How Tiny Can A Microcontroller Dev Board Be!

With innumerable microcontroller boards on the market it’s sure that there will be one for every conceivable application or user. Among them are some seriously tiny ones, but this wasn’t enough for [Alun Morris]. Wanting to see how small he could make an ATtiny board without a custom PCB, he took a SOIC-8 version of the popular minimalist processor and mated it to a 6mm by 8mm piece of 0.05″ prototyping board to create a device that is dwarfed by its connectors.

It’s an extremely simple circuit and hardly something that hasn’t been done before, but the value here is in the tricky soldering to make it rather than its novelty. The ATtiny402 and three passive SMD components are fitted on the smallest possible sliver of prototyping board to contain them, and the female headers and set of programming pins contribute far more to the volume of the device than the board itself. He also tried a side-on design with two smaller slivers of board before settling on the more conventional layout. The demonstration of the system in action seen in the video below the break is a magnetic flux detector, dwarfed by the 40-pin DIP Z80 it is sitting on.

A lot of boards claim to be tiny, but few are this small. This ESP32 is a more usual contender.

Continue reading “How Tiny Can A Microcontroller Dev Board Be!”

Old Gas Meter Gets Smart With The ESP8266

Measuring the usage of domestic utilities such as water, gas or electricity usually boils down to measuring a repetitive pulse signal with respect to time. To make things easy, most modern utility meters have a pulsed LED output, which can be used to monitor the consumption by using an external optical sensor. But what do you do if your meter isn’t so cooperative?

That’s exactly what [Francesco] had to figure out while developing the non-invasive gas tracking system he calls ESPmeter. His meter might not have an LED, but it did have a magnet attached to the counter disk which activated an internal hall sensor. With some hacking, he was able to attach an external Hall-effect sensor to pick up this magnet and use the signal to monitor his daily gas consumption.


A big stumbling block in such projects is the issue of powering the device for an extended period, and remembering when it’s time to change the batteries. With the clever use of commonly available parts, he was able to reduce power consumption allowing three AA batteries to last about a year between changes. For one thing, he uses an ATtiny13 to actually read the sensor values. The chip doesn’t run continuously, its watchdog is set at 1 Hz, ensuring that the device is woken up often enough so that it has time to power up the sensor and detect the presence of the magnet. Battery voltage is also measured via a voltage divider connected to the chip’s ADC pin.

At regular intervals throughout the day, the ESP8266 polls the ATtiny13 to pull the stored sensor pulses and voltage measurement. Then at midnight, the ESP transmits all the collected data to a remote server. Overall, this whole scheme allows [Francesco] to reliably gather his gas consumption data while not having to worry about batteries until he gets the low voltage notification. Since the data visualization requirements are pretty basic, he is keeping things simple by using Plotly to display his time series data.

If you are unfortunate enough to have an even older meter which doesn’t use optical or magnetic rotation sensing, you can use a disassembled mouse to keep track of the Gas Meter.

AVR Microcontroller Doubles Up As A Switching Regulator

[SM6VFZ] designed, built and tested a switched-mode DC-DC boost regulator using the core independent peripherals (CIP) of an ATtiny214 micro-controller as a proof of concept, and it looks pretty promising!

A Buck, Boost, or Buck-Boost switching regulator topology usually consists of a diode, a switching element (MOSFET) and an energy storage device (inductor/capacitor) in the power path, and a controller that can measure the output voltage, control the switching element and add safety features such as current limiting and temperature shutdown. A search for switching regulators or controllers throws up thousands of parts, and it’s possible to select one specifically well suited for any desired application. Even so, the ability to use the micro-controller itself as the regulator can have several use cases. Such an implementation allows for a software configurable switch-mode regulator and easy topology changes (boost, buck, fly back etc.).

The “Getting Started with Core Independent Peripherals on AVR®” application note is a good place to get an overview of how the CIP functionality works. Configurable Custom Logic (CCL) is among one of the powerful CIP peripherals. Think of CCL as a rudimentary CPLD — a programmable logic peripheral, which can be connected to a wide range of internal and external inputs such as device pins, events, or other internal peripherals. The CCL can serve as “glue logic” between the device peripherals and external devices. The CCL peripheral offers two LookUp Tables (LUT). Each LUT consists of three inputs, a truth table, a synchronizer, a filter, and an edge detector. Each LUT can generate an output as a user programmable logic expression with three inputs and any device that have CCL peripherals will have a minimum of two LUTs available.

This napkinCAD sketch shows how [SM6VFZ] implemented the boost regulator in the ATtiny214. The AND gate is formed using one of the CCL LUT’s. The first “timer 1” on the left, connected to one input of the AND gate, is free running and set at 33 kHz. The analog comparator compares the boosted output voltage against an internally generated reference voltage derived from the DAC. The output of the comparator then “gates” timer 1 signal to trigger the second “timer 2” — which is a mono-shot timer set to max out at 15 us. This makes sure there is enough time left for the inductor to completely release its energy before the next cycle starts. You can check out the code that [SM6VFZ] used to built this prototype, and his generous amounts of commenting makes it easy to figure out how it works.

Based on this design, the prototype that he built delivers 12 V at about 200 mA with an 85% efficiency, which compares pretty well against regular switching regulators. Keep in mind that this is more of a proof-of-concept (that actually works), and there is a lot of scope for improvement in terms of noise, efficiency and other parameters, so everyone’s comments are welcome.

