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

 

silverman

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?

piplay-case

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.

pitroller

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?

miniarcade

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, kibacorp.com. 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.

ARDUINO BLINK EXAMPLE 1
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:

Listing 1forwebPIC32 EXAMPLE 1 CODE MODIFICATIONS
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.

RUNNING EXAMPLE 1 CODE
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

BETA LIBRARY
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

INTERRUPTS
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.

LIBRARY TEST EXAMPLES
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

Interrupt

Interrupt

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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).

WORKING WITH THE AVR BUTTERFLY
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.

Figure2

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.

HANDLING INCOMING CHARACTERS
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). 

Remote-Control Powered Trapdoor Lift

William Wachsmann, a retired electronic technologist from Canada, has more than 35 years of experience working with minicomputers, microcomputers, embedded systems, and programming in industries ranging from nuclear and aerospace to voicemail and transportation systems.

But despite the complexity of the work he has done over the years, when it came to building a remote-controlled, powered trapdoor lift system for his home, he had two priorities: simplicity and price.

“Although it can be fulfilling to design your own hardware, why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to? Many reasonably priced modules can be wired together,” Wachsmann says in his article about the project, which appears in Circuit Cellar’s May issue. “Add some software to express the functionality required and you can quickly and inexpensively put together a project. Not only is this method useful for a homebuilt one-of-a-kind application, but it can also be used for proof-of-concept prototyping. It leaves you free to concentrate on solving the problems pertinent to your application.”

Wachsmann’s project relies on off-the-shelf modules for the electrical functions of a trapdoor lift system that provides access to his basement.

“Lifting the trapdoor was hard on my wife’s back,” he says. “If her arms were full when she came upstairs and the door was open, she had to twist her body to release the mechanical latching mechanism while simultaneously stopping the door from falling on her head.”

The multidisciplinary project includes mechanical, electronic, and software components. For the full details—including programming of the project’s Freescale Semiconductor FRDM-KL25Z microprocessor using the mbed online IDE—check out the May issue now available for membership download and single-issue purchase.

(And if you’re interested in other articles about remote-control projects, check out Raul Alvarez’s Home Energy Gateway system, which enables users to remotely monitor home energy consumption and monitor household devices. Alvarez’s project won second place in the 2012 DesignSpark chipKIT challenge administered by Circuit Cellar.)

Excerpts from Wachsmann’s article below describe his system’s mechanical and hardware elements.

INS AND OUTS
I used a screw lift from an old treadmill. It has a 48-VDC motor that draws about 1 A under a 100-lb load. The screw mechanism has a 6” travel distance. Built-in limit switches shut off the motor when the screw reaches the end of its travel in each direction. The screw’s length is nominally 30” when closed and 36” when open. The length can be adjusted slightly by rotating the screw by hand, but the overall travel distance is still 6”.

A simple switch would have sufficed to control the screw lift’s DC motor, but I wanted it to be remotely controlled so the trapdoor could be raised and lowered from anywhere upstairs and from the basement. When someone is in the basement with the trapdoor closed there is no visible way for them to know if the door is obstructed. Initially, I was going to install a warning beeper that the door was opening, but that wouldn’t help if an inanimate object (e.g., a bag of groceries) was on top of the door. I needed to incorporate some form of sensing mechanism into the design.

Figure 1: This diagram represents the trapdoor mechanics. The arm’s down position is shown in red; the up position is shown in blue. Vertical red arrows are labeled with the downward force in pounds

Figure 1: This diagram represents the trapdoor mechanics. The arm’s down position is shown in red; the up position is shown in blue. Vertical red arrows are labeled with the downward force in pounds

THE MECHANICS
I needed a levered system design that used a pivoted bar and the motorized screw lift. The lift also had to enable the door to be manually opened in case of a power failure.
I used IMSI/Design’s TurboCAD program for the mechanical design. By using CAD software, I could experiment with the pivot position, moment arms, and torque requirements to meet the mechanical constraints imposed by the screw lift and the trapdoor’s size and weight.

Photo 1: The screw lift and pivot arm mechanism with a spring assist are shown.

Photo 1: The screw lift and pivot arm mechanism with a spring assist are shown.

Figure 1 shows a diagram of the trapdoor, which is hinged on the left. The opposite side of the door exerts a 15.2-lb downward force. This means the torque (force × distance) required to open the door is 509.2 in-lbs. The pivot arm in red is the position when the door is closed. The blue pivot arm shows the position when the door is open to an 80° angle.

To keep within the 6” lift constraint, I used a 4.25” moment arm to pull down on the pivot arm. This left me with the force required to initially lift the door at 119.5 lb. Also this did not include the added torque due to the pivot arm’s weight.

After mulling this over for a couple of days (and nights) I had an idea. I realized that 119.5 lb is only needed when the door is completely closed. As the door opens, the torque requirement lessens. I incorporated a heavy spring (see Photo 1). When the door is closed the spring extension provides an additional downward force of about 35 lb. This is enough to lessen the load on the screw lift and to compensate for the pivot arm’s additional 2.2 lb. Using a screw lift meant the arm would not spring up if the door was manually opened.

