Controlling Your Instruments From A Computer: Doing Something Useful

Do you know how to harvest data from your bench tools, like plotting bandwidth from your oscilloscope with a computer? It’s actually pretty easy. Many bench tools make this easy using a standard protocol with USB to make the connection.

In the previous installment of this article we talked about the National Instruments VISA (Virtual Instrument Software Archetecture) standard for communicating with your instruments from a computer, and introduced its Python wrapper with a simple demonstration using a Raspberry Pi. We’ll now build on that modest start by describing a more useful application for a Raspberry Pi and a digital oscilloscope; we’ll plot the bandwidth of an RF filter. We’ll assume that you’ve read the previous installment and have both Python and the required libraries on your machine. In our case the computer is a Raspberry Pi and the instrument is a Rigol DS1054z, but similar techniques could be employed with other computers and instruments.

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How to Control Your Instruments From A Computer: It’s Easier Than You Think

There was a time when instruments sporting a GPIB connector (General Purpose Interface Bus) for computer control on their back panels were expensive and exotic devices, unlikely to be found on the bench of a hardware hacker. Your employer or university would have had them, but you’d have been more likely to own an all-analogue bench that would have been familiar to your parents’ generation.

A GPIB/IEEE488 plug. Alkamid [CC BY-SA 3.], via Wikimedia Commons
A GPIB/IEEE488 plug. Alkamid [CC BY-SA 3.], via Wikimedia Commons.
The affordable instruments in front of you today may not have a physical GPIB port, but the chances are they will have a USB port or even Ethernet over which you can exert the same control. The manufacturer will provide some software to allow you to use it, but if it doesn’t cost anything you’ll be lucky if it is either any good, or available for a platform other than Microsoft Windows.

So there you are, with an instrument that speaks a fully documented protocol through a physical interface you have plenty of spare sockets for, but if you’re a Linux user and especially if you don’t have an x86 processor, you’re a bit out of luck on the software front. Surely there must be a way to make your computer talk to it!

Let’s give it a try — I’ll be using a Linux machine and a popular brand of oscilloscope but the technique is widely applicable.

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How To Get 50 More Zed From Your Rigol DS1054Z

[Chris] has been spending a lot of time in the wife’s sewing room lately, and things got pretty serious late last night as he hacked his shiny new Rigol DS1054Z to unlock the 1104Z capabilities lurking within.

The rumors are true, and ungoverning the software is as simple as looking up your serial number and knowing the right URL for generating a valid license. [Chris] ran into a dud site, but that’s the price of doing business in the shadowy parking garage basements of the interwebs. Once he knocked on the right door and uttered the secret word, however, he became the proud owner of 50MHz additional bandwidth, decoders for SPI, I²C, and RS-232, twice the storage depth, and all teh triggers that ship with the 1104Z.

Stick around for [Chris]’s video walk-through. Can’t rationalize the purchase even at the ridiculously low price point? Here’s one way to make it happen. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn some French.

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How To Reverse Engineer, Featuring the Rigol DS1054Z

For a few years now, the Rigol DS1052E has been the unofficial My First Oscilloscope™. It’s cheap, it’s good enough for most projects, and there have been a number hacks and mods for this very popular scope to give it twice as much bandwidth and other interesting tools. The 1052E is a bit long in the tooth and Rigol has just released the long-awaited update, the DS1054Z. It’s a four-channel scope, has a bigger screen, more bells and whistles, and only costs $50 more than the six-year-old 1052E. Basically, if you’re in the market for a cheap, usable oscilloscope, scratch the ~52E off your list and replace it with the ~54Z.

With four channels of input, [Dave Jones] was wondering how the engineers at Rigol managed to stuff two additional front ends into the scope while still meeting the magic price point of $400. This means it’s time for [Dave] to reverse engineer the 1054Z, and give everyone on the Internet a glimpse at how a real engineer tears apart the worth of other engineers.

The first thing [Dave] does once the board is out of the enclosure is taking a nice, clear, and in-focus picture of both sides of the board. These pictures are edited, turned into a line drawing, and printed out on a transparency sheet. This way, both sides of the board can be viewed at once, allowing for a few dry erase marker to highlight the traces and signals.

Unless your voyage on the sea of reverse engineering takes you to the island of despair and desoldering individual components, you’ll be measuring the values of individual components in circuit. For this, you’ll want a low-voltage ohms function on your meter; if you’re putting too much voltage through a component, you’ll probably turn on some silicon in the circuit, and your measurements will be crap. Luckily, [Dave] shows a way to test if your meter will work for this kind of work; you’ll need another meter.

From there, it’s basically looking at datasheets and drawing a schematic of the circuit; inputs go at the left, outputs at the right, ground is at the bottom, and positive rails are at the top. It’s harder than it sounds – most of [Dave]’s expertise in this area is just pattern recognition. It’s one thing to reverse engineer a circuit through brute force, but knowing the why and how of how the circuit works makes things much easier.

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