Building A Swiss Army Lab With Software Defined Instrumentation

It’s a fair bet that anyone regularly reading Hackaday has a voltmeter within arm’s reach, and there’s a good chance an oscilloscope isn’t far behind. But beyond that, things get a little murky. We’re sure some of you have access to a proper lab full of high-end test gear, even if only during business hours, but most of us have to make do with the essentials due to cost and space constraints.

The ideal solution is a magical little box that could be whatever piece of instrumentation you needed at the time: some days it’s an oscilloscope, while others it’s a spectrum analyzer, or perhaps even a generic data logger. To simplify things the device wouldn’t have a physical display or controls of its own, instead, you could plug it into your computer and control it through software. This would not only make the unit smaller and cheaper, but allow for custom user interfaces to be created that precisely match what the user is trying to accomplish.

Wishful thinking? Not quite. As guest host Ben Nizette explained during the Software Defined Instrumentation Hack Chat, the dream of replacing a rack of test equipment with a cheap pocket-sized unit is much closer to reality than you may realize. While software defined instruments might not be suitable for all applications, the argument could be made that any capability the average student or hobbyist is likely to need or desire could be met by hardware that’s already on the market.

Ben is the Product Manager at Liquid Instruments, the company that produces the Moku line of multi-instruments. Specifically, he’s responsible for the Moku:Go, an entry-level device that’s specifically geared for the education and maker markets. The slim device doesn’t cost much more than a basic digital oscilloscope, but thanks to the magic of software defined instrumentation (SDi), it can stand in for eleven instruments — all more than performant enough for their target users.

So what’s the catch? As you might expect, that’s the first thing folks in the Chat wanted to know. According to Ben, the biggest drawback is that all of your instrumentation has to share the same analog front-end. To remain affordable, that means everything the unit can do is bound by the same fundamental “Speed Limit” — which on the Moku:Go is 30 MHz. Even on the company’s higher-end professional models, the maximum bandwidth is measured in hundreds of megahertz.

Additionally, SDI has traditionally been limited to the speed of the computer it was attached to. But the Moku hardware manages to sidestep this particular gotcha by running the software side of things on an internal FPGA. The downside is that some of the device’s functions, such as the data logger, can’t actually live stream the data to the connected computer. Users will have to wait until the measurements are complete before they  pull the results off, though Ben says there’s enough internal memory to store months worth of high-resolution data.

Of course, as soon as this community hears there’s an FPGA on board, they want to know if they can get their hands on it. To that end, Ben says the Moku:Go will be supported by their “Cloud Compile” service in June. Already available for the Moku:Pro, the browser-based application allows you to upload your HDL to the Liquid Instruments servers so it can be built and optimized. This gives power users complete access to the Moku hardware so they can build and deploy their own custom features and tools that precisely match their needs without a separate development kit. Understanding that obsolescence is always a problem with a cloud solution, Ben says they’re also working with Xilinx to allow users to do builds on their own computers while still implementing the proprietary “secret sauce” that makes it a Moku.

It’s hard not to get excited about the promise of software defined instrumentation, especially with companies like Liquid Instruments and Red Pitaya bringing the cost of the hardware down to the point where students and hackers can afford it. We’d like to thank Ben Nizette for taking the time to talk with the community about what he’s been working on, especially given the considerable time difference between the Hackaday Command Center and Liquid’s Australian headquarters. Anyone who’s willing to jump online and chat about FPGAs and phasemeters before the sun comes up is AOK in our book.

The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to make sure you don’t miss out.

Open Source LXI Tools Free Us From Vendor Bloat

LXI, or LAN eXtensions for Instrumentation is a modern control standard for connecting electronics instrumentation which supports ethernet. It replaces the older GPIB standard, giving much better performance and lower cost of implementation. This is a good thing.  [Martin Lund] has created the open source lxi-tools project which enables us to detach ourselves from the often bloated vendor tools usually required for talking LXI to your bench equipment. This is a partial rewrite of an earlier version of the tool, and now sports some rather nice features such as mDNS for instrument discovery, support for screen grabbing, and a LUA-based scripting backend. (API Link)

SCPI or Standard Commands for Programmable Instruments is the text-based language spoken by many instruments, allowing control and querying of an instrument. Just to be clear, SCPI is not at all a new thing, and older instruments that have GPIB or RS232 connectors, still could talk SCPI. lxi-tools is not for those. Some instruments can also be very picky about the formatting of commands, especially if they’re buggy, so the ability to interactively debug commands is very desirable. It is quite possible to make poor use of SCPI commands in your test script and end up with tests that just take far longer to execute that they need to. lxi-tools has a benchmarking tool too, which helps you to dig in and find out where all the time is going and make suitable adjustments.

We’ve not seen much about LXI on Hackaday, but we did cover using PyVISA for dealing with SCPI-over-GPIB in python.  If you have an older instrument  with GPIB and you don’t want to sell a internal organ to pay for a USB adaptor, here’s one you can make yourself.

