Op-Amp Challenge: Interactive Analog LED Wave Array

A while back, [Chris Lu] was studying how analog circuits, specifically op-amps can be used to perform mathematical operations and wondered if they could be persuaded to solve differential equations, such as the wave equation. After sitting on the idea for a few years, it was time to make it a reality, and the result is an entry into the Op-Amp Challenge.

Unlike many similar interactive LED matrix displays that are digital in nature (because it’s a lot easier), this design is pure analog, using many, many op-amps. A custom PCB houses a 4×4 array of compute units, each with a blue and white LED indicating the sign and magnitude of the local signal.

The local input signal is provided by an IR photodiode, AC coupled to only respond to change, with every other circuit sharing a sensor to keep it simple. Each circuit is connected to its immediate neighbors on the PCB, and off the PCB via board-to-board connectors. This simple scheme makes this easily scalable if desired in the future.

[Chris] does a great job of breaking down the math involved, which makes this project a neat illustration of how op-amp circuits can implement complex mathematical problems in an easy-to-understand process. Even more op-amps are pressed into service for generating the split-rail voltage reference and for amplifying the weak photodiode signals, but the computation circuit is the star of the show.

We like analog computing a fair bit around these parts. Here’s a little something we were previously drooling over.

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Beautiful Engineering In This Laser Unit From A Tornado Jet Fighter

Those of use hailing from the UK may be quite familiar with the Royal Air Force’s Tornado fighter jet, which was designed to fight in a theoretical nuclear war, and served the country for over 40 years. This flying deathtrap (words of an actual serving RAF fighter pilot this scribe met a few years ago) was an extremely complex machine, with state-of-the-art tech for its era, but did apparently have a bit of a habit for bursting into flames occasionally when in the air!

Anyway, the last fleet is now long retired and some of the tech inside it is starting to filter down into the public domain, as some parts can be bought on eBay of all places. [Mike] of mikeselectricstuff has been digging around inside the Tornado’s laser head unit,  which was part of the bomber’s laser-guided missile subsystem, and boy what a journey of mechanics and electronics this is!

Pulse-mode optically pumped YAG laser

This unit is largely dumb, with all the clever stuff happening deep in an avionics bay, but there is still plenty of older high-end tech on display. Using a xenon-discharge-tube pumped yttrium aluminum garnet (YAG) laser, operating in pulsed mode, the job of the unit is to illuminate the ground target with an IR spot, which the subsequently fired missiles will home on to.

Designed for ground-tracking, whilst the aircraft is operating at speed, the laser head has three degrees of moment, which likely is synchronized with the aircraft movement to keep the beam steady. The optical package is quite interesting, with the xenon tube and YAG rod swimming in a liquid cooling bath, inside a metal housing. The beam is bounced around inside the housing using many prisms, and gated with a Q-switch which allows the beam to build up in intensity, before be unleashed on the target. Also of note is the biggest photodiode we’ve ever seen — easily over an inch in diameter, split into four quadrants, enabling the sensor to resolve direction changes in the reflected IR spot and track its error. A separate photodiode receiver forms part of the time-of-flight optical range finder, which is also important information to have when targeting.

There are plenty of unusual 3-phase positioning motors, position sensors, and rate gyros in the mix, with the whole thing beautifully crafted and wired-up military spec. It is definitely an eye opener for what really was possible during the cold war years, even if such tech never quite filtered down to civilian applications.

We’ve seen a few bits about the Tornado before, like this over-engineered attitude indicator, and here’s the insides of an old aircraft QAR (Quick Access Recorder)

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IR Translator Makes Truly Universal Remote

Universal remotes are a handy tool to have around if you have many devices that would all otherwise have their own remote controls. Merging them all into a single device leads to less clutter and less frustration, but they are often not truly “universal” as some of them may not support every infrared device that has ever been built. If you’re in a situation like that it’s possible to build a truly universal remote instead, provided you have a microcontroller and a few infrared LEDs on hand.

This was the situation that [Matt] found himself in when his Amazon Fire TV equipment control feature didn’t support his model of speakers. To get around this he programmed an Arduino to essentially translate the IR codes from the remote and output a compatible set of codes to the speakers.This requires both an IR photodiode and an IR LED but little else other than the codes for the remote and the equipment in question. With that all set up and programmed into the Aruino, [Matt]’s remote is one step closer to being truly “universal”.

