FPGA Drives Old Laptop Screen

Every year, new models of laptops arrive on the shelves. This means that old laptops usually end up in landfills, which isn’t exactly ideal. If you don’t want to waste an old or obsolete laptop, though, there’s a way to reuse at least the screen out of one. Simply grab an FPGA off the shelf and get to work.

[Martin] shows us all how to perform this feat on our own, and goes into great detail about how all of the electronics involved work. Once everything was disassembled and the FPGA was wired up, it took him a substantial amount of time just to turn the display on. From there it was all downhill: [Martin] can now get any pattern to show up on the screen, within reason. The only limit to his display now seems to be the lack of external RAM. He currently uses the setup to drive an impressive-looking clock.

This is a big step from days passed where it was next to impossible to repurpose a laptop screen. Eventually someone discovered a way to drive these displays, and now there are cheap electronics from China that can usually get a screen like this running. It’s impressive to see it done from scratch, though, and the amount of detail in the videos are a great way to understand how everything is working.

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Manipulators get a 1000x FPGA-based speed bump

For humans, moving our arms and hands onto an object to pick it up is pretty easy; but for manipulators, it’s a different story. Once we’ve found the object we want our robot to pick up, we still need to plan a path from our robot hand to the object all the while lugging the remaining limbs along for the ride without snagging them on any incoming obstacles. The space of all possible joint configurations is called the “joint configuration space.” Planning a collision-free path through them is called path planning, and it’s a tricky one to solve quickly in the world of robotics.

These days, roboticists have nailed out a few algorithms, but executing them takes 100s of milliseconds to compute. The result? Robots spend most of their time “thinking” about moving, rather than executing the actual move.

Robots have been lurching along pretty slowly for a while until recently when researchers at Duke University [PDF] pushed much of the computation to hardware on an FPGA. The result? Path planning in hardware with a 6-degree-of-freedom arm takes under a millisecond to compute!

It’s worth asking: why is this problem so hard? How did hardware make it faster? There’s a few layers here, but it’s worth investigating the big ones. Planning a path from point A to point B usually happens probabilistically (randomly iterating to the finishing point), and if there exists a path, the algorithm will find it. The issue, however, arises when we need to lug our remaining limbs through the space to reach that object. This feature is called the swept volume, and it’s the entire shape that our ‘bot limbs envelope while getting from A to B. This is not just a collision-free path for the hand, but for the entire set of joints.

Image Credit: Robot Motion Planning on a Chip

Encoding a map on a computer is done by discretizing the space into a sufficient resolution of 3D voxels. If a voxel is occupied by an obstacle, it gets one state. If it’s not occupied, it gets another. To compute whether or not a path is OK, a set of voxels that represent the swept volume needs to be compared against the voxels that represent the environment. Here’s where the FPGA kicks in with the speed bump. With the hardware implementation, voxel occupation is encoded in bits, and the entire volume calculation is done in parallel. Nifty to have custom hardware for this, right?

We applaud the folks at Duke University for getting this up-and-running, and we can’t wait to see custom “robot path-planning chips” hit the market some day. For now, though, if you’d like to sink your teeth into seeing how FPGAs can parallelize conventional algorithms, check out our linear-time sorting feature from a few months back.

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STM32 and FPGAs In A Tiny Package

Slowly, very slowly, the time when we don’t subject embedded beginners to AVRs and PICs is coming. At a glacial pace, FPGA development platforms are becoming ever more capable and less expensive. [Eric Brombaugh] has been playing around with both ARMs and FPGAs for a while now and decided to combine these two loves into a single board that’s capable of a lot.

This board is fittingly called an STM32F303 + ice5 development board, and does exactly what it says on the tin. There’s an STM32F303 on board providing a 32-bit CPU running at 72 MHz, 48 kB of SRAM, a quarter meg of Flash, and enough peripherals to keep anyone happy. The FPGA side of this board is a Lattice iCE5 with about 3k Look Up Tables (LUTs), and one time programmable non-volatile config memory.

The connections between the ARM and FPGA include a dedicated SPI port, and enough GPIOs to implement full-duplex I2S and a USART. Like all good projects, [Eric] has shared all the files, schematics, and BOMs required to make this board your very own reality, and has provided a few links to the development toolchains. While the FPGA is from Lattice’s ice40 family, it’s not supported by the Open Source Project Icestorm toolchain. Still, it’s a very capable board for ARM and FPGA development.

