Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Archive for September 2009

Analog Plug

In AVR, Hardware, Software on Sep 30, 2009 at 00:01

The second plug panel has arrived. I’ll document my test results in the coming days.

First, the Analog Plug – an 8-channel 12-bit ADC connected via I2C:


It’s based on the ADS7828 chip. Here’s a demo sketch to read it out:

Picture 3.png

I hooked it up using various gimmicks lying around here – this ties a trim pot to channel 4, with range 0 .. 3.3V on the wiper:


As you can see, the Breadboard Connector can be used to hook up to 8 of the 12 pins of this plug.

Here’s some sample output:

Picture 1.png

I slowly turned the wiper as you can see. It stops at 4095 counts, which represents the 2.5V of its internal reference. Appears to work fine in this test setup at the maximum I2C rate, somewhere over 1 MHz. The readings didn’t change by more than one count when touching various parts of the circuit, so as first impression it looks like it’s pretty stable.

This plug has two solder jumpers, to configure its I2C address to 0×48 .. 0x4B, which in hindsight is a bit overkill. Only minor nit is that I mis-labeled the A0 jumper – as shown in the picture, the address ends up being 0×49 i.s.o. 0×48. Oh well, a small silkscreen fix will resolve that later.

So there you have it – eight 3.5 digit voltmeters on one tiny blue-and-gold plug :)

Another display option

In Hardware on Sep 29, 2009 at 00:01

Here’s another display option, using a 16×32 LED panel by Futurlec:


The pattern was hand-coded, to help me figure out which pin is which. The board has 3 16-bit shift registers and corresponding LED drivers. This display can be much brighter than in this picture, I’m using PWM to dim it way down and reduce average current consumption (I think it was 40 mA i.s.o. over 250 mA).

The board is powered from 5V and requires 6 output pins – I’m just using the DIO + AIO pins from three different ports for this test.

Note the 470 µF cap hooked up to the power lines of port 4 to help avoid glitches – switching 32 LEDs on and off at 1 KHz can generate a lot of noise!

Sample code for this display can be found here.

It’d be fun to have this display in a nice enclosure and drive it from packets received over wireless from another JeeNode!

LCD display via I2C

In AVR, Software on Sep 28, 2009 at 00:01

Ok, it’s working – always takes longer than expected, especially if you mess up in both hardware and software!


There’s a miniature trim pot on the left to set the contrast level. I haven’t yet added the transistor to turn the backlight on and off.

Note that with an MCP23017 chip there are 9 I/O lines available for other purposes. On the upcoming LCD Plug, I’ll probably use the smaller MCP23008 instead.

This particular setup works at the maximum I2C bus speed supported by bit-banging, which should be well over 1 MHz – I haven’t measured it. If the bus is long or is shared with slower peripherals it can be lowered to 400 KHz or 100 KHz by specifying an extra argument in the PortI2C constructor.

The sample code is available here. It will be integrated with the Ports library later.

PS. There are a few days left for the special offer in the shop. If you’ve ordered before or have participated on this weblog or in the forum, you can get 20% off until the end of September. Email me for a discount code.

Mounting options

In Hardware on Sep 27, 2009 at 00:01

I’ve been getting some questions about mounting options for the JeeNode lately. And once some plugs are out, that same issue is going to come up for these too, no doubt.

There are no mounting holes in the JeeNode. The reason for this is that it would increase the size by quite a bit (one hole isn’t enough, even two is debatable), which in turn could actually reduce the options for using a JeeNode since it would be larger than the current design.

The basic solution for this for me, is to treat the JeeNode as a module that plugs onto something else – be it a generic board such as the Jeeboard idea I described a while back, or a custom board created for a specific application.

Here is an example of a JeeNode with an LCD display:

Picture 2.png

Note that the JeeNode is mounted upside down, with the components facing downwards.

But where do you go from there? One approach would be to place a transparent acrylic plastic panel over this entire thing, with some stand-off’s to create a sandwich consisting of base panel, JeeNode and other components, and the acrylic panel on top. That’s the geeky way to do it: make the electronics visible!

