Fully-functional Oscilloscope on a PIC

When troubleshooting circuits it’s handy to have an oscilloscope around, but often we aren’t in a lab setting with all of our fancy, expensive tools at our disposal. Luckily the price of some basic oscilloscopes has dropped considerably in the past several years, but if you want to roll out your own solution to the “portable oscilloscope” problem the electrical engineering students at Cornell produced an oscilloscope that only needs a few knobs, a PIC, and a small TV.

[Junpeng] and [Kevin] are taking their design class, and built this prototype to be inexpensive and portable while still maintaining a high sample rate and preserving all of the core functions of a traditional oscilloscope. The scope can function anywhere under 100 kHz, and outputs NTSC at 30 frames per second. The user can control the ground level, the voltage and time scales, and a trigger. The oscilloscope has one channel, but this could be expanded easily enough if it isn’t sufficient for a real field application.

All in all, this is a great demonstration of what you can accomplish with a microcontroller and (almost) an engineering degree. To that end, the students go into an incredible amount of detail about how the oscilloscope works since this is a design class. About twice a year we see a lot of these projects popping up, and it’s always interesting to see the new challenges facing students in these classes.

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Sensing Soil Moisture: You’re Doing it Wrong!

If you compulsively search online for inexpensive microcontroller add-ons, you will see soil moisture measurement kits. [aka] built a greenhouse with a host of hacked hardware including lights and automatic watering. What caught our attention among all these was Step 5 in their instructions where [aka] explains why the cheap soil sensing probes aren’t worth their weight in potting soil. Even worse, they may leave vacationers with a mistaken sense of security over their unattended plants.

The sensing stakes, which come with a small amplifier, work splendidly out of the box, but if you recall, passing current through electrodes via moisture is the recipe for electrolysis and that has a pretty profound effect on metal. [Aka] shows us the effects of electrolysis on these probes and mentions that damaged probes will cease to give useful information which could lead to overworked pumps and flooded helpless plants.

There is an easy solution. Graphite probes are inexpensive to make yourself. Simply harvest them from pencils or buy woodless pencils from the art store. Add some wires and hold them with shrink tube, and you have probes which won’t fail you or your plants.

Here’s some garden automation if this only whet your whistle, and here’s a robotic friend who takes care of the weeds for you.

PCB Tesla Coil Is Perfect Desk Toy

A Tesla coil easily makes it to the top spot on our list of “Mad Scientist” equipment we want for the lab, second only to maybe a Jacob’s Ladder. Even then, it’s kind of unfair advantage because you know people only want a Jacob’s Ladder for that awesome sound it makes. Sound effects not withstanding, it’s Tesla coil all the way, no question.

Unfortunately, winding your own Tesla coil is kind of a hassle. Even on relatively small builds, you’ll generally need to setup some kind of winding jig just to do the secondary coil, which can be a project in itself. So when [Daniel Eindhoven] sent his no-wind Tesla coil into the tip line, it immediately got our attention.

The genius in his design is that the coils are actually etched into the PCB, completely taking the human effort out of the equation. Made up of 6 mil traces with 6 mil separation, the PCB coil manages to pack a 25 meter long, 160 turn coil into an incredibly compact package. As you might expect, such a tiny Tesla coil isn’t exactly going to be a powerhouse, and in fact [Daniel] has managed to get the entirely thing running on the 500 mA output of your standard USB 2.0 port.

In such a low-power setup, [Daniel] was also able to replace the traditional spark gap pulse generator with a PIC18F14K50 microcontroller, further simplifying the design. An advantage of using a microcontroller for the pulse generator is that it’s very easy to adjust the coil’s operating frequency, allowing for neat tricks like making the coil “sing” by bringing its frequency into the audible range.

For those looking to build their own version, [Daniel] has put the PCB schematic and firmware available for download on his site. He also mentions that, in collaboration with Elektor magazine, he will be producing a kit in the near future. Definitely something we’ll be keeping an eye out for.

