Build an Automated Vehicle Locator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mobile tracker unit

Photo 1: The mobile tracker unit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A: Raspberry Pi Innovation

Orlando, FL-based web app developer and blogger Shea Silverman recently received Kickstarter funding for the latest version of PiPlay, his Raspberry Pi-based OS. Shea and I discussed his ongoing projects, his Raspberry Pi book, and what’s next for PiPlay.—Nan Price, Associate Editor



Shea Silverman

NAN: What is your current occupation?

SHEA: Web applications developer with the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

NAN: Why and when did you decide to start your blog?

SHEA: I’ve been blogging on and off for years, but I could never keep to a schedule or really commit myself to writing. After I started working on side projects, I realized I needed a place to store tips and tricks I had figured out. I installed WordPress, posted some PhoneGap tips, and within a day got a comment from someone who had the same issue, and my tips helped them out. I have been blogging ever since. I make sure to post every Friday night.

NAN: Tell us about PiPlay, the Raspberry Pi OS. Why did you start the OS? What new developments, if any, are you working on?


Shea’s PiPlay Raspberry Pi OS recently reached 400% funding on Kickstarter.

SHEA: PiPlay is a gaming and emulation distribution for the Raspberry Pi single-board computer. It is built on top of the Raspbian OS, and tries to make it as easy as possible to play games on your Raspberry Pi. My blog got really popular after I started posting binaries and tutorials on how to compile different emulators to the Raspberry Pi, but I kept getting asked the same questions and saw users struggling with the same consistent issues.

I decided I would release a disk image with everything preconfigured and ready to be loaded onto an SD card. I’ve been adding new emulators, games, and tools to it ever since.

I just recently completed a Kickstarter that is funding the next release, which includes a much nicer front end, a web GUI, and a better controller configuration system.

NAN: You wrote Instant Raspberry Pi Gaming. Do you consider this book introductory or is it written for the more experienced engineer?

SHEA: Instant Raspberry Pi Gaming is written like a cookbook with recipes for doing various tasks. Some of them are very simple, and they build up to some more advanced recipes. One of the easier tasks is creating your user account on the Pi Store, while the more advanced recipes have you working with Python and using an API to interact with Minecraft.

Readers will learn how to setup a Raspberry Pi, install and use various emulators and games, a bit about the Minecraft API, and common troubleshooting tips.


The Pitroller is a joystick and buttons hooked up to the GPIO pins of a Raspberry Pi, which can act as a controller or keyboard for various emulators.

NAN: You are a member of FamiLAB, an Orlando, FL-based community lab/hackerspace. What types of projects have you worked on at the lab?


Disney director Rich Moore poses with Shea’s miniature arcade machine. The machine was based on Fix It Felix Jr. from Disney’s Wreck It Ralph.

SHEA: I spend a lot of time at the lab using the laser cutter. Creating a 2-D vector in Inkscape, and then watching it be cut out on a piece of wood or acrylic is really inspiring. My favorite project was making a little arcade machine featuring Fix It Felix Jr. from Wreck It Ralph. A marketing person from Disney was able to get it into the hands of the director Rich Moore. He sent me a bunch of pictures of himself holding my little arcade machine next to the full size version.

NAN: Give us a little background information. How did you become interested in technology?

SHEA: My mom always likes to remind me that I’ve been using computers since I was 2. My parents were very interested in technology and encouraged my curiosity when it came to computers. I always liked to take something apart and see how it worked, and then try to put it back together. As the years went on, I’ve devoted more and more time to making technology a major part of my life.

NAN: Tell us about the first embedded system you designed.

SHEA: I have a lot of designs, but I don’t think I’ve ever finished one. I’ll be halfway into a project, learn about something new, then cannibalize what I was working on and repurpose it for my new idea. One of the first embedded projects I worked on was a paintball board made out of a PICAXE microcontroller. I never got it small enough to fit inside the paintball marker, but it was really cool to see everything in action. The best part was when I finally had that “ah-ha!” moment, and everything I was learning finally clicked.

NAN: What was the last electronics-design related product you purchased and what type of project did you use it with?

SHEA: At UCF, one of our teams utilizes a ticket system for dealing with requests. Our department does a hack day each semester, so my coworker and I decided to rig up a system that changes the color of the lights in the office depending on the urgency of requests in the box. We coded up an API and had a Raspberry Pi ping the API every few minutes for updates. We then hooked up two Arduinos to the Raspberry Pi and color-changing LED strips to the Arduinos. We set it up and it’s been working for the past year and a half, alerting the team with different colors when there is work to do.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any projects?

