Three Workspaces, Countless Projects

Clive “Max” Maxfield, who received his BSc in Control Engineering from Sheffield Hallam University in England in 1980, began his career designing CPUs for mainframe computers. But he has branched out far beyond that, becoming a prolific writer of engineering books, an EE Times editor, a blogger, and a designer of “interesting stuff,” from silicon chips to Steampunk “Display-O-Meters,” according to his website.

Max, who now lives in Huntsville, AL, recently shared with Circuit Cellar photos and descriptions of some of his ongoing projects and creative workspaces:

I would say that I have three personal workspaces. But before we talk about my workspaces, it might be appropriate to first mention two of my several projects, which vary from artistic to technological.

This is the future home of the Prognostication Engine.

This is the future home of the Prognostication Engine.

One of my projects that is currently in full swing is my Pedagogical and Phantasmagorical Inamorata Prognostication Engine. What do you mean “What’s that when it’s at home?” Isn’t it obvious?

Pedagogical = Educational
Phantasmagorical = It’s pretty darned fantastic
Inamorata = The woman with whom one is in love
Prognostication = Predicting the future
Engine = Machine

The Prognostication Engine is intended to help me predict my wife’s mood. Will the radiance of her smile fall upon me when I return home from work in the evening?

My Prognostication Engine is going to be housed in a beautiful wooden radio cabinet circa 1929. This is going to feature two brass control panels, both of which are going to be festooned with antique knobs and buttons and switches and analog meters (the ones with the black Bakelite bezels). I’m aiming at a Steampunk “look-and-feel” that would not look out of place in a Victorian setting.

One of the tricks I use when working on this type of project is to first create to-scale Visio drawings of all of the knobs, switches, meter, and so forth, and then I create a full-sized card-and-paper mockup as shown below. This makes it much easier to move things around and experiment with different placements so as to decide on the final layout.

The paper and card mockup of the Prognostication Engine's upper and low control panels

The paper and card mockup of the Prognostication Engine’s upper and low control panels

Observe the two small pink dots at the top and bottom of each of the vertically-oriented switches and on either side of the horizontally oriented switches and buttons; also the 16 pink dots around each of the five potentiometers. These are going to be faux mother-of-pearl dots, behind which will be tri-colored LEDs implemented using Adafruit’s individual Flora NeoPixels and NeoPixel Rings, respectively.

Everything is going to be controlled using an Arduino Mega microcontroller development board. Speaking of control, the potentiometers are going to be motorized, so that if an unauthorized operator tries to modify any of the settings, the other potentiometers will automatically change to compensate (later they will all surreptitiously return to their original settings).

Now observe the three black momentary push-buttons located on the lower panel, just under the modestly sized red button (do not press the red button). These equate to gifts of chocolates and flowers and hugs. Judicious use of these buttons increases the chances of happy times; overusing them, however, may trigger the “suspicion of wrongdoing” algorithm. In reality, there’s far too much “stuff” to go into here. Suffice it to say that the large meter in the top right-hand corner of the upper panel will reflect the full range of female emotion, from “Extremely Disgruntled” to “Fully Gruntled” (LOL).

Max has another project, dubbed “BADASS Display,” which was inspired by an item he saw in an electronics boutique-type store—a “really cool 9″ tall, cylindrical Bluetooth loudspeaker, whose outer surface was covered with tri-colored LEDs implementing a sort of spectrum analyzer display.”

While Max wasn’t interested in the $199.95 price, the “seed had been sown,” he says.

Thus was conceived my Bodacious Acoustic Diagnostic Astoundingly Superior Spectromatic (BADASS) display. First of all, I took a look around YouTube to get some ideas. It turns out that there are many different ways to present spectrographic data. For example, check out Gavin Curtis’ “My Big Blue 32 Band Audio Spectrum Analyzer Lady Gaga,”  RGB Styles’s “Coffee Table,” and Techmoan’s “Giant LED Graphic Music Display (DJ Spectrum Analyzer).”

I decided that the first incarnation of my display would boast a 16 x 16 array of tri-colored LEDs. I decided to use Adafruit’s NeoPixel Strips. Once again, I started by creating a cardboard and paper mockup as shown below.

Cardboard and paper mockup of the BADASS Display

Cardboard and paper mockup of the BADASS Display

The NeoPixel strips I’m using have 30 pixels per meter. I’m mounting these vertically, which means the vertical separation between adjacent pixels is 33.33 mm. To provide some visual interest, I decided to make the horizontal spacing between columns 50 mm, which is 1.5 times the vertical spacing.

