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Review – Freetronics Module Family

Hello

In this article we examine a new range of eleven electronic modules from Freetronics. When experimenting with electronics or working on a prototype of a design, the use of electronic components in module form can make construction easier, and also reduce the time between thoughts and actually making something 🙂 So let’s have a look at each module in more detail…

PoE Power Regulator – 28V

This is a tiny switchmode voltage regulator with two uses – the first being regulation of higher voltage up to 28V carried via an Ethernet cable to a Freetronics Ethernet shield or EtherTen to power the board itself. The PCB is designed to drop into the shield or EtherTen as such:

… and converts the incoming voltage down to 7V which can be regulated by the EtherTen’s inbuilt regulator. The second use of this board is a very handy power supply for breadboarding or other experimentation. By bridging the solder pads on the rear of the board, the output is set to 5V DC, as such:

Note the addition of the header pins, which make insertion into a breadboard very easy – so now you have a 5V 1A DC power supply. For more information visit the product page.

N-MOSFET Driver/Output Module

This module contains an On Semi NTD5867NL MOSFET which allows the switching of a high current and voltage line – 60V at up to 20A – with a simple Arduino or other MCU digital output pin. The package is small and also contains enlarged holes for direct connection of high-current capability wire:

The onboard circuitry includes a pull-down resistor to ensure the MOSFET is off by default. For more information see the product page.

Logic Level Converter Module

This is a very simple and inexpensive method to interface 3.3V sensors to 5V microcontrollers in either direction.The module contains four independent channels, as shown in the image below:

However you can interface any low or higher voltage, as long as you connect the low and high voltages to the correct sides (marked on the PCB’s silk screen). For more information please visit the product page.

RGBLED Module

Surprisingly this module contains a RGB LED module (red, green and blue LEDs) which is controlled by a WS2801 constant-current LED driver IC. This module is only uses two digital output pins, and can be daisy-chained to control many modules with the same two pins. The connections are shown clearly on the module:

The WS2801 controller IC is on the rear:

There are several ways to control the LEDs. One way is using the sketch from the product home page, which results with the following demonstration output:

Or there is a unique Arduino WS2801 library available for download from here. Using the strandtest example included with the library results with the following:

During operation the module used less than 24 mA of current and therefore can happily run from a standard Arduino-type board without any issues. For more information please visit the product page.

TEMP Temperature Sensor Module

This module allows the simple measurement of temperature using the popular DS18B20 temperature sensor. You can measure temperatures between -55° and 125°C with an accuracy of +/- 0.5°C. Furthermore as the sensor uses the 1-wire bus, you can daisy-chain more than one sensor for multiple readings in the one application. The board is simple to use, and also contains a power-on LED:

Using the demonstation Arduino sketch from the product page results in the following output via the serial monitor:

Using this module is preferable to the popular Analog Devices TMP36, as it has an analogue output which can be interfered with, and requires an analogue input pin for each sensor, whereas this module has a digital output and as mentioned previously can be daisy-chained. For more information please visit the product page.

Humidity and Temperature Sensor Module

For the weather-measuring folk here is a module with temperatures and humidity. Using the popular DHT22 sensor module the temperature range is -4°C to +125°C with an accuracy of +/- 0.5°C, and humidity with an accuracy of between two and five percent. Only one digital input pin is required, and the board is clearly labelled:

There is also a blue power-on LED towards the top-right of the sensor. Using the module is quite simple with Arduino – download and use the example sketch included in the sensor library you can download from here. For the demonstration connect the centre data pin to Arduino digital two. Here is an example of the demonstration output:

Although the update speed is not lightning-fast, this should not be an issue unless you’re measuring real-time external temperature of your jet or rocket. For more information please see the product page.

Shift Register/Expansion Module

This board uses a 74HC595 serial-in parallel-out shift register which enables you to control eight digital outputs with only three digital pins, for example:

You can daisy-chain these modules to increase the number of digital outputs in multiples of eight, all while only using the three digital output pins on your Arduino or other microcontroller. For more information about how to use shift registers with Arduino systems, read our detailed tutorial. Otherwise for more information about the module please visit the product page.

