Bit Banging

Shlomo Engelberg, an associate professor in the electronics department of the Jerusalem College of Technology, is well-versed in signal processing. As an instructor and the author of several books, including Digital Signal Processing: An Experimental Approach (Springer, 2008), he is a skilled guide to how to use the UART “protocol” to implement systems that transmit and receive data without a built-in peripheral.

Implementing serial communications using software rather than hardware is called bit-banging, the topic of his article in Circuit Cellar’s June issue.

“There is no better way to understand a protocol than to implement it yourself from scratch,” Engelberg says. “If you write code similar to what I describe in this article, you’ll have a good understanding of how signals are transmitted and received by a UART. Additionally, sometimes relatively powerful microprocessors do not have a built-in UART, and knowing how to implement one in software can save you from needing to add an external UART to your system. It can also reduce your parts count.”

In the excerpt below, he explains some UART fundamentals:

UART stands for universal asynchronous receiver/transmitter. The last three words in the acronym are easy enough to understand. “Asynchronous” means that the transmitter and the receiver run on their own clocks. There is no need to run a wire between the transmitter and the receiver to enable them to “share” a clock (as required by certain other protocols). The receiver/transmitter part of the acronym means just what it says: the protocol tells you what signals you need to send from the transmitter and what signals you should expect to acquire at the receiver.

The first term of the acronym, “universal,” is a bit more puzzling. According to Wikipedia, the term “universal” refers to the fact that the data format and the speed of transmission are variable. My feeling has always been that the term “universal” is basically hype; someone probably figured a “universal asynchronous receiver/transmitter” would sell better than a simple “asynchronous receiver/transmitter.”

Figure 1: The waveform output by a microprocessor’s UART is shown. While “at rest,” the UART’s output is in the high state. The transmission begins with a start bit in which the UART’s output is low. The start bit is followed by eight data bits. Finally, there is a stop bit in which the UART’s output is high.

Figure 1: The waveform output by a microprocessor’s UART is shown. While “at rest,” the UART’s output is in the high state. The transmission begins with a start bit in which the UART’s output is low. The start bit is followed by eight data bits. Finally, there is a stop bit in which the UART’s output is high.

Before you can use a UART to transfer information from device to device, the transmitter and receiver have to agree on a few things. First, they must agree on a transmission speed. They must agree that each transmitted bit will have a certain (fixed) duration, denoted TBIT. A 1/9,600-s duration is a typical choice, related to a commonly used crystal’s clock speed, but there are many other possibilities. Additionally, the transmitter and receiver have to agree about the number of data bits to be transmitted each time, the number of stop bits to be used, and the flow control (if any).

When I speak of the transmitter and receiver “agreeing” about these points, I mean that the people programming the transmitting and receiving systems must agree to use a certain data rate, for example. There is no “chicken and egg” problem here. You do not need to have an operational UART before you can use your UART; you only need a bit of teamwork.

Using a UART is considered the simplest way of transmitting information. Figure 1 shows the form the transmissions must always make. The line along which the signal is transmitted is initially “high.” The transmissions begin with a single start bit during which the line is pulled low (as all UART transmissions must). They have eight data bits (neither more nor less) and a single stop bit (and not one and a half or two stop bits) during which the line is once again held high. (Flow control is not used throughout this article.)

Why must this protocol include start and stop bits? The transmitter and the receiver do not share a common clock, so how does the receiver know when a transmission has begun? It knows by realizing that the wire connecting them is held high while a transmission is not taking place, “watching” the wire connecting them, and waiting for the voltage level to transition from high to low, which it does by watching and waiting for a start bit. When the wire leaves its “rest state” and goes low, the receiver knows that a transmission has begun. The stop bit guarantees that the line returns to its “high” level at the end of each transmission.

Transmissions have a start and a stop bit, so the UART knows how to read the two words even if one transmits that data word 11111111 and follows it with 11111111. Because of the start and stop bits, when the UART is “looking at” a line on which a transmission is beginning, it sees an initial low level (the start bit), the high level repeated eight times, a ninth high level (the stop bit), and then the pattern repeats. The start bit’s presence enables the UART to determine what’s happening. If the data word being transmitted were 00000000 followed by 00000000, then the stop bit would save the day.

The type of UART connection I describe in this article only requires three wires. One wire is for transmission, one is for reception, and one connects the two systems’ grounds.

The receiver and transmitter both know that each bit in the transmission takes TBIT seconds. After seeing a voltage drop on the line, the receiver waits for TBIT/2 s and re-examines the line. If it is still low, the receiver assumes it is in the middle of the start bit. It waits TBIT seconds and resamples the line. The value it sees is then used to determine data bit 0’s value. The receiver then samples every TBIT seconds until it has sampled all the data bits and the stop bit.

