Engineering Consultant and Roboticist

Eric Forkosh starting building his first robot when he was a teenager and has been designing ever since. This NYC-based electrical engineer’s projects include everything from dancing robots to remote monitoring devices to cellular module boards to analog signals—Nan Price, Associate Editor


NAN: Tell us about your start-up company, Narobo.

forkosh

Eric Forkosh

ERIC: Narobo is essentially the company through which I do all my consulting work. I’ve built everything from dancing robots to cellular field equipment. Most recently I’ve been working with some farmers in the Midwest on remote monitoring. We monitor a lot of different things remotely, and I’ve helped develop an online portal and an app. The most interesting feature of our system is that we have a custom tablet rig that can interface directly to the electronics over just the USB connection. We use Google’s Android software development kit to pull that off.

ERIC: The DroneCell was my second official product released, the first being the Roboduino. The Roboduino was relatively simple; it was just a modified Arduino that made building robots easy. We used to sell it online at CuriousInventor.com for a little while, and there was always a trickle of sales, but it was never a huge success. I still get a kick out of seeing Roboduino in projects online, it’s always nice to see people appreciating my work.

dronecell3

The DroneCell is a cellular module board that communicates with devices with TTL UARTs.

The DroneCell is the other product of mine, and my personal favorite. It’s a cellular module board geared toward the hobbyist. A few years ago, if you wanted to add cellular functionality to your system you had to do a custom PCB for it. You had to deal with really low voltage levels, very high peak power draws, and hard-to-read pins. DroneCell solved the problem and made it very easy to interface to hobbyist systems such as the Arduino. Putting on proper power regulation was easy, but my biggest design challenge was how to handle the very low voltage levels. In the end, I put together a very clever voltage shifter that worked with 3V3 and 5 V, with some calculated diodes and resistors.

NAN: Tell us about your first project. Where were you at the time and what did you learn from the experience?

butlerrobot

Eric’s Butler robot was his first electronics project. He started building it when he was still in high school.

ERIC: The Butler robot was my first real electronics project. I started building it in ninth grade, and for a really stupid reason. I just wanted to build a personal robot, like on TV. My first version of the Butler robot was cobbled together using an old laptop, a USB-to-I/O converter called Phidgets, and old wheelchair motors I bought on eBay.

I didn’t use anything fancy for this robot, all the software was written in Visual Basic and ran on Windows XP. For motor controllers, I used some old DPDT automotive relays I had lying around. They did the job but obviously I wasn’t able to PWM them for speed control.

My second version came about two years later, and was built with the intention of winning the Instructables Robot contest. I didn’t win first place, but my tutorial “How to Build a Butler Robot” placed in the top 10 and was mentioned in The Instructables Book in print. This version was a cleaner version of everything I had done before. I built a sleek black robot body (at least it was sleek back then!) and fabricated an upside-down bowl-shaped head that housed the webcam. The electronics were basically the same. The main new features were a basic robot arm that poured you a drink (two servos and a large DC motor) and a built-in mini fridge. I also got voice command to work really well by hooking up my Visual Basic software with Dragon’s speech-to-text converter.

The Butler robot was a great project and I learned a lot about electronics and software from doing it. If I were to build a Butler robot right now, I’d do it completely differently. But I think it was an important to my engineering career and it taught me that anything is possible with some hacking and hard work.

At the same time as I was doing my Butler robot (probably around 2008), I lucked out and was hired by an entertainer in Hong Kong. He saw my Butler robot online and hired me to build him a dancing robot that was synced to music. We solved the issue of syncing to music by putting dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) tones on the left channel audio and music on the right channel. The right channel went to speakers and the left channel went to a decoder that translated DTMF tone sequences to robot movement. This was good because all the data and dance moves were part of the same audio file. All we had to do was prepare special audio files and the robot would work with any music player (e.g., iPod, laptop, CD, etc.). The robot is used in shows to this day, and my performer client even hired a professional cartoon voice actor to give the robot a personality.

NAN: You were an adjunct professor at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. What types of courses did you teach and what did you enjoy most about teaching?