In the real version, the cardboard will be replaced by plywood stained to look like expensive old wood. Meanwhile, the main display panel and the smaller control panel will be formed from hardboard painted to look like antique brass. In front of each pixel will be a 1″-diameter brass bezel accompanied by a 1/2″-diameter clear Fresnel lens in the center. The hardboard panels are going to be attached to the plywood panel using brass acorn nuts. Once again, the finished unit is intended to have a Steampunk look and feel.

I’m planning on using an Arduino Mega microcontroller development board to drive the display itself. This will be accompanied by a chipKIT Max32 microcontroller board that will be used to process the stereo audio stream and extract the spectrum data.

Max’s three project work areas include his office, his kitchen table, and his garage:

I would say that my first personal workspace is the Pleasure Dome (my office). Why do I think of this as a personal workspace? Theoretically I work out of a home office. In reality, however, I prefer to rent a room in a building belonging to an engineering company called MaxVision (no relation).

When you cross the office threshold, you enter a small corner of “Max’s World” (where the colors are brighter, the butterflies are bigger, the birds sing sweeter, and the beer is plentiful and cold). One of the walls is lined with wooden bookshelves containing an eclectic mix of science books, technical books, comics, and science fiction and fantasy books and graphic novels.

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (Max's office)

Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (Max’s office)

My office is also the repository for all of the antique knobs and switches and analog meters and large vacuum tubes and such that I collect on my travels for use in my projects. Also, I can store (and present) larger objects in the bay outside my office.

My second personal workspace is the kitchen table in the breakfast nook at our home. This is where I tend to implement the electronics portions of my projects. At the far end of the table in the image below we see the jig I constructed to hold the two brass control panels for my Inamorata Prognostication Engine project. On the floor in the right-hand side of the image is the tool box that contains my electronics tools including screwdrivers, snip, and suchlike. It also contains my test equipment in the form of a cheap-and-cheerful multimeter from Amazon, along with an iPad-based oscilloscope and an iPad-based logic analyzer, both from Oscium.

Max's kitchen table

Max’s kitchen table

Observe the plastic storage box on the nearside of the table. I have a separate storage box for each of my projects. Anything associated with a project that’s currently under construction is stored in that project’s box, including any notes I’ve made, any electronic components and their datasheets, and any mechanical parts such as nuts and bolts.

I tend to gather everything associated with a particular function or sub-unit together into smaller boxes or plastic Ziploc bags. In the case of my motorized potentiometers, for example, I have the potentiometers along with the appropriate nuts, washers, antique knobs and suchlike all gathered together. I cannot tell you how much time and frustration a bit of organization like this saves you in the long run. It also make it much easier to pack everything up when my wife, Gina, informs me that she needs the table cleared.

Below we see another view of the test jig I constructed to hold the two brass panels for the Prognostication Engine. Creating this jig only took an hour or so, but it makes life so much easier with regard to assembling the electronics and accessing everything while I’m in the prototyping and software experimentation phase of the project.

The test jig for the Prognostication Engine on the kitchen table

The test jig for the Prognostication Engine on the kitchen table

Max’s third personal workspace is his garage. When his family’s three vehicles are parked inside, his projects are packed away in a corner, including tools and tiles for a mosaic he is creating that will feature ceramic tiles fired in his recently purchased kiln.

Everything tucked away

Everything tucked away

The shelves covered in plastic sheet to the right are where I place my freshly-rolled clay tiles to gradually dry without cracking. The low-down rolling cabinet in the foreground contains all of my handheld ceramic equipment (shapers and scrapers and rolling pins whatnot) along with general protective gear like face masks and safety goggles. Each of the plastic boxes on top of this cabinet is associated with a currently in-progress project. Behind this cabinet is a red rolling tool cabinet, which contains any smaller power tools, clamps, screwdrivers, wrenches and spanners, and also my soldering station and magnifying lens with helping hands and suchlike. To the right of that tool cabinet is a door (not visible in this picture) to a built-in closet, where I keep my larger power tools such as a diamond saw, desktop grinder, router, and so forth.

On the weekends, Max’s garage space opens up as his stepson drives out in his truck and Max’s wife leaves for her real estate agent’s job. “As soon as she has left, I leap into action,” Max says. “I roll out my tool boxes, set up a folding table and chair, and start work on whatever it is I’m currently working on.”

Another little corner of Max's garage work area

Another little corner of Max’s garage work area

As he works on projects in his garage, Max says he is “happily listening to stuff like Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes, Supertramp, Gentle Giant, The Moody Blues…”

The image below shows a close-up of the current state-of-play with regard to my BADASS Display. A week ago, I routed out the areas in the big plywood panel that will accommodate the hardboard display and control panels. In this image, I’m poised to mark out the hardboard panels and start drilling the mounting holes along with the 256 holes for the tri-state LEDs.

The BADASS Display

The BADASS Display

What can I say? Working on my hobby projects is a great way to wind down after a hard day at work, and being in any of my three personal workspaces makes me happy.

