Tag Archive | "build"

Kit review – Evil Mad Science Larson Scanner

Hello readers

Time yet again for another kit review. Today’s kit is the Larson Scanner from Evil Mad Science. What a different name for a company; their byline is “DIY and open source hardware for art, education and world domination”. Art? Yes. Education? Definitely. World domination? Possibly – you could use the blinking LEDs to hypnotise the less intelligent world leaders out there.

Anyhow, what is a Larson Scanner? 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:

The kit itself is quite inexpensive, easy to assemble – yet can be as complex as you want it to be. More about that later, for now let’s put one together and see how it performs. There are two versions of the kit, one with 5mm clear LEDs and our review model with 10mm diffused red LEDs. The kit arrives inside a huge resealable anti-static bag, as such:

1ss

Upon opening the bag we have the following parts (there was an extra LED and resistor, thanks):

4ss

… the PCB:

3ss

… which is nicely done with a good silk-screen and solder mask. And finally:

5ss

A very handy item – a battery box with power switch. The kit is powered by 2 x AA cells (not included!). And finally, the instructions:

2ss

At this point you can see that this kit is designed for the beginner in mind. The instructions are easy to read, clear, and actually very well done. If you are looking for a kit to get someone interested in electronics and to practice their soldering, you could do a lot worse than use this kit. Construction was very easy, starting with the resistors:

6ss

followed by the capacitor and button:

7ss

then the microcontroller:

8ss

… no IC socket. For a beginners’ kit, perhaps one should have been included. Next was the battery box. Some clever thinking has seen holes in the PCB to run the wires through before soldering into the board – doing so provides a good strain relief for them:

9ss

… and finally the LEDs. Beginners may solder them in one at a time:

10ss

however it is quicker to line them up all at once than solder in one batch:

11ss

… which leaves us with the final product:

13ss

Operation is very simple – the power switch is on the battery box. The button on the PCB controls the speed of LED scrolling, and if held down switches the brightness between low and high. Now for some action video of the Larson Scanner in operation:


Well that really was fun, a nice change from the usual things around here.

But wait, there’s more… although the Larson Scanner is a good training kit, it can also function in other interesting ways. The kit is completely open-source, you can download the PCB layout file, circuit schematic and microcontroller code. Get two or more and link them together to make a really wide LED display – expansion instructions are available from here. If you solder in a 6-pin PCB header to the area marked J1 on the PCB, you can reprogram the microcontroller using an STK500-compatible programmer.

After sitting my Larson Scanner next to the computer tower for a few minutes, I had contemplated fitting it into a 5.25″ drive bay to make my own Cylon PC, however that might be a little over the top. However my PC case has some dust filters on the front, which would allow LEDs to shine through in a nicely subdued way. Mounting the Larson Scanner PCB inside the computer case will be simple, and power can be sourced from the computer power supply – 5V is available from a disk drive power lead.

If you are going to modify your PC in a similar fashion, please read my disclaimer under “boring stuff” first.

The Larson Scanner can run on 3.3V without any alteration to the supplied components. What needs to be done is to use a voltage regulator to convert the 5V down to 3.3V. My example has used a 78L33 equivalent, the TI LP2950 as it is in stock. The power comes from a drive power cable splitter as such:

splitss

You may have a spare power plug in your machine, so can tap from that. 5V is the red lead, and GND is the adjacent black lead. Don’t use yellow – it is 12V. It is then a simple matter of running 5V from the red lead to pin 1 of the regulator, GND from the Larson Scanner and PC together to pin 2, and 3.3V out from the regulator to the PCB 3.3V. Insulation is important with this kind of work, so use plenty of heatshrink:

ldo1ss

… then cover the whole lot up:

ldo2ss

Now to locate a free power plug in the machine. It has been a while since opening the machine – time for a dust clean up as well:

ldo3ss

Mounting the PCB is a temporary affair until I can find some insulated mounting  standoffs:

ldo4ss

However it was worth the effort, the following video clip shows the results in action:


So there you have it. The Larson Scanner is an ideal kit for the beginner, lover of blinking LEDs, and anyone else that wants to have some easy blinking fun. You can buy Larson Scanner kits in Australia from Little Bird Electronics, or directly from Evil Mad Science for those elsewhere.

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts, follow me on twitter or facebook, or join our Google Group for further discussion.

High resolution images are available on flickr.