ERIC: I will be entering my senior year at Cooper Union in the Fall 2014. Two years ago, I took a year off from school to pursue my work. This past year I completed my junior year. I taught a semester of “Microcontroller Projects” at Cooper Union during my year off from being a student. We built a lot of really great projects using Arduino. One final project that really impressed me was a small robot car that parallel parked itself. Another project was a family of spider robots that were remotely controlled and could shrink up into a ball.

Cooper Union is filled with really bright students and teaching exposed me to the different thought processes people have when trying to build a solution. I think teaching helped me grow as a person and helped me understand that in engineering—and possibly in life—there is no one right answer. There are different paths to the same destination. I really enjoyed teaching because it made me evaluate my understanding about electronics, software, and robotics. It forced me to make sure I really understood what was going on in intricate detail.

NAN: You have competed in robotics competitions including RoboCup in Austria. Tell us about these experiences—what types of robots did you build for the competitions?

robocup

Eric worked with his high school’s robotics team to design this robot for a RoboCup competition.

ERIC: In high school I was the robotics team captain and we built a line-following robot and a soccer robot to compete in RoboCup Junior in the US. We won first place in the RoboCup Junior Northeast Regional and were invited to compete in Austria for the International RoboCup Junior games. So we traveled as a team to Austria to compete and we got to see a lot of interesting projects and many other soccer teams compete. I remember the Iranian RoboCup Junior team had a crazy robot that competed against us; it was built out of steel and looked like a miniature tank.

My best memory from Austria was when our robot broke and I had to fix it. Our robot was omnidirectional with four omni wheels in each corner that let it drive at any angle or orientation it wanted. It could zigzag across the field without a problem. At our first match, I put the robot down on the little soccer field to compete… and it wouldn’t move. During transportation, one of the motors broke. Disappointed, we had to forfeit that match. But I didn’t give up. I removed one of the wheels and rewrote the code to operate with only three motors functional. Again we tried to compete, and again another motor appeared to be broken. I removed yet another wheel and stuck a bottle cap as a caster wheel on the back. I rewrote the code, which was running on a little Microchip Technology PIC microcontroller, and programmed the robot to operate with only two wheels working. The crippled robot put up a good fight, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough. I think we scored one goal total, and that was when the robot had just two wheels working.

After the competition, during an interview with the judges, we had a laugh comparing our disabled robot to the videos we took back home with the robot scoring goal after goal. I learned from that incident to always be prepared for the worst, do your best, and sometimes stuff just happens. I’m happy I tried and did my best to fix it, I have no regrets. I have a some of the gears from that robot at home on display as a reminder to always prepare for emergencies and to always try my best.

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

ERIC: The last product would be an op-amp I bought, probably the 411 chip. For a current project, I had to generate a –5-to-5-V analog signal from a microcontroller. My temporary solution was to RC filter the PWM output from the op-amp and then use an amplifier with a
gain of 2 and a 2.5-V “virtual ground.” The result is that 2.5 V is the new “zero” voltage. You can achieve –5 V by giving the op-amp 0 V, a –2.5-V difference that is amplified by 2 to yield 5 V. Similarly, 5 V is a 2.5-V difference from the virtual ground, amplified by 2 it provides a 5-V output.

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

ERIC: I think the next big thing will be personalized health care via smartphones. There are already some insulin pumps and heart monitors that communicate with special smartphone apps via Bluetooth. I think that’s excellent. We have all this computing power in our pockets, we should put it to good use. It would be nice to see these apps educating smartphone users—the patients themselves— about their current health condition. It might inspire patients/users to live healthier lifestyles and take care of themselves. I don’t think the FDA is completely there yet, but I’m excited to see what the future will bring. Remember, the future is what you build it to be.

Eco-Friendly Home Automation Controller

The 2012 DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge invited engineers from around the world to submit eco-friendly projects using the Digilent chipKIT Max32 development board. Manuel Iglesias Abbatemarco of Venezuela won honorable mention with his autonomous home-automation controller. His design enables users to monitor and control household devices and to log and upload temperature, humidity, and energy-use sensor data to “the cloud” (see Photo 1).