Max poised to give a presentation at the EELive! Conference in San Jose, CA, earlier this year

Max poised to give a presentation at the EELive! Conference in San Jose, CA, earlier this year

Editor’s Note: To find out more about Clive “Max” Maxfield, read his 2013 interview in Circuit Cellar. You can follow Max on Twitter @MaxMaxfield.

A Shed Packed with Projects and EMF Test Equipment

David Bellerose, a retired electronic equipment repairman for the New York State Thruway, has had a variety of careers that have honed the DIY skills he employs in his Lady Lake, FL, workspace.

Bellerose has been a US Navy aviation electronics technician and a computer repairman. “I also ran my own computer/electronic and steel/metal welding fabrication businesses, so I have many talents under my belt,” he says.

Bellerose’s Protostation, purchased on eBay, is on top shelf (left). He designed the setup on the right, which includes a voltmeter, a power supply, and transistor-transistor logic (TTL) oscillators. A second protoboard unit is on the middle shelf (left). On the right are various Intersil ICM7216D frequency-counter units and DDS-based signal generator units from eBay. The bottom shelf is used for protoboard storage.

Bellerose’s Protostation, purchased on eBay, is on top shelf (left). He designed the setup on the right, which includes a voltmeter, a power supply, and transistor-transistor logic (TTL) oscillators. A second protoboard unit is on the middle shelf (left). On the right are various Intersil ICM7216D frequency-counter units and DDS-based signal generator units from eBay. The bottom shelf is used for protoboard storage.

Bellerose’s project interests include model rockets, video security, solar panels, and computer systems. “My present project involves Intersil ICM7216D-based frequency counter modules to companion with various frequency generator modules, which I am also designing for a frequency range of 1 Hz to 12 GHz,” he says.

His workspace is an 8′-by-15′ shed lined with shelves and foldable tables. He describes how he tries to make the best use of the space available:

“My main bench is a 4′-by-6’ table with a 2’-by-6’ table to hold my storage drawers. A center rack holds my prototype units—one bought on eBay and two others I designed and built myself. My Tektronix 200-MHz oscilloscope bought on eBay sits on the main rack on the left, along with a video monitor. On the right is my laptop, a Heathkit oscilloscope from eBay, a 2.4-GHz frequency counter and more storage units. All the units are labeled.

“I try to keep all projects on paper and computer with plenty of storage space. My network-attached storage (NAS) totals about 23 terabytes of space.

“I get almost all of my test equipment from eBay along with parts that I can’t get from my distributors, such as the ICM7216D chips, which are obsolete. I try to cover the full EMF spectrum with my test equipment, so I have photometers, EMF testers, lasers, etc.”

The main workbench has a 4′-by-6′ center rack and parts storage units on the left and right. The main bench includes an OWON 25-MHz oscilloscope, storage drawers for lithium-ion (Li-on) batteries (center), voltage converter modules, various project modules on right, a Dremel drill press, and a PC monitor.

The main workbench has a 4′-by-6′ center rack and parts storage units on the left and right. The main bench includes an OWON 25-MHz oscilloscope, storage drawers for lithium-ion (Li-on) batteries (center), voltage converter modules, various project modules on the right, a Dremel drill press, and a PC monitor.

Photo 3: This full-room view shows the main bench (center), storage racks (left), and an auxiliary folding bench to work on large repairs. The area on right includes network-attached storage (NAS) storage and two PCs with a range extender and 24-port network switch.

Photo 3: This full-room view shows the main bench (center), storage racks (left), and an auxiliary folding bench to work on large repairs. The area on right includes network-attached storage (NAS) and two PCs with a range extender and 24-port network switch.

Photo 4: Various versions of Bellerose’s present project are shown. The plug-in units are for eight-digit displays. They are based on the 28-pin Intersil ICM 7216D chip with a 10-MHz time base oscillator, a 74HC132 input buffer, and a 74HC390 prescaler to bring the range to 60 MHz. The units’ eight-digit displays vary from  1″ to 0.56″ and 0.36″.

Various versions of Bellerose’s present project are shown. The plug-in units are for eight-digit displays. They are based on the 28-pin Intersil ICM 7216D chip with a 10-MHz time base oscillator, a 74HC132 input buffer, and a 74HC390 prescaler to bring the range to 60 MHz. The units’ eight-digit displays vary from 1″ to 0.56″ and 0.36″.

Photo 5: This is a smaller version of Bellerose’s project with a 0.36″ display mounted over an ICM chip with 74hc132 and 74hc390 chips and 5-V regulators. Bellerose is still working on the final PCB layout. “With regulators, I can use a 9-V adapter,” he says.  “Otherwise, I use 5 V for increased sensitivity. I use monolithic microwave (MMIC) amplifiers (MSA-0486) for input.”

