Tag Archives: electronics

Learn electronics with Chris Gammell and “Contextual Electronics”

Electrical engineer Chris Gammell has spent almost a year creating his new online electronics program called “Contextual Electronics“, and we’re excited to share this with our readers. You may have heard of Chris from his regular successful podcast with Dave Jones  – “The Amp Hour“.

Chris has the knowledge and expertise to take electronic ideas from simply that – an idea, right through to production. And by participating in his Contextual Electronics program you can learn the required skills to do this as well. Chris gives us a quick introduction in this video.

Contextual Electronics is a new program aimed at electronics enthusiasts who are ready to take their Arduino (or similar platform) skills to the next level. The first session of the course is an 8 week program that will teach you how to design a large, multi-function Arduino shield using KiCad, the open source CAD software.

It will also show you all of the design decisions that go into making the project. Here are some of the sub-circuits included in the 4-layer PCB design:

  • High level signals measurement using op-amps
  • Power supply output
  • Relay control
  • LED driver circuitry
  • Current source output

The course has a large community component, so you will be grouped with others learning at the same time, regardless of where you’re located in the world. The goal of the course and the community aspect is to make you more confident designing a project so you can go and design your own.

Future sessions of the course will also go over building, troubleshooting and coding for the shield described above. There is also a free short course that you can review to give you an idea of Chris’ methods and what the Contextual Electronics program will be like.

Additional courses will be developed using other popular development boards, including the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone. For a more in-depth introduction, check out this video.

Frankly the program will help all of you who are ready to take your ideas and projects off the breadboard and into finished products, and with the guidance available with the program and the use of open-source tools you’ll be up and making things you can be proud of showing to friends or even potential employers. For more information about the program, and to sign up – visit the Contextual Electronics program website.

And if you enjoyed this article, or want to introduce someone else to the interesting world of Arduino – check out my book (now in a third printing!) “Arduino Workshop”.

visit tronixlabs.com

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 forum – 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.

Old Kit Review – Talking Electronics Fluorescent Simulator

Introduction

Slowly we’re working through the stock of old kits, and in this article we have the “Fluorescent Lamp” simulator from Talking Electronics. To save repeating myself you can read more about Talking Electronics here and watch interviews of the founder Colin Mitchell here.

So why would you want to simulate a fluoro’ tube anyway? Model railways! When your model world moves from day to night, it’s neat to have street lights and so on “flicker” on just like the real thing. And thus you can create this effect as well. It can drive incandescent lamps up to 12V, and allowing it to be powered easily from most layouts.

The kit was originally described in the Talking Electronics book “Electronics for Model Railways” (volume 1) which was full of useful and interesting electronics to liven up any layout. The book may now out of print however at the time of writing this you can download or view most of the projects from the index column of the Talking Electronics website… or contact Talking Electronics if they have any copies of the book (or kit) to sell.

Assembly

Time was not kind to the kit, to be frank it was surprising to find one at all:

Talking Electronics Fluorescent Simulator kit

(Just a note for any over-enthusiastic readers, Talking Electronics is no longer at the address on the bag shown above). However it was complete and ready for assembly. The PCB has a silk-screen with the required component placement information, polarities and so on – a first for the time:

Talking Electronics Fluorescent Simulator PCB top

Talking Electronics Fluorescent Simulator PCB bottom

The instructions and “how it works” are not included with the kit as you were meant to have the book, however TE have made them available as a separate download (.pdf) The kit included everything required to get started, and there’s an LED which replicates the effect so you can test the board without having to watch the connected bulb (which may be a distance away). Finally an IC socket is included 🙂

Talking Electronics Fluorescent Simulator parts

The actual assembly process was very straight forward, which simply required starting with the low-profile components and working up to the large ones:

Talking Electronics Fluorescent Simulator assembly 1

The only problem with the PCB was the holes – looks like only one drill size had been used (apart from the mounting holes) which made getting that rectifier diode in a little tricky. Otherwise it was smooth sailing.

Talking Electronics Fluorescent Simulator finished 2

Not having a model railway at the moment left me with the simple example of the onboard LED and a small incandescent globe to try with the circuit. You can see the kit working in this video.

John – Why do you publish these “Old Kit Reviews”?

They’re more of  a selfish article, like many electronics enthusiasts I have enjoyed kits for decades – and finding kits from days gone by is a treat. From various feedback some of you are enjoying them, so they will continue for fun and some nostalgia. If you’re not interested, just ignore the posts starting with “Old”!

