FPGA Makes Digital Analog Computer

When you think of analog computing, it’s possible you don’t typically think of FPGAs. Sure, a few FPGAs will have specialized analog blocks, but usually they are digital devices. [Bruce Land] — a name well-known to Hackaday — has a post about building a digital differential analyzer using an FPGA and it is essentially an analog computer simulated on the digital fabric of an FPGA.

Whereas traditional analog computers use operational amplifiers to do mathematical integration, on the FPGA [Land] uses digital summers The devices simulate a system of differential equations, which can be nonlinear.

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Continuous Computing The Analog Way

When your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. That’s an old saying and perhaps somewhat obvious, but our tools do color our solutions and sometimes in very subtle ways. For example, using a computer causes our solutions to take a certain shape, especially related to numbers. A digital computer deals with numbers as integers and anything that isn’t is actually some representation with some limit. Sure, an IEEE floating point number has a wide range, but there’s still some discrete step between one and the next nearest that you can’t reduce. Even if you treat numbers as arbitrary text strings or fractions, the digital nature of computers will color your solution. But there are other ways to do computing, and they affect your outcome differently. That’s why [Bill Schweber’s] analog computation series caught our eye.

One great example of analog vs digital methods is reading an arbitrary analog quantity, say a voltage, a temperature, or a shaft position. In the digital domain, there’s some converter that has a certain number of bits. You can get that number of bits to something ridiculous, of course, but it isn’t easy. The fewer bits, the less you can understand the real-world quantity.

For example, you could consider a single comparator to be a one-bit analog to digital converter, but all you can tell then is if the number is above or below a certain value. A two-bit converter would let you break a 0-3V signal into 1V steps. But a cheap and simple potentiometer can divide a 0-3V signal into a virtually infinite number of smaller voltages. Sure there’s some physical limit to the pot, and we suppose at some level many physical values are quantized due to the physics, but those are infinitesimal compared to a dozen or so bits of a converter. On top of that, sampled signals are measured at discrete time points which changes certain things and leads to effects like aliasing, for example.

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Old Wattmeter Uses Magnetics To Do the Math

Measuring power transfer through a circuit seems a simple task. Measure the current and voltage, do a little math courtesy of [Joule] and [Ohm], and you’ve got your answer. But what if you want to design an instrument that does the math automatically? And what if you had to do this strictly electromechanically?

That’s the question [Shahriar] tackles in his teardown of an old lab-grade wattmeter. The video is somewhat of a departure for him, honestly; we’re used to seeing instruments come across his bench that would punch a seven-figure hole in one’s wallet if acquired new. These wattmeters are from Weston Instruments and are beautiful examples of sturdy, mid-century industrial design, and seem to have been in service until at least 2013. The heavy bakelite cases and sturdy binding posts for current and voltage inputs make it seem like the meters could laugh off a tumble to the floor.

But as [Shahriar] discovers upon teardown of a sacrificial meter, the electromechanical movement behind the instrument is quite delicate. The wattmeter uses a moving coil meter much like any other panel meter, but replaces the permanent magnet stator with a pair of coils. The voltage binding posts are connected to the fine wire of the moving coil through a series resistance, while the current is passed through the heavier windings of the stator coils. The two magnetic fields act together, multiplying the voltage by the current, and deflect a needle against a spring preload to indicate the power. It’s quite clever, and the inner workings are a joy to behold.

We just love looking inside old electronics, and moving coil meters especially. They’re great gadgets, and fun to repurpose, too.

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Analog Clock Goes Digital, or Vice Versa

Designing a good clock takes a lot of considerations. It’s not just hands, faces, and numbers anymore; there are also word clocks, electronic clocks, marble clocks, or water clocks, and just about anything else imaginable can be used to tell time. Of course, electronic clocks are great for their versatility, and this one shows off an analog-looking clock that is (of course) digital, leveraging all of the perks of analog with all of the upsides of digital electronics.

One of the key design considerations that [Sasa] had while building this piece was that it needed to be silent. LEDs certainly fit that description, so the decision was made to go with an WS2812b ring. It runs using a STM ST32F103 Nucleo board (and a cheaper version of it in later versions of this clock) which shows a red LED for the current hour, yellow LEDs for the traditional analog clock divisions, a green LED for the current minute, and glows the rest of the LEDs up to the current minute with a rainbow pattern.