Hall Effect Magnetic and Proximity Sensor Module

This module contains a sensor which changes output from HIGH to LOW when a magnetic presence is detected, for example a magnet. The board also has an LED which indicates the presence of the magnet to aid in troubleshooting:

Using this module and a small magnet would be an easy way to create a speedometer for a bicycle, the module is mounted to the fork, and the magnet on the rim of the front wheel. For more ideas consider the speedometer project in this tutorial. Otherwise for more information about this module please visit the product page.

Microphone Sound Input Module

This module performs two functions – it can return the sound pressure level (SPL) or the amplified audio waveform from the electret microphone. The LED (labelled “DETECT”) on the board visually displays an approximation of the SPL – for example:

… however the value can be returned by using an analogue input pin on an Arduino (etc). to return a numerical value. To do this connect the SPL pin to the analogue input. The MIC pin is used to take the amplified output from the microphone, to be processed by an ADC or used in an audio project. For more information please visit the product page.

Light Sensor Module

This module uses the TEMT6000 light sensor which returns more consistent values than can be possible using a light-dependent resistor. It outputs a voltage from the OUT pin that is proportional to the light level. The module is very small:

Use is simple – just measure the value returned from the OUT pin using an analogue input pin on your Arduino (etc). For more information please visit the product page. And finally, the:

Sound and Buzzer Module

This module contains a piezoelectric element that can be used to generate sounds (in the form of musical buzzes…):

Driving the buzzer is simple, just use pulse-width modulation. Arduino users can find a good demonstration of this here. Furthermore, as piezoelectric elements can also generate a small electrical current when vibrated, they can be used as “shock” detectors by measuring the voltage across the terminals of the element. The procedure to do this is also explained clearly here.

Now for a final demonstration – we use the light sensor to demonstrate making some noise with the buzzer module:

One final note I would like to make is that the design and construction quality of each module is first rate. The PCBs are strong, and the silk-screening is useful and descriptive. If you find the need for some or all of the functions made available in this range, you could do worse by not considering a Freetronics unit. Finally, although this has only been a short introduction to the modules for now, we will make use of them in later projects.

The modules are available directly from Freetronics or through their network of resellers.

Disclaimer – Modules reviewed in this article are a promotional consideration made available by Freetronics

Have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitter, Google+, 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.

Posted in arduino, freetronics, learning electronics, microcontrollers, modules, reviewComments (0)

Australian Electronics Nostalgia – “Funway Kits”

Hello readers

After viewing the trailer for Karl von Muller’s upcoming documentary State of Electronics – A discussion on the Electronics Industry in Australia, it brought back some fond memories of bashing about with a range of kits from many years ago. So today we will have a look at a few of them. But first some history (feel free to correct me here)…

In 1968 an enthusiastic man by the name of Dick Smith started a small car radio shop in Neutral Bay, Sydney. Although he had many ups and downs – through extremely hard work, marketing in ways Australia had never seen before (see the bus below), and revolutionising electronics and computer retailing in this country – he built up Dick Smith Electronics to a company so large he sold it for a huge sum and moved on to other successful ventures. You can download his biography from here.

Dick Smith Electronics’ stores were the place to go for components, a huge range of electronic kits, an interesting range of computers (in [earlier] kit and assembled form), amateur and CB radio – all the fun stuff. You would almost need a shotgun to clear the store out on a Thursday night or Saturday afternoon. There were also repair centres in each capital city and head office, that employed people to fix things for warranty service (and they would fix kits for a price as well). Before the internet one would stalk the mailbox waiting for the new catalogue to arrive. I even worked there for four years in the 1990s. Unfortunately due to market changes and carbon-based factors, the stores are now just glorified flat-screen TV and video game outlets.

However, partly to educate people (and probably to make more money), Dick Smith wrote a series of books titled “Fun Way into Electronics”, starting with the first in 1979. This entailed twenty very basic electronic circuits, such as flashing LEDs using a multivibrator, basic transistor amplifiers, and a “beer powered radio” (I wonder how many children tried that fuel cell?). The book had paper overlays which you would glue onto a piece of chipboard, and screw the components down to form a circuit. Later editions would use a plastic board with holes:

3143205539_96d689c02e_z

The Funway book was very popular (and still is with some schools, Scout groups and so on), so Dick published volume two from 1980. Finally some “real” projects – twenty kits that required soldering and could be of some real use in the world. Items such as a shortwave radio, intercom, timing devices, digital counters, and a mosquito repeller of dubiuos success. However they sold very well, and in 1984 the final volume of the Funway trilogy was published – another ten projects – “each with an integrated circuit!”