I’m not sure I’d always want that. I also like things which are “closed”, with only control/display functions visible, and the whole thing having a nice and calm front plate.

This would be an intermediate solution – a clean front panel hiding all the techy stuff underneath it:

Picture 3.png

Still open on the side, where the connectors, power jacks, and even simple controls switches could be located.

The reason why all this awkward compromising is needed of course, is that with only single units (or say a few dozen kits), there is simply no way to get custom enclosures made that are affordable and also really look sweet – a JeeNode is not an iPhone!

Here are a few other options I’ve been pondering about:

  • Cardboard – design a fold-up box and print it out as template for a DIY cardboard enclosure. Would be very low-cost, but not very sturdy. And it looks a bit cheap…
  • Wood – this is the classical enclosure: a lot of work, but you can make it look any way you like, if you’re willing to go through all that. Takes a lot of craftsmanship.
  • Sandwiched foam – of the kind used as poster board for photographs. Again, a DIY design which you’d have to cut out and assemble yourself. Probably not easy to get real clean edges, cutouts, and holes. Not truly sturdy.
  • Acrylic front – as described above: a base pcb with everything mounted on it and the acrylic as cover on top. The you-can-see-what’s-inside option. Not easy to do yourself without a laser cutter or CNC router.
  • Aluminum front – this is a variation of the acrylic front. End result is no longer transparent, but creating a clean panel with labels is not trivial.
  • Prefab box – this is what many hobbyists do: get a plastic box, and drill holes and cut-outs in it, possibly also with an aluminum faceplate. Again, hard to get a nice clean result without a CNC router. But to be honest, I don’t think these (mostly black) boxes look that spiffy…

I really would love to find a nice generic solution for this. Right now, since pcbs are already being made completely to specification, and because they end up looking quite nice, I’m inclined to look for solutions with either the front, the back, or perhaps even both made of pcb material. With SMT components, most if not all through-holes can be avoided, leaving the back side available for all sorts of visible cutouts and labeling.

So what’s the solution? Just let everyone figure this out for themselves? Start saving for a laser cutter or a CNC router to be able to provide simple but accurately machined parts? To be honest, I wouldn’t mind doing the CNC thing – but until it becomes clear what a desirable result should look like, there’s little point picking any tool!

And then there’s plugs and daisy-chained plugs…

If you’ve got further suggestions or ideas on how to come up with kits that not only work well but also make the end result look really nice, please let me know!

Generalized LiquidCrystal library

In AVR, Software on Sep 26, 2009 at 00:01

Let’s dive into some C++ code for a change…

The Arduino version 0017 IDE has a nice library for driving standard character LCD’s, called… “LiquidCrystal”. The nice thing is that it mixes in the print() / println() functionality which is also used in the Serial library.

That makes it very easy to change a sketch to use either the serial port or the LCD screen to display results. Here’s how – let’s say you used this code in your sketch to print a value to the serial port:

Picture 2.png

The first thing to do is to generalize this slightly:

Picture 3.png

Functionally, nothing has changed. That’s the whole point, because you can develop and extend the sketch while testing everything via the serial port, as usual. Just use “Output” everywhere.

To change the output to the LCD, replace that “#define” line by the following lines of code:

Picture 4.png

This adds a bit of logic to easily switch between serial and LCD, without having to change a thing in the rest of the sketch. The “(2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)” parameters have to be set to the pin numbers actually used for your specific setup, of course.

So far, so good, although none of this applies to the I2C-connected LCD I’m working on. But by extending and re-organizing it a bit, it is possible to re-use most of the code of the original LiquidCrystal library.

The first thing I had to do was to rip apart the general and the pin-specific logic. That’s where C++’s abstract base classes and virtual member functions come in. I created a new “LiquidCrystalBase” class which has all the original code except for the pin-specific parts:


The “virtual … =0″ is C++’s funny way of saying it doesn’t need definitions for these three functions yet. The result is an incomplete class – you can’t create objects of type LiquidCrystalBase, you can only derive other subclasses from it. Tricky stuff, but bear with me…

Note that all the pin-specific member variables have been removed as well.