In an earlier blog post, we looked at how ATmegas with Programmable Logic came about with this feature that is usually found in PIC micro-controllers, thanks to Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel a few years back. But we haven’t seen any practical example of the CCL peripheral in an Atmel chip up until now.

Improve ATtiny Timing Accuracy With This Clock Calibrator

The smaller ATtiny microcontrollers have a limited number of pins, and therefore rely on an internal 9.6 MHz oscillator rather than an external crystal. This oscillator lacks the accuracy of a crystal so individual chips can vary over a significant tolerance from the nominal figure. Happily the resulting timing inaccuracies can be mitigated through a calibration process, and [Stefan Wagner] has incorporated this into his Tiny Calibrator. In addition, it also has the required charge pump circuitry to reset the internal fuses to rescue “bricked” ATtinys, thus allowing those little mistakes to be salvaged.

The board has its own larger ATtiny with a crystal oscillator and an OLED screen, allowing it to measure that of the test ATtiny and generate a correction factor which it applies to the chip. This process is repeated until there is the smallest possible difference from the standard. You can find the files for the hardware on EasyEDA, and the software in a GitHub repository.

It’s important to state that the result will never be as stable as a crystal so you’d be well advised not to put too much trust in those timers, but at least they won’t be as far off the mark as when shipped. All in all this is a handy board to have at hand should you be developing for the smaller ATtiny chips.

Be careful when chasing clock accuracy — it can lead you down a rabbit hole.

A Tiny LED Matrix Is Better With Friends

When we last heard from [lixielabs] he was building Nixie tube replacements out of etched acrylic and LEDs. Well he’s moved forward a few decades to bring us the Pixie, a chainable, addressable backpack for tiny LED matrix displays.

Each Pixie module is designed to host two gorgeous little Lite-On LTP-305G/HR 5×7 LED dot matrix displays, which we suspect have been impulse purchases in many a shopping cart. Along with the displays there is a small matrix controller and an ATTINY45 to expose a friendly electrical interface. Each module is designed to be mounted edge to edge and daisy chained out to 12 or more (with two displays each) for a flexible display any size you need. But to address the entire array only two control pins are required (data and clock).

[lixielabs] has done the legwork to make using those pins as easy as possible. He is careful to point out the importance of a good SDK and provides handy Arduino libraries for common microcontrollers and a reference implementation for the Raspberry Pi that should be easy to crib from to support new platforms. To go with that library support is superb documentation in the form of a datasheet (complete with dimensions and schematic!) and well stocked GitHub repo with examples and more.

To get a sense of their graphical capabilities, check out a video of 6 Pixie’s acting as a VU meter after the break. The Pixie looks like what you get when a hacker gets frustrated at reinventing LED dot matrix control for every project and decided to solve it once and for all. The design is clean, well documented, and extremely functional. We’re excited to see what comes next! Continue reading “A Tiny LED Matrix Is Better With Friends”

TinyTacho: Rotational Speed Measurement Without The Bulk

An electronic tachometer is a straightforward enough device, in which the light reflections from a white spot on a rotating object are detected and counted over time, measuring the revolutions per minute (RPM). It’s a technique that has its roots in analogue electronics where the resulting pulses would have fed a charge pump, and it’s a task well suited to a microcontroller that simply counts them. But do you need an all-singing, all-dancing chip to do the job? [Stefan Wagner] has done it with a humble ATtiny13.

His TinyTacho is a small PCB with an IR LED and photodiode on one end, a small OLED display on its front, and a coin cell holder on its rear. The electronics may be extremely simple, but there’s still quite some effort to get it within the ATtiny’s meagre resources. Counting the revolutions is easy enough, but the chip has no I2C interface of its own and some bitbanging code is required. You can find all the design files and software you need in a GitHub repository, and he’s put up a video of the device in action that you can see below the break.

Tachometers are a popular project hereabouts, and we’ve featured a lot of them over the years. Perhaps the best place to direct readers then is not to another project, but to how to use a tachometer.

Continue reading “TinyTacho: Rotational Speed Measurement Without The Bulk”

The Mystery Of A Particular ATtiny85 Fuse

First-timers playing with 8-bit micros such as the AVR and PIC will at some point in their lives, find themselves locked out of their MCUs. This is usually attributed to badly configured fuses that disable certain IO functions rending the device unprogrammable via conventional ICSP methods. [Uri Shaked] shares his story of how his ATtiny85 got locked and became the subject of a lengthy investigation into fuse bit configurations.

[Uri]’s journey started when he accidentally left some pins of the device connected to a second board while he was flashing the firmware. He quickly researched online for a solution for the problem and it turns out, there are a number of recipes to resolve the issue. As it turns out, his problem was not so straight-forward and warranted more digging. [Uri] ended setting up a High Voltage Programming serial programming setup and then probing the communications. He discovered that the chip refused to reset its fuses and would reject attempts to set fuses.

Further investigation of the fuse bits and reading them proved useful in understanding that the memory protection features were preventing alteration of the device. The quick-fix was to erase the ATtiny and things were back to normal thereafter. [Uri] details his pursuit of reading and comparing fuse bits from the impacted chip against a fresh device which is where he makes the discovery. The write-up is a case study in the investigation into the idiosyncrasies of device programming and will be a great resource for many and reduce hair loss for some.

Once you get your hands on an ATTINY, there are a number of small experiments to be done to cure boredom. Be sure to share your experiments and stories with us to inspire the masses.