From SPIDriver to I2CDriver

Communicating with microcontrollers and other embedded systems requires a communications standard. SPI is a great one, and is commonly used, but it’s not the only one available. There’s also I2C which has some advantages and disadvantages compared to SPI. The problem with both standards, however, is that modern computers don’t come with either built-in. To solve that problem and allow easier access to debugging in SPI, [James Bowman] built the SPIDriver a few months ago, and is now back by popular demand with a similar device for I2C, the I2CDriver.

Much like the SPIDriver, the I2C driver is a debugging tool that can be used at your computer with a USB interface. Working with I2C is often a hassle, with many things going on all at once that need to sync up just right in order to work at all, and this device allows the user to set up I2C devices in a fraction of the time. To start, it has a screen built in that shows information about the current device, like the signal lines and a graphical decoding of the current traffic. It also shows an address space map, and has programmable pullup resistors built in, and can send data about the I2C traffic back to its host PC for analysis.

The I2CDriver is also completely open source, from the hardware to the software, meaning you could build one from scratch if you have the will and the parts, or make changes to the code on your own to suit your specific needs. If you’re stuck using SPI still, though, you can still find the original SPIDriver tool to help you with your debugging needs with that protocol as well.

A Crash Course In Reliable Communication

It’s probably fair to say that anyone reading these words understands conceptually how physically connected devices communicate with each other. In the most basic configuration, one wire establishes a common ground as a shared reference point and then the “signal” is sent over a second wire. But what actually is a signal, how do the devices stay synchronized, and what happens when a dodgy link causes some data to go missing?

All of these questions, and more, are addressed by [Ben Eater] in his fascinating series on data transmission. He takes a very low-level approach to explaining the basics of communication, starting with the concept of non-return-to-zero encoding and working his way to a shared clock signal to make sure all of the devices in the network are in step. Most of us are familiar with the data and clock wires used in serial communications protocols like I2C, but rarely do you get to see such a clear and detailed explanation of how it all works.

He demonstrates the challenge of getting two independent devices to communicate, trying in vain to adjust the delays on the receiving and transmitting Arduinos to try to establish a reliable link at a leisurely five bits per second. But even at this digital snail’s pace, errors pop up within a few seconds. [Ben] goes on to show that the oscillators used in consumer electronics simply aren’t consistent enough between devices to stay synchronized for more than a few hundred bits. Until atomic clocks come standard on the Arduino, it’s just not an option.

[Ben] then explains the concept of a dedicated clock signal, and how it can be used to make sure the devices are in sync even if their local clocks drift around. As he shows, as long as the data signal and the clock signal are hitting at the same time, the actual timing doesn’t matter much. Even within the confines of this basic demo, some drift in the clock signal is observed, but it has no detrimental effect on communication.

In the next part of the series, [Ben] will tackle error correction techniques. Until then, you might want to check out the fantastic piece [Elliot Williams] put together on I2C.

[Thanks to George Graves for the tip.]

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A Mobile Terminal for Guerrilla Communications

We use the Internet to do everything from filing our taxes to finding good pizza, but most critically it fulfills nearly all of our communication needs. Unfortunately, this reliance can be exploited by those pulling the strings; if your government is trying to do something shady, the first step is likely to be effecting how you can communicate with the outside world. The Internet is heavily censored and monitored in China, and in North Korea the entire country is effectively running on an intranet that’s cutoff from the wider Internet. The need for decentralized information services and communication is very real.

While it might not solve all the world’s communication problems, [::vtol::] writes in to tell us about a very interesting communication device he’s been working on that he calls “Hot Ninja”. Operating on the principle that users might be searching for accessible Wi-Fi networks in a situation where the Internet has been taken down, Hot Ninja allows the user to send simple messages through Wi-Fi SSIDs.

We’ve all seen creatively named Wi-Fi networks before, and the idea here is very much the same. Hot Ninja creates a Wi-Fi network with the user’s message as the SSID in hopes that somebody on a mobile device will see it. The SSID alone could be enough depending on the situation, but Hot Ninja is also able to serve up a basic web page to devices which actually connect. In the video after the break, [::vtol::] even demonstrates some rudimentary BBS-style functionality by presenting the client devices with a text field, the contents of which are saved to a log file.

