Liberating The ESP8266 From Its Development Board

While the ESP32 is clearly a superior piece of hardware, we think you’ll agree that the ESP8266 is just too useful not to have a dozen or so kicking around the parts bin at any given time. Cheap, easy to use, and just enough capabilities to bring your projects into the wonderful world of IoT. But if you really want to get the most out of it, you’ll eventually have to skip the development board and start working with the bare module itself.

It can be a scary transition, but luckily, [Ray] has collected some notes that should prove helpful for anyone looking use modules like the ESP-12F in their own custom PCBs. From different tips on making sure the power-hungry modules get enough juice, to cost cutting measures that help reduce the ancillary parts needed in your circuit design, it’s a worthwhile read for new and experienced ESP8266 wranglers alike.

An auto-reset circuit with the CH340C

For example, [Ray] talks a bit about using the infamous GPIO10 pin. This pin is on the rear of the ESP8266 module, and on many development boards, it isn’t even connected. That’s because its internally hooked up to the ESP8266’s SPI flash chip, and using it can cause problems if you’re not careful. But as explained in the blog post, as long as you make sure the flash mode is set to “dual IO” (DIO), then GPIO10 can be used just like any other free pin.

We also really liked the tip [Ray] shares at the end for making your boards more easily programmable. Sure you can leave an unpopulated header on the board, or fiddle with some pogo pin setup, but his edge connector approach is quite clever. Just slip the programmer on for the initial burn, and then after that you can update over the air.

There’s no denying how easy it is to throw something together with an ESP8266 development board, but we’ve covered so many incredible projects that have made use of the bare module’s diminutive dimensions that you’ll ultimately be missing out if you don’t cut out the middle-man.

Investigating A New Chip In A Minimalist LED Lamp

Teardowns of cheap electronic devices can produce results that are interesting, horrifying, or both, especially when mains power is involved. [bigclivedotcom] gave a minimalist LED lamp his reverse engineering treatment, and discovered a new chip that requires only four additional passive components to run LEDs on AC power.

The chip in question is a Joulewatt JWB1981, for which no datasheet is available on the internet. However, there is a datasheet for the JW1981, which is a linear LED driver. After reverse-engineering the PCB, [bigclivedotcom] concluded that the JWB1981 must include an onboard bridge rectifier. The only other components on the board are three resistors, a capacitor, and LEDs. The first resistor limits the inrush current to the large smoothing capacitor. The second resistor is to discharge the capacitor, while the final resistor sets the current output of the regulator. 

It is possible to eliminate the smoothing capacitor and discharge resistor, as other LED circuits have done, which also allow the light to be dimmable. However, this results in a very annoying flicker of the LEDs at the AC frequency, especially at low brightness settings.

As always, this is a very informative video from [bigclivedotcom], and it was all done based on a single picture of the PCB sent in by a viewer. He also mentions that the lifespan of the lamp would likely be increased by swapping out the current setting resistor for a larger one.

We’ve covered several [bigclivedotcom]’s videos, covering topics from self-powered wireless switches to filling up fake capacitors with electrolyte.

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Debugging PCBs With Augmented Reality

Mihir Shah has designed many a PCB in his time. However, when working through the development process, he grew tired of the messy, antiquated methods of communicating design data with his team. Annotating photos is slow and cumbersome, while sending board design files requires everyone to use the same software and be up to speed. Mihir thinks he has a much better solution by the name of InspectAR, it’s an augmented reality platform that lets you see inside the circuit board and beyond which he demoed during the 2019 Hackaday Superconference.

The InspectAR package makes it easy to visualise signals on the board.

The idea of InspectAR is to use augmented reality to help work with and debug electronics. It’s a powerful suite of tools that enable the live overlay of graphics on a video feed of a circuit board, enabling the user to quickly and effectively trace signals, identify components, and get an idea of what’s what. Usable with a smartphone or a webcam, the aim is to improve collaboration and communication between engineers by giving everyone a tool that can easily show them what’s going on, without requiring everyone involved to run a fully-fledged and expensive electronics design package.

The Supercon talk served to demonstrate some of the capabilities of InspectAR with an Arduino Uno. With a few clicks, different pins and signals can be highlighted on the board as Mihir twirls it between his fingers. Using ground as an example, Mihir first highlights the entire signal. This looks a little messy, with the large ground plane making it difficult to see exactly what’s going on. Using an example of needing a point to attach to for an oscilloscope probe, [Mihir] instead switches to pad-only mode, clearly revealing places where the user can find the signal on bare pads on the PCB. This kind of attention to detail shows the strong usability ethos behind the development of InspectAR, and we can already imagine finding it invaluable when working with unfamiliar boards. There’s also the possibility to highlight different components and display metadata — which should make finding assembly errors a cinch. It could also be useful for quickly bringing up datasheets on relevant chips where necessary.