The design comprised a Digilent chipKIT board (bottom), my MPPT charger board (chipSOLAR, middle), and my wireless board (chipWIRELESS, top).

Photo 1: The design comprised a Digilent chipKIT board (bottom), my MPPT charger board (chipSOLAR, middle), and my wireless board (chipWIRELESS, top).

The system, built around the chipKIT Arduino-compatible board, connects to Abbatemarco’s custom-made “chipSOLAR” board that uses a solar panel and two rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-on) cells to provide continuous power. The board implements a maximum power point tracking (MPPT) charger that deals with a solar panel’s nonlinear output efficiency. A “chipWIRELESS” board integrating a Quad Band GSM/GPRS modem, an XBee socket, an SD card connector, and a real-time clock and calendar (RTCC) enables home sensor and cloud connectivity. The software was written using chipKIT MPIDE, and the SD card logs the data from sensors.

“Since the contest, I have made some additions to the system,” Abbatemarco says. “The device’s aim is uninterrupted household monitoring and control. To accomplish this, I focused on two key features: the power controller and the communication with external devices (e.g., sensors). I used DesignSpark software to create two PCBs for these features.”

Abbatemarco describes his full project, including his post-contest addition of a web server, in his article appearing in Circuit Cellar’s May issue. In the meantime, you’ll find descriptions of his overall design, power management board, and wireless board in the following article excerpts.

DESIGN OVERVIEW
The system’s design is based on a Digilent chipKIT Max32 board, which is an Arduino-compatible board with a Microchip Technology 32-bit processor and 3.3-V level I/O with almost the same footprint as an Arduino Mega microcontroller. The platform has all the computational power needed for the application and enough peripherals to add all the required external hardware.

I wanted to have a secure and reliable communication channel to connect with the outside world, so I incorporated general packet radio service (GPRS). This enables the device to use a TCP/IP client to connect to web services. It can also use Short Message Service (SMS) to exchange text messages to cellular phones. The device uses a serial port to communicate with the chipKIT board.

I didn’t want to deal with cables for the internal-sensor home network, so I decided to make the system wireless. I used XBee modules, as they offer a good compromise between price and development time. Also, if properly configured, they don’t consume too much energy. The XBee device uses a serial port to communicate with the chipKIT board.
To make the controller”green,” I designed a power-management board that can work with a solar panel and several regulated DC voltages. I chose a hardware implementation of an MPPT controller because I wanted to make my application as reliable as possible and have more software resources for the home controller task.

One board provides power management and the other enables communication, which includes additional hardware such as an SD card, an XBee module, and an RTCC. Note: I included the RTCC since the chipKIT board does not come with a crystal oscillator. I also included a prototyping area, which later proved to be very useful.

I was concerned about how users inside a home would interact with the device. The idea of a built-in web server to help configure and interact with the device had not materialized before I submitted the contest entry. This solution is very practical, since you can access the device through its built-in server to configure or download log files while you are on your home network.

POWER MANAGEMENT BOARD
To make the system eco-friendly, I needed to enable continuous device operation using only a solar panel and a rechargeable Li-ion battery. The system consumes a considerable amount of power, so it needed a charge controller. Its main task was to control the battery-charging process. However, to work properly, it also had to account for the solar panel’s characteristics.

A solar panel can’t deliver constant power like a wall DC adapter does. Instead, power varies in a complex way according to atmospheric conditions (e.g., light and temperature).
For a given set of operational conditions, there is always a single operating point where the panel delivers its maximum power. The idea is to operate the panel in the maximum power point regardless of the external conditions.

I used Linear Technology’s LT3652 MPPT charger IC, which uses an input voltage regulation loop. The chip senses the panel output voltage and maintains it over a value by adjusting the current drawn. A voltage divider network is used to program the setpoint.
You must know the output voltage the panel produces when operated at the maximum power point. I couldn’t find the manufacturer’s specification sheet for the solar panel, but the distributor provides some experimental numbers. Because I was in a hurry to meet the contest deadline, I used that information. Based on those tests, the solar panel can produce approximately 8 V at 1.25 A, which is about 10 W of power.