The books were illustrated in a very clear, simple way sometimes hand-drawn but very neat. I suspect some women in the books were meant to resemble associates of Dick Smith, and in general the book is a ‘snapshot’ of the times. For example, the transistor radio:

radiobikewoman

Please note that I will not email you a .pdf of any of the books mentioned, so kindly don’t ask – they’re still Copyright DSE Pty Ltd. Part of my reasoning for this article was the fact that the Funway era has now drawn to a close. Whilst recently wandering about in a Dick Smith store for some reminiscing, I noticed the remaining stock of Funway 2 kits on the clearance bench and the matching volume two books, which compelled me to rescue them.

At the register, the sales clerk asked me “Why would you want to make a radio?” … ugh

So let’s take a trip back to 1980 and see how they perform!

[Update 07/07/2013]

Wow! I found another kit – project seventeen, the LED level display. It was designed to show audio levels in a blinky form – the addition of a pair to your home or car hi-fi would put those analogue VU meters to shame whilst impressing your friends. When fitted inside the optional box and the label applied, you could be as cool as the guy below looking like he’s getting revved up for a night at the discotheque:

discodude

So time to give it a whirl. I remember this kit back in 1985 when a friend gave it to me from someone else, he cut off the LEDs for himself, and I ended up with the useless board. Thanks Tony. Well 28 years later here I am with the brand-new version:

proj17

Otherwise everything was as expected, all the parts and the poor PCB included:

parts

pcb

Construction was relatively simple but tedious, 22 resistors, 10 diodes, 10 LEDs, 11 transistors etc… just careful and steady work to get it done. This would have kept a teenager busy for a good weekend inside. After an hour and an espresso the board was populated:

board

Not wanting to chop up any audio leads to test the kit, I’ve instead put some pins on the power supply and input pairs for a quick demonstration. For a signal I’ve attached a function generator and fed a sine wave at various low frequencies. Here it is in action:

In hindsight that’s a pretty fun kit, and with some careful work it would have looked good in a contemporary audio system. It probably could have been done a lot easier with an LM3914 however the cost may have been prohibitive at the time.

Next we have Project Sixteen –  the Electronic Siren. This is basically two 555 oscillators, one for the sound, and the other for the duration – which combined with a basic amplifier make a “hee-haw” sound. This kit would have been included as a good sales add-on for the Home and Car alarm kit also described in the book. Typical of the series, when you purchased a kit it would come with the bare minimum, just enough to make it work (excluding the battery):

sirenpartsss

Naturally a full range of extras would be mentioned in the book, available from the store when required. The PCB looks like it was made at home – examining this one I can now be more grateful than ever for silk-screening and solder-masking on current PCBs:

sirenpcbss

To make annoying people easier I will add in a SPDT toggle switch, and use some IC sockets for the 555s. Assembling the kit took no time at all, the instructions were clear and easy to follow:

sirenbookss

Starting the soldering caused some flashbacks to my childhood, which were interesting. Assembling this at my age was much quicker than as a young lad – my soldering style has changed, and I also have a Fluke 233 to check the resistor and capacitor values. There was one nod to the future in the kit, the polyester capacitor was replaced by an MKT. The only reason to use the IC sockets was so I could reuse the 555s later on. Moving on, here is the finished article:

sirenfinishedss

And did it work? Absolutely – have a listen:


It is really quite loud, that 0.25 watt speaker is being pushed quite hard. According to the book you can connect a horn-speaker directly to the output. Furthermore there are suggestions on how to alter the frequency and duration of the sounds. So overall, this was an easy to assemble kit that was still some fun even to this day.

