Sunday, July 5, 2009

To Do

If I remember correctly, my first introduction to circuits was in my 4th grade when my dad’s friend gave me a neat science-projects like kit. The kit contained components to teach the basics of electronics - switches, a buzzer, small incandescent bulbs (I absolutely dislike using these bulbs nowadays because of the power they drain), wires, steel wool, and other such things.

I was in the US at that time, and Lucas, a friend, and I, used to perform the ‘experiments’ given the handbook. I don’t know what Lucas’ dad did exactly, but to me he was some sort of god; he had tons of toasters and mixers and radios and TVs and machines lying open in his house. My mom would definitely have hit the roof had she seen such an untidy house. But I loved that house because, I suppose, it contributed a lot towards encouraging me to explore electronics as a hobby. And would you believe I’ve still got components from that kit!

In the 6th grade I read something about an FM transmitter and pestered my mum to take me ‘shopping’. I bought a couple of condenser mikes and speakers, but not knowing anything about transistors and chips, got absolutely nowhere. I did, however, manage to build a working crystal radio – very interesting things, I must say.

I always loved mechanics, and continued tinkering with small motors and toy cars and bulbs till the 10th grade. Finally, when I moved to junior college, I got my first formal introduction to electronics. I had loved the mechanical aspect of things, and could put my hand to anything that had gears and rods and levers. So junior college, with its electronics, was a new experience.

Every year I keep growing in experience and exposure, and my ‘To Do’ list keeps expanding. There are a lot of things that I want to build, but I’ve either not had the time or the knowledge to see them through. A lot of the things in the list are half complete; some of them have passed the proof-of-concept stage and are awaiting, to borrow from software lingo, the transition from beta to release version. Summer break is the perfect time to hit these projects with a vengeance, and I certainly plan to achieve a lot during these two and a half months.

The only problem – as I’m researching one project I invariably come across something new and attractive, which but naturally, gets appended to the To Do list, making it longer still!

Here’s my list, in current form:

Project Status
Linear PSU v3; Revision required
SMPS Proof-of-concept
Home Energy Meter To be done
Air Conditioner Controller v1; Revision required
Computer Controller DMX To be done
Ultrasonic Rangefinder Proof-of-concept
Digital LC Meter To be done
Temperature Controller for Soldering Iron Proof-of-concept
Long Range Walkie Talkies To be done; (searching for info)
Home Intercom Using Old Phones To be done
Drill Press To be done (currently collecting parts) 
CNC Milling Machine To be done (currently collecting parts) 
iTrip Mod v1; Working
iPod Mini Remote To be done
Auto-balancing Inverted Pendulum To be done
PIC to VGA To be done
Optical Mouse Based Navigation System for Small Robots Proof-of-concept
Very Long Range IR Transmitter Proof-of-concept; (currently collecting parts)
USB PIC Programmer To be done
Class D Audio Amplifier v1; Revision required
Digital Weigh Scale To be done
Low Cost USB Oscilloscope Proof-of-concept
Nokia 3310 / 6610 LCD Interface Proof-of-concept
CYUSB6934 Radio Interface Proof-of-concept
Lightweight Multipurpose Robotic Platforms (to be christened ‘Saxiest’ :-D ) v2; Revision required (currently collecting parts)
Foot Speed Controller for my Dremel XPR To be done; (searching for info)

As you can see, several projects still need to be started. Any advice/help/experience is most welcome :-)

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Super Probe

I remember mentioning in one of my earlier posts that an Oscilloscope was very high on my wish-list. The other day I entered into a bidding war on eBay-USA for a no-name DSO. It was pretty inexpensive, and the features it had seemed reasonably good. Sadly, I was outdone by some chap from Germany, who was willing to pay more than four times the amount I was.

After the eBay misadventure, my electronics toolkit continued to remain woefully incomplete. Apart from a simple multimeter and the PICKit2-Logic Analyser, I lacked the resources to take essential circuit parameter measurements – frequency, event counting, capacitance, inductance. I would also like a function/signal generator which would be able to output a PWM signal, pulses, pseudo-random number sequences and such like. Was there a multipurpose, do-it-all out there that would enable me to do all of this without breaking a bank?

About two years ago I had chanced upon the Super Probe while googling for a low cost capacitance meter. The Super Probe, designed by Luhan Monat, is a DIY low-cost and very low parts-count tool. As its name suggests, the Super Probe is capable of taking a variety of measurements with a fair degree of accuracy. It can also be used to output some useful waveforms and signals.