Conclusion

For a kit from the mid-1980s, this would have solved the problem neatly for model railway enthusiasts. By using two or more of the kits with different capacitor values, many model lights could blink on with seemingly random patterns. However it’s 2014 so you could use a PIC10F200 or ATtiny45 and reduce the board space and increase the blinking potential.

Nevertheless, it was an interesting example of what’s possible with a digital logic IC. Full-sized images and a lot more information about the kit are available on flickr. And if you enjoyed this article, or want to introduce someone else to the interesting world of Arduino – check out my book (now in a third printing!) “Arduino Workshop”.

visit tronixlabs.com

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 forum – 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.

Kit Review – “Short Circuits” 3 Digit Counter

Introduction

Time for another kit review and in this instalment we have a look at the “3 digit counter” kit from Tronixlabs. This is part of a much larger series of kits that are described in a three volume set of educational books titled “Short Circuits”.

Aimed at the younger readers or anyone who has an interest in learning electronics, these books (available from Tronixlabs) are well written and with some study and practice the reader will make a large variety of projects and learn quite a bit. They could be considered as a worthy 21st-century replacement to the old Dick Smith “Funway…” guides.

The purpose of this kit is to give you a device which can count upwards between zero and 999 – which can be used for various purposes and also of course to learn about digital electronics.

Assembly

The kit arrives in typical retail fashion:

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit packaging

Everything you need to make the counter is included except for the instructions – which are found in the “Short Circuits” volume two book – and IC sockets. Kits for beginners with should come with IC sockets.

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit contents

The components are separated neatly in the bag above, and it was interesting to see the use of zero ohm resistors for the two links on the board:

KJ8234 Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit components

The PCB is excellent. The silk screening and solder-mask is very well done.

KJ8234 Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit PCB top

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit PCB bottom KJ8234

Furthermore I was really, really impressed with the level of detail with the drilling. The designer has allowed for components with different pin spacing – for example the 100 nF capacitor and transistors as shown below:

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit PCB detail KJ8234

The instructions in the book are very clear and are written in an approachable fashion:

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit instructions KJ8234

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit instructions two KJ8234

There’s also a detailed explanation on how the circuit works, some interesting BCD to decimal notes, examples of use (slot cars!) and a neat diagram showing how to mount the kit in a box using various parts from Jaycar – so you’re not left on your own.

Construction went well, starting with the low-profile parts:

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit assembly 1 KJ8234

… then the semiconductors:

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit assembly 2 KJ8234

… then the higher-profile parts and we’re finished:

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit assembly finished KJ8234

There wasn’t any difficulty at all, and the counter worked first time. Although I’m not a new user, the quality of PCB and instructions would have been a contributing factor to the success of the kit.

How it works

The input signal for the counter (in this case a button controlling current from the supply rail) is “squared-up” by an MC14093 schmitt-trigger IC, which then feeds a MC14553 BCD counter IC, which counts and then feeds the results to a 4511 BCD to 7-segment converter to drive the LED digits which are multiplexed by the MC14553. For the schematic and details please refer to the book. Operation is simple, and demonstrated in the following video:

However you can feed the counter an external signal, by simply applying it to the input section of the circuit. After a quick modification:

Jaycar Short Circuits Counter Kit counter input KJ8234

… it was ready to be connected to a function generator. In the following video we send pulses with a varying frequency up to 2 kHz:

Conclusion

This is a neat kit, works well and with the accompanying book makes a good explanation of a popular digital electronics subject. There aren’t many good “electronics for beginners” books on the market any more, however the “Short Circuits” range fit the bill.

And finally a plug for our own store – tronixlabs.com – which along with being Australia’s #1 Adafruit distributor, also offers a growing range and Australia’s best value for supported hobbyist electronics from Altronics, Jaycar, DFRobot, Freetronics, Seeedstudio and much much more.

visit tronixlabs.com

As always, 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 forum – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website.

Old Kit Review – Silicon Chip Mini Stereo Amplifier

Introduction

In this review of an older kit we examine the aptly-named “Mini Stereo Amplifier” from Dick Smith Electronics (catalogue number K5008), based on the article published in the October 1992 issue of Silicon Chip magazine.

The purpose of the kit is to offer a stereo 1W+1W RMS amplifier for use with portable audio devices that only used headphones, such as the typical portable tape players or newly available portable CD players. I feel old just writing that. At the time it would have been quite a useful kit, paired with some inexpensive speakers the end user would have a neat and portable sound solution. So let’s get started.

