Prevent Embedded Design Errors (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Attention, electrical engineers and programmers! Our upcoming 25th Anniversary Issue (available in early 2013) isn’t solely a look back at the history of this publication. Sure, we cover a bit of history. But the issue also features design tips, projects, interviews, and essays on topics ranging from user interface (UI) tips for designers to the future of small RAM devices, FPGAs, and 8-bit chips.

Circuit Cellar’s 25th Anniversary issue … coming in early 2013

Circuit Cellar columnist Robert Lacoste is one of the engineers whose essay will focus on present-day design tips. He explains that electrical engineering projects such as mixed-signal designs can be tedious, tricky, and exhausting. In his essay, Lacoste details 25 errors that once made will surely complicate (at best) or ruin (at worst) an embedded design project. Below are some examples and tips.

Thinking about bringing an electronics design to market? Lacoste highlights a common error many designers make.

Error 3: Not Anticipating Regulatory Constraints

Another common error is forgetting to plan for regulatory requirements from day one. Unless you’re working on a prototype that won’t ever leave your lab, there is a high probability that you will need to comply with some regulations. FCC and CE are the most common, but you’ll also find local regulations as well as product-class requirements for a broad range of products, from toys to safety devices to motor-based machines. (Refer to my article, “CE Marking in a Nutshell,” in Circuit Cellar 257 for more information.)

Let’s say you design a wireless gizmo with the U.S. market and later find that your customers want to use it in Europe. This means you lose years of work, as well as profits, because you overlooked your customers’ needs and the regulations in place in different locals.

When designing a wireless gizmo that will be used outside the U.S., having adequate information from the start will help you make good decisions. An example would be selecting a worldwide-enabled band like the ubiquitous 2.4 GHz. Similarly, don’t forget that EMC/ESD regulations require that nearly all inputs and outputs should be protected against surge transients. If you forget this, your beautiful, expensive prototype may not survive its first day at the test lab.

Watch out for errors

Here’s another common error that could derail a project. Lacoste writes:

Error 10: You Order Only One Set of Parts Before PCB Design

I love this one because I’ve done it plenty of times even though I knew the risk.

Let’s say you design your schematic, route your PCB, manufacture or order the PCB, and then order the parts to populate it. But soon thereafter you discover one of the following situations: You find that some of the required parts aren’t available. (Perhaps no distributor has them. Or maybe they’re available but you must make a minimum order of 10,000 parts and wait six months.) You learn the parts are tagged as obsolete by its manufacturer, which may not be known in advance especially if you are a small customer.

If you are serious about efficiency, you won’t have this problem because you’ll order the required parts for your prototypes in advance. But even then you might have the same issue when you need to order components for the first production batch. This one is tricky to solve, but only two solutions work. Either use only very common parts that are widely available from several sources or early on buy enough parts for a couple of years of production. Unfortunately, the latter is the only reasonable option for certain components like LCDs.

Ok, how about one more? You’ll have to check out the Anniversary Issue for the list of the other 22 errors and tips. Lacoste writes:

Error 12: You Forget About Crosstalk Between Digital and Analog Signals

Full analog designs are rare, so you have probably some noisy digital signals around your sensor input or other low-noise analog lines. Of course, you know that you must separate them as much as possible, but you can be sure that you will forget it more than once.

Let’s consider a real-world example. Some years ago, my company designed a high-tech Hi-Fi audio device. It included an on-board I2C bus linking a remote user interface. Do you know what happened? Of course, we got some audible glitches on the loudspeaker every time there was an I2C transfer. We redesigned the PCB—moving tracks and adding plenty of grounded copper pour and vias between sensitive lines and the problem was resolved. Of course we lost some weeks in between. We knew the risk, but underestimated it because nothing is as sensitive as a pair of ears. Check twice and always put guard-grounded planes between sensitive tracks and noisy ones.

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.





CC267: Continuity of Embedded Tech Content

The October issue features articles on topics ranging from FAT cache to IIR digital filters to a quadcopter that uses a mechanical gyro. Let’s review.

Jeff’s quadcopter uses a mechanical gyro that is “an inexpensive yet elegant attempt to counteract wind gusts.” With its protective shield removed, you can see the motorized spinning rotor that sustains equilibrium as its frame moves.

On page 16, Stuart Oliver details how to use math routines that include the dsPIC hardware features, such as the accumulators and barrel shifter. He uses the math for implementing Assembler routines.

Turn to page 30 to learn how Kerry Imming uses FAT cache for SD card access. You can implement his cache technique in a variety of other applications.

