Amazing Motion-Capture of Bendy Things

Have you, dear reader, ever needed to plot the position of a swimming pool noodle in 3D  and in real time? Of course you have, and today, you’re in luck! I’ve compiled together a solution that’s sure to give you the jumpstart on solving this “problem-you-never-knew-you-had.”

Ok, there’s a bit of a story behind this one. Back in my good-ol’ undergrad days, I got the chance to play with tethered underwater robots. I remember fumbling about thinking: “Hmm, with this robot tether, wouldn’t it be sweet to string up a set of IMUs down the length of the tether to estimate the robot’s location in 3-space?” A few years later, I cooked together this IMU Noodle project to play with some real hardware in the spirit of solving that problem. With a little quaternion math, a nifty IMU, and some custom PCBAs, this idea has gone from some idle brain-ramble into a real device. It’s an incredibly interesting example of using available hardware and a little ingenuity to build a system that is unique and dependable.

As for why? I first saw an IMU noodle pop up on these pages back in 2012 and I was baffled. I just had to build one! Now complete, I figured that there’s enough math and fun-loving electronics nuggets to merit a full article for this month’s after-hour adventures. Dear reader, let me tell you a wonderful story where math meets electronics and works up the courage to ask it out for brunch.

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Designing for Fab: a Heads-Up before Designing PCBs for Professional Assembly

Designing pcbs for assembly is easy, right? We just squirt all the footprints onto a board layout, connect all the traces, send out the gerbers and position files, and we’re done–right?

Whoa, hold the phone, there, young rogue! Just like we can hack together some working source code with variables named after our best friends, we can also design our PCBs in ways that make it fairly difficult to assemble.

However, by following the agreed-upon design specs, we’ll put ourselves on track for success with automated assembly. If we want another party to put components on our boards, we need to clearly communicate the needed steps to get there. The best way to do so is by following the standards.

Proper Footprint Orientation

Now, for a momImage Credit: https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQBEztpnSxpN_IRjq3y8GbetrMHKuoSu_s6myiFOHilL2FlQKyLrgent, let’s imagine ourselves as the tip of a vacuum pickup tool on a pick-and-place machine. These tools are designed to pick up components on the reel from their centroid and plunk them on their corresponding land pattern. Seems pretty straightforward, right? It is, provided that we design our footprints knowing that they’ll one day come face-to-face with the pick-and-place machine.

To get from the reel to the board, we, the designers, need two bits of information from out part’s datasheet: the part centroid and the reel orientation.

The part centroid is an X-Y location that calls out the center-of-mass of the part. It basically tells the machine: “pick me up from here!” As designers, it’s our responsibility to design all of our footprints such that the footprint origin is set at the part’s centroid. If we forget to do so, the pick-and-place will try to suck up our parts from a location that may not stick very well to the package, such as: the corner.

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An Introduction to Differential I²C

A few weeks back, we talked about the no-nos of running I²C over long wires. For prototyping? Yes! But for a bulletproof production environment, this practice just won’t make the cut. This month I plucked my favorite solution from the bunch and gave it a spin. Specifically, I have put together a differential I²C (DI²C) setup with the PCA9615 to talk to a string of Bosch IMUs. Behold: an IMU Noodle is born! Grab yourself a cup of coffee and join me as I arm you with the nuts and bolts of DI²C so that you too can run I²C over long cables like a boss.

What’s so Schnazzy about Differential Signals?

There’s a host of ways to make I²C’s communication lines more noise resistant. From all of the choices we covered, I picked differential signals. They’re simple, fairly standardized, and just too elegant to ignore. Let’s take a moment for a brief “differential-signals-101” lecture. Hopefully, you’re already caffeinated! Continue reading “An Introduction to Differential I²C”

LTC4316 is the I2C Babelfish

The LTC4316 is something special. It’s an I²C address translator that changes the address of a device that would otherwise conflict with another on the same I²C bus. Not a hack? Not so fast. Exactly how this chip does this trick is clever enough that I couldn’t resist giving it the post it rightfully deserves.