This is a really clean, simple build with good design at its core, and would be easy to replicate if you’re looking for an eye-catching clock to build. As a bonus, all of the schematics and code are available on the project site, so everything you need is there. If you’re looking for more inspiration, there are some clocks that are even more unique, like this marble clock that is a work of art — but is anything but silent.

Revive that old Analog Cell Phone with SDR

With the latest and greatest 5G cellular networks right around the corner, it can be difficult to believe that it wasn’t so long ago that cell phones relied on analog networks. They aren’t used anymore, but it might only take a visit to a swap meet or flea market to get your hands on some of this vintage hardware. Of course these phones of a bygone era aren’t just impractical due to their monstrous size compared to modern gear, but because analog cell networks have long since gone the way of the floppy disk.

But thanks to the efforts of [Andreas Eversberg] those antique cell phones may live again, even if it’s only within the radius of your local hackerspace. His software allows the user to create a functioning analog base station for several retro phone networks used in Europe and the United States, such as AMPS, TACS, NMT, Radiocom, and C450. You can go the old school route and do it with sound cards and physical radios, or you can fully embrace the 21st century and do it all through a Software Defined Radio (SDR); in either event, calls to the base station and even between multiple mobile devices is possible with relatively inexpensive hardware.

[Andreas] has put together exceptional documentation for this project, which starts with a walk through on how you can setup your DIY cell “tower” with traditional radios. He explains that amateur radios are a viable option for most of the frequencies used, and that he had early success with modifying second-hand taxi radios. He even mentions that the popular BaoFeng handheld radios can be used in a pinch, though not all the protocols will work due to distortion in the radio.

If you want to take the easy way out, [Andreas] also explains how to replace the radios with a single SDR device. This greatly simplifies the installation, and turns a whole bench full of radios and wires into something you can carry around in your pack if you were so inclined. His software has specific options to use the LimeSDR and LimeSDR-Mini, but you should be able to use other devices with a bit of experimentation.

We’ve previously reviewed the LimeSDR-Mini hardware, as well as covered its use in setting up DIY GSM networks.

The Modern Analog Soldering Station

There is a certain sense of accomplishment one gets when building their own tools. This is what [Alejandro Velazquez] was going for when he built his own soldering station. Sure you can get a decent station for a pittance on Amazon, or eBay. You can even build your own microprocessor controlled station. [Alejandro] is currently interested in analog electronics, so he went that route to build his own closed-loop station.

The handle is a 50 watt, 24-volt affair with a thermocouple. You can find this handle on many Hakko 907 clone soldering stations, often referred to as the 907A. The station itself is completely analog. A triac switches the current going to the heater. The triac is controlled by a PWM signal. The PWM itself is generated and regulated by an LM324 quad op-amp, which is the heart of the station. The op-amp compares the setpoint with the current temperature read from the soldering handle’s thermocouple, then adjusts the duty cycle of the PWM signal to raise, or lower the temperature.

It’s a classic control system, and the schematic is definitely worth checking out if you want to understand how op-amps can be used to create complex operations.

You can find plenty more information on analog electronics right here on Hackaday — we’ve covered thermocouple amplifiers, as well as instrumentation amps. If you’re more of a digital man, check out this Arduino controlled soldering station!

AV Synth is Psychedelic Analog Mayhem

Digital video is cool and all, but it can’t compete with analog in terms of smooth, creamy glitches and distortion. [gieskes] has developed an analog audio-visual synthesizer that is a great example of the old-school retro visuals you can create with a handful of simple components.

Known as the 3TrinsRGB+1c, it’s available both assembled and in kit form. It’s probably best to start with the manual. Synthesis is achieved through the use of a HEF40106 hex inverting buffer – a cheap and readily available part that nonetheless provides for excellent results. Video can be switched between RGB oscillators and a series of inputs, and there are various controls to create those classic scrolling effects and other visual oddities.

Additionally, a series of connections to the underlying circuitry are broken out on a header connector. This allows for extra modules to be plugged in, and several designs are available to expand the unit’s capabilities.

Analog video isn’t used so much on a day-to-day basis anymore, but it’s a great technology to tinker and experiment with. We’ve seen some of [gieskes] experiments in this arena before, too – like this Arduino video sampler. Video after the break.

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