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time [Daniel] has demonstrated his mastery of high voltage. He scared impressed us all the way back in 2010 with his 11,344 Joule capacitor bank, perfect for that laptop-destroying rail gun you’ve been meaning to build.

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Microchip ICD4 REview

[Mike] is an avid PIC developer and replaced his ICD3 debugger for an ICD4. He made a video with his impressions and you can see it below. [Mike] found the heavy aluminum case with a sexy LED attractive, but wondered why he was paying for that in a development tool. He was also unhappy that they replaced the ICD3 cable connections with new connectors. Finally, he wished for the pin out to be printed on the case.

On the other hand, the ICD4 will also do JTAG and handle the Atmel parts (which Microchip acquired). [Mike] opens the box and shows the inside of the device before actually using it for the intended task.

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Garage Distance Sensor Kicks Tennis Ball To Curb

Those with small garages might be familiar with the method of hanging a tennis ball from a ceiling to make sure they don’t hit the back wall with their car. If the car isn’t in the garage, though, the tennis ball dangling from a string tends to get in the way. To alleviate this problem, [asaucet] created a distance sensor that can tell him when his car is the perfect distance from the garage wall.

At the heart of the distance sensor is an HC-SR04 ultrasonic rangefinder and a PIC16F88 microcontroller. [asaucet] uses a set of four LEDs to alert the driver how close they are to the garage wall. [asaucet] also goes into great detail about how to use an LCD with this microcontroller for setting up the project, and the amount of detail should be enough to get anyone started on a similar project.

While this isn’t a new idea, the details that [asaucet] goes into in setting up the microcontroller, using the distance sensor, and using an LCD are definitely worth looking into. Even without this exact application in mind, you’re sure to find some helpful information on the project page.

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Digitool Helps Debugging

Logic analyzers used to be large boxes full of high-speed logic and a display monitor. Today, they are more likely to be a small box with a USB port that feeds data to a PC application. [Juan Antonio Rubia Mena] wanted something more self-contained, so he built Digitool. Built around a PIC18F2525, the device can measure frequency up to 10 MHz and inject square waves up to 1 MHz into the circuit under test. Oh yeah. It also has a simple four-channel logic analyzer that displays on a tiny LCD.

The 500,000 sample per second rate and the 1024 sample buffer isn’t going to put any logic analyzer vendors out of business, but it is still enough to help you figure out why that SPI or I2C logic is messed up. It looks like a fun project that could have some usefulness.

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Friday Hack Chat: 8-Bit Micros With Microchip

A few years ago, Microchip acquired Atmel for $3.56 Billion. There are plenty of manufacturers of 8-bit microcontrollers, but everyone makes 8051s, and the MSP430 isn’t as popular as it should be. Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel created what is probably the largest manufacturer of 8-bit micros, with a portfolio ranging from ATtinys smaller than a grain of rice to gigantic PICs.

This Friday, we’re hosting a Hack Chat with the Technical Marketing Engineer of 8-bitters at Microchip. If you love AVR, this is the guy to talk to. If you’re still rocking the vintage 1993 PICkit, this is the guy to talk to.

On the docket for this Hack Chat are some new PICs and some very interesting peripherals coming down the line. ADCC — A2D with computation — is on the table, along with configurable logic cells. This Hack Chat is also going to go over Microchip design tools like MP Lab Xpress.

Of course, these Hack Chats are a question and answer session for the community. We’re encouraging everyone to ask a few questions about what Microchip is doing. We’ve opened up a discussion guide for this Hack Chat. If you have a question, just add it to the list.

If you can’t make the Hack Chat, don’t worry. We’re going to have a transcript of the entire chat. That should be available here shortly after the chat concludes.

Here’s How To Take Part:

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This hack chat will take place at noon Pacific time on Friday, June 9th. Here’s a fancy time and date converter if you need timezone help.

Log into Hackaday.io, visit that page, and look for the ‘Join this Project’ Button. Once you’re part of the project, the button will change to ‘Team Messaging’, which takes you directly to the Hack Chat.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about