[Note – The kit was purchased by myself personally and reviewed without notifying the manufacturer or retailer]

Posted in evil mad science, kit review, larson scanner, learning electronics, tutorialComments (0)

Kit review – ogi lumen Nixie Tube system

Hello readers

Time to finish off the month with a fascinating kit review  – the ogi lumen nixie tube system. The younger readers amongst us may be thinking “what is a nixie tube?” Here is an example of four in a row:

p1080918

If you cast your mind back to before the time of LCDs, and before LEDs… to the mid-1950s. Nixie tubes were used to display data in various forms on electrical devices, from test equipment, scales, elevator indicators, possible doomsday machines, clocks – anything that required visual output would be a candidate. Although nixie tubes are now totally out of date, as with many things there is a growing trend to use them again, for cool retro-style, nostalgia and those people who enjoy living in the past.

How nixie tubes work is quite simple, an element is within a vacuum tube full of gas, such as neon. When a high-voltage (~190 volts DC) current flows through the element, it glows. For more information, here is a great explanation. You will note that they are similar to in look but different in design to the vacuum-fluorescent displays, as used in the ice tube clock reviewed a few months previously. The tubes used in this kit are the Soviet model IN-12A:

p1080865

The IN-12A tube can display the digits zero to nine, with a nice orange glow.  For the uninitiated, sourcing and making nixie tubes can be quite difficult. Apart from procuring the tubes themselves, you need a suitable power supply and logic ICs that can handle the higher voltage to control the tubes. Thankfully Ogi Lumen have put together a system of kits to make using these nixie tubes simple and interesting. There are three components to the system, the first being the power supply:

p1080879

Note that the power supply is preassembled. This supply can generate the necessary 150 to 220 volts DC to energise our nixie tubes. Yes – up to 220 volts! For example:

p1080922

However the current required is quite small – one power supply can handle up to twenty-four IN12A nixie tubes. My example in the photograph above is drawing 110~120 milliamps from a 12V DC supply. For those of you assembling these kits, please be careful. It can be easy to physically move the kit about whilst in operation, and touching the live HV pads will hurt a lot. After bumping the HV line on the PCB, my whole left arm went into a spasm and hurt for the time it took to see my doctor. So be careful.

The second item required is the driver kit. This is a board that takes care of the shift-registers and power for two of the nixie tubes. Driver kits can be slotted together to form a row of nixie tubes. The third and final item is the nixie duo kit. This contains two IN-12A tubes, matching sockets and a PCB to muont them. This PCB then slots into the driver kit PCB. You can buy the driver and duo kit as a set for a discount.

From a hardware perspective, assembling the kits is relatively simple. There isn’t any tricky soldering or SMD to worry about, however you will need a lot of solder. The contents of the duo and driver kits are as follows:

p1080869

Before you start soldering, please download and take note of the instructional .pdf files available for the duo and driver board kits. Assembling the driver kit (on the right) is very straight forward. However – please read the instructions! An interesting part of note is the K155ИД1IC:

p1080872

This is the Russian equivalent of the 74141. This is a BCD-decimal decoder IC that can handle the high voltages required for nixie tubes. When soldering the resistors, take care with R2 – it will need to be positioned horizontally so as to not rub against the duo board:

p1080934

When it is time to assemble the duo board, you will need time and patience. At a first glance, one would imagine that the sockets drop into the PCB, and the nixie tubes will happily be seated into the sockets. This is not so, don’t solder in the sockets first! The pins on the bottom of the socket also form part of the socket for the tube legs – which can alter the positioning of the socket legs. Make sure you have the socket with pin 1 at the top of the PCB. After some trial and error, the best way to insert the tubes is to first partially place the sockets into the PCB:

p1080880

… then fully insert the tubes into their sockets. Make sure the tube is the right way up – check that the digit 3 in the tube is the right way up. Then push the whole lot into the PCB. At this point you should check to make sure the sockets are in line with each other:

p1080892

(Notice how thick the PCB is…) At which point you can solder them in, followed by the row of connector pins:

p1080896

By this stage you will need some fresh air from all that soldering. The PCB holes for the socket pins really take a lot. Now you can connect the power supply to the driver board and give the tubes a test-toast:

p1080941

All the tubes should have their elements glowing. This is a good start. The next step is to connect the appropriate microcontroller and start displaying. As noted in the instructions, the 74141 BCD-decimal ICs are controlled by standard 74HC595 shift-register ICs, so your microcontroller needs to send out a data, clock and latch line. My following examples have been created using the Ardiuno system and a compatible board.

