DIY Capacitive Rotational Encoder on the Cheap with FR4

Rotary encoders are critical to many applications, even at the hobbyist level. While considering his own rotary encoding needs for upcoming projects, it occurred to [Jan Mrázek] to try making his own DIY capacitive rotary encoder. If successful, such an encoder could be cheap and very fast; it could also in part be made directly on a PCB.

First prototype, two etched plates with transparent tape as dielectric material. Disc is 15 mm in diameter.

The encoder design [Jan] settled on was to make a simple adjustable plate capacitor using PCB elements with transparent tape as the dielectric material. This was used as the timing element for a 555 timer in astable mode. A 555 in this configuration therefore generates a square wave that changes in proportion to how much the plates in the simple capacitor overlap. Turn the plate, and the square wave’s period changes in response. Response time would be fast, and a 555 and some PCB space is certainly cheap materials-wise.

The first prototype gave positive results but had a lot of problems, including noise and possibly a sensitivity to temperature and humidity. The second attempt refined the design and had much better results, with an ESP32 reliably reading 140 discrete positions at a rate of 100 kHz. It seems that there is a tradeoff between resolution and speed; lowering the rate allows more positions to be reliably detected. There are still issues, but ultimately [Jan] feels that high-speed capacitive encoders requiring little more than some PCB real estate and some 555s are probably feasible.

This project is a reminder that FR4 (whether copper-clad, etched, or blank) shows up in clever applications: copper tape and blank FR4 can be used to quickly prototype RF filters, PocketNC built an entire small CNC tool around FR4, and our own [Voja] wrote a full guide on making beautiful enclosures from FR4.

Reading 16 Rotary Encoders at the Same Time

We’re digging these daisy-chainable encoders built by [fattore.saimon]. Each module consists of a rotary encoder attached to a PCB with a PIC16F15386 on the back. As we’ve covered in the past, the Microchip released their feature-rich PIC16 microprocessor just this year, and it’s great to see them start to crop up in projects. With 4 address jumpers on the back of each PCB, [fattore.saimon] is able to connect up to 16 of the encoders on the bus. The modules also have male and female plugs so he can connect them physically as well, to simplify wiring. Each module also has a PWMable bicolor LED for keeping track of each encoder’s setting.

If you’re interested in making your own you can buy the PCBs from Tindie or download the project files from the creator’s GitHub, including an Arduino library.

We love encoders here on Hackaday — building DIY encoders, as well as using them in projects like this precision cutting jig. And definitely read our colleague [Al]’s great piece on encoders.

Fifty Shades of Gray Code

Some years back, a museum asked me to help them with an exhibit a contractor had built for them. It was a wheel like the one on Wheel of Fortune, but smaller and mounted on the wall instead of the floor. You would spin the wheel, it would stop on some item, and a computer would play a short video about the item. Physically and mechanically, it was a beautifully built exhibit. The electronics, though, left something to be desired.

In principle, this is pretty simple computer task. Measure the position of the wheel, and when it stops moving, play a video based on the position. The problem was the folks who created the artistic mechanics didn’t think hard about the electronics behind it. Sometimes–but not often–the wheel would play the wrong video. Sometimes it wouldn’t play at all.

The Prime Suspect

My immediate suspicion turned out to be correct. I took the wheel off its mount to discover copper foil tape on the back of it. Each pie wedge had foil in different areas and there were two brushes in each area. When the wheel stopped, two of the brushes would be shorted together and the rest were open. The way they detected that was bizarre, but that wasn’t the problem. (It involved a cannibalized PS/2 keyboard.)
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Encoders Spin Us Right Round

Rotary encoders are great devices. Monitoring just a few pins you can easily and quickly read in rotation and direction of a user input (as well as many other applications). But as with anything, there are caveats. I recently had the chance to dive into some of the benefits and drawbacks of rotary encoders and how to work with them.

I often work with students on different levels of electronic projects. One student project needed a rotary encoder. These come in mechanical and optical variants. In a way, they are very simple devices. In another way, they have some complex nuances. The target board was an ST Nucleo. This particular board has a small ARM processor and can use mbed environment for development and programming. The board itself can take Arduino daughter boards and have additional pins for ST morpho boards (whatever those are).

The mbed system is the ARM’s answer to Arduino. A web-based IDE lets you write C++ code with tons of support libraries. The board looks like a USB drive, so you download the program to this ersatz drive, and the board is programmed. I posted an intro to mbed awhile back with a similar board, so if you want a refresher on that, you might like to read that first.