I chose 8 V as the panel’s maximum power point voltage. The resistor divider output is connected to the LT3652’s VIN_REG pin. The chip has a 2.7-V reference, which means the charge current is reduced when this pin’s voltage goes below 2.7 V.

I used a two-cell Li-ion battery, but since the LTC3652 works with two, three, and four cells, the same board with different components can be used with a three- or four-cell battery. The LT3652 requires an I/O voltage difference of at least 3.3 V for reliable start-up, and it was clear that the panel’s 8-V nominal output would not be enough. I decided to include a voltage step-up stage in front of the LT3652.

I used Linear Technology’s LT3479 DC/DC converter to get the panel output to around 18 V to feed the MPPT controller. This only works if the LT3562’s voltage control loop still takes the VIN_REG reference directly from the panel output. Figures 1 and 2 show the circuit.

Power management board

Figure 1: Power management board

Figure 2: Power management board

Figure 2: Power management board

I could have fed the chipKIT on-board 5-V linear regulator with the battery, but I preferred to include another switching regulator to minimize losses. I used Linear Technology’s LTC3112 DC/DC converter. The only problem was that I needed to be able to combine its output with the chipKIT board’s 5 V, either through the USB port or the DC wall adapter option.

The chipKIT board includes a Microchip Technology MCP6001 op-amp in comparator configuration to compare USB voltage against a jack DC input voltage, enabling only one to be the 5-V source at a given time. Something similar was needed, so I included a Linear Technology LTC4411 IC, which is a low-loss replacement ORing diode, to solve the problem.

To my knowledge, when I designed the board a battery gauge for two-cell lithium batteries (e.g., a coulomb counter that can indicate accumulated battery charge and discharge) wasn’t available. The available options needed to handle most of the computational things in software, so I decided it was not an option. I included a voltage buffer op-amp to take advantage of the LTC3112’s dedicated analog voltage output, which gives you an estimate of the instantaneous current being drawn. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get it to work. So I ended up not using it.

Building this board was a challenge, since most components are 0.5-mm pitch with exposed pads underneath. IC manufacturers suggest using a solid inner ground layer for switching regulators, so I designed a four-layer board. If you have soldering experience, you can imagine how hard it is to solder the board using only a hot air gun and a soldering iron. That’s why I decided it was time to experiment with a stencil, solder paste, and a convection oven. I completed the board by using a commercially available kitchen convection oven and manually adjusting the temperature to match the reflow profile since I don’t have a controller (see Photo 2).

Photo 3: Custom chipSOLAR board

Photo 2: Custom chipSOLAR board

WIRELESS BOARD
The wireless board has all the components for GPRS communication and the 802.15.4 home network, as well as additional components for the SD file system and the RTCC. Figure 3 shows the circuit.

Figure 3: The communication board schematic is shown.

Figure 3: The communication board schematic is shown.

At the time of the contest, I used a SIMCom Wireless Solutions SIM340 GPRS modem. The company now offers a replacement, the SIM900B. The only physical differences are the board-to-board connectors, but the variations are so minimal that you can use the same footprint for both connectors.

During the contest, I only had the connector for the SIM340 on hand, so I based almost all the firmware on that model. Later, I got the SIM900B connector and modified the firmware. The Project Files include the #if defined clause for SIM900 or SIM340 snippets.

A couple of things made me want to test the SIM900B module, among them the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) server functionality and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS). Ultimately, I discovered that my 32-MB flash memory version of the SIM900B was not suitable for those firmware versions. The 64-MB version of the hardware is required.
The subscriber identity module (SIM) card receptacle and associated ESD protection circuitry are located on the upper side of the board. The I/O lines connected to the modem are serial TX, RX, and a power-on signal using a transistor.

The chipKIT Max32 board does not have a 32,768-Hz crystal, so Microchip Technology’s PIC32 internal RTCC was not an option. I decided to include Microchip Technology’s MCP79402 RTCC with a super capacitor, mainly for service purposes as the system is already backed up with the lithium battery.