Before you start a new project, familiarize yourself George Novacek’s tips on managing project risk (p. 34). He explains how to define, evaluate, and handle risk. Better yet, why not just reduce risk by avoiding as many problems as possible?

Bob Japenga addresses this issue as well (p. 38). In the third part of his series on concurrency in embedded systems, he details how to avoid concurrency-related problems, which can be difficult because the more concurrency you add to a project, the more complicated it becomes.

Ed Nisley presented a MOSFET tester in his August 2012 article, “MOSFET Channel Resistance.” In this issue, Ed covers temperature measurement, the control circuitry, the firmware’s proportional integral control loop, and more (p. 42).

A fan under the black CPU heatsink keeps it near ambient temperature, so that the Peltier module under the aluminum block can control the MOSFET temperature. The gray epoxy block holds a linearized thermistor circuit connected to the Arduino microcontroller under the PCB. (Source: E. Nisley)

Check out Robert Lacoste’s article on page 58 for an introduction to IIR digital filters. You’ll learn about the differences between IIR filters, FIR filters, and analog filters.

WinFilter allows you to calculate and simulate all kind of IIR filters just by entering their key characteristics (left). The plots shows you the resulting frequency and time behavior. (Source: R. Lacoste)

Working with an unstable mechanical gyro? As Jeff Bachiochi explains, a MEMS system is the solution (p. 68).

Lastly, check out the interview with Helen Li on page 54. You’ll find her impressive research exciting and inspirational.

DIY Solar-Powered, Gas-Detecting Mobile Robot

German engineer Jens Altenburg’s solar-powered hidden observing vehicle system (SOPHECLES) is an innovative gas-detecting mobile robot. When the Texas Instruments MSP430-based mobile robot detects noxious gas, it transmits a notification alert to a PC, Altenburg explains in his article, “SOPHOCLES: A Solar-Powered MSP430 Robot.”  The MCU controls an on-board CMOS camera and can wirelessly transmit images to the “Robot Control Center” user interface.

Take a look at the complete SOPHOCLES design. The CMOS camera is located on top of the robot. Radio modem is hidden behind the camera so only the antenna is visible. A flexible cable connects the camera with the MSP430 microcontroller.

Altenburg writes:

The MSP430 microcontroller controls SOPHOCLES. Why did I need an MSP430? There are lots of other micros, some of which have more power than the MSP430, but the word “power” shows you the right way. SOPHOCLES is the first robot (with the exception of space robots like Sojourner and Lunakhod) that I know of that’s powered by a single lithium battery and a solar cell for long missions.

The SOPHOCLES includes a transceiver, sensors, power supply, motor
drivers, and an MSP430. Some block functions (i.e., the motor driver or radio modems) are represented by software modules.

How is this possible? The magic mantra is, “Save power, save power, save power.” In this case, the most important feature of the MSP430 is its low power consumption. It needs less than 1 mA in Operating mode and even less in Sleep mode because the main function of the robot is sleeping (my main function, too). From time to time the robot wakes up, checks the sensor, takes pictures of its surroundings, and then falls back to sleep. Nice job, not only for robots, I think.

The power for the active time comes from the solar cell. High-efficiency cells provide electric energy for a minimum of approximately two minutes of active time per hour. Good lighting conditions (e.g., direct sunlight or a light beam from a lamp) activate the robot permanently. The robot needs only about 25 mA for actions such as driving its wheel, communicating via radio, or takes pictures with its built in camera. Isn’t that impossible? No! …

The robot has two power sources. One source is a 3-V lithium battery with a 600-mAh capacity. The battery supplies the CPU in Sleep mode, during which all other loads are turned off. The other source of power comes from a solar cell. The solar cell charges a special 2.2-F capacitor. A step-up converter changes the unregulated input voltage into 5-V main power. The LTC3401 changes the voltage with an efficiency of about 96% …

Because of the changing light conditions, a step-up voltage converter is needed for generating stabilized VCC voltage. The LTC3401 is a high-efficiency converter that starts up from an input voltage as low as 1 V.

If the input voltage increases to about 3.5 V (at the capacitor), the robot will wake up, changing into Standby mode. Now the robot can work.

The approximate lifetime with a full-charged capacitor depends on its tasks. With maximum activity, the charging is used after one or two minutes and then the robot goes into Sleep mode. Under poor conditions (e.g., low light for a long time), the robot has an Emergency mode, during which the robot charges the capacitor from its lithium cell. Therefore, the robot has a chance to leave the bad area or contact the PC…

The control software runs on a normal PC, and all you need is a small radio box to get the signals from the robot.

