# Our Favorite Things: Binary Search

You might not think that it would be possible to have a favorite optimization algorithm, but I do. And if you’re well-versed in the mathematical art of hill climbing, you might be surprised that my choice doesn’t even involve taking any derivatives. That’s not to say that I don’t love Newton’s method, because I do, but it’s just not as widely applicable as the good old binary search. And this is definitely a tool you should have in your toolbox, too.

Those of you out there who slept through calculus class probably already have drooping eyelids, so I’ll give you a real-world binary search example. Suppose you’re cropping an image for publication on Hackaday. To find the best width for the particular image, you start off with a crop that’s too thin and one that’s too wide. Start with an initial guess that’s halfway between the edges. If this first guess is too wide, you split the difference again between the current guess and the thinnest width. Updated to this new guess, you split the differences again.

But let’s make this even more concrete: an image that’s 1200 pixels wide. It can’t get wider than 1200 or thinner than 0. So our first guess is 600. That’s too thin, so we guess 900 — halfway between 600 and the upper limit of 1200. That ends up too wide, so we next guess 750, halfway between 600 and 900. A couple more iterations get us to 675, then 638, and then finally 619. In this case, we got down to the pixel level pretty darn fast, and we’re done. In general, you can stop when you’re happy, or have reached any precision goal.

[Ed note: I messed up the math when writing this, which is silly. But also brought out the point that I usually round the 50% mark when doing the math in my head, and as long as you’re close, it’s good enough.]

What’s fantastic about binary search is how little it demands of you. Unlike fancier optimization methods, you don’t need any derivatives. Heck, you don’t even really need to evaluate the function any more precisely than “too little, too much”, and that’s really helpful for the kind of Goldilocks-y photograph cropping example above, but it’s also extremely useful in the digital world as well. Comparators make exactly these kinds of decisions in the analog voltage world, and you’ve probably noticed the word “binary” in binary search. But binary search isn’t just useful inside silicon. Continue reading “Our Favorite Things: Binary Search”

# Pressure Gauge Built In A Vacuum

Necessity might be the mother of all invention, but we often find that inventions around here are just as often driven by expensive off-the-shelf parts and a lack of willingness to spend top dollar for them. More often than not, we find people building their own tools or parts as if these high prices are a challenge instead of simply shrugging and ordering them from a supplier. The latest in those accepting the challenge of building their own parts is [Advanced Tinkering] who needed a specialty pressure gauge for a vacuum chamber.

In this specific case, the sensor itself is not too highly priced but the controller for it was the deal-breaker, so with a trusty Arduino in hand a custom gauge was fashioned once the sensor was acquired. This one uses an external analog-to-digital converter to interface with the sensor with 16-bit resolution, along with some circuitry to bring the ~8 V output of the sensor down to the 5 V required by the microcontroller. [Advanced Tinkering] wanted a custom live readout as well, so a 3D printed enclosure was built that includes both an LCD readout of the pressure and a screen with a graph of the pressure over time.

For anyone else making sensitive pressure measurements in a vacuum chamber, [Advanced Tinkering] made the project code available on a GitHub page. It’s a great solution to an otherwise overpriced part provided you have the time to build something custom. If you’re looking for something a little less delicate, though, take a look at this no-battery pressure sensor meant to ride along on a bicycle wheel.

# Homebrew Circuit Explores The Mysteries Of Analog-to-Digital Conversion

When it comes to getting signals from an analog world into our computers, most of us don’t give much thought to how the hardware that does the job works. But as it turns out, there are a number of ways to skin the analog to digital conversion cat, and building your own homebrew successive approximation register ADC is a great way to dispel some of the mystery.

From his description of the project, it’s clear that [Mitsuru Yamada] wasn’t looking to build a practical ADC, but was more interested in what he could learn by rolling his own. A successive approximation register ADC works by quickly cycling through all possible voltage levels in its input range, eventually zeroing in on the voltage of the input signal at that moment and outputting its digital representation. The video below shows how the SAR ADC works visually, using an oscilloscope to show both the input voltage and the output of the internal R-2R DAC. The ADC has an input range of 0 V to 5 V and seven bits of resolution and uses nothing but commonly available 74xx series logic chips and a couple of easily sourced analogs for the sample-hold and comparator section. And as usual with one of his projects, the build quality and workmanship are impeccable.

We love these sorts of projects, which are undertaken simply for the joy of building something and learning how it works. For more of [Yamada-san]’s projects, check out his 6502-based RPN calculator, or the serial terminal that should have been.

# Finding The Right Hack Is Half The Battle

Sometimes you just get lucky. I had a project on my list for a long time, and it was one that I had been putting off for a few months now because I loathed one part of what it entailed — sensitive, high-accuracy analog measurement. And then, out of the blue I stumbled on exactly the right trick, and my problems vanished in thin air. Thanks, Internet of Hackers!