I should have placed the SD card slot on the top of the board. That could have saved me some time during the debugging stage, when I have had some problems with SD firmware that corrupts the SD file system. When I designed the board, I was trying to make it compatible with other platforms, so I included level translators for the SD card interface. I made the mistake of placing a level translator at the master input slave output (MISO), which caused a conflict in the bus with other SPI devices. I removed it and wire-wrapped the I/O lines.

Another issue with this board was the XBee module’s serial port net routing, but it was nothing that cutting some traces and wire wrap could not fix. Photo 3 shows all the aforementioned details and board component location.

Photo 3: This communication board includes several key components to enable wireless communication with sensors,  the Internet, and cellular networks.

Photo 3: This communication board includes several key components to enable wireless communication with sensors,the Internet, and cellular networks.

Editor’s Note: Visit here to read about other projects from the 2012 DesignSpark chipKIT Challenge.

Op-Amp Versus Comparator (EE Tip #128)

Practically every lecture course or textbook on electronics describes how to use an operational amplifier as a comparator. Here we look at the possibility in more detail, and see how it can often be a very poor idea.

The idea behind the comparator configuration is simple. An op-amp has a very high open-loop DC gain which means that even a tiny differential input voltage will drive the output to one extreme or the other. If the voltage at the non-inverting (“+”) input is greater than that at the inverting (“–“) input the output goes high; otherwise the output goes low. In other words the two voltages are compared and the output is a binary indication of which of the two is the greater.

Figure 1: SPICE simulation results: an LT1028 op-amp pressed into service as a comparator versus a real comparator type LT1720.

Figure 1: SPICE simulation results: an LT1028 op-amp pressed into service as a comparator versus a real comparator type LT1720.

So the op-amp looks like the perfect device to use as a comparator. But why then do there exist special-purpose comparator devices? Looked at from the outside, op-amps and comparators appear indistinguishable. Besides power connections, they both have “+” and “–” inputs and a single output. Taking a look at the internal circuit diagram, again the two devices appear broadly very similar (although a comparator device with an open-collector or open-drain output does look more obviously different from an op-amp). The big difference, which is not apparent without looking at the circuit more closely, is that the output stages of operational amplifiers are designed for linear operation, with the general aim of amplifying the input signal with as little distortion as possible (assuming that some negative feedback is provided), but in the case of a comparator the output circuit is designed to operate in saturation, that is, to switch between the upper and lower output voltage limits without the provision of external feedback. Comparators often also offer a ground connection in addition to the usual power connections, and provide digital logic levels at their outputs while accepting symmetrical analogue input signals.

What do these differences mean in practice? Comparators can react very quickly to changes in their input voltages with short propagation delays and output rise- and fall-times all specified by the manufacturer.

In contrast, because op-amps are not expected to be used in this mode, manufacturers tend not to give explicit specifications for propagation delay and rise- and fall-times (although they do normally specify slew rate), and these characteristics can be considerably poorer for op-amps than for comparators. To take an extreme example, a low-power op-amp might have a propagation delay measured in milliseconds, whereas a comparator might react in nanoseconds: a million times faster.

There is a further problem with op-amps. Many devices exhibit significantly increased power consumption when the output is in saturation, the resulting power dissipation on occasion being enough to destroy the device. Also, many op-amps (those not advertised as having “rail-to-rail outputs”) are not capable of driving their outputs close to the supply rails, for example having a maximum output voltage of 3 V with a 5-V supply. There can also be restrictions on the inputs. Some op-amps are equipped with antiparallel diodes across their input terminals, which prevent differential input voltages of more than about 0.6 V, whereas comparators’ inputs are often allowed to vary over the whole supply range.

Of course, there are many noncritical applications where an op-amp will work perfectly acceptably as a comparator, but it is not a practice to be recommended. The skeptic should lash up a quick test with a comparator and an op-amp side-by-side, each fed with a squarewave signal with rapid edges. Some of the potential pitfalls are shown up more easily in simulation, such as the possibility of an op-amp being so slow that it entirely misses a narrow pulse. It is hard to guarantee circuit performance, current consumption, and even the survival of the device.