This is a smaller version of Bellerose’s project with a 0.36″ display mounted over an ICM chip with 74HC132 and 74HC390 chips and 5-V regulators. Bellerose is still working on the final PCB layout. “With regulators, I can use a 9-V adapter,” he says. “Otherwise, I use 5 V for increased sensitivity. I use monolithic microwave (MMIC) amplifiers (MSA-0486) for input.”

 

 

A Workspace for Microwave Imaging, Small Radar Systems, and More

Gregory L. Charvat stays very busy as an author, a visiting research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, and the hardware team leader at the Butterfly Network, which brings together experts in computer science, physics, and electrical engineering to create new approaches to medical diagnostic imaging and treatment.

If that wasn’t enough, he also works as a start-up business consultant and pursues personal projects out of the basement-garage workspace of his Westbrook, CT, home (see Photo 1). Recently, he sent Circuit Cellar photos and a description of his lab layout and projects.

Photo 1

Photo 1: Charvat, seated at his workbench, keeps his equipment atop sturdy World War II-era surplus lab tables.

Charvat’s home setup not only provides his ideal working conditions, but also considers  frequent moves required by his work.

Key is lots of table space using WW II surplus lab tables (they built things better back then), lots of lighting, and good power distribution.

I’m involved in start-ups, so my wife and I move a lot. So, we rent houses. When renting, you cannot install the outlets and things needed for a lab like this. For this reason, I built my own line voltage distribution panel; it’s the big thing with red lights in the middle upper left of the photos of the lab space (see Photo 2).  It has 16 outlets, each with its own breaker, pilot lamp (not LED).  The entire thing has a volt and amp meter to monitor power consumption and all power is fed through a large EMI filter.

Photo 2: This is another view of the lab, where strong lighting and two oscilloscopes are the minimum requirements.

Photo 2: This is another view of the lab, where strong lighting and two oscilloscopes are the minimum requirements.

Projects in the basement-area workplace reflect Charvat’s passion for everything from microwave imaging systems and small radar sensor technology to working with vacuum tubes and restoring antique electronics.

My primary focus is the development of microwave imaging systems, including near-field phased array, quasi-optical, and synthetic-aperture radar (SAR). Additionally, I develop small radar sensors as part of these systems or in addition to. Furthermore, I build amateur radio transceivers from scratch. I developed the only all-tube home theater system (published in the May-June 2012 issues of audioXpress magazine) and like to restore antique radio gear, watches, and clocks.

Charvat says he finds efficient, albeit aging, gear for his “fully equipped microwave, analog, and digital lab—just two generations too late.”

We’re fortunate to have access to excellent test gear that is old. I procure all of this gear at ham fests, and maintain and repair it myself. I prefer analog oscilloscopes, analog everything. These instruments work extremely well in the modern era. The key is you have to think before you measure.

Adequate storage is also important in a lab housing many pieces for Charvat’s many interests.

I have over 700 small drawers full of new inventory.  All standard analog parts, transistors, resistors, capacitors of all types, logic, IF cans, various radio parts, RF power transistors, etc., etc.

And it is critical to keep an orderly workbench, so he can move quickly from one project to the next.

No, it cannot be a mess. It must be clean and organized. It can become a mess during a project, but between projects it must be cleaned up and reset. This is the way to go fast.  When you work full time and like to dabble in your “free time” you must have it together, you must be organized, efficient, and fast.

Photos 3–7 below show many of the radar and imaging systems Charvat says he is testing in his lab, including linear rail SAR imaging systems (X and X-band), a near-field S-band phased-array radar, a UWB impulse X-band imaging system, and his “quasi-optical imaging system (with the big parabolic dish).”

Photo 3: This shows impulse rail synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in action, one of many SAR imaging systems developed in Charvat’s basement-garage lab.

Photo 3: This photo shows the impulse rail synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in action, one of many SAR imaging systems developed in Charvat’s basement-garage lab.

Photo 4: Charvat built this S-band, range-gated frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) rail SAR imaging system

Photo 4: Charvat built this S-band, range-gated frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) rail SAR imaging system.

Photo 5: Charvat designed an S-band near-field phased-array imaging system that enables through-wall imaging.

Photo 5: Charvat designed an S-band near-field phased-array imaging system that enables through-wall imaging.

Photo 5: Charvat's X-band, range-gated UWB FMCW rail SAR system is shown imaging his bike.

Photo 6: Charvat’s X-band, range-gated UWB FMCW rail SAR system is shown imaging his bike.

Photo 7: Charvat’s quasi-optical imaging system includes a parabolic dish.

Photo 7: Charvat’s quasi-optical imaging system includes a parabolic dish.