Assembly

Larger kits like this one that couldn’t be retailed on hanger cards shipped in corrugated cardboard boxes that were glued shut. They looked good but as soon as a sneaky customer tore one open “to have a look” it was ruined and hard to sell:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit box

The amplifier kit was from the time when DSE still cared about kits, so you received the sixteen page “Guide to Kit Construction” plus the kit instructions, nasty red disclaimer sheet, feedback card, plus all the required components and the obligatory coil of solder that was usually rubbish:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit all contents

However the completeness of the kit is outstanding, everything is included for completion including an enclosure and handy front panel sticker:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit enclosure face sticker

… all the sockets, plenty of jumper wire and even the rubber feet:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit components

The PCB is from the old-school of design – without any silk-screening or solder mask:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit PCB front

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit PCB rear

However the instructions are quite clear so you can figure out the component placement easily. Which brings us to that point – all the components went in with ease:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit PCB partial assembly

… then it was a matter of wiring in the sockets, volume potentiometer and power switch:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit socket wiring

Instead of using a 3.5mm phono socket for power input, I used a 9V battery snap instead. The amplifier can run on voltages down to 1.8V so it will do for the limited use I have in mind for the amplifier. However in the excitement of assembly I forgot the power switch:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit PCB forgot the switch

However it wasn’t any effort to rectify that. You will also notice three links on the PCB, which I fitted instead of making coils (more on this later). So at that point the soldering work is finished:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit PCB finished

Now to drill out the holes on the faceplate. Instead of tapering out the slots on the side of the housing, I just drilled all the holes on the front panel:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit panel

Turns out the adhesive on the front panel sticker had lost its mojo, so I might head off and get some white-on-black tape for the label maker. However in the meanwhile we have one finished mini stereo amplifier, which reminds me of an old grade seven electronics project:

Dick Smith Electronics K5008 Stereo Amplifier Kit finished

How it works

The amplifier is based on the STMicro TDA2822M (data sheet .pdf) dual low-voltage amplifier IC. In fact the circuit is a slight modification of the stereo example in the data sheet. As mentioned earlier, the benefit of this IC is that it can operate on voltates down to 1.8V, however to reach the maximum power output of 1W per channel into 8Ω loads you need a 9V supply. The output will drop to around 300 mW at 6V.

Finally the Silicon Chip design calls for a triplet of coils, one each on the stereo input wires – used to prevent the RF signal being “shunted away” from the amplifier inputs. The idea behind that was some portable radios used the headphones as an antenna, however we’ll use it with the audio out from a mobile phone so it was easier to skip hand-winding the coils and just put links in the PCB.

Using the Amplifier

The purpose of this kit was to have some sound while working in the garage, so I’ve fitted a pair of cheap 1W 8Ω speakers each to a length of wire and a 3.5mm plug as shown in the image above. And for that purpose, it works very well. In hindsight it turns out the speakers were rated at 1W peak not RMS, however they still sound great.

Conclusion

Another kit review over. This is a genuinely useful kit and a real shame you can’t buy one today. And again – to those who have been asking me privately, no I don’t have a secret line to some underground warehouse of old kits – just keep an eye out on ebay as they pop up now and again. Full-sized images and much more information about the kit are available on flickr.

And while you’re here – are you interested in Arduino? 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.

Kit Review – Altronics 3 Digit Counter Module

Introduction

In this review we examine the three digit counter module kit from Tronixlabs. The purpose of this kit is to allow you to … count things. You feed it a pulse, which it counts on the rising edge of the signal. You can have it count up or down, and each kit includes three digits.

You can add more digits, in groups of three with a maximum of thirty digits. Plus it’s based on simple digital electronics (no microcontrollers here) so there’s some learning afoot as well. Designed by Graham Cattley the kit was first described in the now-defunct (thanks Graham) January 1998 issue of Electronics Australia magazine.

Assembly

The kit arrives in the typical retail fashion:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

And includes the magazine article reprint along with an “electronics reference sheet” which covers many useful topics such as resistor colour codes, various formulae, PCB track widths, pinouts and more. There is also a small addendum which uses two extra (and included) diodes for input protection on the clock signal:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit instructions

The counter is ideally designed to be mounted inside an enclosure of your own choosing, so everything required to build a working counter is included however that’s it:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit parts

No IC sockets, however I decided to live dangerously and not use them – the ICs are common and easily found. The PCBs have a good solder mask and silk screen:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit PCBs