Fluke DMM Hack Adds One Digit To Model Number

Among his many interests, [Dave Jones] likes test and measurement equipment. He recently posted a few videos on his EEVblog exploring the reasons why Fluke voltmeters are so expensive. In the process, he stumbled upon an interesting hack for the Fluke 77.

The Fluke 77 was introduced in 1983, and is an average responding meter in the AC modes. This model has become a de-facto standard for use in maintenance depots and labs for equipment which has very long lifespans — think military and industrial gear, for example. Many test procedures and training materials have been designed around the use of the the Fluke 77. The cost to change them when a new and better meter comes along is usually so prohibitive they might as well be cast in stone — or at least hammered into 20 pound fanfold paper by a WordStar-driven daisy-wheel printer. But for those unburdened by such legacy requirements, Fluke has the 17x series of True RMS reading meters from since the beginning of this century. These meters bear a strong visual resemblance to their siblings in the 7x family and are substantially interchangeable but for their AC measurement methods. Continue reading “Fluke DMM Hack Adds One Digit To Model Number”

Save Money And Have Fun Using IEEE-488

A few months ago, I was discussing the control of GPIB equipment with a colleague. Based on only on my gut feeling and the briefest of research, I told him that the pricey and proprietary GPIB controller solutions could easily be replaced by open-source tools and Linux. In the many weeks that followed, I almost abandoned my stance several times out of frustration. With some perseverance, breaking the problems into bite-sized chunks, and lots of online searching to learn from other people’s experiences, my plan eventually succeeded. I haven’t abandoned my original stance entirely, I’ve taken a few steps back and added some qualifiers.

What is GPIB?

Example of HP-IB block diagram from the 1970s, from

Back in the 1960s, if test equipment was interconnected at all, there weren’t any agreed-upon methods for doing so. By the late 60s, the situation was made somewhat better by card-cage controller systems. These held a number of interface cards, one per instrument, presenting a common interface on the backplane. Although this approach was workable, the HP engineers realized they could significantly improve the concept to include these “bridging circuit boards” within the instruments and replacing the card cage backplane with passive cables. Thus began the development of what became the Hewlett-Packard Interface Bus (HP-IB). The October 1972 issue of the HP Journal introduced HP-IB with two main articles: A Practical Interface System for Electronic Instruments and A Common Digital Interface for Programmable Instruments: The Evolution of a System. Continue reading “Save Money And Have Fun Using IEEE-488”

Multimeters Go Big Screen

We’ve noticed lately that some cheap meters have gone to having big colorful screens. The screens aren’t dot matrix, but still have lots of graphics that could be useful or could be distracting eye candy, depending. The really cheap ones seem more like a gimmick, but [OM0ET] took a look at one that looked like a fair midrange instrument with some useful display features, the GVDA GD128.

A lot of the display shows the current function of the meter. No need for an expensive multiposition switch or rows of interlocking pushbuttons. Many of these new meters also have non-contact voltage sensors, which is handy. Otherwise, it looks like a pretty conventional cheap meter. Continue reading “Multimeters Go Big Screen”

Chip Tester Knows If Your Old Chips Are Working

[Noel’s Retro Lab] has looked at retro chip testers before, but in a recent video you can see below he’s looking at the Chip Tester Pro, a preassembled chip tester for vintage chips, especially those used in Commodore computers. The device looks good on the surface with a form factor like a calculator or cell phone, an LCD display, and a 48 pin ZIF socket.

The user interface is pretty simple. A rotary encoder and a big red button are about it. However, there are also some headers where you have to use jumpers to wire signals to the chip. The firmware gives you specific directions, but it is reminiscent of programming old punchcard machines with jumper wires. Luckily, it looks like you only route the power to the device so you don’t have many wires to connect (usually two or three).

Continue reading “Chip Tester Knows If Your Old Chips Are Working”

Mystery HP Gear Teardown

What’s round, has what looks like a vacuum tube in the center, and was made in the 1950s by HP? We don’t know either, but [The Signal Path] restored one and shows us this mystery instrument in a recent video that you can see below. We aren’t going to spoil the surprise over what the device is, but we will share that he does reveal what it is very early in the video, so there’s not much of a tease.

We will, however, give you a few hints. Looking at it, you can guess that it is meant for high voltage use and, in fact, it is rated for up to 25 kV. We’ll also drop the hint that it is made for use with AC, not DC. The shape of the plug at the end of the wire is also a clue, we think.

There isn’t much inside the unusual round case (another clue, by the way), but there are some vintage parts we haven’t seen in quite awhile. One last clue: Why is there a metal rod and ball sticking out of one side of the device?

Honestly, the insides are a bit underwhelming so unlike some teardown videos we’ve seen, the real star of this video is the unusual device more so than its inner workings. If you have a hankering for a more sophisticated HP exploration, check out the HP3458A repair we covered earlier. Or go old school and peek inside an HP 150A.

Continue reading “Mystery HP Gear Teardown”