On-the-Fly Translation

What’s so special? This chip translates the address on-the-fly, making it transparent to the I²C protocol. Up until this point, our best bet for resolving address collisions was to put the clashing chip on a separate I²C bus that could be selectively enabled or disabled. In that department, there’s the PCA9543 and PCA9547 demultiplexers which we’ve seen before. Both of these devices essentially act like one-way check valves. To address any devices downstream, we must first address the multiplexer and select the corresponding bus. While these chips resolve our address collision problems, and while there’s technically a way to address a very large number of devices if we’re not time-constrained, the control logic needed to address various bus depths can get clunky for nested demultiplexers.

What’s so classy about the LTC4316 is that is preservers simplicity by keeping all devices on the same bus. It prevents us from having to write a complicated software routine to address various sections of a demultiplexed I²C bus. In a nutshell, by being protocol-transparent, the LTC4316 keeps our I²C master’s control logic simple.

How it Works

I mocked up a quick test setup to have a go at this chip in real life. Continue reading “LTC4316 is the I2C Babelfish”

Taking the Leap Off Board: An Introduction to I2C Over Long Wires

Image result for i2c sensor array
prototyping starts here, but we’re in danger when projects finish with this sort of wiring

If you’re reading these pages, odds are good that you’ve worked with I²C devices before. You might even be the proud owner of a couple dozen sensors pre-loaded on breakout boards, ready for breadboarding with their pins exposed. With vendors like Sparkfun and Adafruit popping I²C devices onto cute breakout boards, it’s tempting to finish off a project with the same hookup wires we started it with. It’s also easy to start thinking we could even make those wires longer — long enough to wire down my forearm, my robot chassis, or some other container for remote sensing. (Guilty!) In fact, with all the build logs publishing marvelous sensor “Christmas-trees” sprawling out of a breadboard, it’s easy to forget that I²C signals were never meant to run down any length of cable to begin with!

As I learned quickly at my first job, for industry-grade (and pretty much any other rugged) projects out there, running unprotected SPI or I²C signals down any form of lengthy cable introduces the chance for all sorts of glitches along the way.

I thought I’d take this week to break down that misconception of running I²C over cables, and then give a couple examples on “how to do it right.”

Heads-up: if you’re just diving into I²C, let our very own [Elliot] take you on a crash course. Continue reading “Taking the Leap Off Board: An Introduction to I2C Over Long Wires”

A How-To in Homebrew Design, Fab, and Assembly with Structural Framing Systems

At this point, the internet is crawling with butt-kicking homebrew 3D printers made with extruded profiles, but it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty in getting there. Sure, most vendors sell a suite of interlocking connectors, but how well do these structural framing systems actually fare when put to the task of handling a build with sub-millimeter tolerances?

I’ve been playing around with these parts for about two years. What I’ve found is that, yes, precise and accurate results are possible. Nevertheless, those results came to me after I failed and–dry, rinse, repeat–failed again! Only after I understood the limits of both the materials and assembly processes was I able to deliver square, dimensionally accurate gantries that could carry a laser beam around a half-square-meter workbed. That said, I wrote a quick guide to taming these beasts. Who are they? What flavors do they come in? How do we achieve those precision results? Dear reader, read on.

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Abacus Drive is a Speed-to-Torque Game-Changer

Apart from the harmonic drive, the engineering community hasn’t really come up with any clever mechanisms for speed-to-torque conversion in the last few decades. However, recently a few folks at SRI have given us one more transmission to drool over: the Abacus Drive.

The Abacus Drive takes the standard concepts of a cycloidal drive, but takes the eccentric gear tooth pattern that we’re familiar with and converts it to two grooves in which an array of rolling spacers will ride. The benefit with this design is two-fold: it’s both constructed from entirely rigid components (unlike the harmonic drive), and it has a low-backdriving torque, enabling the application to more easily detect changes in load.

Achieving an affordable low-speed, high-torque transmission has been a holy grail among roboticists, where every motor-driven manipulator joint becomes an engineering design headache where the designers fight their application’s backlash, torque, and price constraints to get a functional robot arm. This problem stems from the fact that motors just don’t perform efficiently at low-speeds, where the near-stall conditions cause them to draw vastly larger amounts of torque compared to their full-speed conditions. While the Abacus Drive isn’t hitting the market anytime soon, we’ll let this idea stew in the community and hope to see some budget variants pop up in the near future.

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