Fifty Shades of Gray Code

Some years back, a museum asked me to help them with an exhibit a contractor had built for them. It was a wheel like the one on Wheel of Fortune, but smaller and mounted on the wall instead of the floor. You would spin the wheel, it would stop on some item, and a computer would play a short video about the item. Physically and mechanically, it was a beautifully built exhibit. The electronics, though, left something to be desired.

In principle, this is pretty simple computer task. Measure the position of the wheel, and when it stops moving, play a video based on the position. The problem was the folks who created the artistic mechanics didn’t think hard about the electronics behind it. Sometimes–but not often–the wheel would play the wrong video. Sometimes it wouldn’t play at all.

The Prime Suspect

My immediate suspicion turned out to be correct. I took the wheel off its mount to discover copper foil tape on the back of it. Each pie wedge had foil in different areas and there were two brushes in each area. When the wheel stopped, two of the brushes would be shorted together and the rest were open. The way they detected that was bizarre, but that wasn’t the problem. (It involved a cannibalized PS/2 keyboard.)
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Use A Brushless Motor As A Rotary Encoder

The electric motor is the fundamental building block of almost all robotic projects but, without some form of feedback, it lacks the precise positional control required for the task. Small servos from the modelling world will often use a potentiometer to sense where they are on their travel, while more accomplished motors will employ some form of shaft encoder.

Commercial shaft encoders use magnets and Hall-effect sensors, or optical sensors and encoder discs. But these can be quite expensive, so [Hello1024] hacked together an alternative in an afternoon. It uses another motor as the encoder, taking advantage of the minute changes in inductance as the magnet passes each of its coils. It’s a technique that works better with cheaper motors, as their magnets are more imperfect than those on their expensive cousins.

The sensing is rather clever in its economy, sending a pulse to the motor through an off the shelf motor controller and measuring the time it takes to decay through the body diode of the driving MOSFET. It requires a calibration procedure before first use, and it is stressed that the whole thing is very much still in beta, but it’s a very impressive hack nevertheless. He’s posted a video demonstration which you can see below the break.

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Encoders Spin Us Right Round

Rotary encoders are great devices. Monitoring just a few pins you can easily and quickly read in rotation and direction of a user input (as well as many other applications). But as with anything, there are caveats. I recently had the chance to dive into some of the benefits and drawbacks of rotary encoders and how to work with them.

I often work with students on different levels of electronic projects. One student project needed a rotary encoder. These come in mechanical and optical variants. In a way, they are very simple devices. In another way, they have some complex nuances. The target board was an ST Nucleo. This particular board has a small ARM processor and can use mbed environment for development and programming. The board itself can take Arduino daughter boards and have additional pins for ST morpho boards (whatever those are).

The mbed system is the ARM’s answer to Arduino. A web-based IDE lets you write C++ code with tons of support libraries. The board looks like a USB drive, so you download the program to this ersatz drive, and the board is programmed. I posted an intro to mbed awhile back with a similar board, so if you want a refresher on that, you might like to read that first.

Reading the Encoder

The encoder we had was on a little PCB that you get when you buy one of those Chinese Arduino 37 sensor kits. (By the way, if you are looking for documentation on those kinds of boards, look here.; in particular, this was a KY-040 module.) The board has power and ground pins, along with three pins. One of the pins is a switch closure to ground when you depress the shaft of the encoder. The other two encode the direction and speed of the shaft rotation. There are three pull-up resistors, one for each output.

I expected to explain how the device worked, and then assist in writing some code with a good example of having to debounce, use pin change interrupts, and obviously throw in some other arcane lore. Turns out that was wholly unnecessary. Well… sort of.

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This Old Mouse Keeps Track of Filament Usage

Keeping track of your 3D-printer filament use can be both eye-opening and depressing. Knowing exactly how much material goes into a project can help you make build-versus-buy decisions, but it can also prove gut-wrenching when you see how much you just spent on that failed print. Stock filament counters aren’t always very accurate, but you can roll your own filament counter from an old mouse.