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit PCBs rear

With four PCBs (one each for a digit control and one for the displays) the best way to start was to get the common parts out of the way and fitted, such as the current-limiting resistors, links, ICs, capacitors and the display module. The supplied current-limiting resistors are for use with a 9V DC supply, however details for other values are provided in the instructions:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

At this point you put one of the control boards aside, and then start fitting the other two to the display board. This involves holding the two at ninety degrees then soldering the PCB pads to the SIL pins on the back of the display board. Starting with the control board for the hundreds digit first:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

… at this stage you can power the board for a quick test:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

… then fit the other control board for the tens digit and repeat:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

Now it’s time to work with the third control board. This one looks after the one’s column and also a few features of the board. Several functions such as display blanking, latch (freeze the display while still counting) and gate (start or stop counting) can be controlled and require resistors fitted to this board which are detailed in the instructions.

Finally, several lengths of wire (included) are soldered to this board so that they can run through the other two to carry signals such as 5V, GND, latch, reset, gate and so on:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

These wires can then be pulled through and soldered to the matching pads once the last board has been soldered to the display board:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

 You also need to run separate wires between the carry-out and clock-in pins between the digit control boards (the curved ones between the PCBs):

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

For real-life use you also need some robust connections for the power, clock, reset lines, etc., however for demonstration use I just used alligator clips. Once completed a quick power-up showed the LEDs all working:

Altronics K2505 Counter Module Kit

How it works

Each digit is driven by a common IC pairing – the  4029 (data sheet) is a presettable up/down counter with a BCD (binary-coded decimal) output which feeds a 4511 (data sheet) that converts the BCD signal into outputs for a 7-segment LED display. You can count at any readable speed, and I threw a 2 kHz square-wave at the counter and it didn’t miss a beat. By default the units count upwards, however by setting one pin on the board LOW you can count downwards.

Operation

Using the counters is a simple matter of connecting power, the signal to count and deciding upon display blanking and the direction of counting. Here’s a quick video of counting up, and here it is counting back down.

Conclusion

This is a neat kit that can be used to count pulses from almost anything. Although some care needs to be taken when soldering, this isn’t anything that cannot be overcome without a little patience and diligence. So if you need to count something, get one or more of these kits from Tronixlabs Australia. Full-sized images are available on flickr. And while you’re here – are you interested in Arduino? Check out my book “Arduino Workshop” from No Starch Press – also available from Tronixlabs.

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.

Old Kit Review – Diesel Sound Simulator for Model Railroads

Introduction

In this review of an older kit (circa 1993~1997) we examine the Diesel Sound Simulator for Model Railroads kit from (the now defunct) Dick Smith Electronics, based on the article published in the December 1992 issue of Silicon Chip magazine.

The purpose of this kit is to give you a small circuit which can fit in a HO scale (or larger) locomotive, or hidden underneath the layout – that can emulate the rumbling of a diesel-electric locomotive to increase the realism of a train. However the kit is designed for use with a PWM train controller (also devised by Silicon Chip!) so not for the simple direct-DC drive layouts.

K3030 diesel sound simulator kit

Assembly

The diesel sound kit was from the time when DSE still cared about kits, so you received the sixteen page “Guide to Kit Construction” plus the kit instructions, nasty red disclaimer sheet, feedback card, plus all the required components and the obligatory coil of solder that was usually rubbish:

K3030 diesel sound simulator kit contents

Everything required to get going is included, except IC sockets. My theory is it’s cheaper to use your own sockets than source older CMOS/TTL later on if you want to reuse the ICs, so sockets are now mandatory here:

K3030 diesel sound simulator kit parts

The PCB is from the old school of “figure-it-out-yourself”, no fancy silk-screening here:

K3030 diesel sound simulator kit PCB

K3030 diesel sound simulator kit PCB bottom

Notice the five horizontal pads between the two ICs – these were for wire bridges in case you needed to break the PCB in two to fit inside your locomotive.

Actual assembly was straight-forward, all the components went in without any issues. Having two links under IC2 was a little annoying, however a short while later the PCB was finished and the speaker attached:

K3030 diesel sound simulator kit finished

How it works

As mentioned earlier this diesel sound kit was designed for use with the Silicon Chip train PWM controller, so the design is a little different than expected. It can handle a voltage of around 20 V, and the sound is determined by the speed of the locomotive.

The speed is determined by the back EMF measured from the motor – and (from the manual) this is the voltage produced by the motor which opposes the current flow through it and this voltage is directly proportional to speed.