Obviously, the electronic design space is a fragmented one, with plenty of competing software in the market. Whether you’re an Eagle diehard, Altium fanatic, or a KiCad fan, it’s possible to get things working with InspectAR. Mihir and the team are currently operating out of office space courtesy of Autodesk, who saw the value in the project and have supported its early steps. The software is available free for users to try, with several popular boards available to test. As a party piece for Supercon, our very own Hackaday badge is available if you’d like to give it a spin, along with several Arduino boards, too. We can’t wait to see what comes next, and fully expect to end up using InspectAR ourselves when hacking away at a fresh run of boards!

DIY Clapper Lets You Pick Your Components

One thing that always means the end of the year is close is the reappearance of TV ads for “The Clapper.” After all, who needs home automation when you can clap on and clap off? While we’re partial to our usual home automation solutions, [Utsource123] shows us that building a clapper can be a fun and easy project using several similar circuits. One with a few transistors and another one with a 555 because, after all, what can’t a 555 do?

Of course, these circuits usually have a microphone. We were trying to think of how you could make a sound-sensitive element out of common parts. After all, you don’t care about the fidelity of the microphone pickup, just that it hears a loud noise. The circuits are about what you’d expect. The transistor version uses one to amplify the microphone and another to switch on the LED. You’d need a bit more to trigger a relay. The 555 uses an even simpler preamp transistor as a trigger.

While we aren’t bowled over with the idea of a clapper, we imagine these circuits aren’t far removed from the ones you buy in stores. For about $16 you also get enough switching to handle a simple AC load, though. Maybe Alexa and Google should allow making clapping a wake up word?

This is sure simpler than the last clapper clone we saw. Then there’s the deluxe DIY version.

Computer Algebra For Electronic Design

Don’t get me wrong. Like most people, there’s nothing I enjoy more than solving a long, involved math problem by hand. But, sometimes, a few pages of algebraic scratches on paper is just a means to an end. I find this especially true during electronic design sessions, be it circuit design or PCB layout; I just need the answer, and any time spent finding it distracts me from the larger task at hand. For me, at least, this seems to happen at least once a week, and about five years ago I decided to do something about it. I had heard of computer algebra packages, of course, but they weren’t taught as part of the undergraduate engineering curriculum when I went to school. So, I set about learning one: let the computers do the math!

The package I chose is wxMaxima, a document-based front-end to the Maxima computer-algebra system. Descended from code originally written in the late 1960s, it’s a general-purpose package supporting symbolic computation for algebra and calculus. There’s solid, mature code underneath with a modern UI veneer on top. Plus, it’s FOSS.

As I’ve progressed, I’ve found that some additional functions make the Maxima environment especially convenient for circuit design. A few are simple enough that I’d typically just re-create them as needed, so I never really got organized – there were several versions of my “library” floating around on various machines. I finally got my act together, cleaned up the most-frequently used functions, and put them into a GitHub repo.

Let’s have a look at how we can use them to take the tedium out of math for some design problems.

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Designing Circuits With Switching Algebra

We return once again to the work of Dr. Claude E. Shannon, this time to his Masters thesis on relay switching circuit design. This thesis introduced switching algebra that allows the systematic design and optimization of logical circuits. While Shannon’s work applied to switches and relays, it is equally applicable to all the modern forms of digital circuits. His thesis received widespread notice when published as “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits” in 1938. This work built on the Boolean algebra developed by George Boole and an analysis of logic by Augustus De Morgan which these mathematicians published nearly simultaneously in 1847. To some extent, it was the beginning of the age of modern digital logic. Continue reading “Designing Circuits With Switching Algebra”

A Breadboard In A Browser

[Flownez] sent in a tip that a port of the venerable Falstad circuit simulator is now available that doesn’t require Java (it uses HTML 5). This is a welcome port since some modern browsers (particularly Chrome) make it difficult to run Java applets and prevented the Falstad simulator’s execution.

spice2Like the original simulator, this one is great to show a classroom circuits and encourage building or studying circuits in the browser. There’s no extra software to install, which is handy for an impromptu demo. Another cool feature is the visualization of current flow as animated dots. The dots move in the direction of the current flow and the speed of motion is proportional to the amount of current. Watching a capacitor charge with the moving dots is very illustrative. You can also view data in a scope format or hover the mouse over things to read their values.

You can open a blank circuit and add quite a few components (use the right click button on your mouse or the menu to add components and wires). However, you can also pick from a number of predefined circuits ranging from the simple (a voltage divider, for example) to the illustrative (a PLL frequency doubler comes to mind). There’s even an AM radio (see below) that you can tune to find several “stations” by varying the tuning capacitor’s value. Circuit elements include many types of analog and digital components.

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