Fritzing

Recently, I’ve been spending a bit of time with Fritzing. It’s a piece of software that allows you to document prototypes, design circuits and manufacture PCBs. So far, I have only used the breadboard view to generate wiring diagrams for my Arduino and Sensors class, but I am still very impressed.

One of the circuits in my class involves wiring an accelerometer and a switch to an Arduino. Here was my attempt to photograph the circuit:

IMG_6845From the photograph, it’s not very clear on how to wire the accelerometer. There are too many wires in the photograph and it’s not easy to see where each wire terminates. Of course, I could try to recreate this circuit using wires with less slack, but there is a simpler solution – use Fritzing! The image generated by Fritzing makes it much easier to understand how the accelerometer is wired:

accelerometer_calIt’s fast and simple to generate the wiring diagrams. Fritzing has a bunch of predefined components (such as breadboards, switches, resistors and Arduinos) that you can drag and drop together. There’s also a great snap-to-grid functionality that ensures that components are connected. Fritzing allows you to import component libraries from other vendors so that you can prototype with correct representations of the components. For example, the accelerometer object comes from the Adafruit Fritzing library.

I’m really glad to see that there are excellent open-source tools available for this kind of thing. It makes sharing knowledge much easier. I’m already impressed by the breadboarding functionality, so I am looking forward to tinkering with the schematic and PCB views!

Test Equipment Class

This weekend at NYC Resistor, I took the test equipment class taught by Trammel Hudson. It was a great class on how to use two very common tools for debugging issues with electronics.

The first half of the class covered how to use an oscilloscope. We used the DSO Nano v3 by Seeed Studios. This pocket-sized oscilloscope is powerful despite its small size. We first discussed how to measure signals and then moved on to more complex topics, such as using the triggering functions and figuring out baud rates based on the oscilloscope readings. The small size is a major plus, as it will fit nicely in my hack box. It’s a big step up from the giant analog oscilloscope that my grandfather used back in the day.

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The second half of the class covered how to use a multimeter. This is a must-have for anyone who likes to tinker with microcontrollers as I do. We covered how to measure AC and DC voltage, resistance and amperage, as well as continuity testing. Even though I already knew how to use one, this was a great refresher.

Resistance is futile... or approximately 220 ohms.
Resistance is futile… or approximately 220 ohms.

Of course, no class is complete without sticking something into the electric socket!

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The best part of the class was that we got to keep the tools! I can’t wait to break things so I can use my new tools to fix them!

Arduino and Sensors

I’ve been busy putting the finishing touches on a class I am teaching at NYC Resistor called Arduino and Sensors. The purpose of this class is to teach people how to use common sensors with Arduino so they can build awesome interactive projects. The class features the Adafruit Sensor Pack 900, as this pack contains a nice selection of common sensors. I’ve written some sample code for each of the sensors in the pack. We will discuss both digital signal and analog signal sensors.

Sensors!

Digital signal sensors are the simplest to use. They simply return a 1 or a 0 based on the reading of the sensor (just like a switch, it’s on or off). Therefore, reading the state of one of these sensors is as simple as hooking the output of the sensor to a digital pin on the Arduino┬á(pins 2-13 on the Uno) and calling digitalRead() on that pin. Here is a simple example – an IR sensor:

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Analog signal sensors are more complex. These sensors return a voltage on an analog pin somewhere from 0 volts to the max voltage of the microcontroller (with the Uno, it’s 5 volts). In order to read an analog sensor value, the sensor output needs to be connected to an analog pin on the Arduino (pins A0-A5 on the Uno). In the code, calling analogRead() on the analog pin will give you the sensor reading. The Arduino automatically converts the voltage on the analog pin to an integer between 0 (no power) and 1023 (full power). Generally, the reading can be mapped back to some meaningful value. For example, here is a simple analog sensor – a temperature sensor:

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According to the datasheet, this sensor returns 0 volts at -50 degrees Celsius and 1.75 volts at 125 degrees Celsius. It has a scale of 10 millivolts per degree Celsius. To get the raw voltage reading, we take our reading value, divide it by 1024 (to get the percentage of the full voltage) and then multiply that by 5 (since the microcontroller is supplying 5 volts). To scale the voltage to the range, we can simply multiply the voltage by 100 (according to our scale factor, 1/100 volt is 1 degree Celsius) and then subtract 50 (since zero volts is -50 degrees Celsius).