SHEA: My Kickstarter for PiPlay just finished at 400% funding. So right now I’m busy working on fulfilling the rewards, and writing the latest version of PiPlay.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the industry?

SHEA: Wearable computing. Google Glass, the Pebble smart watch, Galaxy Gear—I think these are all great indicators of where our technology is heading. We currently have very powerful computers in our pockets with all kinds of sensors and gadgets built in, but very limited ways to physically interact with them (via the screen, or a keypad). If we can make the input devices modular, be it your watch, a heads-up display, or something else, I think that is going to spark a new revolution in user experiences.

Execute Open-Source Arduino Code in a PIC Microcontroller Using the MPLAB IDE

The Arduino single-board computer is a de facto standard tool for developing microcomputer applications within the hobbyist and educational communities. It provides an open-source hardware (OSH) environment based on a simple microcontroller board, as well as an open-source (OS) development environment for writing software for the board.

Here’s an approach that enables Arduino code to be configured for execution with the Microchip Technology PIC32MX250F128B small-outline 32-bit microcontroller. It uses the Microchip Technology MPLAB X IDE and MPLAB XC32 C Compiler and the Microchip Technology Microstick II programmer/debugger.

Your own reasons for using this approach will depend on your personal needs and background. Perhaps as a long-term Arduino user, you want to explore a new processor performance option with your existing Arduino code base. Or, you want to take advantage of or gain experience with the Microchip advanced IDE development tools and debug with your existing Arduino code. All of these goals are easily achieved using the approach and the beta library covered in this article.

Several fundamental open-source Arduino code examples are described using the beta core library of Arduino functions I developed. The beta version is available, for evaluation purposes only, as a free download from the “Arduino Library Code for PIC32” link on my KibaCorp company website, From there, you can also download a short description of the Microstick II hardware configuration used for the library.

To illustrate the capabilities in their simplest form, here is a simple Blink LED example from my book Beginner’s Guide to Programming the PIC32. The example shows how this custom library makes it easy to convert Arduino code to a PIC32 binary file.

The Arduino code example is as follows: Wire an LED through a 1-K resistor to pin 13 (D7) of the Arduino. An output pin is configured to drive an LED using pinMode () function under setup (). Then under loop () this output is set high and then low using digitalWrite () and delay () functions to blink the LED. The community open-source Arduino code is:

The open-source example uses D13 or physical pin 13 on the Arduino. In relation to the PIC32MX, the D13 is physical pin 25. Pin 25 will be used in prototyping wiring.

Now, let’s review and understand the PIC32 project template and its associated “wrapping functions.”  The Arduino uses two principal functions: setup () to initialize the system and loop () to run a continuous execution loop. There is no Main function. Using the Microchip Technololgy XC32 C compiler, we are constrained to having a Main function. The Arduino setup () and loop () functions can be accommodated, but only as part of an overall template Main “wrapping” function. So within our PIC32 template, we accommodate this as follows:

Listing 2

This piece of code is a small but essential part of the template. Note that in this critical wrapping function, setup () is called once as in Arduino and loop () is configured to be called continuously (simulating the loop () function in Arduino) through the use of a while loop in Main.

The second critical wrapping function for our template is the use of C header files at the beginning of the code. The XC32 C compiler uses the C compiler directive #include reference files within the Main code. Arduino uses import, which is a similar construct that is used in higher-level languages such as Java and Python, which cannot be used by the MPLAB XC32 C.

The two include files necessary for our first example are as follows:

Listing 3

System.h references all the critical Microchip library functions supporting the PIC32MX250F128B. The Ardunio.h provides the Arduino specific library function set. Given these two key “wrapper” aspects, where does the Arduino code go? This is best illustrated with a side-by-side comparison between Arduino code and its Microchip equivalent. The Arduino code is essentially positioned between the wrapper codes as part of the Main function.

Blink side-by-side comparison

Blink side-by-side comparison

This approach enables Arduino code to execute on a Microchip PIC32 within an MPLAB X environment. Note that the Arduino code void setup () now appears as void setup (void), and void loop () appears as void loop (void). This is a minor inconvenience but again necessary for our C environment syntax for C prototype function definitions. Once the code is successfully compiled, the environment enables you to have access to the entire built-in tool suite of the MPLAB X and its debugger tool suite.