To learn more about Charvat and his projects, read this interview published in audioXpress (October 2013). Also, Circuit Cellar recently featured Charvat’s essay examining the promising future of small radar technology. You can also visit Charvat’s project website or follow him on Twitter @MrVacuumTube.

An Engineer Who Retires to the Garage

Jerry Brown, of Camarillo, CA, retired from the aerospace industry five years ago but continues to consult and work on numerous projects at home. For example, he plans to submit an article to Circuit Cellar about a Microchip Technology PIC-based computer display component (CDC) he designed and built for a traffic-monitoring system developed by a colleague.

Jerry Brown sits at his workbench. The black box atop the workbench is an embedded controller and is part of a traffic monitoring system he has been working on.

Jerry Brown sits at his workbench. The black box atop the workbench is an embedded controller and part of  his traffic monitoring system project.

“The traffic monitoring system is composed of a beam emitter component (BEC), a beam sensor component (BSC), and the CDC, and is intended for unmanned use on city streets, boulevards, and roadways to monitor and record the accumulative count, direction of travel, speed, and time of day for vehicles that pass by a specific location during a set time period,” he says.

Brown particularly enjoys working with PWM LED controllers. Circuit Cellar editors look forward to seeing his project article. In the meantime, he sent us the following description and pictures of the space where he conceives and executes his creative engineering ideas.

Jerry's garage-based lab.

Brown’s garage-based lab.

My workspace, which I call my “lab,” is on one side of my two-car garage and is fairly well equipped. (If you think it looks a bit messy, you should have seen it before I straightened it up for the “photo shoot.”)  

I have a good supply of passive and active electronic components, which are catalogued and, along with other parts and supplies, are stored in the cabinets and shelves alongside and above the workbench. I use the computer to write and compile software programs and to program PIC flash microcontrollers.  

The photos show the workbench and some of the instrumentation I have in the lab, including a waveform generator, a digital storage oscilloscope, a digital multimeter, a couple of power supplies, and a soldering station.  

The black box visible on top of the workbench is an embedded controller and is part of the traffic monitoring system that I have been working on.

Instruments in Jerry's lab include a waveform generator, a digital storage oscilloscope, a digital multimeter, a couple of power supplies, and a soldering station.

Instruments in Brown’s lab include a waveform generator, a digital storage oscilloscope, a digital multimeter, a couple of power supplies, and a soldering station. 

Brown has a BS in Electrical Engineering and a BS in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA. He worked in the aerospace industry for 30 years and retired as the Principal Engineer/Manager of a Los Angeles-area aerospace company’s electrical and software design group.

Q&A: Colin O’Flynn (Engineering and “Pure” Research)

Colin O’Flynn

NAN: Where are you located?

COLIN: I’m currently living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I’m originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and had been living in Edinburgh, Scotland for almost two years before I moved to Halifax.

NAN: How did you become interested in electronics?

COLIN: Like many people in this area, I did start at a very young age. If I had to pin one event as the starting of my life-long interest in electronics, it was getting one of those “20-in-1” kits from RadioShack as a present. My parents always encouraged my interest in electronics, but as they were a commercial airline pilot and a chartered accountant, it wasn’t the case of them initially pushing me in the same direction they started!

My dad found me a few small “learn-to-solder” kits, which I enjoyed. At age 8, I assembled my first real kit, the LED-Tric Christmas tree featured in the December 1994 issue of Popular Electronics. My parents have kept bringing that tree out as a Christmas decoration every year since, and it still works.

Besides my parents, I also had help from local people interested in electronics and became friends with many of the local electronics store owners. I spent many hours building projects from magazines like Electronics Now, Popular Electronics, Circuit Cellar, and the various Forrest M. Mims III books. I find it interesting to see the recent surge in “maker” culture. It’s something that has really been going on for years. Growing up, there wasn’t such a thing as maker spaces, but there were local people with interesting workshops who would share projects. It’s great to see this a little more mainstream now, as it means more opportunities for people to get involved at any stage of their life in this fascinating world.

NAN: What is your current occupation? Are you still consulting for projects related to 802.15.4 wireless communications?

COLIN: I’m currently a graduate student at Dalhousie University pursuing a PhD. I decided to go back to school for the chance to do more “pure” research. It’s also fun to have access to a range of tools I wouldn’t otherwise get—the lab I sit in has an anechoic chamber, for example. And we have most of the latest versions of high-end software like MATLAB (including most of the add-ons), 3-D electromagnetic antenna simulation software, FPGA design software, and so forth.

RadioBlocks

I’m only loosely involved in 802.15.4 projects for now, and not actively following the latest developments and standards. Having said that, a friend of mine has gotten involved in creating small, wireless modules called RadioBlocks.