Emulating A Remote Control Ceiling Fan Transmitter In An FPGA

[Joel] has a remote control ceiling fan. It’s nothing special, the controller has a low-power 350MHz transmitter and a Holtek encoder to send commands by keying the transmitter’s output. Desiring something a little better, he set about reverse engineering the device’s protocol and implementing it on a Lattice iCE40 FPGA.

To decode the device’s packets he reached for his RTL-SDR receiver and took a look at it in software. GQRX confirmed the presence of the carrier and allowed him to record a raw I/Q file, which he could then supply to Inspectrum to analyse the packet structure. He found it to be a simple on-off keying scheme, with bits expressed through differing pulse widths. He was then able to create a Gnu Radio project to read and decode them in real time.

Emulating the transmitter was then a fairly straightforward process of generating a 350MHz clock using the on-board PLL and gating it with his generated data stream to provide modulation. The result was able to control his fan with a short wire antenna, indeed he was worried that it might also be doing so for other similar fans in his apartment complex. You can take a look at his source code on GitHub if you would like to try something similar.

It’s worth pointing out that a transmitter like this will radiate a significant amount of harmonics at multiples of its base frequency, and thus without a filter on its output is likely to cause interference. It will also be breaking all the rules set out by whoever the spectrum regulator is where you live, despite its low power. However it’s an interesting project to read, with its reverse engineering and slightly novel use of an FPGA.

Wireless remote hacking seems to be a favorite pastime here in the Hackaday community. We’ve had 2.4GHz hacks and plenty of wireless mains outlet hacks.

Mag Lev Without The Train (But With An FPGA)

It always surprises us that magnetic levitation seems to have two main purposes: trains and toys. It is reasonably inexpensive to get floating Bluetooth speakers, globes, or just floating platforms for display. The idea is reasonably simple, especially if you only care about levitation in two dimensions. You let an electromagnet pull the levitating object (which is, of course, ferrous). A sensor detects when the object is at a certain height and shuts off the magnet. The object falls, which turns the magnet back on, repeating the process. If you do it right, the object will reach equilibrium and hover near the sensor.

Some students at Cornell University decided to implement the control loop to produce levitation using an Altera FPGA. An inductive sensor determined the position of an iron ball. The device uses a standard proportional integral derivative (PID) control loop. The control loop and PWM generation occur in the FPGA hardware. You can see a video of their result, below.

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No Frame Buffer for FPGA VGA Graphics

Usually, when you think of driving a VGA–in software or hardware–you think of using a frame buffer. The frame buffer is usually dual port RAM. One hardware or software process fills in the RAM and another process pulls the data out at the right rate and sends it to the VGA display (usually through a digital to analog converter).

[Connor Archard] and [Noah Levy] wanted to do some music processing with a DE2-115 FPGA board. To drive the VGA display, they took a novel approach. Instead of a frame buffer, they use the FPGA to compute each pixel’s data in real-time.

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FPGA Powers Blazingly Fast LED Matrix Audio Visualizer

[Sam Miller], [Sahil Gupta], and [Mashrur Mohiuddin] worked together on a very fast LED matrix display for their final project in ECE 5760 at Cornell University.

Real time!
Real time!

They started, as any good engineering students, by finding a way to make their lives easier. [Sam] had built a 32×32 LED matrix for another class. So, they made three more and ended up with a larger and more impressive 64×64 LED display.

They claim their motivation was the love of music, but we have a suspicion that the true reason was the love all EEs share for unnaturally bright LEDs; just look at any appliance at night and try not be blinded.

The brains of the display is an Altera DE2-115 FPGA board. The code is all pure Verilog. The FFT and LED control are implemented in hardware on the FPGA; none of that Altera core stuff. To generate images and patterns they wrote a series of python scripts. But for us it’s the particle test shown in the video below that really turns our head. This system is capable of tracking and reacting to a lot of different elements on the fly why scanning the display at about 310 FPS. They have tested display scanning at twice that speed but some screen-wrap artifacts need to be worked out before that’s ready for prime time.

The team has promised to upload all the code to GitHub, but it will likely be a while before the success hangover blows over and they can approach the project again. You can view a video interview and samples of the visualizations in the videos after the break.

Thanks to their Professor, [Bruce Land], for submitting the tip! His students are always doing cool things. You can even watch some of his excellent courses online if you like: Here’s one on the AVR micro-controller.

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