Not having a 20V DC PWM supply laying about I knocked up an Arduino to PWM a 20V DC supply via an N-MOSFET module and experimented with the duty cycle to see what sort of noises could be possible. The output was affected somewhat by the supply voltage, however seemed a little higher in pitch than expected.

You can listen to the results in the following video:

I reckon the sound from around the twenty second mark isn’t a bad idle noise, however in general not that great. The results will ultimately be a function of a lower duty-cycle than I could create at the time and the values of R1 and R2 used in the kit.

 Conclusion

Another kit review over. With some time spent experimenting you could generate the required diesel sounds, a Paxman-Valenta it isn’t… but it was a fun kit and I’m sure it was well-received at the time. To those who have been asking me privately, no I don’t have a secret line to some underground warehouse of old kits – just keep an eye out on ebay and they pop up now and again. Full-sized images and much more information about the kit are available on flickr.

And while you’re here – are you interested in Arduino? 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.

Kit review – Altronics Logic Probe Mk II

Introduction

Every month Australian electronics magazine Silicon Chip publishes a few projects, and in this kit review we’ll look at an older but still current example from August 2004 – the 3-state Logic Probe Kit (Mk II). This is an inexpensive piece of test equipment that’s useful when checking digital logic states and as a kit, great for beginners. Avid readers of my kit reviews may remember the SMD version we examined in June… well it wasn’t that much of a success due to the size of the parts. However this through-hole version has been quite successful, so keep reading to find out more

Assembly

The kit is packaged in typical form, without any surprises:

bag

 In typical Altronics fashion, an updated assembly guide is provided along with a general reference to common electronics topics:

bagcontents

 All the required parts are included – except for a 14-pin IC socket and two CR2016 batteries.

parts

 The PCB makes soldering easy with the silk-screen and solder mask:

pcbtop

 However the resistor numbering is a bit out of whack, a few R-numbers are skipped. So before soldering, measure and line up all the resistors in numbered order – doing so will reduce the chance of fitting them in the wrong spot.

pcbbottom

When it comes time to solder the power switch on the end, it’s necessary to clip off two tabs – one at each end of the switch. However this isn’t a problem:

solderswitchon

Soldering in the rest of the components wasn’t any effort at all, they’ve been spaced around the PCB nicely:

gettingthere

 Once they’re in, it’s time to insert the pins that hold the probe (shown on the left below):

pinsforprobe

 A full-sized probe is included with the kit, which you cut down with a hacksaw to allow it to fit on the end of the PCB. Then solder a short wire from the tip’s collar and run it through the body as such:

pinsforprobe2

 At this point, it’s time to break out the butane torch:

blowtorch

… with which you melt down the heatshrink over the tip, then fit it to the PCB and solder the probe wire:

testing

At this point it’s wise to fit the batteries and test that the probe works, as the next stage is to heatshrink the entire circuit to the left of the LEDs:

finished

Use

Using the probe is incredibly simple – however note that it’s designed for working with 5V logic. If you need to use higher voltages the probe can be assembled with slightly different circuit to take care of that eventuality. Moving forward simply clip the lead to GND on the circuit under test, then probe where you want to measure. The LEDs will indicate either HIGH, LOW or the PULSE LED will light when a fault is apparent, or other need for further research into the circuit. Here’s a quick demonstration probing a signal from an Arduino board:

Conclusion

This through-hole version of the logic probe kit was much easier to construct than the SMD version, and worked first time. A logic probe itself is a very useful tool to have and I highly recommend this kit for the beginner who enjoys projects and is growing their stable of test equipment on a budget. You can find the kit at my store – Tronixlabs Australia.

Full-sized images available on flickr.  And if you made it this far – check out my book “Arduino Workshop” from No Starch Press.

Finally, check out tronixlabs.com.au – which along with being Australia’s #1 Adafruit distributor, also offers a growing range and great value for supported hobbyist electronics from Altronics, DFRobot, Freetronics, Jaycar, Pololu and much much more.

visit tronixlabs.com

As always, 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 forum – dedicated to the projects and related items on this website.

Australian Electronics Nostalgia – Talking Electronics Kits

Introduction

From 1981, Australian electrical engineer Colin Mitchell started publishing his home-grown electronics magazine “Talking Electronics”. His goal was to get people interested and learning about electronics, and more so with a focus on digital electronics. It was (and still is) a lofty goal – in which he succeeded. From a couple of rooms in his home the magazine flourished, and many projects described within were sold as kits. At one stage there were over 150 Talking Electronics kits on the market. You could find the books and kits in retail outlets such as Dick Smith Electronics, and for a short while there was a TE store in Moorabbin (Victoria). Colin and the team’s style of writing was easy to read and very understandable – but don’t take my word for it, you can download the magazines from his website (they’re near the bottom of the left column). Dave Jones recently interviewed Colin, and you can watch those for much more background information.