They use an IEEE 802.15.4 radio combined with a small ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller. They use an open-source mesh networking software we created called SimpleMesh, so most of my recent work on 802.15.4 has been around this project. The mesh software is designed to do the basic job of sending a block of data to another node, and otherwise staying out of the way. I previously did a lot of work using IPv6 on such small sensor networks, but haven’t been active in that area lately.

At Dalhousie, I’m working on the area of side-channel analysis of cryptographic systems, specifically power analysis. This area has a simple idea: if you have a microcontroller or other embedded controller, it typically has some internal data bus. When those data lines switch state, it takes power. But the power actually depends on the data. Imagine a databus switching from all 1s to all 0s in a clock cycle, compared to staying at all 1s. Likewise, different operations, such as a MUL compared to a LDI, have different power signatures. If you measure the current consumption on each clock cycle, you can learn something about the data being processed, and then often the secret key. Practically speaking, you can measure this current even with an electromagnetic probe, so you don’t need to physically modify the circuit board.

I gave a presentation at Black Hat Abu Dhabi in December 2012 about some of this work. If you are interested, the slides and white paper are available online at Blackhat.com, or from my personal website NewAE.com. You can see the photo above showing an example of attacking a microcontroller-based smart card. The capture software might look something like where you can see different computations the card is performing directly from the power trace. In this case, each burst is a round of the AES-128 computation.

NAN: Many of your projects include Atmel microcontrollers. Why Atmel?

COLIN: It’s no secret I’ve been a big fan of Atmel’s AVR microcontroller, but it wasn’t my first. I don’t know the exact lineage of my microcontroller work, but one of the first things I learned on was an AMD 2900 Evaluation and Learning Kit. A local electronics store happened to have it in stock. They had gotten it from someone cleaning out old inventory, as even at that time it was old. I added heatsinks, as the several amps it drew when powered with 5 V made a lot of those chips very hot. And, of course, you had to keep the entire board powered up if you didn’t want to lose you program you’d been manually entering. From there, I moved onto a Z80 trainer board, which let you program with a hex-entry keypad, and eventually I moved onto programming it from the computer. I designed a Z80 computer board but never built it—I still have the piece of transparency with the taped out PCB design and photosensitive PCB on which I was to expose it. That’s more than 10 years old now, so I suspect the chemicals in it have degraded a little!

I forget exactly why I picked up the AVRs, but I had one of the first AVRs released, Atmel’s AT90S1200, which I programmed in Assembly. After Assembly, I programmed them in BASIC (using MCS Electronics’s BASCOM-AVR), going as far to write a neural network in

BASCOM-AVR. Even today, I think BASIC gets a bad rap. It was almost the original “Arduino” environment, as you could drop down LCD drivers, ADC, and so forth without ever knowing much about how it worked, and with a really intuitive feel. I moved onto C sometime later, and used C almost exclusively for embedded development since. For some time, I was fairly involved in the tools used in the AVR world, such as WinAVR. Atmel donated a considerable amount of equipment to me, as at the time I was a high school student using these devices for science fair projects. I think that’s a great example of how such corporate donations pay off. I’ve almost exclusively used AVR processors since I am so familiar with them because of that. In addition, as a student with little money but lots of time, I was happy to spend hours each day on AVRFreaks.net or working on open-source tools. While Atmel probably ended up giving me around $3,000 worth of tools, I’m sure the value of work I performed for free in terms of open-source tool contributions or forum posts would be worth many times this.

A funny story around all this work: In undergrad, we used the Atmel AVR microcontrollers. During one of the first labs they distributed a tutorial on how to set up the WinAVR tools and compile your first program. As it turned out, this guide was something I wrote years prior and had posted to the WinAVR website. Sufficient to say, I did OK in that class.

NAN: Tell us about NewAE.com. What kind of information is available on the site?

COLIN: I’ve run NewAE.com since 2001, although it’s not really designed to be the type of website one checks for new content daily. If I’ve spent some time solving a problem that I think other people could use, I’ll put a post up. Sometimes this is a complete project, such as my IEEE 802.15.4 sniffer. Sometimes it’s just a small post, such as how to set up the AVR USB keyboard for 5-V operation, which wasn’t described in the manual. I also use it for keeping copies of any published papers or presentations.

I’ve more recently been posting some ongoing research to the site, including blog posts with ongoing projects, rather than just waiting until it’s completely finished! In that vein, I started a YouTube channel with some technical videos (www.youtube.com/user/colinpoflynn). A big collection of these are from when I taught a digital logic course and recorded all my presentations from that.

