Pi Zero Gives Amateur Astronomer Affordable Control Of Telescope

Like many other hobbies, astronomy can be pursued on many levels, with equipment costs ranging from the affordable to the – well, astronomical. Thankfully, there are lots of entry-level telescopes on the market, some that even come with mounts that automatically find and track heavenly bodies. Finding a feature is as easy as aligning to a few known stars and looking up the object in the database embedded in the remote.

Few of the affordable mounts are WiFi-accessible, though, which is a gap [Dane Gardner]’s Raspberry Pi interface for Celestron telescopes aims to fill. For the price of a $10 Pi Zero W and a little know-how, [Dane] was able to gain full control over his ‘scope. His instrument is a Celestron NexStar, a Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector with a 150-mm aperture, has a motorized altitude-azimuth mount. The handheld remote had enough room for him to add the Zero, powering it from the mount’s battery pack. The handset has an RS-232 serial port built-in, but with the level differences [Dane] just connected the Pi directly to the handset before the UART. Running INDI, a cross-platform astronomical instrument control library, he now has total control of the scope, and he can use open source astronomy software rather than the limited database within the handset. As a neat side trick, the telescope can now be controlled with a Bluetooth gamepad.

Astronomy and electronics go hand in hand, whether in the optical or radio part of the spectrum. We like the way [Dane] was able to gain control of his telescope, and we’d like to hear about what he sees with his new tool. Assuming the Seattle weather ever cooperates.

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“DB” = Abbreviated Microcontroller Debugging

We’ve all been there. When debugging a microcontroller project, we just want to put in a print statement to figure out what’s going on with the microcontroller in real time. However, advanced embedded programmers know that printf statements are verboten: they’re just too SLOW. While not fixing this plight entirely, [Atakan Sarioglu] has come up with a clever way to create readable debug messages with minimal runtime overhead.

[Atakan Sarioglu]’s innovation, called BigBug (Github), is a dynamically-generated codebook. The codebook translates abbreviated messages sent over serial (UART here) to longer-form human-readable messages. To generate the codebook, BigBug automatically parses your comments to create a lookup between an abbreviation and the long-form message. When you are running your program on the microcontroller, BigBug will translate the short codes to long messages in real-time as you send log/debug data over serial. Continue reading ““DB” = Abbreviated Microcontroller Debugging”

New Part Day: The Fifty Cent USB Chip

If you want to plug a USB cable into your next project, you’ve got a problem. USB is not UART, and UART is what every microcontroller serial port wants. To add USB to your microcontroller project, you’ll need to add a support chip, probably from FTDI, although there are a multitude of almost-FTDI clones available from the other parts of the Internet. These parts are slightly expensive, and they require some support circuitry. What you really need is a simple device that requires minimal external components, takes in serial from your microcontroller and spits out USB, and costs no more than a dollar. Bonus points if it’s hand-solderable.

The CH330 is apparently the answer to this problem (That’s a TaoBao link, this is probably going to be the best link going forward). It’s a dead simple chip with eight pins. Two are the data lines on a USB cable, and two are TX and RX for your microcontroller. The other pins are just power, ground, and an RTS line. Best of all, it only costs about fifty cents. You’ve never heard about it, because a few hours after this post is published, it will be the most information you’re going to get on this chip in the English-speaking world.

As far as we can tell, the CH330 is the smallest in a line of USB to UART converters from WCH, although the part isn’t even on the company’s website. The first reference to the phrase ‘CH330’ in reference to a USB chip appeared about a month ago, at the beginning of September. There’s a GitHub for someone who is apparently using this chip in a Pine64 board, but that’s about it. There’s no more information.

Right now, the only documentation for this chip is a single Chinese-language datasheet with an example schematic showing this chip connected to a MAX232 as a USB to RS232 converter. This is it. You’re looking at all the information that exists on this chip in the English-speaking version of the Internet.

The idea of a cheap, small chip that easily turns USB into UART would be great for thousands of projects. An FTDI chip will work, yes, but if you’re making thousands of a thing you might want to go with the fifty cent part over the two dollar part. That said, we’re in untested waters with this part, and you can’t even find it on AliExpress.

Let us know if you’ve gotten your hands on one of these devices. This has the potential to be really useful in a lot of projects and products, and we’re eager to see what the community comes up with. Thanks to [acabx] for sending this one in on the tip line.

Reverse Engineering A Bitcoin Miner

If you’re brave enough to have dipped your toes into the Wild West that is cryptocurrency, you probably know that people have long since abandoned trying to mine on their desktop computers. Farms of GPUs are all the rage now, but dedicated mining hardware has also enjoyed a following among those who are serious about their fictitious money. The state-of-the-art for such devices is moving just as rapidly as cryptocurrency itself is, which means older mining gear can now be picked up fairly cheap on the second-hand market. This is an excellent opportunity for those who want to experiment with this type of hardware and potentially utilize it for some other purpose, but first you’ve got to figure out how the thing works.