When I first saw Luhan’s site, I built a solderless-breadboard-prototype for myself. It lasted all of three days before the rats-nest of wires and components was deemed unsightly and cumbersome, and was relegated to the corner of my room, before being cannibalised for parts. I’ve finally gotten around to building my self a ‘proper’ Super Probe – the ensuing photos are ‘proof’' :-)


My 'Probe is enclosed in an old Orpat ODM-100 Multimeter case. I ripped out the insides (naturally keeping some of the components – the LCD, and some precision resistors – for future projects :-D ), replacing them with my own circuits. The entire 'Probe is built on proto board using DIP components. I plan to design my own PCB later with SMD parts.

Using my Dremel XPR400, I cut a slot in the side of the old multimeter to accommodate an ON-OFF slide switch. A circular piece of acrylic was glued in place of the rotary switch of the multimeter. Openings were also cut for buttons, which were ‘borrowed’  from an old non-functional calculator. Both, the button holes, and the switch slot, were made using the etching bit of the Dremel. To make the circular acrylic piece, I started by trimming the sides of a square piece. I drilled a small hole in the circular-ish piece and mounted it on a mandrel. This setup was spun at about 20,000RPM on a rough file till a circular shape was achieved, and then on a smooth file for finishing. You could just as well use a lathe to do this, but I had to make do with what tools I have :-( The circular acrylic piece was super-glued into place, as was the slide-switch.

The images below, from left to right, are of the slot cut for the switch; the switch glued from the inside; and, the modifications made to accommodate the buttons.

There are four PCBs inside the multimeter case – the display board, the actual 'Probe, a button mount, and a 7805 regulator. The reason I used a ‘modular’ approach is for ‘upgradeability’. Yeah, yeah, don’t laugh! I’ll tell you how ‘upgradeable’ this device is – I plan to replace the just PCBs with just one, which integrates everything. But until the time I actually design and etch the integrated PCB (I use the toner-FeCl3 method, and I no longer have access to a good laser printer) I would like to tinker and test the individual circuits. Each time I fiddle with a certain sub-circuit, and I wouldn’t want to build a completely new 'Probe.


The PCB wrapped up in red electrical tape is the 7805. The tape was necessary to prevent shorting. In the second pic, the crystal, wrapped in black electrical tape (also to prevent shorting) is visible.

For example, tomorrow I’m going to swap out the power-hungry and inefficient 7805 regulator with the much nicer, and comparatively power-thrifty MAX1836 buck converter from Maxim. I’m currently running off a 9v PP3 battery. With the 7805, I’d get 5v on the output as long as the PP3 voltage is above 7v. Current draw by the circuit is 20mA peak and about 10mA average, so with 9v on the PP3, I’d lose clip_image002[9]across the 7805. With 7v, I’d lose 20mW.

Now, although this doesn’t seem like much, I could improve battery life tremendously by using a buck regulator which is near about 85-95% efficient. So I’d reduce the power lost across the regulator to about 8mW – a reduction in power loss of 80%. Another advantage of Maxim’s 1836 is that it allows me to run the PP3 down to 5.5v, and it will still give me a nominal 5v on its output.

Back to the construction. For the display, I used individual 7 segment LED displays. The original 'Probe uses a 4-digit multiplexed display, but individual display blocks can be used as well, though soldering them is one hell of a pain in the butt (literally! Hehe :-D ). I put a sheet of cellophane paper (plastic) on top of the display to improve contrast.

The 'Probe uses a PIC16F870 as its brain. Luhan has been kind enough to provide a pre-complied HEX file which only needs to be burnt onto the PIC. He’s also provided the source code for download so you can modify the code as per your needs.

The Super Probe does have its limitations. It certainly is very inexpensive; the caveat is accuracy. The device’s readings are only as reliable as its components. Measurements should not be taken as God’s Word and whenever possible, must be checked against standard tools.

Anyway, the 'Probe has rapidly become one of my most useful tools. Of its 17 functions, I use the Frequency Counter, Event Counter, Servo Pulse Generator, Square Wave Generator, PWM Generator, and 38kHz IR Pulse Generator most often. For a list and description of all its functions look at the list below or visit the Super Probe website.


Super Probe Functions
Logic Probe – High, Low, Tristate
Logic Pulser with variable pulse rate
Autoranging Frequency Counter
Event Counter
Voltmeter 5v max.
Diode Junction Drop
Capacitance Meter
Inductance Meter
Signal Generator – 0.5v, 500Hz square wave
NTSC Video Signal Generator
Serial ASCII Generator – selectable baud rates: 1.2/2.4/4.8/9.6K
MIDI Note Generator
Hobby Servo Pulse Generator
Square Wave Generator – 1 to 9999 Hz
10kHz Pseudorandom Number Generator
38kHz Generator – useful for testing IR receivers
PWM Generator – 3 to 97% duty of a 6kHz square wave