The first example is a method of displaying integers. It uses the Nixie library which you can download here.

That was just an arbitrary demonstration to get some numbers displayed. Here is a short video clip of it in action:

Now for another, more useful example. By using a DS1307 real-time clock IC with the Arduino, we can make a nice clock that displays the time and date. For more information on using the DS1307 with Arduino, please visit this tutorial. You can download the example nixie clock .pde file from here. And finally, here is the clock in action:

The problem with these tubes is that you will never have enough. Already I have thought of a few things to make that require a lot more tubes, so in the next month or so stay tuned to tronixstuff.com as there will be more projects with these kits.

In conclusion, this was a great kit and anyone looking to use some numerical nixie tubes will do very well with the Ogi Lumen products. Furthermore the designs are released under Creative Commons by-sa-nc, and the files are available to download from the product pages. And finally, it is a lot of fun – people will generally ask you about the tubes as they may have never seen them before.

Remember, if you have any questions about these modules please contact Ogi Lumen via their website. Higher resolution images available on flickr.

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, or join our 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.

[Note – the kit assembled in this article was received from Ogi Lumen for review purposes]

Posted in arduino, kit review, learning electronics, nixie, ogilumenComments (11)

Kit review: Freetronics KitTen Arduino-compatible board

Hello everyone

Within this article we are going to examine another new kit available from Freetronics, a company formed to provide many interesting Arduino-based products after the publication of the book “Practical Arduino” by Jonathan Oxer and Hugh Blemings – which in itself is a good read, there are many interesting projects to make and learn from.

Today we examine their answer to “is there a kit version of the TwentyTen Arduino Duemilanove-compatible board?” – by assembling their KitTen. Some people may be wondering why one would want to build a KitTen instead of an assembled unit. Personally I could think of the following reasons:

  • It’s fun to make something and see it work;
  • You can save over Au$10;
  • There are a lot more smoothing capacitors in the KitTen design than normal boards;
  • There is a dedicated 3.3V 100 milliamp power regulator (twice the current of the usual board’s 50mA supply)  – ideal for running thirsty shields that need a native 3.3V;
  • The board is for a project that needs to use a modified version of the TwentyTen/Duemilanove;
  • You want a board with a native serial instead of USB interface;
  • All that lovely prototyping area above the microcontroller;
  • The power light and LED for D13 are always visible due to their location on the edge of the PCB;
  • You could solder in your microcontroller to avoid theft – great for school and public use (Yes, this has happened)…

And so on. Moving forward, opening the KitTen package reveals the following:

contents1ss

Once again with a Freetronics kit, all instructions are included in colour, as well as the circuit schematic and another sheet explaining how the KitTen will work with Arduino systems and the specifications. The PCB is solder-masked and silk-screened with a very informative layout:

pcbss1

The rest of the included components shipped in an anti-static bag, including labelled resistors and an IC socket for the microcontroller:

contents2ss

By following the included detailed instructions, everything went well. The layout on the PCB is detailed with all component values, which makes life easier. Starting with the low-profile components:

solder1ss

… followed by higher-profile components such as the IC socket and capacitors:

solder2ss

… and finally the shield sockets. Instead of trying to balance them, it is a lot quicker to place the sockets on an existing Arduino shield, turn it over, drop the KitTen on top then solder the pins in:

solder3ss

Then finally we are finished:

finishedss1

There are a couple of things to watch out for when using your KitTen. The first is to make sure you have the power-select jumper fitted correctly:

powerselectjumperss

Place it on the left pins (as above) to power your KitTen from the FTDI cable; place the jumper on the right pins to power from the DC socket. You should use a power supply of between 9 to 12 volts DC at one amp. The second item to take care with is the blue power LED. The supplied model was so bright it was like staring into the sun. You may wish to test your own one and possibly replace it for a duller version, or use some fine sandpaper to reduce the brightness of the included LED. To upload sketches to your KitTen you will need a 5 volt FTDI cable. As mentioned above, this can also power your board as well.

Overall, this is an excellent kit, and considering the price of doing it yourself – good value as well. To get your hands on this product– visit Freetronics’ website, or your local reseller.

Remember, if you have any questions about these modules please contact Freetronics via their website.

Higher resolution images available on flickr.