The Robot Control Center serves as an interface to control the robot. Its main feature is to display the transmitted pictures and measurement values of the sensors.

Various buttons and throttles give you full control of the robot when power is available or sunlight hits the solar cells. In addition, it’s easy to make short slide shows from the pictures captured by the robot. Each session can be saved on a disk and played in the Robot Control Center…

The entire article appears in Circuit Cellar 147 2002. Type “solarrobot”  to access the password-protected article.

Modify & Test a Phase Meter Calibrator

Charles Hansen described a DIY phase meter calibrator using all-pass, phase-shift filters in a November 2006 article published in audioXpress magazine. Being able to measure phase angle is often helpful, so I’ll begin by quoting from the beginning of his article:

“A phase angle meter is useful in audio work to determine the phase angle between a reference signal and a phase shifted signal, both having identical time periods. Typical uses include: Finding the phase angle between voltage and current to determine the phase shift and impedance of a loudspeaker over its frequency range. Finding the phase shift between the input and output of a tube amplifier to establish the HF (high frequency) and LF (low frequency) cutoff points needed to avoid instability in feedback amplifiers.”

In addition to these, there are other uses—for example, measuring the phase shift through any active or passive filter which includes equalization networks.

In his design, he chose a set of five calibrations frequencies: 10 Hz, 100 Hz, 1000 Hz, 10 kHz, and 100 kHz. He relied on an external oscillator to drive the calibrator at these input frequencies. I first built the calibrator as described, and then I made some modifications that better suited my needs. But first I will describe how the calibrator works. I think it’s best to just provide a bit more  from Hansen’s article:

“The Phase Angle Calibrator makes use of an op amp filter circuit called the all-pass circuit, which takes a sine-wave input and produces a constant amplitude phase-shifted sine wave output. The lag output version was used in Fig. 1. The theory behind the all-pass filter is available in many reference books and texts, but I found one by Walt Jung [1] that I believe is the easiest for a novice to understand. The phase shift angle is varied by the parallel combination of R3 and R9 through R19 with C3 through C7 in accordance with the formula:

θ = -2 arctan (2ΠRC)

where θ is the phase angle, and f is the frequency. After selecting a suitable value for C, you can solve for R by rearranging the formula:

R = tan(-θ/2) / 2ΠfC

This is hardly a linear relationship. Large changes in resistor value produce very little change in phase angle as you approach 0 or 180 degrees. It’s much easier to apply the input signal to both inputs of the phase angle meter for zero degrees, and use an op-amp inverter to generate the 180 degree signal.”


I added an internal Wein-bridge oscillator to simplify using the calibrator and I changed the set of frequencies to cover just the audio range: 20 Hz, 100 Hz, 1000 Hz, 10 kHz, and 20 kHz. (This range is also easier to cover with a single-range oscillator, the capacitor values stay reasonable.) The actual frequencies, shown in Table 1, vary somewhat from the ideal frequencies because I used standard 1% resistors and 5% capacitors.

Table 1: These are phase calibrator phase-shift measurements. The column labeled “305” refers to the Dranetz model 305 phase meter with 305-PA-3007 plug-in. The column labeled “5245L” refers to the Hewlett-Packard model 5245L frequency counter with a model 5262A time interval unit plug-in. Phase shift measurements at 19.6 kHz are not useful from the HP-5245L counter because the 10-MHz timebase does not provide enough significant figures.

Selecting and matching the capacitors would give closer results, but it’s more important to know what the frequencies are. Because I had already built a circuit board for the calibrator circuit, I used a second circuit board for the oscillator. Figure 1 and Figure 2 are the two circuit diagrams.

Figure 1: Phase angle calibrator using all-pass phase-shift filters. This is a Charles Hansen design, 2005, with circuit board design by the author (PHASECAL.PCB).

Figure 2: Wein-bridge oscillator with lamp amplitude stabilization. Adjust R6 for minimum harmonic distortion. (MAIN115.PCB)

Tables 2 and Table 3 are the parts lists. Please note that the calibrator circuit is unchanged from Hansen’s design, except for the values of the capacitors C3 and C7. In the original, C3 was 470 nF (for 10 Hz) and C7 was 47 pF (for 100 kHz). I put both circuit boards and a ±15-VDC power supply (any regulated supply will suffice) in a Wolgram MC-9 enclosure.

Table 2: Calibrator parts list

Table 3: Wein-bridge oscillator parts list

The completed calibrator is shown in Photo 1 with a Dranetz Phase meter. (More about this later.) The unlabeled knob, lower left in the photo, is an oscillator output level control (R8 in Figure 2), which I added after making the front panel label.

