Using a Voltage Regulator as a Constant Current Source

[Afroman] contacted us to share his new video on the LM317. The humble LM317 adjustable voltage regulator is everywhere. From wifi routers, to high spec lab equipment. Given a noisy input and a variable load, a voltage regulator will give a nice clean, stable output voltage. We’ve covered the basic operation and usage of the LM317 many times. But even the most common of parts can be used in new and interesting ways.

In his video [Afroman] describes how the LM317 can be used to regulate current rather than voltage to provide a constant current source under varying load. This can useful for a number of applications including driving LEDs and laser diodes. While this circuit may not be as efficient as an LED driver module or a switching solution the LM317 is cheap and readily available. [Afroman] also describes how the circuit works in detail allowing us to enjoy this ubiquitous part in this slightly unusual application.

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Another Radio Module for IoT fun – EMW3162

The availability of cheap radio modules is making them ubiquitous in an increasing number of projects that we have been seeing recently. The usual go-to solution is using any one of the several modules based on the ESP8266 device. [Willem] wrote in to share with us his experiences with another radio module – the EMW3162 from MXChip, which at $10 isn’t as cheap as the ESP8266 modules, but is a more capable, power packed, device.

The EMW3162 (PDF datasheet) is a low-power embedded WiFi module with integrated wireless LAN, and a STM32F205 Cortex-M3 microcontroller that runs a “self-hosted” WiFi networking library and software application stack. The microcontroller has 1M flash, 128k RAM and runs at 120MHz. And since MXChip is a Broadcom partner, they are allowed to use the WICED_SDK.

The on-board ARM M3 means all kinds of useful interfaces are available: UART, SPI, I2C, ADC, DAC, PWM, TIMERS, GPIO, and a JTAG flash interface. The good news could be on the power consumption figures – the module is touted to be low-power, and the data sheet shows 7mA when connected to an access point but with no data transfer. When transmitting at 20kbps, the current draw is about 24mA, which goes up to 320mA at 11Mbps.

[Willem] has his EMW3162_WICED repository up on Github, but also take a look at the MXChips MICO (Mico-controller based Internet Connectivity Operation System) repository. At the moment, he has it working using Linux, with a gnu gcc compiler and a JLINK JTAG programmer. He also has the WICED SDK working and has a WiFi AP with an on-board 120MHz arm chip. It would be interesting to hear about other users’ experiences with this radio module. Do let us know in the comments below!

 

Measuring Heart Rate With A Piezo

Look around for heart rate sensors that interface easily to microcontrollers, and you’ll come up with a few projects that use LEDs and other microcontrollers to do the dirty work of filtering out pulses in a wash of light.

[Thomas] was working on a project that detects if water is flowing through a pipe with a few piezoelectric sensors. Out of curiosity, he taped the sensor to his finger, and to everyone’s surprise, the values his microcontroller were spitting out were an extremely noise-free version of his heart rate.

The piezo in question is a standard, off the shelf module, and adding this to a microcontroller is as easy as putting the piezo on an analog pin. From there, it’s just averaging measurements and extracting a heartbeat from the data.

It’s a much simpler solution to measuring a heart rate, and since two people haven’t heard of this technique, it’s likely a lot more people haven’t heard of this technique either. If you’re looking for an entry to The Hackaday Prize, this would be a great jumping off point for anything in either the fitness or medical domains.

New Part Day: SPI RAM and a Video Controller

Generating video signals with a microcontroller or old CPU is hard if you haven’t noticed. If you’re driving even a simple NTSC or PAL display at one bit per pixel, you’re looking at a minimum of around 64kB of RAM being used as a frame buffer. Most microcontrollers don’t have this much RAM on the chip, and the AVR video builds we’ve seen either have terrible color or relatively low resolution.

Here’s something interesting that solves the memory problem and also generates analog video signals. Yes, such a chip exists, and apparently this has been in the works for a very long time. It’s the VLSI VS23s010C-L, and it has 131,072 bytes of SRAM and a video display controller that supports NTSC and PAL output.

There are two chips in the family, one being an LQFP48 package, the other a tiny SMD 8-pin package. From what I can tell from the datasheets, the 8-pin version is only an SPI-based SRAM chip. The larger LQFP package is where the action is, with parallel and SPI interfaces to the memory, an input for the colorburst crystal, and composite video and sync out.

After looking at the datasheet (PDF), it looks like generating video with this chip is simply a matter of connecting an RCA jack, throwing a few commands to the chip over SPI, and pushing bits into the SRAM. That’s it. You’re not getting hardware acceleration, you’re going to have to draw everything pixel by pixel, but this looks like the easiest way to generate relatively high-resolution video with a single part.

Thanks [antibyte] for the tip on this one.