Configure the Microstick II prototype as in the following schematic. Both the schematic and prototype are shown below:

Exercise 1 schematic

Exercise 1 schematic

Exercise 1 prototype

Exercise 1 prototype

Table 1 compares Arduino core functionality to what is contained in the Microchip PIC32 expanded beta library. In the beta version, I added additional C header files to accomplish the necessary library functionality. Table 2 compares variable types between Arduino and PIC32 variable types. Both Table 1 and Table 2 show the current beta version has a high degree of Arduino core library functionality. Current limitations are the use of only one serial port, interrupt with INT0 only, and no stream capability. In addition, with C the “!” operator is used for conditional test only and not as a complement function, as in Arduino. To use the complement function in C, the “~” operator is used. The library is easily adapted to other PIC32 devices or board types.

Table 1

Table 1: Arduino vs Microchip Technology PIC32 core library function comparison

Talble 2

Table 2: Arduino vs Microchip Technology PIC32 core library variable types

If you use interrupts, you must identify to C the name of your interrupt service routine as used in your Arduino script. See below:

Interrupt support

Interrupt support

For more information on the beta release or to send comments and constructive criticism, or to report any detected problems, please contact me here.

Four test case examples demonstrating additional core library functions are shown below as illustrations.

Serial communications

Serial communications

Serial find string test case

Serial find string test case

Serial parse INT

Serial parse INT



Editor’s Note: Portions of this post first appeared in Tom Kibalo’s book Beginner’s Guide to Programming the PIC32 (Electronics Products, 2013). They are reprinted with permission from Chuck Hellebuyck, Electronic Products. If you are interested in reading more articles by Kibalo, check out his two-part Circuit Cellar “robot boot camp” series posted in 2012 : “Autonomous Mobile Robot (Part 1): Overview & Hardware” and “Autonomous Mobile Robot (Part 2): Software & Operation.”


Tom Kibalo

Tom Kibalo

Tom Kibalo is principal engineer at a large defense firm and president of KibaCorp, a company dedicated to DIY hobbyist, student, and engineering education. Tom, who is also an Engineering Department adjunct faculty member at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD, is keenly interested in microcontroller applications and embedded designs. To find out more about Tom, read his 2013 Circuit Cellar member profile.

DIY IoT: Build a ‘Net-Connected System Today

It’s time to join the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution. Try building a ‘Net-enabled design with WIZnet’s W5500 “smart” Ethernet chip. It’s easier than you think.

In a thorough introduction to the technology, Tom Cantrell presented a garage door monitoring design. He explained:

The W5500 (see Figure 1) starts with a standard 10/100 Ethernet interface (i.e., MAC and PHY) but then goes further with large RAM buffers (16-KB transmit and 16-KB receive) and hardware TCP/IP protocol processing. I discovered WIZnet’s first chip, the  W3100, way back in 2001. Of course by now, as with all things  silicon, the new W5500 is better, faster, and  lower cost. But the concept is still exactly  the same: “Internet enable” applications by  handling the network chores in hardware so  the application microcontroller doesn’t have to do it in software.

Cantrell - WIZ550io

Figure 1: The WIZnet W5500 is an Ethernet chip with a difference—large RAM buffers and hardware TCP/IP processing that make it easy for any microcontroller to go online.

The large RAM buffers help decouple the  microcontroller from network activity. In a  recent project (see my article, “Weatherize  Your Embedded App,” Circuit Cellar 273,  2013), I used the RAM to receive an entire  10-KB+ webpage, completely eliminating the  need for the microcontroller to juggle data at  network speed. And any of the 32-KB on-chip  RAM that isn’t needed for network buffering  is free for general-purpose use, a big plus for  typically RAM-constrained microcontrollers. The other major WIZnet hardware assist  is TCP/IP processing using IP addresses, sockets, and familiar commands including OPEN, CONNECT, SEND, RECEIVE, DISCONNECT.  The high-level interface to the network frees  up microcontroller cycles and code space that  would otherwise be needed for a software TCP/IP stack.

Cantrell goes on to present his design for a ‘Net-connected garage door monitoring system.

For prototyping, check out the WIZnet  ioShield (see Photo 1), which is a baseboard  for the WIZ550io that includes an SD card  socket. There are ioShields for different  platforms (e.g., Arduino, LaunchPad,  mbed, etc.), and with 0.1” headers they are  breadboard friendly.