The illustrations show a SPICE simulation of a relatively nimble op-amp (an LT1028 with a minimum slew rate of 11 V/µs) and a type LT1720 comparator. It is clear that the comparator responds sooner and with a much shorter rise-time. Its output swings all the way to +5 V rather than the 3 V managed by the op-amp. The situation is similar when the output swings low: the op-amp is much slower and only reaches an output voltage of –3 V rather than –5 V. The original squarewave is hardly recognizable at the op-amp’s output. Although the LT1028 cannot achieve its maximum specified gain with a –5-V supply, it is still a factor of at least 20 faster than an LM324 (with a slew rate of 0.5 V/µs); what the latter would make of our squarewave would not be a pretty sight. The op-amp fails to cope at all with shorter pulses, which are then effectively “swallowed,” while the comparator continues to handle them without difficulty.

Worthwhile further reading on this subject is Texas Instruments application note SLOA067 by Bruce Carter entitled “Op Amps and Comparators—Don’t Confuse Them!.”— Michael Holzl, Elektor January 2011

CircuitCellar.com is an Elektor International Media publication.

New 8-bit PIC Microcontrollers: Intelligent Analog & Core Independent Peripherals

Microchip Technology, Inc. announced Monday from EE Live! and the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose the PIC16(L)F170X and PIC16(L)F171X family of 8-bit microcontrollers (MCUs), which combine a rich set of intelligent analog and core independent peripherals, along with cost-effective pricing and eXtreme Low Power (XLP) technology. Available in 14-, 20-, 28-, and 40/44-pin packages, the 11-member PIC16F170X/171X family of microcontrollers integrates two op-amps to drive analog control loops, sensor amplification and basic signal conditioning, while reducing system cost and board space.

PIC16F170X/171X MCUs reduce design complexity and system BOM cost with integrated op-amps, zero cross detect, and peripheral pin select.

PIC16F170X/171X MCUs reduce design complexity and system BOM cost with integrated op-amps, zero cross detect, and peripheral pin select.

These new devices also offer built-in Zero Cross Detect (ZCD) to simplify TRIAC control and minimize the EMI caused by switching transients. Additionally, these are the first PIC16 MCUs with Peripheral Pin Select, a pin-mapping feature that gives designers the flexibility to designate the pinout of many peripheral functions.

The PIC16F170X/171X are general-purpose microcontrollers that are ideal for a broad range of applications, such as consumer (home appliances, power tools, electric razors), portable medical (blood-pressure meters, blood-glucose meters, pedometers), LED lighting, battery charging, power supplies and motor control.

The new microcontrollers feature up to 28 KB of self-read/write flash program memory, up to 2 KB of RAM, a 10-bit ADC, a 5-/8-bit DAC, Capture-Compare PWM modules, stand-alone 10-bit PWM modules and high-speed comparators (60 ns typical response), along with EUSART, I2C and SPI interface peripherals. They also feature XLP technology for typical active and sleep currents of just 35 µA/MHz and 30 nA, respectively, helping to extend battery life and reduce standby current consumption.

The PIC16F170X/171X family is supported by Microchip’s standard suite of world-class development tools, including the PICkit 3 (part # PG164130, $44.95), MPLAB ICD 3 (part # DV164035, $189.99), PICkit 3 Low Pin Count Demo Board (part # DM164130-9, $25.99), PICDEM Lab Development Kit (part # DM163045, $134.99) and PICDEM 2 Plus (part # DM163022-1, $99.99). The MPLAB Code Configurator is a free tool that generates seamless, easy-to-understand C code that is inserted into your project. It currently supports the PIC16F1704/08, and is expected to support the PIC16F1713/16 in April, along with all remaining microcontrollers in this family soon thereafter.