Penny and Paper Clip Heat Sinks

A bunch of audio heads over at the Head-Fi forum were discussing handy and quick heat sinking methods, leading to much speculation and conjecture. This finally prompted [tangentsoft] to take matters in his own hands and run some tests on DIY Heat Sinks.

The question that sparked this debate was if a paper clip is a good enough heat sink to be used for a TO220 package. Some folks suggested copper pennies (old ones minted 1981 and earlier – the new ones are zinc with copper plating and won’t help much). [tangentsoft] built a jig to test six LM317 regulators in constant current mode set to 0.125A and 2w dissipation. The six configurations were a paper clip, a single penny bolted to the regulator, a regular Aavid TO220 heat sink, a set of 4 pennies bolted, a single penny epoxy glued and finally a single penny soldered directly to the regulator.

The results were pretty interesting. The paper clip scored better than any of the single pennies! The quad-penny and the Aavid heat sink fared above all the other configurations, and almost at par with each other. [tangentsoft] posts his review of each configurations performance and also provides details of his test method, in case someone else wants to replicate his tests to corroborate the results. He tested each configuration independently for one hour, gathering just over 10000 readings for each setup. Other nearby heat sources were turned off, and he placed strategic barriers around the test circuit to isolate it from the effects of other cooling / heating sources. He even removed himself from the test area and monitored his data logging remotely from another room. When he noticed a couple of suspect deviations, he restarted the test.

[tangentsoft] put all the data through Mathematica and plotted his results for analysis, available at this link [pdf, 2.8MB]. So the next time you want to heat sink a regulator for cheap, just hunt for Clippy in your box of office supplies. Do remember that these methods will work for only a couple of watts dissipation. If you would like to cast and build your own heat sinks out of aluminum, check out this post about DIY Aluminum heat sink casting. And if you need help calculating heat sink parameters, jump to 12:00 minutes in this video from [Dave]’s EEVBlog episode on Dummy loads and heat sinks.

Thanks to [Greg] for sending in this tip.

New Part Day: Time Of Flight Sensors

Every robotics project out there, it seems, needs a way to detect if it’s smashing into a wall repeatedly, acting like the brainless automaton it actually is. The Roomba has wall sensors, just about every robot kit has some way of detecting obstacles its running into, and for ‘wall-following robots’, detecting objects is all they do.

While the earliest of these robots used a piece of wire and a metal contact to act like a switch for these object detectors, ultrasonic sensors – the kind you can buy on eBay for a few bucks – have replaced this clever wire spring switch. Now there’s a new sensor for the same job – the VL6180 – and it measures the speed of light.

The sensors that are used for object and collision detection now use either ultrasonic or infrared light. They’re susceptible to noise, and if you’re doing anything automated, you really don’t want rogue measurements. A time of flight sensor clocks out photons and records how long it takes them to return at 299,792,458 meters per second. It’s less sensitive to noise, and if you can believe this SparkFun demo of this sensor, extremely accurate

This is not the first Time of Flight distance sensor on the market; earlier this week we saw a project use a sensor called the TeraRanger One. This sensor costs €150.00. The VL6180 sensor costs about $6 in quantity one from the usual suspects, and breakout boards with the proper level converters and regulators can be found for about $25. More expensive sensors have a greater range, naturally; the VL6180 is limited to somewhere between 10cm (on paper) and 25cm (in practice). But this is cheap, and it measures the time of flight of pulses of light. That’s just cool.

Digitally Controlled Pot Taper

Those twisty knobs connected to potentiometers aren’t necessarily a strict linear progression from one resistance to another. Potentiometers have a taper. Yes, sometimes it’s a linear taper that’s a straight line from one resistance to another, but you can find log (audio) taper pots, and anti-log taper pots. It’s been this way for a hundred years, and now we have a pot with a digitally controllable taper thanks to a guitar pedal that fits in your shoe.

For the last few years, [John] has been hard at work creating the SoulPedal, a shoe insert that’s the wireless, wearable alternative to expression pedals, wah pedals, and every other guitar effects pedal that uses an ankle. [John] got the idea by replacing the light-sensitive resistor in a wah pedal with a force sensitive resistor in his shoe. It worked, but there were wires. Now the SoulPedal is based on a TI SoC +Radio with all the niceties you would expect.

When designing the ‘base station pedal’, [John] realized he had a digital pot with two channels, and the entire device only uses one of these channels. Instead of letting that little bit of silicon go to waste, [John] wired these two digital pots in parallel, allowing the user to customize the taper of a digital pot. If you’re asking yourself, ‘why’, the answer is, ‘because he could.’

It’s an interesting application for sure, and while this digitally controllable pot can replicate the linear, log, and anti-log tapers, the really interesting thing will be to see what non-standard tapers sound and feel like.