Of course, many sensors are more complex than just reading a simple pin. We’ll discuss a number of different scenarios and how to handle them. Did you ever wonder what the AREF pin is for? It’s the analog voltage reference pin and we will be discussing how to use it. We’re also going to use potentiometers to tune the sensitivity of some of the sensors.

The class is already almost sold out! If all goes well, I will hopefully teach it again soon!

General Class Amateur Radio

I upgraded my ham radio license to a general class license today! Yay!

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The test was harder than the technician class test as the material was a bit more technical. I used KB6NU’s No-Nonsense General-Class License Study Guide for the material and eHam.net practice exams. This strategy seemed to work well for me and I will probably do the same thing if I decide to upgrade to the extra class license.

Why upgrade to the general class? The general class gives you more privileges across the amateur radio spectrum. In particular, a large chunk of high frequency bands are only available to general class and above. This is important if you want to talk to people across the world.

My path into amateur radio was a strange one. After my grandfather’s death, my uncle mentioned that amateur call signs were inheritable. Since both of my uncles were already licensed and no one else seemed to be interested, I decided to get my license. After passing my technician class test, I applied to the FCC for a vanity call sign, requesting my grandfather’s old call sign. Coincidentally, the FCC assigned my grandfather’s call sign to me on what would have been his 85th birthday!

KA3USO, the first.
KA3USO, the first.

Interestingly enough, the FCC restricts transferal of cancelled call signs for two years except under two conditions. The first case is that a close family member wants to inherit a call sign. The second case is if a club wants to hold a call sign in memoriam of a former member. It makes me wonder how many call signs are transferred this way.

Blinky Box

This was a gift for my two year old nephew. Since he is a fan of lights and buttons, I wanted to make something blinky for him to enjoy. The concept was simple: make a clear box with buttons and lights that would change color and pattern based on the buttons that were pressed.

Blinky Box

First, I had to find a clear acrylic box large enough for some LEDs, switches, buttons and a microcontroller. I found this great polycarbonate box from Hammond Manufacturing that seemed to be the right size. Next, I needed to find some buttons that could take a beating. Fortunately, Adafruit sells some translucent arcade buttons in bright colors. The lighting was a no-brainer as I am a huge fan of Adafruit’s addressable LED strips. I also found a glowy on/off switch for the power. Somewhere along the way, I thought it would be a cool idea to add a rotary knob so that he could select different blinking patterns.

The next step was to assemble the pieces and wire everything together. The polycarbonate box was harder to work with than I had hoped. The polycarbonate would discolor if I used the laser cutter, so I found myself drilling all of the holes with a rotary tool. I then added the buttons, knob and on/off switch.

Assembly

Once all of the bits were together, I had to add a microcontroller to control the button states and light transitions. I decided to go with the Teensy 3 as it was what I had on hand (and I had yet to work with one). Also, Teensy 3 allows all digital pins to be interrupted (as opposed to four on the Teensy 2), which would simplify reading the button state. The other great reason for selecting the Teensy is that it already has an Encoder library, which makes reading the knob state simple.

The code was easy. Interrupts on the arcade buttons would change a variable representing the color. The interrupt for the black button would kick off a rainbow display routine. In the main loop, I polled for changes in the rotary encoder state and transitioned the lights accordingly. When I was finished, there were five main light colors (white, red, yellow, green and blue), one rainbow routine and six possible blink patterns (always on, fade on/off, blink on/off, chasing light, random twinkling lights and alternating lights).

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I saved the hardest part for last: power. I wanted something that my nephew couldn’t disturb, so anything outside of the box was out of the question. Regular batteries would require opening the box to change, so I thought something rechargeable would work better. I decided to go with a Lithium Ion battery. Unfortunately, these are generally around 3.7 volts and the LED strips require 5 volts. This meant that I needed to find a way to recharge the battery from the outside and find a way to step up the voltage. Fortunately, SparkFun sells a power cell board that does both. Yay!

Power Supply

I added a power jack to the box and used an old 5 volt AC adapter to supply the charging power. I then connected the power cell board and the battery using this handy tutorial. Fortunately, the charging of the battery seemed to work! Unfortunately, the power cell board only provides 600 milliamps at 5 volts, which is not enough power to run a full meter of the LED strip. Sadly, I had to cut the strip in half. It was still impressive even with just one loop of lights! To make the battery last even longer, I also implemented some of the suggestions for conserving power with the Teensy.

The best part about this toy is that it is fully programmable. As he gets older, I can program new features or games into it. Perhaps one day, I can even teach him to program it himself! ­čÖé

Here is a short video of the assembled box