Beyond Measure: Instrumentation Amplifiers

In the first article about measurement systems we looked at sensors as a way to bring data into a measurement system. I explained that a sensor measures physical quantities which are turned into a voltage with a variable conversion element such as a resistor bridge. There will always be noise in any system, and an operational amplifier (op-amp) can be used to remove some of that noise. The example we considered used an op-amp in a differential configuration that removes any disturbance signal that is common to both inputs of the op-amp.

But that single application of an op-amp is just skimming the surface of the process of bringing a real-world measurement of a physical quantity into a digital system. Often, you’ll need to do more work on the signal before it’s ready for sampling with a digital-to-analog converter. Signal conditioning with amplifiers is a deep and rich topic, so let me make it clear that that this article will not cover every aspect of designing and implementing a measurement system. Instead, I’m aiming to get you started without getting too technical and math-y. Let’s just relax and ponder amplifiers without getting lost in detail. Doesn’t that sound nice?

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Beyond Measure: Instrumentation Essentials

The physical world is analog and if we want to interface with it using a digital device there are conversions that need to be made. To do this we use an Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) for translating real world analog quantities into digital values. But we can’t just dump any analog signal into the input of an ADC, we need this analog signal to be a measurable voltage that’s clean and conditioned. Meaning we’ve removed all the noise and converted the measured value into a usable voltage.

Things That Just Work.

This is not new information, least of all to Hackaday readers. The important bit is that we rely on these systems daily and they need to work as advertised. A simple example are the headlights in my car that I turned on the first night I got in it 5 years ago and haven’t turned off since. This is not a daytime running lights system, the controller turns the lights on when it’s dark and leaves them off during the day. This application falls into the category of things that go largely unnoticed because simply put: They. Work. Every. Time. It’s not a jaw dropping example but it’s a well implemented use of an analog to digital conversion that’s practical and reliable.

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Figure 1

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This Hourglass Flips Itself

Once upon a time, [Mike] bought an hourglass for his sister. He intended to build it into a clock and give it to her as a gift, but life and other projects got in the way. Fast forward a couple of decades to the point when it all came together and [Mike] had everything he needed on hand to build a beautiful wooden clock that automatically flips the hourglass over.

Every 60 minutes, the bulb, which is situated inside a handcrafted maple ring, rotates 180 degrees to restart the flow of sand. Whatever number is at the top of the outer wheel denotes the current hour. The digit for the next hour is always at the five o’clock position relative to the current hour. This works out because the pockets on the outside of the bulb’s ring share a 5:6 ratio with the gear teeth on the outer ring. Confused? Watch the time-lapse video from [Mike]’s that shows it in action.

[Mike] was determined to build this clock using only things he already had on hand, like a cheap digital watch to keep time and a car window motor to rotate the hourglass. He hacked a USB port into the watch so he could use the hourly chime function to trigger the motor through a quad op-amp. The motor runs until it is triggered to shut off optically—a pair of slits cut into the gear that moves the hourglass pass over a sensor. [Mike] built a beautiful box to hold the guts from a nice piece of walnut and spared no detail in the design.

There are a ton of build pictures on the projects site and an in-depth video tour of the clock, which is embedded after the break. Whether they are designed to amaze or confuse, we love a good clock build around here. If you’re into hourglasses, we featured a digital version not too long ago.

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Amplifying the Body’s Own Electricity

Measuring the body’s electrical signals is a neat trick… if you can get your equipment dialed in enough to establish dependable measurements. The technique is called Surface ElectroMyography (SEMG) though you’ll hear many call this ECG. They’re essentially the same technology; the Electro CardioGraph instruments monitor the activity of the heart while SEMG Instruments monitor electrical signals used to control other muscles. Both types of hardware amount to an instrumentation type amplifier and some form of I/O or display.