My content spans a huge range of topics—everything from showing my students how to get screen captures, to a demonstration of my soldering station, to recordings of my academic paper presentations. I don’t like duplicating work. I’ll only go to the effort of making a video or website post if I really couldn’t find the information elsewhere. Because of this, I don’t have one specific topic you could expect to learn about. I’ve never been aiming to be like EEVBlog!

NAN: You wrote “It’s a SNAP: A Flexible Communications Protocol” (Circuit Cellar 139, 2002) more than 10 years ago. Do you still use SNAP in any of your current projects?

COLIN: I have to admit that I haven’t used SNAP in probably eight years! Of course now, when needing to network devices, I’m more likely to turn to a wireless standard.

NAN: Your article “Open-Source AVR Development” (Circuit Cellar 196, 2006) provides an introduction to the AVR-GCC toolchain for AVR microcontrollers. The article references the Cygwin project and Sourceforge’s WinAVR project. How do these components work in the design?

COLIN: The Cygwin project is still something I use regularly, as it lets you run a variety of Unix-like tools on Windows. The Linux command line is extraordinarily powerful, and it is makes it simple to access things like C compilers, text parsing utilities, and scripting tools. With Cygwin, one can have a Linux-like experience under Windows, which I used in that article to build some of the tools you are developing for AVR. By comparison, WinAVR is just a number of prebuilt tools for the AVR development. While it’s more work to build your own tools, sometimes you require special features that were not available in the premade tools.

NAN: Atmel products have played a starring role in several articles you have published in Circuit Cellar. For example, an AT90S4433 microcontroller was featured in “It’s a SNAP: A Flexible Communications Protocol” (Circuit Cellar 139, 2002), an ATmega88 AVR RISC microcontroller was featured in “Digital Video in an Embedded System” (issue 184, 2005), an AT45DB041 DataFlash and an ATmega88 microcontroller were featured in “Open-Source AVR Development” (issue 187, 2006), and an AT90USBKEY demonstration board was featured in “Advanced USB Design Debugging” (issue 241, 2010). Why Atmel microcontrollers/boards? What do you prefer about these products?

COLIN: As I mentioned before, I have a long history with Atmel products. Because of this, I already have the debug toolchains for their chips and can get projects up very quickly.

When picking boards or products, one of the most important considerations for me is that readers can buy it easily. For me, this means I can get it at DigiKey (and I’ll check Farnell for our UK friends). Part of this comes from being in Canada, where DigiKey was one of the first distributors offering cheap and fast shipping to Canada.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any microprocessor-based projects?

Binary Explorer Board

COLIN: My current big project is something I designed over the summer of 2012. It’s called the Binary Explorer Board and is something I used when teaching a course in digital logic at Dalhousie University. I needed a simple, programmable logic board and nothing I could find was exactly right. In particular, I needed something with an integrated programmer, several switches and LEDs, and an integrated breadboard. The students needed to be able to use the breadboard without the CPLD to learn about discretely packaged parts. All the CPLD-based trainers I found didn’t have exactly what I wanted in this regard.

The embedded part is the USB interface using an Atmel AT90USB162 microcontroller, although I plan on later upgrading that to an XMEGA for lower cost and more code room. The firmware is powered by Dean Camera’s excellent open-source USB library called LUFA (www.fourwalledcubicle.com/LUFA.php). This firmware lets students program the CPLD on the board easily over USB. But the cool thing is you can go even further and use the device as a generic programmer for other AVRs or CPLDs/FPGAs. For example, you can mount an AVR on the breadboard, connect it to the USB interface, and program that through the Arduino IDE. The entire board would retail for $35 in single-unit quantity, so it’s cheaper than most textbooks. I’m working on making it a real product with Colorado Micro Devices right now.

The design environment is the standard Xilinx toolchain, although I’ve made a number of predefined projects to make it simple enough for students with zero previous design experience to use. The idea is to get students familiar with the real tools they might see in the industry. Around this project, it’s interesting to note I choose a Xilinx CPLD because of my familiarity with Xilinx devices and design tools. This familiarity comes from years ago when Xilinx donated to me a part for a project I was working on. Now throngs of students will be exposed to Xilinx devices, all because Xilinx was willing to donate some parts to a student.

There is always an assortment of half-finished projects, too. I started designing a battery tester, which could simulate characteristics you’d typically see when driving small wireless nodes from coin-cell batteries. I started planning on using an AVR USB microcontroller and doing all the data logging myself. I then found this LabJack device, which simplified my life a lot, as they had basically a generic USB-based logging/control module.

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

COLIN: Wireless and the “Internet of Things” will eventually be a big thing, which means design engineers will need to become more familiar with things like protocols and realistic transmission characteristics. I use the word “realistic,” as part of this world is separating hype from reality. There’s certainly a huge disconnect between the marketing hype around all these various wireless protocols and how well they work in practice. When designing a product that will use a wireless technology, it’s likely some commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) module will be used, so the engineer may think they can remain blissfully unaware of RF or networking things. But the engineer still needs to have a rough idea about how many devices might fit in an area on a single network or the advantage of selecting certain protocols.