While [Matt] was able to make use of existing codes in the Arduino library, it is also possible to capture the codes required manually by pointing a remote at a photodiode and programming a microcontroller to capture the codes that you need. [Matt] used a Raspberry Pi to do this when debugging this project, but we’ve also seen this method used with a similar build which uses an ESP8266 to control an air conditioner via its infrared remote control capabilities.

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A Trio Of Photodiodes Make A Radiation Detector

The instinctive reaction when measuring nuclear radiation is to think of a Geiger counter, as the low-pressure gas tube detectors have entered our popular culture through the Cold War. A G-M tube is not the only game in town though, and even the humble photodiode can be pressed into service. [Robert] gives us a good example, with a self-contained radiation detector head that uses a trio of BPW34s to do the job.

At its heart is a transimpedance amplifier, a not-often-seen op-amp configuration that serves as a very high gain current-to-voltage converter. This produces a spike for every radiation event detected by the diodes, which is fed to a comparator to produce a logic pulse. The diodes require a significant bias voltage, for which he’s used 48 V from a stack of 12 V photographic dry cells rather than a boost converter or other potentially noisy power supply. Such a sensitive high-gain device needs to be appropriately shielded, so the whole circuit is contained in a diecast box with a foil window to allow radiation to reach the diodes.

This isn’t the first BPW34-based radiation detector we’ve seen, so perhaps before looking for a Cold War era relic for our radiation experiments we should be looking in a semiconductor catalogue instead.

Image Sensors Demystified By [IMSAI Guy]

The February 1975 issue of Popular Electronics had what was — at the time — an amazing project. The Cyclops, a digital camera with a 32 by 32 pixel resolution with 4 bits per pixel. It was hard to imagine then that we would now all carry around high-resolution color cameras that were also phones, network terminals, and so many other things. But how much do you know about how those cameras really work? If you want to know more, check out [IMSAI Guy’s] recent video on how image sensors work.

The video doesn’t cover any practical projects or circuits, but it has a good explanation of what goes on in modern digital cameras. If you don’t know what digital cameras have in common with an octopus, you might want to watch.

If you want to see what the state of the art in 1975 was, have a look at this post. The image sensor in that camera didn’t have much in common with the ones we use today, but you have to admit it is clever. Of course, 1975 was also the year Kodak developed a digital camera and failed to understand what to do with it. Like the Cyclops, it had little in common with our modern smartphone cameras, but you have to start somewhere.

Wooden Disc Player Translates Binary Back Into Text

[jbumstead] used MATLAB to convert the text messages into binary to be cut out of the disk.
[jbumstead] wanted to demonstrate the idea of information-storing devices such as LPs, CDs, and old hard drives. What he came up with lies directly at the intersection of art and technology: an intricately-built machine that plays beautiful collaged wooden disks. Much like the media that inspired the Wooden Disk Player, it uses a laser to read encoded data, which in this case is short bits of text like “Don’t Panic”.

These snippets are stored in binary and read by a laser and photodiode pair that looks for holes and not-holes in the disk. The message is then sent to an Arduino Nano, which translates it into English and scrolls the text on an LED matrix. For extra fun, the Nano plays a MIDI note every time it reads a 1, and you can see the laser reading the disk through a protective acrylic shield.

Though the end result is fantastic, [jbumstead] had plenty of issues along the way which are explored in the build video after the break. We love it when people show us their mistakes, because it happens to all of us and we shouldn’t ever let it tell us to stop hacking.

If anyone knows their way around lasers, it’s [jbumstead]. We loved playing their laser harp at Supercon!

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A Pulse Oximeter From Very Little

Against the backdrop of a global respiratory virus pandemic, it’s likely that more than a few readers have been thinking about pulse oximeters. You may even have looked at one closely and seen that it’s little more than a device which shines light through your finger, and wondered how they work. It’s something [Giulio Pons] has done, and to show us how it’s done he’s created a working pulse oximeter of his own.

He started with an infra-red heartbeat sensor module, which is revealed as nothing more than an IR LED and a photodiode. Sampling the output from the photodiode allows measurement of heartbeat, but gives not clue as to oxygen saturation. The interesting part comes via the property of red light in that it’s transmission through flesh varies with oxygen saturation, so adding a red LED and alternately measuring from the IR and red illuminations allows a saturation figure to be derived.

Commercial pulse oximeters are pretty cheap, so many of us will no doubt simply order one from the usual sources and call it good. But it’s always interesting to know how any device works, and this project reveals something simpler than we might have expected. If pulse oximeters interest you, compare it with this one we featured a few years ago.