Embedded Programming: Rummage Around In This Toolbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jens Altenburg’s project

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

The Future of Small Radar Technology

Directing the limited resources of Fighter Command to intercept a fleet of Luftwaffe bombers en route to London or accurately engaging the Imperial Navy at 18,000 yards in the dead of night. This was our grandfather’s radar, the technology that evened the odds in World War II.

This is the combat information center aboard a World War II destroyer with two radar displays.

This is the combat information center aboard a World War II destroyer with two radar displays.

Today there is an insatiable demand for short-range sensors (i.e., small radar technology)—from autonomous vehicles to gaming consoles and consumer devices. State-of-the-art sensors that can provide full 3-D mapping of a small-target scenes include laser radar and time-of-flight (ToF) cameras. Less expensive and less accurate acoustic and infrared devices sense proximity and coarse angle of arrival. The one sensor often overlooked by the both the DIY and professional designer is radar.

However, some are beginning to apply small radar technology to solve the world’s problems. Here are specific examples:

Autonomous vehicles: In 2007, the General Motors and Carnegie Mellon University Tartan Racing team won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge, where autonomous vehicles had to drive through a city in the shortest possible time period. Numerous small radar devices aided in their real-time decision making. Small radar devices will be a key enabling technology for autonomous vehicles—from self-driving automobiles to unmanned aerial drones.

Consumer products: Recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers developed a radar sensor for gaming systems, shown to be capable of detecting gestures and other complex movements inside a room and through interior walls. Expect small radar devices to play a key role in enabling user interface on gaming consoles to smartphones.

The Internet of Things (IoT): Fybr is a technology company that uses small radar sensors to detect the presence of parked automobiles, creating the most accurate parking detection system in the world for smart cities to manage parking and traffic congestion in real time. Small radar sensors will enable the IoT by providing accurate intelligence to data aggregators.

Automotive: Small radar devices are found in mid- to high-priced automobiles in automated cruise control, blind-spot detection, and parking aids. Small radar devices will soon play a key role in automatic braking, obstacle-avoidance systems, and eventually self-driving automobiles, greatly increasing passenger safety.

Through-Wall Imaging: Advances in small radar have numerous possible military applications, including recent MIT work on through-wall imaging of human targets through solid concrete walls. Expect more military uses of small radar technology.

What is taking so long? A tremendous knowledge gap exists between writing the application and emitting, then detecting, scattered microwave fields and understanding the result. Radar was originally developed by physicists who had a deep understanding of electromagnetics and were interested in the theory of microwave propagation and scattering. They created everything from scratch, from antennas to specialized vacuum tubes.

Microwave tube development, for example, required a working knowledge of particle physics. Due to this legacy, radar textbooks are often intensely theoretical. Furthermore, microwave components were very expensive—handmade and gold-plated. Radar was primarily developed by governments and the military, which made high-dollar investments for national security.

Small radar devices such as the RFBeam Microwave K-LC1a radio transceiver cost less than $10 when purchased in quantity.

Small radar devices such as the RFBeam Microwave K-LC1a radio transceiver cost less than $10 when purchased in quantity.

It’s time we make radar a viable option for DIY projects and consumer devices by developing low-cost, easy-to-use, capable technology and bridging the knowledge gap!
Today you can buy small radar sensors for less than $10. Couple this with learning practical radar processing methods, and you can solve a critical sensing problem for your project.

Learn by doing. I created the MIT short-course “Build a Small Radar Sensor,” where students learn about radar by building a device from scratch. Those interested can take the online course for free through MIT Opencourseware or enroll in the five-day MIT Professional Education course.

Dive deeper. My soon-to-be published multimedia book, Small and Short-Range Radar Systems, explains the principles and building of numerous small radar devices and then demonstrates them so readers at all levels can create their own radar devices or learn how to use data from off-the-shelf radar sensors.

This is just the beginning. Soon small radar sensors will be everywhere.

Traveling With a “Portable Workspace”

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

Raul_Alvarez_Workspace _Photo_1

Alvarez sits at his “current” workstation.

