A Small Replacement for Large Programming Headers

No matter how small you make your embedded projects, you still need a way to program the MCU. Standard programming headers can be annoyingly large for those very small projects. [Danny] wrote in to tell us how we can save room on our PCB designs using special spring loaded connectors, rather than large headers.

There are so many small embedded development systems, such as the Trinket that still rely on standard headers. Reducing the size of the programming headers and interface headers is an issue that deserves more attention than it currently receives. Based on Tag-Connect, a proprietary connector built around pogo-style pins, your PCB does not actually require any on-board mating connector. The PCB footprint simply has test-pads that connect with the pogo-pins and holes that allow for a rock solid connection. While the Tag-Connect header is a bit expensive (it costs about $34), you only need to buy it once.

It would be great to see even smaller Tag-Connect cables. Do you have a similar solution? What about something even smaller and more compact? Write in to tell us about any ultra-compact connector solutions you have been using!

ISPnub – A Stand-Alone AVR In-System-Programmer Module

[Thomas] tipped us about his latest project: a stand-alone AVR programmer module named ISPnub. As you can see in the picture above, it is a simple circuit board composed of a main microcontroller (ATmega1284p), one button and two LEDs. Programming a target is a simple as connecting the ISPnub and pressing the button. The flashing operation success status is then shown using the green/red LED.

ISPnub gets its power from the target circuit so no external power supply is needed. It works over a wide voltage range: 1.8V to 5.5V. The module also features a programming counter which can be used to limit the number of programming cycles. A multi-platform Java tool is in charge of embedding the target flash contents with the ISPnub main firmware. The complete project is open source so you may want to check out the official GitHub repository for the firmware and the project’s page for the schematics.

Overhauling an IC Programmer

Willem IC Programmer

[NeXT] needed an EPROM programmer to work with chips from vintage computers. Starting with a low cost programmer, he built this custom IC programmer to handle all of his programming needs.

The device is based on the Willem 5.0e programmer. [NeXT] was not satisfied with the device, noting that it had to be carefully isolated from metal surfaces during use and required setting many annoying jumpers.

To solve these problems, he started off by dismantling the programmer. The IC sockets were moved to a daughter board, which could be mounted cleanly into the metal enclosure. Replacing the jumpers was a bit more complicated, a combination of toggle and rotary switches were chosen to make changing settings easier.

Soldering the boards together looks like it was not an easy task, with 200 solder joints needed to connect the sockets and switches. After debugging some shorts and dead connections, [NeXT] managed to finish the 1.5 year project right before his Christmas deadline.

Learn JTAG by writing a bit-banging programmer


[Pesco] won one of Dangerous Prototypes’ PCB giveaways a few months ago. He opted for a CPLD breakout board. He just needed to put in a parts order and populate the components himself. But then what? He needed a JTAG programmer to work with the chip. Like any good autodidact he choose to make his own rather than buying one. He absorbed the JTAG specification and coded a bit banging programmer using an Arduino.

We’ve used JTAG many times to program ARM chips. But until now we never took the time to figure out how the specification works. If you’ve got an IEEE subscription you can download the whitepaper, but [Pesco] was also able to find one floating around on the interwebs. The flow chart on the left is the cheat sheet he put together based on his readings. From there he wrote the Arduino sketch which implements the programming standard, allowing him to interact with a chip through a minicom terminal window.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]

The Straddler makes AVR breadboarding truly plug and play


It’s not that breadboarding AVR circuits is difficult. But you have to admit that it takes some time to set everything up. We don’t label the top of our DIP chips so that you know what each pin does just by looking. Which means that wiring up the programmer involves pulling out the datasheet. [Vinnie] found the solution to this problem which is to make one of these interface PCBs for each AVR chip family. The long pins make it easy to drop over the top of your microcontroller, which is where the name comes from.

His first stab at the idea was just a hunk of home etched PCB which broke out the programming pins into the 6-pin ICSP standard. This second rendition uses the 10-pin standard and adds a few extras into the mix. He included decoupling capacitors which need to be used in every circuit anyway. There’s a crystal along with its load capacitors. This clock source is a snap to enable by burning some fuses. If you choose to use the internal oscillator instead this hardware won’t interfere. The LED is used to get you up and running with blinky firmware as quickly as possible. He plans to add jumper in the next revision which can disconnect this components from the I/O pin. Now you just need to add a 10-pin header to that USB keyboard AVR programmer and you’re in business.

Evalbot as a JTAG programmer


[Adarsh] needed a JTAG programmer to push code to a CPLD dev board he was working with. He knew he didn’t have a dedicated programmer but figured he could come up with something. Pictured above is his hack to use a Stellaris Evalbot as a programmer.

Long time readers will remember the Evalbot coupon code debacle of 2010. The kits were being offered with a $125 discount as part of a conference. We were tipped off about the code not know its restrictions, and the rest is history. We figure there’s a number of readers who have one collecting dust (except for people like [Adam] that used it as a webserver). Here’s your chance to pull it out again and have some fun.

A bit of soldering to test points on the board is all it takes. The connections are made on the J4 footprint which is an unpopulated ICDI header. On the software side [Adarsh] used OpenOCD with stock configuration and board files (specifics in his writeup) to connect to the white CPLD board using JTAG.

Automated programming and testing jig built with Raspberry Pi


[Doug Jackson] makes word clocks, and he must be doing quite a bit of business. We say that because he put together a programming and test bed for the clock circuit boards.

This is a great example to follow if you’re doing any kind of volume assembly. The jig lets the populated PCB snap into place, making all the necessary electrical connections. This was made possible by a package of goods he picked up on eBay which included rubber spacers to separate the board from the acrylic mounting plate, pogo pins to make the electrical connections, and a spring-loaded board clamp seen to the left in this image.

The switch in the lower right connects power to the board and pulls a Raspberry Pi GPIO pin high. The Python script running on the RPi polls that pin, executing a bash script which programs the ATmega169 microcontroller using the GPIO version of AVRdude. We looked through his Python script and didn’t see code for testing the boards. But the image above shows a “Passed” message on the screen that isn’t in his script. We would wager he has another version that takes the hardware through a self test routine.

We first saw one of [Doug’s] word clocks back in 2009 and then again a few months later. The look of the clock is fantastic and it’s nice to see the project is still going strong.