The project in question is a low-vacuum regulator for “bagging” fiberglass layups. What I needed was some way to read a pressure sensor and turn on and off a vacuum pump accordingly. The industry-standard vacuum gauges are neat devices, essentially a tiny little strain gauge on a membrane between the vacuum side and the atmosphere side, in a package the size of a dime. (That it’s a strain gauge is foreshadowing, but I didn’t know that at the time.) I bought one for \$15 ages ago, and it sat on my desk, awaiting its analog circuitry.

See, the MPX2100 runs on 12 V and puts out a signal around 40 mV on top of a 6 V offset. That voltage level is inconvenient for modern 3.3 V microcontroller ADCs, and the resolution would get clobbered by the 6 V signal if I just put a voltage divider on it. This meant whipping together some kind of instrument amplifier circuit to null out the 6 V and amplify the 40 mV for the ADC. The circuits I found online all called for 1% resistors in values I didn’t have, and mildly special op-amps. No fun, for me at least. So there it sat.

Until I ran into this project that machetes through the analog jungle with one part, and it happened to be one I had on hand. A vacuum pressure sensor is a strain gauge, set up like a Wheatstone bridge, just like you would use for weighing something with a load cell. The solution? A load-cell ADC chip, the HX711, found in every cheap scale or online for under a buck. The only other trick was finding a low-voltage pressure sensor to work with it, but that turns out to be easy as well, and I had one delivered in two days.

In all, this project took months of foot-dragging, but only a few clicks and five minutes of soldering once I got the right idea. The industrial applications and manufacturers’ app notes all make sense if you are making hundreds or millions of these devices, where the one-time cost of prototyping up the hard bits gets amortized, but the hacker solution of using a weight-scale chip was just the ticket for a one-off. That just goes to show how useful sharing our tips and tricks can be — you won’t get this from the industry. So send us your success stories, and your useful failures too, and Read More Hackaday!

# Raspberry Pi Pico ADC Characterized

[Markomo] didn’t find much useful information about the Raspberry Pi PIco’s analog to digital converter, so he decided to do some tests to characterize it. Lucky for us, he documented the findings and shared them. The results are in a series of blog posts that cover power supply noise, input-referred noise, signal to noise ratio, and distortions.

There are some surprising results. For example, the Pico’s low noise regulator mode appears to produce more noise than having it set for normal operation. There also appears to be a large spike in nonlinearity around certain measurements.

# Guitar Effects With No (Unwanted) Delay

MIDI has been a great tool for musicians and artists since its invention in the 1980s. It allows a standard way to interface musical instruments to computers for easy recording, editing, and production of music. It does have a few weaknesses though, namely that without some specialized equipment the latency of the signals through the various connected devices can easily get too high to be useful in live performances. It’s not an impossible problem to surmount with the right equipment, as illustrated by [Philip Karlsson Gisslow].

The low-latency MIDI interface that he created is built around a Raspberry Pi Pico. It runs a custom library created by [Philip] called MiGiC which specifically built as a MIDI to Guitar interface. The entire setup consists of a preamp to boost the guitar’s signal up to 3.3V where it is then fed to the Pi. This is where the MIDI sampling is done. From there it sends the information to a PC which is able to play the sound back quickly with no noticeable delay.

[Philip] also had to do a lot of extra work to port the software to the Pi which lacks a lot of the features of its original intended hardware on a Mac or Windows machine, and the results are impressive, especially at the end of the video where he uses the interface to play a drum machine via his guitar. And, while MIDI is certainly a powerful application for a guitarist, we have also seen the Pi put to other uses in this musical realm as well.

# Homebrew Metrology The CERN Way

We won’t pretend to fully grok everything going on with this open-source 8.5-digit voltmeter that [Marco Reps] built. After all, the design came from the wizards at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, home to the Large Hadron Collider and other implements of Big Science. But we will admit to finding the level of this build quality absolutely gobsmacking, and totally worth watching the video for.

As [Marco] relates, an upcoming experiment at CERN will demand a large number of precision voltmeters, the expense of which led to a homebrew design that was released on the Open Hardware Repository. “Homebrew” perhaps undersells the build a bit, though. The design calls for a consistent thermal environment for the ADC, so there’s a mezzanine level on the board with an intricately designed Peltier thermal control system, including a custom-machined heat spreader blocker. There’s also a fascinatingly complex PCB dedicated solely to provide a solid ground between the analog input connector — itself a work of electromechanical art — and the chassis ground.

The real gem of this whole build, though, is the vapor-phase reflow soldering technique [Marco] used. Rather than a more-typical infrared process, vapor-phase reflow uses a perfluropolyether (PFPE) solution with a well-defined boiling point. PCBs suspended above a bath of heated PFPE get bathed in inert vapors at a specific temperature. [Marco]’s somewhat janky setup worked almost perfectly — just a few tombstones and bridges to fix. It’s a great technique to keep in mind for that special build.

The last [Marco Reps] video we featured was a teardown of a powerful fiber laser. It’s good to see a metrology build like this one, though, and we have a feeling we’ll be going over the details for a long time.