In terms of hardware, Hot Ninja is made up of an Arduino Mega coupled to three ESP8266 boards, and a battery to keep it all running for up to eight hours so you can subvert a dictatorship while on the move. The user interface is provided by a small OLED screen and a keyboard made entirely of through-hole tactile switches, further reinforcing the trope that touch-typing will be a must have skill in the dystopian future. It might not be the most ergonomic device we’ve ever seen, but the fact it looks like something out of a Neal Stephenson novel more than makes up for it in our book.

This is not the first time we’ve seen Wi-Fi SSIDs used as a method of communication, thanks largely to how easy the ESP8266 makes it. For his part, [::vtol::] has previously experimented with using them to culturally enrich the masses.

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Humans May Have Accidentally Created a Radiation Shield Around Earth

 

NASA spends a lot of time researching the Earth and its surrounding space environment. One particular feature of interest are the Van Allen belts, so much so that NASA built special probes to study them! They’ve now discovered a protective bubble they believe has been generated by human transmissions in the VLF range.

VLF transmissions cover the 3-30 kHz range, and thus bandwidth is highly limited. VLF hardware is primarily used to communicate with submarines, often to remind them that, yes, everything is still fine and there’s no need to launch the nukes yet.  It’s also used for navigation and broadcasting time signals.

It seems that this human transmission has created a barrier of sorts in the atmosphere that protects it against radiation from space. Interestingly, the outward edge of this “VLF Bubble” seems to correspond very closely with the innermost edge of the Van Allen belts caused by Earth’s magnetic field. What’s more, the inner limit of the Van Allan belts now appears to be much farther away from the Earth’s surface than it was in the 1960s, which suggests that man-made VLF transmissions could be responsible for pushing the boundary outwards.

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Sending Data Using Cheap RF Modules

Wireless is easier today than ever, with many standards to choose from. But you don’t need anything elaborate if you simply want to cut the cord. A few years back, [Roman Black] experimented with the cheap RF modules you can find on auction sites and from surplus electronics vendors for only a few dollars, and wrote up his findings. They’re well worth a look.

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Error Detection and Correction: Reed-Solomon, Convolution and Trellis Diagrams

Transferring data without error when there is a lot of background noise is a challenge. Dr. Claude E. Shannon in 1948 provided guidance with his theory addressing the capacity of a communications channel in the presence of noise. His work quickly spread beyond communications into other fields. Even other aspects of computer use were impacted. An example is the transfer of data from a storage medium, like a hard drive or CD-ROM. These media and their sensors are not 100% reliable so errors occur. Just as Shannon’s work defines communication channel capacity it defines the transfer rate from a media surface to the read head.

Shannon told us how much could be passed through a channel but didn’t say how. Since 1948 a lot of research effort went into accurately detecting errors and correcting them. Error correction codes (ECC) add extra bits to messages, but their cost pays off in their ability to work around errors. For instance, without ECC the two Voyager spacecraft, now leaving our solar system, would be unable to phone home with the information they’ve gathered because noise would overwhelm their signals. Typically in hardware, like memory, error correction is referred to as ECC. In communications, the term forward error correction (FEC) is used.

Robust communication, or data transfer, is a combination of fancy software and tricky signal processing. I’m going to focus on the software side in this article. You may find some of these techniques useful in communicating data among your devices. While I’ll be using the term communications keep in mind this is applicable to transferring data in general.

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Retrotechtacular: Fundamentals of AM and FM Radio Communication

How radios send and receive information can seem magical to the uninformed. For some people, this week’s Retrotechtacular video, “Frequency Modulation – Part 1 Basic Principles”, from the US Army Department of Defense 1964 will be a great refresher, and for others it will be their first introduction into the wonderful world of radio communications.

The stated objective is to teach why FM radio communication reduces interference which normally afflicts AM radio communications. Fundamentals of AM and FM is a better description, however, because the first part of the video nicely teaches the principles of AM and FM radio communications. It isn’t until later in the clip that it delves into interference, advantages of FM modulation, and detailed functioning of FM radio. The delivery is slow at times and admittedly long, yet the pace is perfect for a young ham to follow along with plenty of time to soak in the knowledge. If you’re still on the fence about becoming a ham here’s some words or encouragement.

Though the video isn’t aimed at ham radio users it does address core knowledge needed by amateur radio hobbyists. Amateur radio is full of many exciting communication technologies and you should have a clear understanding of AM and FM communication methodologies before getting on Grandpa’s information super highway. Once you have your ham license (aka ticket) you have privileges to create and test amazing ham related hacks, like [Lior] implementing full programmable control of a Baofeng UV5R ham radio using an Arduino.

Join us after the break to watch the video.

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