Photo 1: A Dranetz automatic phase meter, model 305, is at the top. The phase meter calibrator is below. The calibrator, a Charles Hansen design, is not a TDL product, but construction details are included in this article.

Wein-bridge oscillator theory is discussed in many textbooks and is rather mathematical. I will describe it as simply as possible. In Figure 2 the oscillation frequency is set by the value of R and C connected between the op-amp non-inverting input (pin 3), the op-amp output (pin 6), and common. For a frequency of 1,000 Hz, C = 22 nF (C3 and C10) and R = 7235 Ω (the series combination of R1 + R2 and R3 + R4). The equation is:

f = 1/(2ΠRC) = 1/(2Π(22 x 10-9) (7235)) = 1000 Hz

For amplitude-stable oscillation to occur, the gain of the op-amp circuit must be 1/3. This is set by the impedance of the RC network and resistors R5, R6 and R7 and the incandescent lamp. The lamp is important because it stabilizes the gain at 1/3. If the output voltage (pin 6) tries to increase, the lamp’s resistance decreases and the output voltage decreases. This works very well, but it takes the output amplitude a small of amount of time to stabilize, especially at low frequencies. The CM6833 lamp is very small, so its thermal time constant is very low and stability happens very quickly. The trimmer pot, R6, is adjusted for minimum distortion in the output signal. You can get rather close by looking at the waveform with a scope, but it’s better to use a distortion analyzer or spectrum analyzer. Spectrum analysis software on a PC is fine, just adjust R6 to minimize the height of the sidebands or use a program that directly displays harmonic distortion.

At 1000 Hz, TrueRTA shows the second harmonic (2000 Hz) down 80 dB (0.01% distortion) with the higher harmonics even lower. AudioTester shows a total harmonic distortion of 0.0105% using the first ten harmonics.

TrueRTA is a spectrum analysis program available from True Audio. Demo versions and a free version (level 1) are available on its website. AudioTester is another spectrum analysis program.


The calibrator should be reasonably accurate when built using the 1% resistors and 5% capacitors in the parts list. But as with any other piece of test equipment, it would be satisfying to make some measurements to be sure. I will describe two methods that I used: all the measured values are presented in Table 1. As you can see, the calibrator is very satisfactory.

One method is to use a calibrated phase meter with an accuracy better than the calibrator. I used a Dranetz model 305 (five-digit phase angle display) with a model 305-PA-3007 plug-in.(The Dranetz phase meter is no longer manufactured but used units may be found on eBay or from used electronic instrument dealers.) This plug-in provides automatic operation for input amplitudes of 50 mV RMS to 50 V RMS and frequencies from 2 Hz to 70 kHz. Automatic operation means there are no operating controls. The plug-in scales the input voltage to the mainframe and provides the correct frequency compensation.

Another method is to use a time interval counter to measure the time between an amplitude zero crossing of the reference signal to the amplitude zero crossing of the phase shifted signal. Phase shift can be calculated from the time interval as:

θ = 360τf/1000

where θ is the phase shift in degrees, time delay τ is in milliseconds, and f is the frequency in hertz.

I used a Hewlett-Packard (HP) model 5245L frequency counter with a model 5262A time interval unit plug-in (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: Hewlett-Packard model 5245L frequency counter with a time interval plug-in unit below and my dual zero-crossing detector above.

The 10-MHz counter timebase gives a time resolution of 0.1 ms. The time interval plug-in has trigger-level controls for each channel but they are not calibrated and can’t accurately set the zero crossing with a sine wave input. The smaller “box” above the counter in the photo is a two-channel zero crossing detector. I designed and built this detector to output a pulse whose leading edge coincides in time with the input zero crossing. The counter measures the time between the leading edges of the two pulses: the reference and the phase shifted signal. The detector circuit diagram (see Figure 3) and parts list (see Table 4) are included. I packaged the Detector circuit board with a simple ±5-V regulated power supply in a Wolgram MC-7A enclosure.

Figure 3: The ual zero-crossing detector circuit board

Table 4: The two-channel zero crossing detector's parts list

Looking at one of the detector’s channels in Figure 3, U1 is an input buffer. Resistors R5, R6, and D1 clip the negative-going half of the input sine wave. The comparator circuit (U2) outputs a very short pulse at the input zero crossing. This pulse is “stretched” by the monostable multivibrator in U3 to about 12 ms as set by the time-constant of C1 and R19. Two front panel toggle switches select either the positive-going or negative-going output pulses. The reference and shifted pulses—45° at 10 kHz—are shown in Photo 3.