He continued by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raul_Alvarez_Workspace _Photo_2

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating Oscilloscopes (Part 4)

In this final installment of my four-part mini-series about selecting an oscilloscope, I’ll look at triggering, waveform generators, and clock synchronization, and I’ll wrap up with a series summary.

My previous posts have included Part 1, which discusses probes and physical characteristics of stand-alone vs. PC-based oscilloscopes; Part 2, which examines core specifications such as bandwidth, sample rate, and ADC resolution; and Part 3, which focuses on software. My posts are more a “collection of notes” based on my own research rather than a completely thorough guide. But I hope they are useful and cover some points you might not have otherwise considered before choosing an oscilloscope.

This is a screenshot from Colin O'Flynn's YouTube video "Using PicoScope AWG for Testing Serial Data Limits."

This is a screenshot from Colin O’Flynn’s YouTube video “Using PicoScope AWG for Testing Serial Data Limits.”

Topic 1: Triggering Methods
Triggering your oscilloscope properly can make a huge difference in being able to capture useful waveforms. The most basic triggering method is just a “rising” or “falling” edge, which almost everyone is (or should be) familiar with.

Whether you need a more advanced trigger method will depend greatly on your usage scenario and a bit on other details of your oscilloscope. If you have a very long buffer length or ability to rapid-fire record a number of waveforms, you might be able to live with a simple trigger since you can easily throw away data that isn’t what you are looking for. If your oscilloscope has a more limited buffer length, you’ll need to trigger on the exact moment of interest.

Before I detail some of the other methods, I want to mention that you can sometimes use external instruments for triggering. For example, you might have a logic analyzer with an extremely advanced triggering mechanism.  If that logic analyzer has a “trigger out,” you can trigger the oscilloscope from your logic analyzer.

On to the trigger methods! There are a number of them related to finding “odd” pulses: for example, finding glitches shorter or wider than some length or finding a pulse that is lower than the regular height (called a “runt pulse”). By knowing your scope triggers and having a bit of creativity, you can perform some more advanced troubleshooting. For example, when troubleshooting an embedded microcontroller, you can have it toggle an I/O pin when a task runs. Using a trigger to detect a “pulse dropout,” you can trigger your oscilloscope when the system crashes—thus trying to see if the problem is a power supply glitch, for example.

If you are dealing with digital systems, be on the lookout for triggers that can function on serial protocols. For example, the Rigol Technologies stand-alone units have this ability, although you’ll also need an add-on to decode the protocols! In fact, most of the serious stand-alone oscilloscopes seem to have this ability (e.g., those from Agilent, Tektronix, and Teledyne LeCroy); you may just need to pay extra to enable it.

Topic 2: External Trigger Input
Most oscilloscopes also have an “external trigger input.”  This external input doesn’t display on the screen but can be used for triggering. Specifically, this means your trigger channel doesn’t count against your “ADC channels.” So if you need the full sample rate on one channel but want to trigger on another, you can use the “ext in” as the trigger.
Oscilloscopes that include this feature on the front panel make it slightly easier to use; otherwise, you’re reaching around behind the instrument to find the trigger input.

Topic 3: Arbitrary Waveform Generator
This isn’t strictly an oscilloscope-related function, but since enough oscilloscopes include some sort of function generator it’s worth mentioning. This may be a standard “signal generator,” which can generate waveforms such as sine, square, triangle, etc. A more advanced feature, called an arbitrary waveform generator (AWG), enables you to generate any waveform you want.

I previously had a (now very old) TiePie engineering HS801 that included an AWG function. The control software made it easy to generate sine, square, triangle, and a few other waveforms. But the only method of generating an arbitrary waveform was to load a file you created in another application, which meant I almost never used the “arbitrary” portion of the AWG. The lesson here is that if you are going to invest in an AWG, make sure the software is reasonable to use.

The AWG may have a few different specifications; look for the maximum analog bandwidth along with the sample rate. Be careful of outlandish claims: a 200 MS/s digital to analog converter (DAC) could hypothetically have a 100-MHz analog bandwidth, but the signal would be almost useless. You could only generate some sort of sine wave at that frequency, which would probably be full of harmonics. Even if you generated a lower-frequency sine wave (e.g., 10 MHz), it would likely contain a fair amount of harmonics since the DAC’s output filter has a roll-off at such a high frequency.