The PIC16(L)F1703/1704/1705 microcontrollers are available now for sampling and production in 14-pin PDIP, TSSOP, SOIC and QFN (4 x 4 x 0.9 mm) packages. The PIC16F1707/1708/1709 microcontrollers are available now for sampling and production in 20-pin PDIP, SSOP, SOIC and QFN (4 x 4 x 0.9 mm) packages. The PIC16F1713/16 MCUs are available now for sampling and production in 28-pin PDIP, SSOP, SOIC, QFN (6 x 6 x 0.9 mm) and UQFN (4 x 4 x 0.5 mm) packages. The PIC16F1718 microcontrollers are expected to be available for sampling and production in May 2014, in 28-pin PDIP, SSOP, SOIC, QFN (6 x 6 x 0.9 mm) and UQFN (4 x 4 x 0.5 mm) packages. The PIC16F1717/19 microcontrollers are expected to be available for sampling and production in May 2014, in 40/44-pin PDIP, TQFP and UQFN (5 x 5 x 0.5 mm). Pricing starts at $0.59 each, in 10,000-unit quantities.

Source: Microchip Technology, Inc.

A Look at Low-Noise Amplifiers

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio, who has a PhD in Physics, is an Italian telecommunications engineer who works mainly as a software developer with a focus on data acquisition systems. Emilio has authored articles about electronic designs, data acquisition systems, power supplies, and photovoltaic systems. In this article, he provides an overview of what is generally available in low-noise amplifiers (LNAs) and some of the applications.

By Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio
An LNA, or preamplifier, is an electronic amplifier used to amplify sometimes very weak signals. To minimize signal power loss, it is usually located close to the signal source (antenna or sensor). An LNA is ideal for many applications including low-temperature measurements, optical detection, and audio engineering. This article presents LNA systems and ICs.

Signal amplifiers are electronic devices that can amplify a relatively small signal from a sensor (e.g., temperature sensors and magnetic-field sensors). The parameters that describe an amplifier’s quality are:

  • Gain: The ratio between output and input power or amplitude, usually measured in decibels
  • Bandwidth: The range of frequencies in which the amplifier works correctly
  • Noise: The noise level introduced in the amplification process
  • Slew rate: The maximum rate of voltage change per unit of time
  • Overshoot: The tendency of the output to swing beyond its final value before settling down

Feedback amplifiers combine the output and input so a negative feedback opposes the original signal (see Figure 1). Feedback in amplifiers provides better performance. In particular, it increases amplification stability, reduces distortion, and increases the amplifier’s bandwidth.

 Figure 1: A feedback amplifier model is shown here.


Figure 1: A feedback amplifier model is shown.

A preamplifier amplifies an analog signal, generally in the stage that precedes a higher-power amplifier.

IC LOW-NOISE PREAMPLIFIERS
Op-amps are widely used as AC amplifiers. Linear Technology’s LT1028 or LT1128 and Analog Devices’s ADA4898 or AD8597 are especially suitable ultra-low-noise amplifiers. The LT1128 is an ultra-low-noise, high-speed op-amp. Its main characteristics are:

  • Noise voltage: 0.85 nV/√Hz at 1 kHz
  • Bandwidth: 13 MHz
  • Slew rate: 5 V/µs
  • Offset voltage: 40 µV

Both the Linear Technology and Analog Devices amplifiers have voltage noise density at 1 kHz at around 1 nV/√Hz  and also offer excellent DC precision. Texas Instruments (TI)  offers some very low-noise amplifiers. They include the OPA211, which has 1.1 nV/√Hz  noise density at a  3.6 mA from 5 V supply current and the LME49990, which has very low distortion. Maxim Integrated offers the MAX9632 with noise below 1nV/√Hz.

The op-amp can be realized with a bipolar junction transistor (BJT), as in the case of the LT1128, or a MOSFET, which works at higher frequencies and with a higher input impedance and a lower energy consumption. The differential structure is used in applications where it is necessary to eliminate the undesired common components to the two inputs. Because of this, low-frequency and DC common-mode signals (e.g., thermal drift) are eliminated at the output. A differential gain can be defined as (Ad = A2 – A1) and a common-mode gain can be defined as (Ac = A1 + A2 = 2).

An important parameter is the common-mode rejection ratio (CMRR), which is the ratio of common-mode gain to the differential-mode gain. This parameter is used to measure the  differential amplifier’s performance.

Figure 2: The design of a simple preamplifier is shown. Its main components are the Linear Technology LT112 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).

Figure 2: The design of a simple preamplifier is shown. Its main components are the Linear Technology LT1128 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).