Photo 3: The digital storage scope display of reference pulse (above) and phase shifted pulse (below) for 45 degrees of shift at 10 kHz. The pulse width is 12 us. The pulse amplitude is 5 V. Pulse baselines are shifted for clarity.


New phase meters are expensive but used models can sometimes be found on eBay or from used electronic test equipment dealers, just try a Google search. In addition to the Dranetz 305 (which I found on eBay), other useful models include:

  • Aerometrics model PM720 phase meter, 5 Hz to 500 kHz, analog meter display. Aerometrics  denies any association with this unit but it is often listed under this name.
  • Hewlett-Packard model 3575A gain-phase meter, 1 Hz to 13 MHz, four-digit display
  • Wavetek model 750 phase meter, 10 Hz to 2 MHz, four-digit display

In addition, you can find application notes and magazine articles that describe how to build your own phase meter. These are usually fairly simple designs. The following appear to be useful: Intersil Application Note AN9637 (This is identical to Design Idea #1890 that was published in the July 4, 1996 issue of EDN); Elliott Sound Products Project 135; and Salvati, M. J., “Phase Meter Profits From Improvements,” Design Idea, Electronic Design magazine, April 11, 1991.


I sent a copy of this article to Hansen for comments. He agreed that having the oscillator built-in is a good feature. He also commented as follows:

“A problem with my phase meter calibrator design is that the distortion increases with phase shift, and the amplitude drops as well. It might be possible that the zero-crossing detector might be fooled by the higher order distortion harmonics. I’d be interested in what you find out in this regard.”

So, I measured the amplitude drop and distortion at 150°, which should be worst case. I set the 20-Hz variable output to an arbitrary 2.00 V. Keeping the output level control unchanged, I measured what you see in Table 5. This amount of drop seems acceptable.

Table 5: I set the 20-Hz variable output to 2 V, and I kept the output level control unchanges as I measured these.

I used a Hewlett-Packard model 3581A wave analyzer to measure the harmonics. Refer to Table 6. These numbers look acceptable and the zero-crossing detector output at 20 kHz and 150 degrees measures 22 ms on an oscilloscope with a calculated 21.5 ms at the actual frequency of 19.61 kHz.

Table 6: I used a Hewlett-Packard 3581A wave analyzer to measure the harmonics. These numbers are acceptable and the zero-crossing detector output at 20 kHz and 150 degrees measures 22 ms on an oscilloscope with a calculated 21.5 ms at the actual frequency of 19.61 kHz.

I am very satisfied that the calibrator is suitable to troubleshoot and calibrate any phase meter you are likely to find, either new or used. Without overdoing the math, there is enough design information here to allow you to tailor the design to a specific frequency range, keeping in mind the 1000:1 practical frequency range of the Wein-bridge oscillator, without using range switching.

The circuit board designs listed in the parts lists are available in CIRCAD format and are posted on the TDL website. (CIRCAD is a circuit board design program available from Holophase. The boards in the file were designed with Version 4, a free download of which is available on the Holophase website.) The physical boards are not available.

Ron Tipton lives in Las Cruces, NM. Visit the TDL Technology website for more information about his audio designs and services.


[1] Jung, W. and Sams, H., Audio IC Op-Amp Applications, 2nd Edition, Sams Publishing, 1978.

Editor’s note: audioXpress, like, is an Elektor International Media publication.

Laser TV Project: BASCOM Programmers Wanted

Do you have sound programming skills and an interest in assisting a fellow electronics designer with an creative image projection project? If so, the Laser TV Project posted on the “Elektor Projects” website is for you.

The Laser TV Project (Source:

Website editor Clemens Valens writes:

Some people use electronics to build something they need, others just want to find out if something can be done. These projects are often the most fun to read about because of their unusual character and the creativity needed to accomplish the (sometimes bizarre) goal. The laser TV project posted on Elektor Projects is such a project. It is an attempt to project an image by means of 30 rotating mirrors mounted on a VHS head motor. Why you would want to do such a thing is not important, can it be done is the thing that matters.

According to the author the main challenge is the phase synchronization of the top plate on which the mirrors are mounted, and the author is looking for interested BASCOM programmers to develop the motor PLL (or a similar software solution). The motor rotates at 750 rpm and must be precisely synchronized to a pulse, which is available once per revolution.

Do you want to help with this project? Have you done something similar with Atmel and BASCOM? If so, go to and help “hpt” with the project. You can also review other projects and vote. Your vote counts! and are Elektor International Media publications.