Engelberg’s full article, which you can find in Circuit Cellar’s June issue, goes on to explain UART connections and how he implemented a simple transmitter and receiver. For the projects outlined in his article, he used the evaluation kit for Analog Devices’s ADuC841.

“The transmitter and the receiver are both fairly simple to write. I enjoyed writing them,” Engelberg says in wrapping up his article. “If you like playing with microprocessors and understanding the protocols with which they work, you will probably enjoy writing a transmitter and receiver too. If you do not have time to write the code yourself but you’d like to examine it, feel free to e-mail me at I’ll be happy to e-mail the code to you.”

Real-Time Processing for PCIe Digitizers

Agilent U5303A PCIe 12bit High-Speed DigitizerThe U5303A digitizer and the U5340A FPGA development kit are recent enhancements to Agilent Technologies’s PCI Express (PCIe) high-speed digitizers. The U5303A and the U5340A FPGA add next-generation real-time peak detection functionalities to the PCIe devices.

The U5303A is a 12-bit PCIe digitizer with programmable on-board processing. It offers high performance in a small footprint, making it an ideal platform for many commercial, industrial, and aerospace and defense embedded systems. A data processing unit (DPU) based on the Xilinx Virtex-6 FPGA is at the heart of the U5303A. The DPU controls the module functionality, data flow, and real-time signal processing. This feature enables data reduction and storage to be carried out at the digitizer level, minimizing transfer volumes and accelerating analysis.

The U5340A FPGA development kit is designed to help companies and researchers protect their IP signal-processing algorithms. The FPGA kit enables integration of an advanced real-time signal processing algorithm within Agilent Technologies’s high-speed digitizers. The U5340A features high-speed medical imaging, analytical time-of-flight, lidar ranging, non-destructive testing, and a direct interface to digitizer hardware elements (e.g., the ADC, clock manager, and memory blocks). The FPGA kit includes a library of building blocks, from basic gates to dual-port RAM; a set of IP cores; and ready-to-use scripts that handle all aspects of the build flow.

Contact Agilent Technologies for pricing.

Agilent Technologies, Inc.

DesignCon 2014 in Santa Clara

DesignCon 2014, an educational conference and technology exhibition for electronic design engineers in the high speed communications and semiconductor fields, will be held in late January at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.

DesignCon is the largest gathering of chip, board, and systems designers in the world and focuses on signal integrity at all levels of electronic design, according to the website

The event features the conference, which runs Tuesday through Friday, January 28–31, and the expo on Wednesday and Thursday, January 29–30.

To see the schedule of planned speakers, tutorials, panel discussions, and other events, click here. Information about passes, prices, and registration can be found here.
For more details or assistance, call (415) 947-6135 or (888) 234-9476 or e-mail

DSP vs. RISC Processors (EE Tip #110)

There are a few fundamental differences between DSP and RISC processors. One difference has to do with arithmetic. In the analog domain, saturation, or clipping, isn’t recommended. But it generally comes with a design when, for example, an op-amp is driven high with an input signal. In the digital domain, saturation should be prevented because it causes distortion of the signal being analyzed. But some saturation is better than overflow or wrap-around. Generally speaking, a RISC processor will not saturate, but a DSP will. This is an important feature if you want to do signal processing.

Let’s take a look at an example. Consider a 16-bit processor working with unsigned numbers. The minimum value that can be represented is 0 (0×0000), and the maximum is 65535 (0xFFFF). Compute:

out = 2 × x

where x is an input value (or an intermediate value in a series of calculations). With a generic processor, you’re in trouble when x is greater than 32767.

If x = 33000 (0x80E8), the result is out = 66000 (0x101D0). Because this value can’t be represented with 16 bits, the out = 2 × x processor will truncate the value:

out = 2 × 333000 = 464(0x01D0)

From that point on, all the calculations will be off. On the other end, a DSP (or an arithmetic unit with saturation) will saturate the value to its maximum (or minimum) capability:

out = 2 × 333000 = 65535(0xFFFF)

In the first case, looking at out, it would be wrong to assume that x is a small value. With saturation, the out is still incorrect, although it accurately shows that the input is a large number. Trends in the signal can be tracked with saturation. If the saturation isn’t severe (affecting only a few samples), the signal might be demodulated correctly.