[Bin Sun]’s build is based around an old ball-type PS/2 mouse, the kind with the nice optical encoders. Mice of this vintage are getting harder to come by these days, but chances are you’ve got one lying around in a junk bin or can scrounge one up from a thrift store. Stripped down to its guts and held in place by a 3D-printed bracket, the roller that used to sense ball rotation bears on the filament on its way to the extruder. An Arduino keeps track of the pulses and totalizes the amount of filament used; the counter handily subtracts from the totals when the filament is retracted.

Simple, useful, and cheap — the very definition of a hack. And even if you don’t have a 3D-printer to keep track of, harvesting encoders from old mice is a nice trick to file away for a rainy day. Or you might prefer to just build your own encoders for your next project.

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Victorian Mouse

If Babbage had started the computer revolution early, we might have seen a mouse like the one [Peter Balch] created. He started with the guts from a USB wheeled mouse and some gears from an old clock movement. In addition to the big wheels to capture X and Y movement, the mouse buttons look like the keys from an old typewriter.

mechanical-mouse-magicWe were afraid the project would require advanced wood or metal working capability, but the bottom of the mouse is made from paper mache. The top and sides are cut from tinplate. Of course, the paint job is everything.

The electronics part is pretty simple, just hacking a normal mouse (although it is getting harder to find USB mice with mechanical encoders). However, we wondered if it would have been as simple to use an optical wireless mouse. That would leave the wheels just for show, but honestly, most people aren’t going to know if the wheels are useful or just ornamental, anyway.

If you don’t feel like gutting a mouse, but you still want USB, you could use an Arduino or similar board that can simulate a mouse. We’ve seen quite a few of those in the past. Now all you need is a matching keyboard.

[HomoFaciens] Shows Off With DIY Paper Printer

[HomoFaciens] is always making us feel silly about our purchases. Did we really need to buy a nice set of stepper motors for that automation project? Couldn’t we have just used some epoxy and a threaded rod to make an encoder? Did we need to spend hours reading through the documentation for an industrial inkjet head? Couldn’t we just have asked ourselves, “What would [HomoFaciens] do?” and then made a jailhouse tattoo gun attached to a broken printer carriage and some other household tech trash?

In his continuing work for his Hackaday prize entry, which we have covered before, his latest is a ink (…drop? ) printer. We think the goal is a Gingery book for CNC.  He begins to combine all his previous work into a complete assembly. The video, viewable after the break, starts by explaining the function of a salvaged printer carriage. A motor attached to a belt moves the carriage back and forth; the original linear encoder from the printer is used for positional feedback.

The base of the printer is a homemade y-carriage with another salvaged printer motor and encoder driving a threaded rod. The positional feedback for this axis is provided by a optical mouse gliding on a sheet of graph paper.  The printer nozzle is a cup of ink with a solenoid actuated needle in it. When the needle moves in a hole at the bottom, it dispenses ink.

As always, [HomoFaciens] makes something that is the very definition of a hack. Commenters will have to go elsewhere to leave their favorite debasement.

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Wheel of Resistors Form Unique Rotary Encoder

Continuing his tradition of making bits of wire and scraps of wood work wonders, [HomoFaciens] is back with a unique and clever design for an electromechanical encoder.

There are lots of ways to build an encoder, and this is one we haven’t seen before. Not intended in any way to be a practical engineered solution, [HomoFaciens]’ build log and the video below document his approach. Using a rotating disc divided into segments by three, six or eight resistors, the encoder works by adding each resistor into a voltage divider as the disc is turned. An Arduino reads the output of the voltage divider and determines the direction of rotation by comparing the sequence of voltages. More resistors mean higher resolution but decreased maximum shaft speed due to the software debouncing of the wiped contacts. [HomoFaciens] has covered ground like this before with his tutorial on optical encoders, but this is a new twist – sort of a low-resolution continuous-rotation potentiometer. It’s a simple concept, a good review of voltage dividers, and a unique way to sense shaft rotation.

Is this all really basic stuff? Yep. Is it practical in any way? Probably not, although we’ll lay odds that these encoders find their way into a future [HomoFaciens] CNC build. Is it a well-executed, neat idea? Oh yeah.

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