Hacklet 73 – Parallax Propeller Projects

In 2006, Parallax, Inc wasn’t new to the electronics business. They’d been around since 1987. Still, for a relatively small company, jumping into custom chips is a big leap. Parallax didn’t just jump into some cookie cutter ASIC, they made their own parallel multi-core microcontroller. Designed by [Chip Gracey], the Parallax Propeller has 8 cores, called cogs. Cogs are connected to I/O pins and other resources by a hub. The Propeller saw commercial success, and continues to have a loyal following. This week’s Hacklet is about some of the best Propeller projects on Hackaday.io!

wozWe start with retrocomputing prop star [Jac Goudsmit] and L-Star: Minimal Propeller/6502 Computer. [Jac] loves the classic 6502 processor. Inspired by [Ben Heckendorn’s] recent Apple I build, [Jac] wanted to see if he could replicate an Apple I with minimal parts. He built upon the success of his Software-Defined 6502 Computer project and created L-Star. The whole thing fits on a Propeller proto board with room to spare. The project uses a 6502, with a Propeller handling just about everything else. The system takes input from a PS-2 keyboard, and outputs via composite video, just like the original Apple I. As you can see from the photo, it’s quite capable of displaying Woz in ASCII. [Jac] has expanded the L-Star to support the Ohio Scientific C1P and CompuKit UK101, both early 6502 based computers.


bbotNext up is [Mike H] with B-BOT. B-BOT is a balancing robot. [Mike] used B-BOT to learn about designing with the Propeller and programming in SPIN, the Prop’s built-in interpreted language. While slower than assembler, SPIN was plenty fast enough to solve the classic inverted pendulum problem. B-BOT’s primary sensor is a Pololu AltIMU-10. This module contains a gyro, accelerometer, compass, and altimeter all on one tiny board. Locomotion comes in the form of two stepper motors. Command and control is via X-Bee radio modules. All the parts live on a custom PCB [Mike] milled using his CNC router.


xynq[Antti.lukats] created Soft Propeller, his entry in the 2015 Hackaday Prize. Soft Propeller doesn’t use a hardware Propeller at all. The core of the system is a Xilinx Zynq-7 chip, which contains an FPGA and a Dual Core ARM A9+ processor. Back in 2014, Parallax released the Verilog HDL code for the Propeller core. [Antti] has taken this code and ported it over the Zynq-7. With 256Kb of RAM, 16 MB of Flash and an LED, the entire system fits in a DIP package smaller than a stick of gum.


pipmanFinally, we have [Christian] with Pipman GPS Watch. There’s just something about the Pip-boy from the Fallout video game series. This Personal Information Processor (PIP) has spawned hundreds of projects from cosplayers and electronics hobbyists alike. [Christian’s] version uses a 4D systems TFT LCD to display those awesome graphics. Input comes through a 5 way navigation switch. A GPS and compass module provide all the navigation data Pipman needs. At the center of it all is a Parallax Propeller programmed in SPIN. [Christian] has a working prototype on his bench. He’s now working on modeling a 3D printed case with Blender.

There are a ton of Propeller projects on Hackaday.io. If you want to see more, check out our Propeller Project list! Did I miss your project? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Hackaday Prize Entry: An FPGA’d Propeller

The Parallax Propeller is an exceptionally interesting chip that doesn’t get the love it deserves. It’s a 32-bit microcontroller with eight independent cores that are each powerful enough to do some real computation.  Around this time last year, the source for the Propeller was opened up and released under GPL 3.0, along with the mask ROM and an interpreter for the Propeller-specific language, Spin. This release is not only a great educational opportunity, but a marvelous occasion to build some really cool hardware as [antti.lukats] is doing with the Soft Propeller.

[antti]’s Soft Propeller is based on the Xilinx ZYNQ-7000, a System on Chip that combines a dual core ARM Cortex A9 with an FPGA with enough logic gates to become a Propeller. The board also has 16MB of Flash used for configuration and everything fits on a Propeller-compatible DIP 40 pinout. If you’ve ever wanted to play around with FPGAs and high-power ARM devices, this is the project for you.

[antti] already has the Propeller Verilog running on his board, and with just a bit more than 50% of the LUTs used, it might even be possible to fit the upcoming Propeller 2 on this chip. This build is just one small part of a much larger and more ambitious project: [antti] is working on a similar device with HDMI, USB, a MicroSD, and 32MB of DDR2 RAM. This will also be stuffed into a DIP40 format, making it an incredibly powerful system that’s just a bit larger than a stick of gum.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Retrotechtacular: The Construction of Wooden Propellers

During World War I, the United States felt they were lagging behind Europe in terms of airplane technology. Not to be outdone, Congress created the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA]. They needed to have some very large propellers built for wind tunnel testing. Well, they had no bids, so they set up shop and trained men to build the propellers themselves in a fantastic display of coordination and teamwork. This week’s film is a silent journey into [NACA]’s all-human assembly line process for creating these propellers.

Each blade starts with edge-grained Sitka spruce boards that are carefully planed to some top-secret exact thickness. Several boards are glued together on their long edges and dried to about 7% moisture content in the span of five or so days. Once dry, the propeller contours are penciled on from a template and cut out with a band saw.

