Build an Arduino-controlled Larson Scanner

Introduction

For fun and a little bit of learning, let’s make a Larson Scanner. This isn’t a new project, for example we reviewed a kit in the past – however after finding some large LEDs we decided to make our own version. We’ll use an Arduino-compatible circuit to control the LEDs, and explain both the hardware and required Arduino sketch – then build a temporary small and a more permanent large version (and a bonus project).

So what is a Larson Scanner anyway? Named in honour of Glen A. Larson the creator of television shows such as Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider – as this kit recreates the left and right blinking motion used in props from those television shows. For example:

Making your own is quite simple, it’s just eight LEDs or lamps blinking in a certain order. If you’re not familiar with the Arduino hardware, please have a quick review of this tutorial before continuing.

Small version

If you’re just interested in whipping up a solderless breadboard or small version, it will take less than fifteen minutes. Just get an Arduino Uno or compatible board and construct the following circuit (the resistors are 560Ω):

Arduino Larson Scanner

The sketch is also very simple. There are two ways to address those digital output pins, and to save sanity and clock cycles we’re going to use port manipulation instead of many digitalWrite() functions. So for our circuit above, enter and upload the following sketch:

Notice how the ones and zeros in the byte send to PORTD (digital pins 7~0) represent the “movement” of the scanner? You’d have to agree this is a better method of addressing the LEDs. Have some fun and experiment with the patterns you can generate and also the delay. In the following video we’ve quickly demonstrated the circuit on a solderless breadboard using different delay periods:

Large Version

Now to make something more permanent, and much larger. There are many ways of completing this project, so the following version will be a design narrative that you can follow to help with planning your own. The first consideration will be the LEDs you want to use. For our example we used some Kingbright DLC2-6SRD 20mm bright red versions we had in stock:

KINGBRIGHT DLC2-6SRD

However you can use what you have available. The key to success will be driving the LEDs at their maximum brightness without damage. So you need to find out the best forward voltage and current for the LEDs, then do some basic mathematics. From our example LEDs’ data sheet, the maximum brightness is from 60 mA of current, at just under 6 V. A quick connection to a variable power supply shows the LEDs at this setting:

LED on

We can’t get this kind of brightness from our Arduino 5V circuit, so instead we’ll increase the circuit supply voltage to 9V and use resistors to reduce the current for the LEDs. To find the resistor value, use the following:

resistor formula… where Vs is the supply voltage (9), VLED is the forward voltage for the LED (5.6), and ILED is the forward current (60 mA). The value for R is 56.66 Ω – however you can’t get that value, so 68 Ω will be the closest value from the supplier. Finally, the power of the resistor required (in watts) is calculated by W = VA. So W = 3.4 (voltage drop over resistor) * 0.06 = 0.204 W. So we’ll need 68 Ω 0.25 W resistors for our LEDs. Thus instead of running the LED straight off a digital output, it will be switched on and off via a simple BC548 transistor – shown in the following schematic example:

transistor switchThe digital output for each LED is connected to the 1k Ω resistor and thus switches the transistor on to allow the current to flow through the LED when required. This is repeated for each LED we intend to use – which for the case of our large scanner project is six. (Why six? Someone bought a board which was too narrow for eight…) Next is the Arduino-compatible circuit. Timing isn’t critical so we’ll save components by using a ceramic resonator instead of a crystal and two capacitors. And as shown below (note that although the image on the microcontroller says ATmega168, we’ll use an ATmega328P):

basic Arduino circuit

(If you’re not up for making your own Arduino-compatible circuit, there’s plenty of alternative small boards you can use such as the Nano or LeoStick). Although the symbol for Y1 (the resonator) looks complex, it’s just a resonator – for example:

resonatorthe centre pin goes to GND and the outside pins go to XTAL1 and XTAL2 on the microcontroller. It isn’t polarised so either direction is fine.