The next kit to examine is Project Eleven – FM wireless microphone. This consists of an oscillator of around 100 MHz, which receives a signal via the tiny electret microphone. The book illustration shows a Donna Summer lookalike with a guitar, however one could imagine people building these kits and using them as ‘bugs’ and generally getting up to no good:

txbookss

Again, the clear images and instruction layouts are constant throughout the book. There were two errata sheets included with the components, as the design has been altered a few times. However they were easy enough to follow, and the correct replacement parts had been included:

txbitsss

Once more the PCB was a product of the time. After having issues with the siren kit’s PCB, I gave this one a good squirt with some Servisol PCB cleaner – that made a difference when it was time to solder:

txpcbss

From a beginner’s perspective, this would have been a slightly more difficult kit to assemble, due to the all the vertical resistors and the close spacing between the components. However this was to enable budding ASIO operatives to make their ‘bug’ as small as possible. From memory this is the trickiest of them all, the rest of the Funway 2 kits had generous PCB spacing. I must admit to breaking a 470 pF ceramic capacitor, but that was my own silly fault. However at the end it all came together nicely:

txworkss

And it worked.  I have a feeling that the variable capacitor was damaged a little from heat due to the soldering process, for some insane reason DSE supplied a plastic-encased version. Later on I will replace it and see how we go. But for the meanwhile, with a 20cm aerial wire, I could get about 5 metres out of it with a brick wall in between. Considering the target market for this, that’s pretty good.

The next kit is Project Seven – Pocket Transistor Radio. This is a basic amplitude-modulation radio receiver making use of the MK484 radio-receiver IC. This is a bog-standard simple AM receiver circuit that dates back to the early 1970s. However, it is simple and uses very few parts. Originally the kit was sold without an earpiece or socket, but the last few batches included everything but the battery and a switch:

radiopartsss

Once again there were two errata sheets – one explaining the different pinouts of the MK484/ZN414 radio IC, and another showing the evolution of the radio circuit, a capacitor had been replaced with a resistor. There were a couple of tricks to assembling this kit, some pin spacings were unnecessarily close together, and the leads on the antenna coils were terribly difficult for me to discern. Thankfully the book offered some great advice – use a multimeter to determine the resistance of each coil. The coil with the lower resistance is the aerial coil, and the higher resistance is the main coil. And once again I have added a power switch. After some trepidation, the main board was finished:

rxfinishedss

Ah – where is the 9V battery? With regards to the circuit, versions as published in the book and the errata sheet are quite inefficient with regards to power usage. Let’s have a look:

radiocircuitss

As part of my electronics learning process, I like to follow the circuit through to see what is going on. The book has the power being supplied by a 9V battery, then using a 6.8V Zener diode. What was the point of that? Instead, I put a link on the PCB instead of the zener, and now the power is from a single AA cell. Much, much cheaper to run now, the receiver only draws nine milliamps of current:

And to think some people have to recharge their music players every day. The radio worked from the first time the battery was connected, and is working very well. The volume/gain is controlled by the 5k trimpot, I have this set to around half-way to a comfortable volume. The reception is highly relative to the positioning of the ferrite rod aerial, so I have locked it into place using some blutac. It receives local AM stations very well, and also some rural stations from interstate. For the price and the amount of parts, this is a very simple, easy to construct receiver with excellent power consumption – which is begging for a solar panel for daytime use. Maybe next week! So we have another success.

Update! I found another kit – the “Universal Timer”. This is basically an over-engineered 555 timer that controls a simple SPDT relay. The 555 is configured as a monostable timer, and the duration controlled by a 1 mega ohm trimpot. I have a feeling the design brief was for an egg timer, based on the illustrations:

timerbookss

Once again, the illustrations of the final product don’t bear much of a resemblance to the contents of the basic kit:

timerpartsss

Again, the PCB was quite basic and needed a good clean:

timerpcbss

Construction was quite simple, all of the parts fitted nicely where they were meant to. Not bad considering the PCB was designed around thirty years ago, and the parts are much more recent – especially the relay. To make some sort of demonstration I had to add a few extras – a power switch, the piezo buzzer, IC socket and a potentiometer instead of the trimpot:

timerfinishedss

Though once again it worked, and I actually have a use for it – a shower timer for an intelligent person who seems to forget the concept of time when in the bathroom. A quick trip to the store for a moisture-proof IP67-rated box and we’ll be set.

Unfortunately with the discontinuation of these Funway kits means another opportunity to teach people has gone. I hope you found this article interesting, and helped motivate you to expand your knowledge and those of others in the STEM (science, technology, electronics and maths) area. If you have any Funway projects to share, please get in touch. Some higher-resolution images available on flickr.

In the meanwhile have fun and keep checking into tronixstuff.com. Why not follow things on twitter, Google+, 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.

Posted in education, electronics, funway, history, kit review, learning electronicsComments (16)


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