This topic has been in my back pocket for many months now. Back in May we Hackaday’ites descended on New York City for the Disrupt NY Hackathon event. We arrived a day or so early so that we might better peruse the Korean BBQ joints and check out the other electronics that NY has to offer. On Saturday we gathered around, each shouting out the size of his or her t-shirt preference as we covered up our black Hackaday logo tees with maroon maroon ones (sporting the Hackaday logo of course) for a 24-hour craze of hardware hacking.

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There were two individuals at our tables who were both hacking away on hardware to measure the electrical field produced by the body’s muscles in some form or another. The electrical signals measured from the skin are small, and need careful consideration to measure the signal despite the noise. This is a fun experiment that lets you work with both Instrumentation Amplifiers and OpAmps to achieve a usable signal from the movement of your body.

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Hackaday Links: November 8, 2015

[Burt Rutan] is someone who needs no introduction. Apparently, he likes the look of the Icon A5 and is working on his own version.

Earlier this week, the US Air Force lost a few satellites a minute after launch from Barking Sands in Hawaii. This was the first launch of the three stage, solid fueled SPARK rocket, although earlier versions were used to launch nuclear warheads into space. There are some great Army videos for these nuclear explosions in space, by the way.

[Alexandre] is working on an Arduino compatible board that has an integrated GSM module and WiFi chip. It’s called the Red Dragon, and that means he needs some really good board art. The finished product looks good in Eagle, and something we can’t wait to see back from the board house.

The Chippocolypse! Or however you spell it! TI is declaring a lot of chips EOL, and although this includes a lot of op-amps and other analog ephemera (PDF), the hi-fi community is reeling and a lot of people are stocking up on their favorite amplifiers.

[Jeremy] got tired of plugging jumper wires into a breadboard when programming his ATMega8 (including the ‘168 and ‘328) microcontrollers. The solution? A breadboard backpack that fits right over the IC. All the files are available, and the PCB can be found on Upverter.

In case you haven’t heard, we’re having a Super Conference in San Francisco later this week. Adafruit was kind enough to plug our plug for the con on Ask an Engineer last week.

A Peek Under the Hood of the 741 Op-Amp

First introduced as an IC back in 1968, but with roots that go back to 1941, the 741 has been tweaked and optimized over the years and is arguably the canonical op-amp. [Ken Shirriff] decided to take a look inside everybody’s favorite op-amp, and ended up with some good-looking photomicrographs and a lot of background on the chip.

canRather than risk the boiling acid method commonly used to decap epoxy-potted ICs, [Ken] wisely chose a TO-99 can format to attack with a hacksaw. With the die laid bare for his microscope, he was able to locate all the major components and show how each is implemented in silicon. Particularly fascinating is the difference between the construction of NPN and PNP transistors, and the concept of “current mirrors” as constant current sources. And he even whipped up a handy interactive chip viewer – click on something in the die image and find out which component it is on the 741 schematic. Very nice.

We’ve seen lots of chip decappings before, including this reveal of TTL and CMOS logic chips. It’s nice to see the guts of the venerable 741 on display, though, and [Ken]’s tour is both a great primer for the newbie and a solid review for the older hands. Don’t miss the little slice of history he included at the end of the post.

Scanning Electron Microscope Images and Animations Pulled By Impressive Teensy LC Setup

When you’ve got a scanning electron microscope sitting around, you’re going to find ways to push the awesome envelope. [Ben Krasnow] is upping his SEM game with a new rig to improve image capture (video link) and more easily create animated GIFs and videos.

The color scheme of the SEM housing gives away its 80s vintage, and the height of image capture technology back then was a Polaroid camera mounted over the instrument’s CRT. No other video output was provided, so [Ben] dug into the blueprints and probed around till he found the high-resolution slow scan signal.

To make his Teensy-LC happy, he used a few op-amps to condition the analog signal for the greatest resolution and split out the digital sync signals, which he fed into the analog and digital ports respectively. [Ben] then goes into a great deal of useful detail on how he got the video data encoded and sent over USB for frame capture and GIF generation. Reading the ADC quickly without jitter and balancing data collection with transmission were tricky, but he has established a rock-solid system for it.

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