Reading the Encoder

The encoder we had was on a little PCB that you get when you buy one of those Chinese Arduino 37 sensor kits. (By the way, if you are looking for documentation on those kinds of boards, look here.; in particular, this was a KY-040 module.) The board has power and ground pins, along with three pins. One of the pins is a switch closure to ground when you depress the shaft of the encoder. The other two encode the direction and speed of the shaft rotation. There are three pull-up resistors, one for each output.

I expected to explain how the device worked, and then assist in writing some code with a good example of having to debounce, use pin change interrupts, and obviously throw in some other arcane lore. Turns out that was wholly unnecessary. Well… sort of.

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Pulling Music Out Of The Airwaves

RADIO WONDERLAND is a one-man band with many famous unintentional collaborators. [Joshua Fried]’s shows start off with him walking in carrying a boombox playing FM radio. He plugs it into his sound rig, tunes around a while, and collects some samples. Magic happens, he turns an ancient Buick steering wheel, and music emerges from the resampled radio cacophony.

It’s experimental music, which is secret art-scene-insider code for “you might not like it”, but we love the hacking. In addition to the above-mentioned steering wheel, he also plays a rack of shoes with drumsticks. If we had to guess, we’d say rotary encoders and piezos. All of this is just input for his computer programs which take care of the sampling, chopping, and slicing of live radio into dance music. It’s good enough that he’s opened for [They Might Be Giants].

Check out the videos (embedded below) for a taste of what a live show was like. There are definitely parts where the show is a little slow, but they make it seem cooler when a beat comes together out of found Huey Lewis. We especially like the “re-esser” routine that hones in on the hissier parts of speech to turn them into cymbals. And if you scan the crowd in the beginning, you can find a ten-years-younger [Limor Fried] and [Phil Torrone].

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Wheel of Resistors Form Unique Rotary Encoder

Continuing his tradition of making bits of wire and scraps of wood work wonders, [HomoFaciens] is back with a unique and clever design for an electromechanical encoder.

There are lots of ways to build an encoder, and this is one we haven’t seen before. Not intended in any way to be a practical engineered solution, [HomoFaciens]’ build log and the video below document his approach. Using a rotating disc divided into segments by three, six or eight resistors, the encoder works by adding each resistor into a voltage divider as the disc is turned. An Arduino reads the output of the voltage divider and determines the direction of rotation by comparing the sequence of voltages. More resistors mean higher resolution but decreased maximum shaft speed due to the software debouncing of the wiped contacts. [HomoFaciens] has covered ground like this before with his tutorial on optical encoders, but this is a new twist – sort of a low-resolution continuous-rotation potentiometer. It’s a simple concept, a good review of voltage dividers, and a unique way to sense shaft rotation.

Is this all really basic stuff? Yep. Is it practical in any way? Probably not, although we’ll lay odds that these encoders find their way into a future [HomoFaciens] CNC build. Is it a well-executed, neat idea? Oh yeah.

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ChaiBot: A Tea Robot Steeped in Utility

On the surface, a cup of tea is a simple thing to make. Heat up some water, insert tea leaves, and wait for it to steep. The wait time is a matter of taste, and it is absolutely crucial to remove the bag or infuser before it’s too late. Otherwise, you end up with a liquid that’s almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

[Adrian] and his son would often find themselves lost in conversation during the steeping process and let it go too long. But that was before they built ChaiBot, an automatic tea minder. This fine-looking machine uses an old CD drive to raise and lower the tea bags, which are held by a thin piece of stainless steel mesh. Once the bags are lowered, [Adrian] pours hot water into the cups. The weight of the water is detected by a capacitive sensor under the cup cutouts, and this triggers the timer to start counting down to the perfect cuppa.

One of the coolest features of ChaiBot is the built-in circulation. Every minute, the bags are lifted out briefly and reinserted, disturbing the water so the steeping is more uniform. Since the final step to making great tea is drinking it before it goes cold, ChaiBot sends a push notification to [Adrian]’s phone. Be sure to check out the demo after the break.

Here’s another CD drive-based tea bot we covered a while back. It’s not quite as pretty, but it gets the job done. If you’re not one to wander off while your tea steeps but prefer not to watch a clock, here’s a compact timer that’ll fit in your pocket.

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