Photo 1: If you want a fancy server with lots of eye candy, a microSD card is the way to go. The WIZnet ioShields include the card socket and are available for various platforms. The Arduino version is shown here.

Photo 1: If you want a fancy server with lots of eye candy, a microSD card is the way to go. The WIZnet ioShields include the card socket and are available for various platforms. The Arduino version is shown here.

Cantrell prototyped a client version of what he calls his “garage  door ‘Thing’ using an Arduino  and a WIZ550io connected to Exosite (see Photo 2).

A prototype of the client version of my garage “Thing” is shown.

Photo 2: A prototype of the client version of my garage “Thing”

Wondering how to get two clients (e.g., ) to interact with each other? Cantrell used Exosite.

Over on the Exosite website, after signing up for a  free “Developer” account, it was a quick and easy mainly point-and-click exercise to configure my “Device,” “Data,”  “Events,” and “Alerts” (see Photo 3).  As a client, there’s no need to keep the “Thing’s”  Ethernet link powered all the time. Data only needs to  be sent when the garage door opens or closes, but I also  recommend sending a periodic heartbeat just in case. My  garage door monitor will only generate a minute or two  of network activity (i.e., door state changes and hourly  heartbeats) per day, so there’s opportunity for significant  energy savings compared to a 24/7 server.

It only takes a few minutes to set up a simple Exosite dashboard including an e-mail alert. I can “see“ my  garage door without getting off the couch and now, via Exosite, from the farthest reaches of the web.

It only takes a few minutes to set up a simple Exosite dashboard including an e-mail alert. I can “see“ my garage door without getting off the couch and now, via Exosite, from the farthest reaches of the web.

You can download the entire article,  “Connect the Magic: An Introduction to the WIZnet W550,” for free to learn about Cantrell’s garage door control system built with a WIZnet and an Arduino Uno.

Editor’s note: If you have an idea for an innovative, ’Net-enabled electronics system, this is your opportunity to share your original design with the world. Enter the WIZnet Connect the Magic 2014 Design Challenge for a chance to win a share of $15,000 in prizes and gain recognition by Elektor International Media and Circuit Cellar. WIZnet is the sponsor. Eligible entries will be judged on their technical merit, originality, usefulness, cost-effectiveness, and design optimization. The Entry submission deadline is 12:00 PM EST August 3, 2014. How to enter: Implement WIZnet’s WIZ550io Ethernet module, or W5500 chip, in an innovative design; document your project; and then submit your entry. The complete rules and regulations are available on the Challenge webpage.


A Coding Interface for an Evaluation Tool

John Peck, a test engineer at Knowles Electronics in Itasca, IL, has used ASCII interfaces to test equipment since he was a graduate student.

“I love test equipment with open, well-documented, ASCII command sets,” he says. “The plain text commands give a complicated instrument a familiar interface and an easy way to automate measurements.”

So when Peck needed to automate the process of reading his ultrasonic range finder’s voltage output, he wanted an ASCII interface to a voltmeter. He also wanted the meter to convert volts into distance, so he added an Atmel AVR Butterfly microcontroller into the mix (see Photo 1). “I thought it would be easy to give it a plain text interface to a PC,” he says.

Atmel AVR Butterfly

Atmel AVR Butterfly

The project became a bit more complex than he expected. But ultimately, Peck says, he came up came up with “a simple command interface that’s easy to customize and extend. It’s not at the level of a commercial instrument, but it works well for sending a few commands and getting some data back.”

If you would like to learn more about how to send commands from a PC to the AVR Butterfly and the basics of using the credit card-sized, single-board microcontroller to recognize, parse, and execute remote commands, read Peck’s article about his project in Circuit Cellar’s May issue.

In the italicized excerpts below, he describes his hardware connections to the board and the process of receiving remote characters (the first step in receiving remote commands). Other topics you’ll find in the full article include setting up a logging system to understand how commands are being processed, configuring the logger (which is the gatekeeper for messages from other subsystems), recognizing and adding commands to extend the system, and sending calibration values.

Peck programmed his system so that it has room to grow and can accommodate his future plans:

“I built the code with AVR-GCC, using the -Os optimization level. The output of avr-gcc –version is avr-gcc (Gentoo 4.6.3 p1.3, pie-0.5.1) 4.6.3.

“The resulting memory map file shows a 306-byte .data size, a 49-byte .bss size, and a 7.8-KB .text size. I used roughly half of the AVR Butterfly’s flash memory and about a third of its RAM. So there’s at least some space left to do more than just recognizing commands and calibrating voltages.”

