines one of them in detail.

Radio Frequency Mixers, by Robert Lacoste
Frequency mixers are essential to radio frequency (RF) designs. They are responsible for translating a signal up or down in frequency. This article covers the basics of RF mixers, their real-life applications, and the importance of frequency range.

MOSFET Channel Resistance: Theory and Practice, by Ed Nisley
This article describes the basics of power MOSFET operation and explores the challenges of using a MOSFET’s drain-to-source resistance as a current-sensing resistor. It includes a review of fundamental enhancement-mode MOSFET equations compared with Spice simulations, and shows measurements from an actual MOSFET.

Diode ORing, by George Novacek
Diode ORing is a commonly used method for power back up. But there is a lot more behind the method than meets the eye. This article describes some solutions for maintaining uninterrupted power.

The June issue will hit newsstands in late May.

Design West Update: Compilers Unveiled

IAR Systems announced Tuesday at Design West in San Jose, CA, that GainSpan selected IAR Embedded Workbench as its primary development tool chain for MCU drivers and next-generation chip. “By standardizing on IAR Systems’ embedded software development tool chain, GainSpan will more easily support a wide range of MCUs to communicate with their modules,” IAR publicized a in a release.

It’s an important aspect of a larger plan, IAR’s ARM Strategic Accounts Manager Mike Skrtic said. IAR has overall tool chain standardization goals aimed at giving designers’ more flexibility when choosing MCUs for product development.

Remember: IAR Systems is teamed with Renesas for the RL78 Green Energy Challenge, which is administered by Circuit Cellar and Elektor. Designers are challenged to transform how the world experiences energy efficiency by developing a unique, low-power application using the RL78 MCU and IAR toolchain.

In other compiler-related news, Microchip Technology announced Monday at Design West its new MPLAB XC C compiler line, which supports its approximately 900 microcontrollers. Microchip’s Joe Drzewiecki said the compilers reduce code size by about 35% and improve code execution speed by about 30%. But you can judge for yourself because Microchip offers 8-, 16-, and 32-bit free editions of MPLAB XC compilers. According to Microchip reps, they are” fully functional and have no license restrictions for commercial use.”

So, if you give MPLAB XC a try, let us know what you think!

Design West Update: Advanced 8-Bit MCUs

Is the 8-bit MCU dead? No. And if you take a look at Microchip Technology’s PIC16F(LF)178x family, it’s clear that it will be around for a long time to come.

Microchip Technology announced Monday from Design West in San Jose, CA, that it “expanded its 8-bit PIC16F(LF)178X midrange core MCU family to include advanced analog and integrated communication peripherals, such as on-chip 12-bit analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), 8-bit digital-to-analog converters (DACs), operational amplifiers, and high-speed comparators, along with EUSART (including LIN), I2C, and SPI interface peripherals.”

Microchip claims the low power consumption and advanced analog and digital integration make the MCUs (28- and 40-pin packages) well suited for lighting (LED), battery management, motor control, and more.

Check out the specs and more details at www.microchip.com/pagehandler/en-us/family/8bit/.

DIY Cap-Touch Amp for Mobile Audio

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

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

Denninger and Lichtenfeld write:

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

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

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

 

The audio mixer flowchart

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

 

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

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