[Note – the kit assembled in this article was received from Freetronics for review purposes]

Posted in arduino, kit reviewComments (0)

Kit review – Sparkfun Frequency Counter kit

Hello everyone

Today we examine a kit that is simple to construct and an interesting educational tool – the Sparkfun Frequency Counter kit. This is a revised design from a kit originally released by nuxie1 (the same people who brought us the original function generator kit). As a frequency counter, it can effectively measure within the range of 1 to a claimed 6.5 MHz. Unfortunately the update speed and perhaps accuracy is limited by the speed of the microcontroller the kit is based upon – the Atmel ATmega328. Arduino fans will recognise this as the heart of many of their projects.

Interestingly enough the kit itself is a cut-down version of an Arduino Duemilanove-standard board, without the USB and power regulation hardware. The ATmega328 has the Arduino bootloader and the software (“sketch”) is open source (as is the whole kit) and easily modifiable. This means you can tinker away with your frequency counter and also use your kit as a barebones Arduino board with LCD display. More about this later.

This becomes more obvious when looking at the PCB:

pcbss

It was a little disappointing to not find any power regulator or DC socket – you need to provide your own 5V supply. However Sparkfun have been “clever” enough to include a cable with JST plug and socket to allow you to feed the frequency counter from their function generator kit. In other words, buy both. Frankly they might as well just have produced a function generator with frequency counter kit all on one PCB. Anyhow, let’s get building.

The kit comes in a nice reusable stiff red cardboard box. One could probably mount the kit in this box if they felt like it. The components included are just enough to get by. The LCD is a standard 16 x 2 character HD44780-compatible display. (More on these here). It has a black on green colour scheme. You could always substitute your own if you wanted a different colour scheme:

partsss

An IC socket is not included. You will need to install one if you intend to reprogram the microcontroller with another Arduino board.

Assembly was quick and painless. I couldn’t find any actual step-by-step instructions on the internet (Sparkfun could learn a lot from adafruit in this regard) however the component values are printed on the PCB silk-screen; furthermore no mention of LCD connection, but the main PCB can serve as a ‘backpack’ and therefore the pins line up.

To make experimenting with this kit easier I soldered in some header pins to the LCD and matching socket to the main PCB; as well as adding pins for an FTDI cable (5V) to allow reprogramming direct from the Arduino IDE:

lcdsocketss

So there are in fact two ways to reprogram the microcontroller – either pull it out and insert into another Arduino board, or do it in-place with a 5V FTDI cable. Either way should be accessible for most enthusiasts. At this point one can put the screen and LCD together and have a test run. Find a nice smooth 5V DC power source (from an existing Arduino is fine), or perhaps plug it into USB via a 5V FTDI cable – and fire it up:

itworksss

Well, that’s a start. The backlight is on and someone is home. The next step is to get some sort of idea of the measurement range, and compare the accuracy of the completed kit against that of a more professional frequency counter. For this exercise you can observer the kit and my Tek CFC-250 frequency counter measuring the same function generator output:

As you can see the update speed isn’t that lively, and there are some discrepancies as the frequencies move upward into the kHz range. Perhaps this would be an example of the limitations caused by the CPU speed. Next on the to-do list was to make the suggested connection between the function generator kit and the frequency counter. This is quite simple, you can solder the included JST socket into the function generator board, and solder the wires of the lead included with the frequency counter as such:

boardsss

When doing so, be sure to take notice about which PCB hole is connected to which hole, the colours of the wire don’t match the assumed description on the function generator PCB. Furthermore, the voltage applied via the WAVE pin (the frequency source) should not fall outside of 0~+5V.

As mentioned earlier, this kit is basically a minimalist Arduino board, and this gives the user some scope with regards to modification of the software/sketch. Furthermore, the kit has been released under a Creative Commons by-sa  license. So you can download the schematic, Arduino sketch and EAGLE files and create your own versions or updates. If doing so, don’t forget to attribute when necessary.

Overall, this was anther interesting and easy kit to assemble. It is ideal for beginners as there isn’t that much soldering, they end up with something relatively useful, and if you have a standard Arduino Uno or similar board you can upgrade the firmware yourself.

However as a standalone frequency counter, perhaps not the best choice. Think of this kit as an educational tool – involving soldering, Arduino programming and learning how frequency counters work. In this regard, the kit is well suited.

As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts. Or join our Google Group.

High resolution images are available on flickr.

[Note – The kit was purchased by myself personally and reviewed without notifying the manufacturer or retailer]

Posted in arduino, kit review, KIT-10140Comments (2)


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