Generic RISC processors like the NXP (Philips) LPC2138 don’t have a saturation function, so it’s important to ensure that the input values or the size of the variable are scaled correctly to prevent overflow. This problem can be avoided with a thorough simulation process.—Circuit Cellar 190, Bernard Debbasch, “ARM-Based Modern Answering Machine,” 2006.

This piece originally appeared in Circuit Cellar 190, 2006. 

CC279: What’s Ahead in the October Issue

Although we’re still in September, it’s not too early to be looking forward to the October issue already available online.

The theme of the issue is signal processing, and contributor Devlin Gualtieri offers an interesting take on that topic.

Gualtieiri, who writes a science and technology blog, looks at how to improve Improvig Microprocessor Audio microprocessor audio.

“We’re immersed in a world of beeps and boops,” Gualtieri says. “Every digital knick-knack we own, from cell phones to microwave ovens, seeks to attract our attention.”

“Many simple microprocessor circuits need to generate one, or several, audio alert signals,” he adds. “The designer usually uses an easily programmed square wave voltage as an output pin that feeds a simple piezoelectric speaker element. It works, but it sounds awful. How can microprocessor audio be improved in some simple ways?”

Gualtieri’s article explains how analog circuitry and sine waves are often a better option than digital circuitry and square waves for audio alert signals.

Another article that touches on signal processing is columnist Colin Flynn’s look at advanced methods of debugging an FPGA design. It’s the debut of his new column Programmable Logic in Practice.

“This first article introduces the use of integrated logic analyzers, which provide an internal view of your running hardware,” O’Flynn says. “My next article will continue this topic and show you how hardware co-simulation enables you to seamlessly split the verification between real hardware interfacing to external devices and simulated hardware on your computer.”

You can find videos and other material that complement Colin’s articles on his website.

Another October issue highlight is a real prize-winner. The issue features the first installment of a two-part series on the SunSeeker Solar Array Tracker, which won third SunSeekerplace in the 2012 DesignSpark chipKit challenge overseen by Circuit Cellar.

The SunSeeker, designed by Canadian Graig Pearen, uses a Microchip Technology chipKIT Max32 and tracks, monitors, and adjusts PV arrays based on weather and sky conditions. It measures PV and air temperature, compiles statistics, and communicates with a local server that enables the SunSeeker to facilitate software algorithm development. Diagnostic software monitors the design’s motors to show both movement and position.

Pearen, semi-retired from the telecommunications industry and a part-time solar technician, is still refining his original design.

“Over the next two to three years of development and field testing, I plan for it to evolve into a full-featured ‘bells-and-whistles’ solar array tracker,” Pearen says. “I added a few enhancements as the software evolved, but I will develop most of the additional features later.”

Walter Krawec, a PhD student studying Computer Science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, wraps up his two-part series on “Experiments in Developmental Robotics.”

In Part 1, he introduced readers to the basics of artificial neural networks (ANNs) in robots and outlined an architecture for a robot’s evolving neural network, short-term memory system, and simple reflexes and instincts. In Part 2, Krawec discusses the reflex and instinct system that rewards an ENN.

“I’ll also explain the ‘decision path’ system, which rewards/penalizes chains of actions,” he says. “Finally, I’ll describe the experiments we’ve run demonstrating this architecture in a simulated environment.”

Videos of some of Krawec’s robot simulations can be found on his website.

Speaking of robotics, in this issue columnist Jeff Bachiochi introduces readers to the free robot control programming language RobotBASIC and explains how to use it with an integrated simulator for robot communication.

Other columnists also take on a number of very practical subjects. Robert Lacoste explains how inexpensive bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) can be helpful in many designs and outlines how to use one to build an amplifier.

George Novacek, who has found that the cost of battery packs account for half the DIY Battery Chargerpurchase price of his equipment, explains how to build a back-up power source with a lead-acid battery and a charger.

“Building a good battery charger is easy these days because there are many ICs specifically designed for battery chargers,” he says.

Columnist Bob Japenga begins a new series looking at file systems available on Linux for embedded systems.

“Although you could build a Linux system without a file system, most Linux systems will have some sort of file system,” Japenga says. “And there are various types. There are files systems that do not retain their data (volatile) across power outages (i.e., RAM drives). There are nonvolatile read-only file systems that cannot be changed (e.g., CRAMFS). And there are nonvolatile read/write file systems.”

Linux provides all three types of file systems, Japenga says, and his series will address all of them.

Finally, the magazine offers some special features, including an interview with Alenka Zajić, who teaches signal processing and electromagnetics at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Also, two North Carolina State University researchers write about advances in 3-D liquid metal printing and possible applications such as electrical wires that can “heal” themselves after being severed.

For more, check out the Circuit Cellar’s October issue.