I used an angle iron for the pivot arm. It is 28” long because it had to push up on the door to the right of the door’s center of gravity at 16.75” without adding too much additional torque. The roller is the type used as feet on beds. I used an arbor and 0.75”-diameter bolt through the floor joist for the pivot (see Photo 2).

An arbor is used as a bearing with a 0.75” bolt through the floor joist. The lift mechanism pivots at this point.

Photo 2: An arbor is used as a bearing with a 0.75” bolt through the floor joist. The lift mechanism pivots at this point.

THE HARDWARE
I had set an arbitrary $100 limit for the rest of the system and I quickly realized I would easily come in under budget. I used a $24.25 two-channel RF wireless garage door remote-control receiver, which I purchased from eBay (see Photo 3). This controller can be used in a latched or an unlatched mode. The latched mode requires a momentary push of one of the buttons to cause one of the relays to switch and stay in the On position. When the controller is in unlatched mode, you must hold the button down to keep the relay switched.

Photo 3: The two-channel wireless remote control is shown with the cover removed from the receiver. It came with two keychain-style remotes, which I marked with Up and Down arrows.

Photo 3: The two-channel wireless remote control is shown with the cover removed from the receiver. It came with two keychain-style remotes, which I marked with Up and Down arrows.

Unfortunately, this remote control and any similar ones only come with single-pole double-throw (SPDT) relays. What I really wanted were double-pole double-throw (DPDT) relays to switch both sides of the motor to enable current reversal through the motor.
A remote control system with two remotes seemed ideal and was possible to design with SPDT, so I purchased the relays. Figure 2 shows the circuit using two bridge rectifier DC power supplies. It turns out there were problems with this approach.

SW1 and SW2 represent the Up and Down relays. In latched mode, the door would open when SW1 was energized using the A button on a remote. Pressing the A button again would stop the motor while the door was opening. So would pressing the B button, but then to continue opening the door you needed to press the B button again. Pressing the A  button in this state would cause the door to close because SW2 was still energized. Added to this confusion was the necessity of pressing the A button again when the door was fully opened and stopped due to the internal limit switches. If you didn’t do this, then pressing the B button to close the door wouldn’t work because SW1 was still energized.

Figure 2: It would be theoretically possible to use dual-power supplies and single-pole double-throw (SPDT) switches to control a motor in two directions. When SW1 (b,c) is connected, current flows through D2. When SW2 (b,c) is connected, current flows through D1 in the opposite direction.

Figure 2: It would be theoretically possible to use dual-power supplies and single-pole double-throw (SPDT) switches to control a motor in two directions. When SW1 (b,c) is connected, current flows through D2. When SW2 (b,c) is connected, current flows through D1 in the opposite direction.

I decided to just use the door in unlatched mode and continuously hold down the A button until the door was fully open. What was the problem with this? Noise! Interference from the motor was getting back into the control and causing the relay to frequently switch on and off. This is not good for mechanical relays that have a finite contact life.

After playing around for a while with both operation modes, I noticed that even in the latched mode the motor would sometimes stop and it would occasionally even reverse itself. This was really bad and it became worse.

If both SW1 and SW2 happened to switch at the same time and if the current was at a maximum and there was arcing at the terminal, there could conceivably be a momentary short through a diode in each of the bridge rectifiers that would burn them out. Arc suppression devices wouldn’t help because when active at high voltages, they would almost look like a short between the switch’s terminals A,C. I needed to step back and rethink this.

I found an $8.84 two-channel DPDT relay switch board module on eBay. The module enabled me to use a single-power supply and isolated the motor current from the remote-control board. These relays boards have TTL inputs, so it is tricky to use relays on the remote control board to control the relays on the second relay board. You have to contend with contact bounce. Even if I incorporated debounce circuits, I still didn’t have a way stop the door from opening if it was obstructed.

It was time to get with the 21st century. I needed to use a microcontroller and handle all the debounce and logic functions in firmware.

I bought a $12.95 Freescale Semiconductor FRDM-KL25Z development board, which uses the Kinetis L series of microcontrollers. The FRDM-KL25Z is built on the ARM Cortex-M0+ core. This board comes with multiple I/O pins, most of which can be programmed as required. It also has two micro-USB ports, one of which is used for downloading your program onto the microcontroller and for debugging (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: This is the system’s complete wiring diagram. On the left is a 48-V AC supply and an unregulated 12-V DC motor. A 2.7-Ω, 5-W resistor, which is used for current sensing, is in series with the motor.

Figure 3: This is the system’s complete wiring diagram. On the left is a 48-V AC supply and an unregulated 12-V DC motor. A 2.7-Ω, 5-W resistor, which is used for current sensing, is in series with the motor.