At this point you may also want to consider how you’ll upload and update sketches on the project. One method is to mount the microcontroller in a socket, and just yank it between an Arduino board to upload the sketch, and then put it back in the project board. If you use this method then you’ll need a microcontroller with the Arduino bootloader.  However a more civilised method is to add ICSP header pins – they’re the 2 x 3 pins you see on most boards, for example:

ICSP

With which you can use a USBASP programmer to connect your board directly to a computer just like a normal Arduino. Just use Ctrl-Shift-U to upload your sketch via the programmer. Furthermore you can use bare microcontrollers without the bootloader, as all the necessary code is included with the direct upload. So if this method interests you, add the following to your circuit:

ICSP schematicThe RESET pin is connected to pin 1 of the microcontroller. Speaking of which, if you’re unsure about which pins on the ATmega328P are which, a variety of suppliers have handy labels you can stick on top, for example:

ATmega328 Arduino label

At this point it’s time to put it all together. We’re using a random piece of prototyping PCB, and your final plan will depend on your board. As an aside, check out the Lochmaster stripboard planning software if you use stripboard a lot. As mentioned earlier your final schematic will vary depending on the number of LEDs, their requirements with respect to current and your choice of Arduino platform. By now you have the knowledge to plan the circuit yourself. After some work here’s our final board:

larson scanner

… and the scanner in action. We used the same sketch as for the temporary version – however reduce it to six outputs (D0~5) to match the LEDs.

 Bonus project – Electronic Die

What else can you do with six LEDs? Make an electronic die! Here’s a simple sketch that simply picks a random number every five seconds. The random number generator is seeded from unused an analogue input pin.

And a quick video of our die in action:

Conclusion

We hope you found this interesting and at least made a temporary scanner on a breadboard – or at least learned something. Kudos if you went ahead and made a larger one. If you made a video, share it with us in the comments. And if you made it this far – check out my new book “Arduino Workshop” from No Starch Press.

In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitterGoogle+, subscribe  for email updates or RSS using the links on the right-hand column? And join our friendly Google Group – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website. Sign up – it’s free, helpful to each other –  and we can all learn something.

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John Boxall

Founder, owner and managing editor of tronixstuff.com.

6 Responses to “Build an Arduino-controlled Larson Scanner”

  1. Lupin says:

    Small correction for the power rating of the resistor to not confuse people (because I guess you know of course, but just had a small brainlag while writing it up ;) ): you don’t take the voltage drop of the LEDs in V*A but the voltage drop on the resistor which would by V_s – V_led = 3,4V. Using this voltage you could actually get away with a “normal” 0,25W resistor again.

  2. Collin says:

    Hey John

    I dare you to take this one step further and get the LEDs to fade properly (like KITT does), rather than have them on or off.

    I have tried with this previously (using an 9 LED Arduino Larson scanner) but failed miserably. I suspect at the time I was confused about PWM so may go back and have another go.

    A question though, Can you run PWM outputs through a shift register to extend the size of the scanner?

    Thanks for the tute!

    Coll

    • John Boxall says:

      Hi, no PWM can’t be set through a shift register. If you want brightness control for multiple LEDs try a different part like the TLC5940.

    • Doctorzorro says:

      The easiest way to do this is to add a diode in the signal lines and a capacitor between the base and emitter of each transistor. Something in the range of 10 – 100 uF should do it. This way, when te output goes low, the capacitor discharges through the transistor giving it a nice fade. The exact value for the capacitor is experimental and dependent of factors like type of transistor used and desired effect. To keep capacitor size down, add resistors between the capacitor and the base. These limit the speed of the discharge giving longer afterglow time. Edit the program so only one output is high at a time. Otherwise, it gets faded and all led’s are somewhat lit.
      Alternatively, try a 0001-0011-0010-0110-0100-1100-1000 sequence to mimick the brakelights they used for KITT even more.
      Bye, hope this helped

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  1. […] Scanner, but today we will be taking a closer look at a Larson Scanner project recently posted on TronixStuff powered by an Atmel-based Arduino […]


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