Better systems will have a low-pass analog filter to reduce harmonics, with the DAC’s sample rate being several times higher than the output filter roll-off. The Pico Technology PicoScope 6403D oscilloscope I’m using can generate a 20-MHz signal but has a 200 MS/s sample rate on the DAC. Similarly, the TiePie engineering HS5-530 has a 30-MHz signal bandwidth, and similarly uses a 240 MS/s sample rate. A sample rate of around five to 10 times the analog bandwidth seems about standard.

Having the AWG integrated into the oscilloscope opens up a few useful features. When implementing a serial protocol decoder, you may want to know what happens if the baud rate is slightly off from the expected rate. You can quickly perform this test by recording a serial data packet on the oscilloscope, copying it to the AWG, and adjusting the AWG sample rate to slightly raise or lower the baud rate. I illustrate this in the following video.


Topic 4: Clock Synchronization

One final issue of interest: In certain applications, you may need to synchronize the sample rate to an external device. Oscilloscopes will often have two features for doing this. One will output a clock from the oscilloscope, the other will allow you to feed an external clock into the oscilloscope.

The obvious application is synchronizing a capture between multiple oscilloscopes. You can, however, use this for any application where you wish to use a synchronous capture methodology. For example, if you wish to use the oscilloscope as part of a software-defined radio (SDR), you may want to ensure the sampling happens synchronous to a recovered clock.

The input frequency of this clock is typically 10 MHz, although some devices enable you to select between several allowed frequencies. If the source of this clock is anything besides another instrument, you may have to do some clock conditioning to convert it into one of the valid clock source ranges.

Summary and Closing Comments
That’s it! Over the past four weeks I’ve tried to raise a number of issues to consider when selecting an oscilloscope. As previously mentioned, the examples were often PicoScope-heavy simply because it is the oscilloscope I own. But all the topics have been relevant to any other oscilloscope you may have.

You can check out my YouTube playlist dealing with oscilloscope selection and review.  Some topics might suggest further questions to ask.

I’ve probably overlooked a few issues, but I can’t cover every possible oscilloscope and option. When selecting a device, my final piece of advice is to download the user manual and study it carefully, especially for features you find most important. Although the datasheet may gloss over some details, the user manual will typically address the limitations you’ll run into, such as FFT length or the memory depths you can configure.

Author’s note: Every reasonable effort has been made to ensure example specifications are accurate. There may, however, be errors or omissions in this article. Please confirm all referenced specifications with the device vendor.

Industrial Temperature SBCs

EMACThe iPAC-9X25 embedded SBC is based on Atmel’s AT91SAM9X25 microprocessor. It is well suited for industrial temperature embedded data acquisition and control applications.
This web-enabled microcontroller can run an embedded server and display the current monitored or logged data. The web connection is available via two 10/100 Base-T Ethernet ports or 802.11 Wi-Fi networking. The iPAC-9X25’s connectors are brought out as headers on a board.

The SBC has a –40°C to 85°C industrial temperature range and utilizes 4 GB of eMMC flash, 16 MB of serial data flash (for boot), and 128 MB of DDR RAM. Its 3.77“ × 3.54“ footprint is the same as a standard PC/104 module.

The iPAC 9X25 features one RS-232 serial port with full handshake (RTS/CTS/DTR/DSR/RI), two RS-232 serial ports (TX and RX only), one RS-232/-422/-485 serial port with RTS/CTS handshake, two USB 2.0 host ports, and one USB device port. The board has seven channels of 12-bit audio/digital (0 to 3.3 V) and an internal real-time clock/calendar with battery backup. It also includes 21 GPIO (3.3-V) lines on header, eight high-drive open-collector dedicated digital output lines with configurable voltage tolerance, 16 GPIO (3.3 V) on header, two PWM I/O lines, five synchronous serial I/O lines (I2S), five SPI lines (two SPI CS), I2C bus, CAN bus, a microSD socket, external Reset button capabilities, and power and status LEDs.
The iPac-9X25 costs $198.

EMAC, Inc.
www.emacinc.com