Another thing of interest to me is programmable logic, such as FPGAs. It’s been interesting to see the tools that try to turn anybody into an FPGA designer becoming more mainstream, or at least letting you program FPGAs in more common languages (e.g., C/C++). They are still fairly specialized and more likely to be used by a hardware engineer looking to improve productivity, compared to a software engineer who needs to offload an algorithm into a FPGA. But I think they could fairly quickly get to the point that engineers with some FPGA experience could implement considerably more complex designs than they would have otherwise been able to had they been required to design everything from scratch.

In a somewhat similar vein, we are starting to see the availability of multicore devices coming down to embedded levels. Learning to program them in a way to take advantage of these new cores is a useful skill to pick up. I recently started using both the OpenMP API and Cilk++ development software on some of my programs. My work wasn’t targeting an embedded project, but instead regular full-size multicore computers, but it’s still a useful (and fairly simple) skill to pick up.

NAN: Tell us a little about your workbench. What are some of your favorite design tools?

Colin’s Workbench

COLIN: My initial workbench was the kitchen table, although other family members were frequently concerned about eating in the same space as these various items with warning labels about lead. My next workbench was a long, custom-built bench in Hamilton, Ontario. My current bench in Halifax was again custom-built, and I’ll take you few of its features. I’d like to point out by “custom-built” I mean built by myself with a jigsaw and some plywood, not an artesian finely crafted piece of furniture.

Due to a back injury, I work standing up, which you can’t see in the photo. It’s actually quite refreshing, and combined with a good quality antifatigue mat and stool to lean up against means I can work long hours without tiring. A cover comes down to hide everything in my desk, which was a feature partially required by my significant other, who didn’t want guests to see the typical mess of wires it contains. When closed, it also gives it some protection against any rogue water leaks. For my computer, I use a trackball instead of a mouse, and the keyboard and trackball are mounted on a plate tilted underneath the desk in a “negative” tilt angle, adjusted to most natural angle. And, because there is no way to see the keyboard while typing, it tends to keep anyone else from borrowing my computer to look something up!

I’ve wired a ground fault interrupter (GFI) into the desk, so all my power outlets are protected. If I ever did something dumb like dropping a scope ground on a live wire, the GFI socket would at least give me a hope of protecting the scope and myself. There are many outlets above and below the desk, and also a ground jack for the antistatic strap beside the thermal wire strippers. The outlets under the desk let me plug in things in a hidden manner—printers, USB hubs, and other permanent devices get wired in there. I’ve wired a number of USB hubs to the top of my desk, so I typically have around 12 free USB slots. You always seem to run out otherwise!

Most of my tools are off the desk and stored in the drawers to either side. I made the “drawers” just pieces of wood with minimal sides—the idea being most of the time you are placing PCBs or tools down, so the lack of high sides prevents you from piling too much into them! All the cables get stored on hooks to the left of my desk, and I’ve got a whiteboard that sticks up when I’m working on a problem.

SMD Organization

I store all my SMD parts in small envelopes stored in index card holders in the bottom left of my desk. While I’m not a static-phobic, I also didn’t want to use plastic film strips or plastic bags. So the paper envelopes at least I hope don’t generate much static, even if they don’t dissipate it. It’s very easy to label all your parts and also this system holds up to a high dynamic range of stock numbers. For example, capacitors get split into 10.1–99.9 nF, 100 nF, 100.1–999.9 nF, and so forth. Because you seem to end up with loads of 100-nF capacitors, they get their own envelope. It’s trivial to change this division around as you get more parts, or to group part sizes together.

In terms of interesting tools: my soldering station is probably my favorite tool, a Metcal MX500 I got used from eBay. The response time on these is unbelievable. I put a video up to show people just because I’ve been so impressed with it. There are other manufactures that now make stations with the same RF-heating technology I believe, and I always encourage everyone to try one. I’ve been using the DG8SAQ Vector Network Analyzer (VNWA) for a while too. It’s a very affordable way to get familiar with VNA and RF measurements. It’s especially fun to follow along with some of the “Darker Side” columns in Circuit Cellar. Rather than just hearing about the mysterious world of RF, you can do experiments like viewing the response of several different decoupling capacitors mounted in parallel. I’ve got an old TiePie TiePieSCOPE HS801 parallel-port oscilloscope mounted underneath my desk, and still use it today. A lot of my work is digital, so have an Intronix LogicPort digital analyzer, a Beagle USB 480 protocol analyzer, and oodles of microcontroller programming/debug tools from different manufacturers.