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Construction of Wooden Propellers”

Improving the Parallax Propeller in an FPGA

The Parallax Propeller is an interesting chip that doesn’t get a lot of love, but since the entire chip was released as open source, that might be about to change: people are putting this chip inside FPGA and modifying the binaries to give the chip functions that never existed in the original.

Last August, Parallax released the source for the P8X32A, giving anyone with an FPGA board the ability to try out the Prop for their own designs. Since then, a few people have put some time in, cleaning up the files, unscrambling ROM images, fixing bugs, and all the general maintenance that an open source microcontroller core requires.

[Sylwester] has grabbed some of the experimental changes found on the Parallax forum and included them as a branch of the Propeller source. There is support for a second 32-bit port, giving the new chip 64 I/O pins, multiply instructions, video generators, hard-coded SD card libraries, and a variant called a microProp that has four cores instead of eight.

You can grab all the updated sources right here and load them up on a DE0 Nano FPGA board. If you’re exceptionally lucky and have the Altera DE2-115 dev board, you’ll also be able to run the upcoming Propeller 2.

Turning the DEFCON Badge Into a Bitcoin Miner


The DEFCON badge this year was an impressive piece of hardware, complete with mind-bending puzzles, cap sense buttons, LEDs, and of course a Parallax Propeller. [mike] thought a chip as cool as the Propeller should be put to better use than just sitting around until next year so he turned it into a Bitcoin miner, netting him an astonishing 40 hashes per second.

Mining Bitcoins on hardware that doesn’t have much processing power to begin with (at least compared to the FPGAs and ASIC miners commonly used) meant [mike] would have to find some interesting ways to compute the SHA256 hashes that mining requires. He turned to RetroMiner, the Bitcoin miner made for an original Nintendo. Like the NES miner, [mike] is offloading the communication with the Bitcoin network to a host computer, but all of the actual math is handled by a single core on the Propeller.

Saving one core for communication with the host computer, a DEFCON badge could conceivably manage 280 hashes/second, meaning the processing power of all the badges made for DEFCON is about equal to a seven-year-old graphics card.

Your Halloween Costume May Be Cool, But It’s Not Laser-Cut Cardboard Vintage Airplane Cool

While others are absorbed in baseball playoffs, [Aidan] has spent his recent Octobers planning incredible Halloween costumes for his son. We don’t know what he did last year, but there’s no way it’s better than this laser-cut cardboard airplane costume.

He had a few specs in mind and started with a model of a Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat from 3D Warehouse. Using SketchUp, he simplified the model and removed the landing gear and the propeller. [Aidan] created a simpler model on top of that, and set to work changing the proportions to make it adorable and toddler-sized.

To build around his son’s proportions, he inserted a 10-inch diameter scaled tube vertically into the model and squished down the fuselage in SketchUp. The plan was to have it laser-cut by Ponoko, which meant turning the design into flat pieces for them to cut. He ended up with 58 parts, many of them mirror images due to the symmetry of his design.

When the box from Ponoko arrived, [Aidan] was giddy. He was astonished at the quality of the pieces and found the plane very satisfying to build. But, he didn’t stop there. Using LayOut, he created a custom instrument cluster with reflections and shadows. The plane also has a Wii steering wheel, a motorized propeller, and of course, decals.

Hackaday 10th Anniversary: Jon McPhalen and the Propeller

[Jon] came out to our 10th anniversary mini-con to talk about the Propeller, and judging from his short introduction, his hacker cred is through the roof. He has a page on IMDb, and his first computer was a COSMAC. Around 1993, he heard of a small company introducing the BASIC Stamp, and like us with most new technology was incredulous this device could perform as advertised. He tried it, though, and for a few years after that, he was programming the BASIC Stamp every single day.

Having a lot of blinky light project under his belt, [Jon] was always struggling with interrupts, figuring out a way to blink an LED exactly when he wanted it to blink. A lot has changed over at Parallax since 1993, and now they’re spending time with the Propeller, an 8-core microcontroller where interrupts are a thing of the past. He showed off a huge, 10-foot tall bear from League of Legends, all controlled with a single Propeller, using 1000 LEDs to look like fire and flames.

[Jon] shared the architecture of the Propeller, and the inside of this tiny plastic-encapsulated piece of silicon is wild; it’s eight 32-bit microcontrollers, all sharing some ROM and RAM, controlled by something called a Cog that gives each micro access to the address, data, and IO pins.

When the Propeller was first released, there were a few questions of how the chip would be programmed. C isn’t great for multicore work, so Parallax came up with a language called Spin. It’s written for multicore microcontrollers, and from [Jon]’s little session in demo hell, it’s not that much harder to pick up than Python. Remember that hour or two where you learned the syntax of Python? Yeah, learning Spin isn’t a huge time investment.

Even though you can program the Propeller in C and C++, there’s a reason for Spin being the official language of the Propeller. It isn’t even that hard, and if you want to dip your toes in multicore microcontroller programming, the Propeller is the way to do it. It’s an open source chip as well so you can give it a try with an FPGA board.