Over fifteen issues you could learn about blinking LEDs all the way to making your own expandable Z80 board computer, and some of the kits may still be available. Colin also published a series of tutorial books on electronics, and also single-magazine projects. And thus the subjects of our review … we came across the first of these single-issue projects from 1981 – the Mini Frequency Counter (then afterwards we have another kit):

cover

How great is that? The PCB comes with the magazine. This is what set TE apart from the rest, and helped people learn by actually making it easy to build what was described in the magazine instead of just reading about it. For 1981 the PCB was quite good – they were silk-screened which was quite rare at the time:

pcb

pcbrear

And if you weren’t quite ready, the magazine also included details of a square-wave oscillator to make and a 52-page short course in digital electronics. However back to the kit…

Assembly

The kit uses common parts and I hoard CMOS ICs so building wasn’t a problem. This (original) version of the kit used LEDs instead of 7-segment displays (which were expensive at the time) so there was plenty of  careful soldering to do:

LEDsin

And after a while the counter started to come together. I used IC sockets just in case:

almostthere

The rest was straight-forward, and before long 9 V was supplied, and we found success:

powerup

To be honest progress floundered for about an hour at this point – the display wouldn’t budge off zero. After checking the multi-vibrator output, calibrating the RC circuits and finally tracing out the circuit with a continuity tester, it turned out one of the links just wasn’t soldered in far enough – and the IC socket for the 4047 was broken So a new link and directly fitting the 4047 fixed it. You live and learn.

Operation

So – we now have a frequency counter that’s good for 100 Hz to the megahertz range, with a minimum of parts. Younger, non-microcontroller people may wonder how that is possible – so here’s the schematic:

schematic

The counter works by using a multi-vibrator using a CD4047 to generate a square-wave at 50, 500 and 5 kHz, and the three trimpots are adjusted to calibrate the output. The incoming pulses to measure are fed to the 4026 decade counter/divider ICs. Three of these operate in tandem and each divide the incoming count by ten – and display or reset by the alternating signal from the 4047. However for larger frequencies (above 900 Hz) you need to change the frequency fed to the display circuit in order to display the higher (left-most) digits of the result. A jumper wire is used to select the required level (however if you mounted the kit in a case, a knob or switch could be used).

For example, if you’re measuring 3.456 MHz you start with the jumper on H and the display reads 345 – then you switch to M to read 456 – then you switch to the L jumper and read 560, giving you 3456000 Hz. If desired, you can extend the kit with another PCB to create a 5-digit display. The counter won’t be winning any precision contests – however it has two purposes, which are fulfilled very well. It gives the reader an inexpensive piece of test equipment that works reasonably well, and a fully-documented project so the reader can understand how it works (and more).

And for the curious –  here it is in action:

[Update 20/07/2013] Siren Kit

Found another kit last week, the Talking Electronics “DIY Kit #31 – 9V siren”. It’s an effective and loud siren with true rise and fall, unlike other kits of the era that alternated between two fixed tones. The packaging was quite strong and idea for mail-order at the time:

kitbox

The label sells the product (and shows the age):

kitlabel

The kit included every part required to work, apart from a PP3 battery, and a single instruction sheet with a good explanation of how the circuit works, and some data about the LM358:

kitparts

… and as usual the PCB was ahead of its’ time with full silk-screen and solder mask:

pcbtop

sirenpcbbottom

Assembly was quite straight-forward. The design is quite compact, so a lot of vertical resistor mounting was necessary due to the lack of space. However it was refreshing to not have any links to fit. After around twenty minutes of relaxed construction, it was ready to test:

PCBfinished

finished

It’s a 1/2 watt speaker, however much louder than originally anticipated:

Once again, another complete and well-produced kit.

Conclusion

That was a lot of fun, and I’m off to make the matching square-wave oscillator for the frequency counter. Kudos to Colin for all those years of publication and helping people learn. Lots of companies bang on about offering tutorials and information on the Internet for free, but Colin has been doing it for over ten years. Check out his Talking Electronics website for a huge variety of knowledge, an excellent electronics course you can get on CD – and go easy on him if you have any questions.

Full-sized images available on flickr. This kit was purchased without notifying the supplier.

And if you made it this far – check out my new book “Arduino Workshop” from No Starch Press.

