STM32 And FPGAs In A Tiny Package

Slowly, very slowly, the time when we don’t subject embedded beginners to AVRs and PICs is coming. At a glacial pace, FPGA development platforms are becoming ever more capable and less expensive. [Eric Brombaugh] has been playing around with both ARMs and FPGAs for a while now and decided to combine these two loves into a single board that’s capable of a lot.

This board is fittingly called an STM32F303 + ice5 development board, and does exactly what it says on the tin. There’s an STM32F303 on board providing a 32-bit CPU running at 72 MHz, 48 kB of SRAM, a quarter meg of Flash, and enough peripherals to keep anyone happy. The FPGA side of this board is a Lattice iCE5 with about 3k Look Up Tables (LUTs), and one time programmable non-volatile config memory.

The connections between the ARM and FPGA include a dedicated SPI port, and enough GPIOs to implement full-duplex I2S and a USART. Like all good projects, [Eric] has shared all the files, schematics, and BOMs required to make this board your very own reality, and has provided a few links to the development toolchains. While the FPGA is from Lattice’s ice40 family, it’s not supported by the Open Source Project Icestorm toolchain. Still, it’s a very capable board for ARM and FPGA development.

The Dubious Claim Of A World Helium Shortage

If you’ve been reading the news lately, you doubtless read about the find of a really big new helium gas field in Tanzania. It’s being touted as “life-saving” and “game-changing” in the popular media, but this is all spin. Helium is important for balloon animals, scientists, and MRI machines alike, but while it’s certainly true that helium prices have been rising steadily since 2000, this new field is unlikely to matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

Source: USGS

The foundation of every news story on helium is that we’re running out of the stuff. As with most doomsday scenarios, the end of the world’s supply of helium is overstated, and we don’t just mean in light of the new Tanzanian field. Helium is the second-most abundant element, making up 24% of the total mass of the universe. And while the earth has a disproportionate amount of heavier elements, helium is in rocks everywhere. It’s just a question of getting it out, and at what price that’s viable.

So while we’re stoked that the era of (relatively) cheap helium can continue onwards for a few more years, we’re still pretty certain that the price is going to continue to rise, and our children’s children won’t be using the stuff for something so frivolous as blowing up party balloons — it’ll be used primarily, as it is now, where it’s more valuable: in science, medicine, and industry.

Let’s take this moment to reflect on the economics of second-lightest element. Here’s to you, Helium!

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What’s Special About Fifty Ohms?

If you’ve worked with radios or other high-frequency circuits, you’ve probably noticed the prevalence of 50 ohm coax. Sure, you sometimes see 75 ohm coax, but overwhelmingly, RF circuits work at 50 ohms.

[Microwaves 101] has an interesting article about how this became the ubiquitous match. Apparently in the 1930s, radio transmitters were pushing towards higher power levels. You generally think that thicker wires have less loss. For coax cable carrying RF though, it’s a bit more complicated.

First, RF signals exhibit the skin effect–they don’t travel in the center of the conductor. Second, the dielectric material (that is, the insulator between the inner and outer conductors) plays a role. The impedance is also a function of the dielectric material and the diameter of the center conductor.

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Put A Reverse Engineered Power Meter In Your Toolkit

It seems that one can buy cheap power meters online and, well, that’s it. They work just fine, but to use them for anything else (like datalogging or control or…) they need a bit more work. The good news is that [Thomas Scherrer], alias [OZ2CPU], just did that reverse engineering work for us.

Inside these budget power meters, you’ll find an LCD driver, a power-monitoring chip, and an STM32F030, which is a low-cost ARM Cortex M0 chip that’s fun to play with on its own. [Thomas] traced out the SPI lines that the power-monitoring chip uses to talk to the microcontroller and broke in to snoop on the signals. Once he got an understanding of all the data, tossing an ATmega88 chip on the SPI line lets him exfiltrate it over a convenient asynchronous serial interface.

If you’re going to do this hack yourself, you should note that the internals of the power meter run at line voltage — the 3.3 V that powers the microcontroller floats on top of the 230 V coming out of [Thomas]’s wall plug. He took the necessary precautions with an isolation transformer while testing the device, and didn’t get shocked. That means that to get the serial data out, you’ll need to use optoisolation (or radio!) on the serial lines.

Now that we know how this thing works on the inside, it’s open-season for power-management hacks. Toss a mains socket and an ESP8266 in a box and you’ve got a WiFi-logging power meter that you can use anywhere, all for under $20. Sweet.