“I’d like to work on extending the system to handle more types of arguments (e.g., signed integers and floats). And I’d like to port the system to a different part, one with more than one USART. Then I could have a dedicated logging port and log messages wouldn’t get in the way of other communication. Making well-documented interfaces to my designs would help me with my long-term goal of making them more modular.”

These are the connections needed for Atmel’s AVR Butterfly. Atmel’s AVRISP mkII user’s guide stresses that the programmer must be connected to the PC before the target (AVR Butterfly board).

Figure 1: These are the connections needed for Atmel’s AVR Butterfly. Atmel’s AVRISP mkII user’s guide stresses that the programmer must be connected to the PC before the target (AVR Butterfly board).

The AVR Butterfly board includes an Atmel ATmega169 microcontroller and some peripherals. Figure 1 shows the connections I made to it. I only used three wires from the DB9 connector for serial communication with the PC. There isn’t any hardware handshaking. While I could also use this serial channel for programming, I find that using a dedicated programmer makes iterating my code much faster.

A six-pin header soldered to the J403 position enabled me to use Atmel’s AVRISP mkII programmer. Finally, powering the board with an external supply at J401 meant I wouldn’t have to think about the AVR Butterfly’s button cell battery. However, I did need to worry about the minimum power-on reset slope rate. The microcontroller won’t reset at power-on unless the power supply can ramp from about 1 to 3 V at more than 0.1 V/ms. I had to reduce a filter capacitor in my power supply circuit to increase its power-on ramp rate. With that settled, the microcontroller started executing code when I turned on the power supply.

After the hardware was connected, I used the AVR downloader uploader (AVRDUDE) and GNU Make to automate building the code and programming the AVR Butterfly’s flash memory. I modified a makefile template from the WinAVR project to specify my part, programmer, and source files. The template file’s comments helped me understand how to customize the template and comprehend the general build process. Finally, I used Gentoo, Linux’s cross-development package, to install the AVR GNU Compiler Collection (AVR-GCC) and other cross-compilation tools. I could have added these last pieces “by hand,” but Gentoo conveniently updates the toolchain as new versions are released.


Figure 2: This is the program flow for processing characters received over the Atmel AVR Butterfly’s USART. Sending a command terminator (carriage return) will always result in an empty Receive buffer. This is a good way to ensure there’s no garbage in the buffer before writing to it.

To receive remote commands, you begin by receiving characters, which are sent to the AVR Butterfly via the USART connector shown in Figure 1. Reception of these characters triggers an interrupt service routine (ISR), which handles them according to the flow shown in Figure 2. The first step in this flow is loading the characters into the Receive buffer.

Figure 3: The received character buffer and pointers used to fill it are shown. There is no limit to the size of commands and their arguments, as long as the entire combined string and terminator fit inside the RECEIVE_BUFFER_SIZE.

Figure 3: The received character buffer and pointers used to fill it are shown. There is no limit to the size of commands and their arguments, as long as the entire combined string and terminator fit inside the RECEIVE_BUFFER_SIZE.

Figure 3 illustrates the Receive buffer loaded with a combined string. The buffer is accessed with a pointer to its beginning and another pointer to the next index to be written. These pointers are members of the recv_cmd_state_t-type variable recv_cmd_state.

This is just style. I like to try to organize a flow’s variables by making them members of their own structure. Naming conventions aside, it’s important to notice that no limitations are imposed on the command or argument size in this first step, provided the total character count stays below the RECEIVE_BUFFER_SIZE limit.

When a combined string in the Receive buffer is finished with a carriage return, the string is copied over to a second buffer. I call this the “Parse buffer,” since this is where the string will be searched for recognized commands and arguments. This buffer is locked until its contents can be processed to keep it from being overwhelmed by new combined strings.

Sending commands faster than they can be processed will generate an error and combined strings sent to a locked parse buffer will be dropped. The maximum command processing frequency will depend on the system clock and other system tasks. Not having larger parse or receive buffers is a limitation that places this project at the hobby level. Extending these buffers to hold more than just one command would make the system more robust.

Editor’s Note: If you are interested in other projects utilizing the AVR Butterfly, check out the Talk Zombie, which won “Distinctive Excellence” in the AVR Design Contest 2006 sponsored by ATMEL and administered by Circuit Cellar. The ATmega169-based multilingual talking device relates ambient temperature and current time in the form of speech (English, Dutch, or French).