LEDborder

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.

Review – LBE “Magpie” Arduino-compatible board

In this article we review the “Magpie” Arduino Uno-compatible board from Little Bird Electronics.

Introduction

We have a new board to review – the “Magpie” board from Little Bird Electronics in Australia. It seems that a new Arduino-compatible board enters the market every week, thanks to the open-source nature of the platform and the availability of rapid manufacturing. However the Magpie isn’t just any old Arduino Uno knock-off, it has something which helps it stand out from the crowd – status LEDs on every digital and analogue I/O pin. You can see them between the stacking header sockets and the silk-screen labels. For example:

topss

and for the curious, the bottom of the Magpie:

bottomss

At first glance you might think “why’d they bother doing that? I could just wire up some LEDs myself”. True. However having them on the board speeds up the debugging process as you can see when an output is HIGH or LOW – and in the case of an input pin, whether a current is present or not. For the curious the LEDs are each controlled by a 2N7002 MOSFET with the gate connected to the I/O pin, for example:

mosfets

An LED will illuminate as long as the gate voltage is higher than the threshold voltage – no matter the status of the particular I/O pin. And if an I/O pin is left floating it may trigger the LED if the threshold voltage is exceeded at the gate. Therefore when using the Magpie it would be a good idea to set all the pins to LOW that aren’t required for your particular sketch. Even if you remove and reapply power the floating will still be prevalent, and indicated visually – for example:

float

Nevertheless you can sort that out in void setup(), and then the benefits of the LEDs become apparent. Consider the following quick demonstration sketch:

… and the results are demonstrated in the following video:

Apart from the LEDs the Magpie offers identical function to that of an Arduino Uno R2 – except the USB microcontroller is an Atmel 16U2 instead of an 8U2, and the USB socket is a mini-USB and not the full-size type.  For the curious you can download the Magpie design files from the product page.

Conclusion

Another Arduino-compatible board. Having those LEDs on the board really does save you if in a hurry to test or check something.

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.

 The Magpie board used in this article was a promotional consideration supplied by Little Bird Electronics.

Australian Electronics – David Jones interviews Colin Mitchell

Welcome back

In this post I would like to share a series of interviews conducted by Dave Jones from eevblog.com. Dave interviews Colin Mitchell from Talking Electronics. Throughout the 1980s and onwards, Colin published a range of electronics magazines, tutorials and a plethora of electronics kits – of which many are still available today. Personally I was a great fan of the TE products, and sold many of his books through my past retail career with DSE. I hope you enjoy these interviews, and if not – stay tuned for upcoming articles. Furthermore, I’ve reviewed one of the classic TE kits.

Once again, thanks to Dave Jones and of course Colin Mitchell from Talking Electronics for their interview and various insights.

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.

Tutorial: Control AC outlets via SMS

Learn how to control AC outlets via SMS text message. This is chapter thirty-three of a series originally titled “Getting Started/Moving Forward with Arduino!” by John Boxall – A tutorial on the Arduino universe. The first chapter is here, the complete series is detailed here.

Updated 02/03/2013

Assumed understanding for this article is found in part one. If you have not already done so, please read and understand it.

In this chapter we will continue with the use of the SM5100 cellular shield to turn digital outputs on and off via SMS. However please read chapters twenty-six and twenty-seven first if you are unfamiliar with using the GSM shield with Arduino. As an extension of chapter twenty-seven, we will use our Arduino to turn on or off AC outlets via a common remote-control AC outlet pack. Please note this is more of a commentary of my own experience, and not an exact tutorial. In other words, by reading this I hope you will gain some ideas into doing the necessary modifications yourself and in your own way.

Firstly, we need some remote-control AC outlets. Most electrical stores or giant retail warehouses may have something like this:

originaloutletsss

Nothing too original, just a wireless remote control that can switch on or off receiver outlets on a choice of four radio frequencies. Before moving forward I would like to acknowledge that this article was inspired by the wonderful book Practical Arduino – Cool Projects for Open Source Hardware by Jon Oxer and Hugh Blemings. In chapter two an appliance remote-control system is devised using a similar system.

At first glance the theory behind this project is quite simple – using the hardware in example 27.2, instead of controlling LEDs, activate the buttons on the wireless remote control for the AC outlets – leaving us with AC outlets controlled via SMS. However there are a few things to keep in mind and as discovered during the process, various pitfalls as well.