Figure 2 shows a simple preamplifier’s design with 0.8 nV/√Hz at 1 kHz background noise. Its main components are the LT1128 and the Interfet IF3602 junction field-effect transistor (JFET).  The IF3602 is a dual N-channel JFET used as stage for the op-amp’s input. Figure 3 shows the gain and Figure 4 shows the noise response.

Figure 3: The gain of a low-noise preamplifier.

Figure 3: The is a low-noise preamplifier’s gain.

 

Figure 4: The noise response of a low-noise preamplifier

Figure 4: A low-noise preamplifier’s noise response is shown.

LOW NOISE PREAMPLIFIER SYSTEMS
The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier has a differential front end with 4nV/√Hz input noise and a 100-MΩ input impedance (see Photo 1a). Input offset nulling is accomplished by a front-panel potentiometer, which is accessible with a small screwdriver. In addition to the signal inputs, a rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the instrument’s gain on and off (see Photo 1b).

Photo 1a:The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier

Photo 1a: The Stanford Research Systems SR560 low-noise voltage preamplifier. (Photo courtesy of Stanford Research Systems)

Photo 1 b: A rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the Stanford Research Systems SR560 gain on and off.

Photo 1b: A rear-panel TTL blanking input enables you to quickly turn the Stanford Research Systems SR560 gain on and off. (Photo courtesy of Stanford Research Systems)

The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier provides a fixed 20-dB gain while converting a 1-MΩ input impedance to a 50-Ω output impedance and 0.1-Hz to 100-MHz bandwidth (see Photo 2). The preamplifier is used to improve the sensitivity of oscilloscopes, network analyzers, and spectrum analyzers while reducing the effective noise floor and spurious response.

Photo 2: The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier is shown.

Photo 2: The Picotest J2180A low-noise preamplifier is shown. (Photo courtesy of picotest.com)

Signal Recovery’s Model 5113 is among the best low-noise preamplifier systems. Its principal characteristics are:

  • Single-ended or differential input modes
  • DC to 1-MHz frequency response
  • Optional low-pass, band-pass, or high-pass signal channel filtering
  • Sleep mode to eliminate digital noise
  • Optically isolated RS-232 control interface
  • Battery or line power

The 5113 (see Photo 3 and Figure 5) is used in applications as diverse as radio astronomy, audiometry, test and measurement, process control, and general-purpose signal amplification. It’s also ideally suited to work with a range of lock-in amplifiers.

Photo 3: This is the Signal Recovery Model 5113 low-noise pre-amplifier.

Photo 3: This is the Signal Recovery Model 5113 low-noise preamplifier. (Photo courtesy of Signal Recovery)

Figure 5: Noise contour figures are shown for the Signal Recovery Model 5113.

Figure 5: Noise contour figures are shown for the Signal Recovery Model 5113.

WRAPPING UP
This article briefly introduced low-noise amplifiers, in particular IC system designs utilized in simple or more complex systems such as the Signal Recovery Model 5113, which is a classic amplifier able to obtain different frequency bands with relative gain. A similar device is the SR560, which is a high-performance, low-noise preamplifier that is ideal for a wide variety of applications including low-temperature measurements, optical detection, and audio engineering.

Moreover, the Krohn-Hite custom Models 7000 and 7008 low-noise differential preamplifiers provide a high gain amplification to 1 MHz with an AC output derived from a very-low-noise FET instrumentation amplifier.

One common LNA amplifier is a satellite communications system. The ground station receiving antenna will connect to an LNA, which is needed because the received signal is weak. The received signal is usually a little above background noise. Satellites have limited power, so they use low-power transmitters.

Telecommunications engineer Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio was born in Pescara, Italy. Working mainly as a software developer with a focus on data acquisition systems, he helped design the thermal compensation system (TCS) for the optical system used in the Virgo Experiment (an experiment for detecting gravitational waves). Maurizio currently collaborates with researchers at the University of L’Aquila on X-ray technology. He also develops data acquisition hardware and software for industrial applications and manages technical training courses. To learn more about Maurizio and his expertise, read his essay on “The Future of Data Acquisition Technology.”