To that end, [Tomasz Wątorowski] wrote in to the tip line to tell us about the progress he’s made reverse engineering the control protocol for the Antminer S1. As is often the case, the documentation didn’t have all the details he needed, but it did have a schematic of the BM1380 chip at the heart of the device.

Performance of the Antminer S1 controlled via UART

The Antminer S1 contains 64 BM1380 chips on an internal UART bus. With the information from the schematic, [Tomasz] was able to tap into this UART bus with a USB adapter and start listening in on the conversation. He compiled a collection of commands and learned enough to be dangerous (which is always the goal here at Hackaday).

For example, he found that the could set the frequency of the BM1380 as high as he wished without any consideration for thermal overload. This could potentially allow somebody to run  the hardware to the point of destruction, à la Stuxnet.

Once he figured out how to give the hardware hashes to work on over the UART interface, he setup a little head-to-head competition between the software he wrote to command the Antminer S1 and the official control software. No drop in performance was found between his software and the real deal, which sounds like a win in our book.

Even if he can’t improve on the performance of this particular piece of outdated mining hardware, it still beats doing it by hand on a piece of paper.

Hacking a Sonoff WiFi Switch

The ESP8266 platform has become so popular that it isn’t just being used in hobby and one-off projects anymore. Companies like Sonoff are basing entire home automation product lines around the inexpensive WiFi card. What this means for most of us is that there’s now an easily hackable and readily available product on the market that’s easily reprogrammed and used with tools that we’ve known about for years now, as [Dan] shows in his latest project.

[Dan] has an aquaponics setup in his home, and needs some automation to run the lights. Reaching for a Sonoff was an easy way to get this done, but the out-of-the-box device can only be programmed in the simplest of ways. To get more control over the unit, he wired a USB-to-Serial UART to the female headers on the board and got to programming it.

The upgraded devices are fully programmable and customizable now, and this would be a great hack for anyone looking to get more out of a Sonoff switch. A lot of the work is already done, like building a safe enclosure, wiring it, and getting it to look halfway decent. All that needs to be done is a little bit of programming. Of course, if you’d like to roll out your own home automation setup from scratch that can do everything from opening the garage door to alerting you when your dog barks, that’s doable too. You’ll just need a little more hardware.

Backchannel UART without the UART

Anyone who has worked with a microcontroller is familiar with using printf as a makeshift debugger. This method is called tracing and it comes with the limitation that it uses up a UART peripheral. Believe it or not, there are 8051 variants out there that come with only one serial block and you are out of luck if your application needs it to communicate with another device.

[Jay Carlson] has a method by which he can piggyback these trace messages over an on-chip debugger. Though the newer ARM Cortex-M software debugger already has this facility but [Jay Carlson]’s hack is designed to work with the SiLabs EFM8 controllers. The idea is to write these debug messages to a predefined location in the RAM which the debugger can access anyway. His application polls a certain area of the memory and when it finds valid information, it reads the data and spits it out into a dedicated window. It’s using the debugger as a makeshift printf!

[Jay Carlson] used slab8051.dll interface and put together a C# program and GUI that works alongside the SiLab’s IDE. The code is available on GitHub for you to check out if you are working the EFM8 and need a helping hand. The idea is quite simple and can be ported to other controllers in a multitude of ways like the MSP430 perhaps. For those of you who like the Teensy, you might want to take a look at adding debugger support to the Teensy 3.5/3.6.

Serially, Are You Syncing or Asyncing?

I know you’ve heard of both synchronous and asynchronous communications. But do you really know the differences between the two?

Serial communication was used long before computers existed. A predecessor is the telegraph system using Morse Code, one of the first digital modes of communication. Another predecessor is the teletype, which set standards that are still used today in your Arduino or Raspberry Pi.

All you need is two wires for serial communications, which makes it simple and relatively robust. One wire is ground and the other the signal. By interrupting the power with predefined patterns, information can be transferred over both short and long distances. The challenge is receiving the patterns correctly and quickly enough to be useful.

I was a bit surprised to find out the serial port on the Arduino Uno’s ATmega328P microcontroller is a Universal Synchronous Asynchronous Transmitter Receiver (USART). I’d assumed it was only a UART (same name, just leave out synchronous) probably because my first work with serial communications was with the venerable Intel 8251 “Programmable Communication Interface”, a UART, and I didn’t expect the microcontroller to be more advanced. Silly me. Later I worked with the Zilog 8530 Serial Controller Chip, a USART, the term I’ll use for both device types.

All these devices function in the same way. You send a byte by loading it into a register and it is shifted out one bit at a time on the transmit (TX) line as pulses. The receiver accepts the pulses on a receive (RX) input and shifts them into a register, which is then read by the system. The transmitter’s job is pretty easy it just shifts out the bits at a known clock rate. The receiver’s task is more complex because it needs to know when to sample the incoming signal. How it does this is the difference between asynchronous and synchronous communications.

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