Before voiding the warranty on your remote control, it would be wise to test the range of the remote control to ensure it will actually work in your situation. I found this was made a lot easier by connecting a radio to the remote outlet – then you can hear when the outlet is on or off. If this is successful, make a note of the amount of time required to press the on and off buttons – as we need to control the delay in our Arduino sketch.

The next step is to crack open the remote control:

originalremotess

… and see what we have to work with:

remotepcbss

Straight away there are two very annoying things – the first being the required power supply – 12 volts; and the second being the type of button contacts on the PCB. As you can see above we only have some minute PCB tracks to solder our wires to. It would be infinitely preferable to have a remote control that uses actual buttons soldered into a PCB, as you can easily desolder and replace them with wires to our Arduino system. However unless you can casually tear open the remote control packaging in the store before purchase, it can be difficult to determine the type of buttons in the remote.

As you can see in the photo above, there is an off and on pad/button each for four channels of receiver. In my example we will only use two of them to save time and space. The next question to solve is how to interface the Arduino digital outputs with the remote control. In Practical Arduino, the authors have used relays, but I don’t have any of those in stock. However I do have a quantity of common 4N25 optocouplers, so will use those instead. An optocoupler can be thought of as an electronic switch that is isolated from what is it controlling – see my article on optocouplers for more information.

Four optocouplers will be required, two for each radio channel. To mount them and the associated circuitry, we will use a blank protoshield and build the Arduino-remote control interface onto the shield. The circuitry for the optocoupler for each switch is very simple, we just need four of the following:

As the LED inside the optocoupler has a forward voltage of 1.2 volts at 10mA, the 390 ohm resistor is required as our Arduino digital out is 5 volts. Dout is connected to the particular digital out pin from the Arduino board. Pins 4 and 5 on the optocoupler are connected to each side of the button contact on our remote control.

The next consideration is the power supply. The remote control theoretically needs 12 volts, however the included battery only measured just over nine. However for the optimum range, the full 12 should be supplied. To save worrying about the battery, our example will provide 12V to the remote control. Furthermore, we also need to supply 5 volts at a higher current rating that can be supplied by our Arduino. In the previous GSM chapters, I have emphasised that the GSM shield can possibly draw up to two amps in current. So once again, please ensure your power supply can deliver the required amount of current. From experience in my location, I know that the GSM shield draws around 400~600 milliamps of current – which makes things smaller and less complex.

The project will be supplied 12 volts via a small TO-92 style 78L12 regulator, and 5 volts via a standard TO-220 style 7805 regulator. You could always use a 7812, the 78L12 was used as the current demand is lower and the casing is smaller. The power for the whole project will come from a 15V DC 1.5A power supply. So our project’s power supply schematic will be as follows:

Now to mount the optocouplers and the power circuitry on the blank protoshield. Like most things in life it helps to make a plan before moving forward. I like to use graph paper, each square representing a hole on the protoshield, to plan the component layout. For example:

It isn’t much, but it can really help. Don’t use mine – create your own, doing so is good practice. After checking the plan over, it is a simple task to get the shield together. Here is my prototype example:

shieldss

It isn’t neat, but it works. The header pins are used to make connecting the wires a little easier, and the pins on the right hand side are used to import the 15V and export 12V for the remote. While the soldering iron is hot, the wires need to be soldered to the remote control. Due to the unfortunate size of the PCB tracks, there wasn’t much space to work with:

txsolder1ss

But with time and patience, the wiring was attached:

txsolder2ss

Again, as this is a prototype the aesthetics of the modification are not that relevant. Be careful when handling the remote, as any force on the wiring can force the soldered wire up and break the PCB track. After soldering each pair of wires to the button pads, use the continuity function of a multimeter to check for shorts and adjust your work if necessary.

At this stage the AC remote control shield prototype is complete. It can be tested with a simple sketch to turn on and off the related digital outputs. For example, the following sketch will turn on and off each outlet in sequence:

Now to get connected with our GSM shield. It is a simple task to insert the remote shield over the GSM shield combination, and to connect the appropriate power supply and (for example) GSM aerial. The control sketch is a slight modification of example 27.2, and is shown below

The variable pressdelay stores the amount of time in milliseconds to ‘press’ a remote control button. To control our outlets, we send a text message using the following syntax:

Where a/b are remote channels one and two, and x is replaced with 0 for off and 1 for on.

So there you have it – controlling almost any AC powered device via text message from a cellular phone. Imagine trying to do that ten, or even five years ago. As always, now it is up to you and your imagination to find something to control or get up to other shenanigans.

LEDborder

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.

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]