The next step is to re-define the original LiquidCrystal class in terms of LiquidCrystalBase:

Picture 5.png

If you compare this to the original code, you’ll see that most functions member definitions are missing. That’s because they have already been defined in what is now LiquidCrystalBase, and the new LiquidCrystal inherits everything from it.

What LiquidCrystal does add, is a definition and implementation for each of the virtual config(), send(), and write4bits() members. It is sort of “filling in” the missing functionality. So the result is… a LiquidCrystal class which does exactly the same as the original.

That seems pretty useless, but it isn’t – what we now have is a generic part and a specialized part. Which means it is now very easy to implement a variant which works exactly like the original, but going through the I2C port interface instead:

Picture 6.png

Nice. Only a little bit of new code was needed to create a completely different hardware interface which is fully compatible with the original LiquidCrystal class.

Here’s the original example, using this new LCD-via-I2C library:

Picture 8.png

Note that the I2C port is available as “myI2C” and can be shared with other devices by defining them here as well. You could even daisy-chain multiple LCD displays on the same port if you wanted to.

That’s all there is to it. The sketch code itself remains the same. Welcome to the world of abstraction, à la C++ !

Update – the final version and source code are described in this followup post.


In Hardware on Sep 25, 2009 at 00:01

The flip side of experimenting with electronic stuff, is that you end up with a lot of little things!


To avoid losing my sanity, I’m now trying to get organized. The above has about 50 bags with one or a few tiny parts in them, mostly stuff from DigiKey and Farnell. SMD, through-hole parts, sensors, little batteries, buzzers, you name it…

And that’s just a fraction of the mess I’m creating around here :)

Anyway, I’ve been spending my time to try and get to grips with this. Bags of similar sizes in one box. A sheet printed out with unique label numbers, and then the work starts: put label on bag, place in box, and add a line to a little database with Location, Label, Description, and Notes. Then it won’t matter where the stuff is, since it’ll be tagged with a note in the database. I use DEVONthink for this, its storage and search capabilities are just right for me.

The trick of course, is to use tags. I’m going to start using the different vendor options to add my own tags during the on-line ordering process. Doesn’t matter one bit what the tag is, as long as it’s unique. I’m using tags like F0001/F0002/… for Farnell items, D0001/D0002/… for DigiKey, etc. By printing a batch of them on a sheet, it’s trivial to keep all tags unique. I don’t have small labels, so I print on larger ones and then slice up the sheet to create lil’ ones:


The texts are created in Tcl/Tk by placing a bunch of them on a canvas the size of an A4 sheet along with thin cutting lines, and then saving the result as postscript. So now I can run “numprint X2500″ to get a printable sheet of labels X2500 .. X2639 in exactly the right spot. Very configurable, very automated.

So trivial. So overdue…

LCD Plug prototype

In Hardware on Sep 24, 2009 at 00:01

For one of the numerous projects here at Jee Labs, I’m going to need a little 2×16 LCD panel hooked up to a JeeNode. Time to get the breadboards and jumpers out:


On the left is a breadboard-friendly 5V power supply.

The chip is an MCP23017, which is a 16-bit GPIO expander for the I2C bus. For the LCD, I only need 8 pins but this particular project needs a few more, hence the MCP23017 i.s.o. of the MCP23008. What’s the project? Well, for now let me just say that it’s about Volts and Amps (no, not because it’s an electrical circuit).

Here’s the MCP23008, as originally planned for use with LCD panels:

Picture 2.png

The chip is running at 3.3V, matching the I2C bus, but the LCD is powered at 5V. This should not be a problem since all connections on the LCD are inputs, and a 3.3V “high” level ought to be sufficient as 5V “high” level as well. The PNP transistor for backlight control will need a second resistor between B and E, though.

Next step is to come up with code for this I2C setup!

Bi-color LED

In Hardware on Sep 23, 2009 at 00:01

In trying to save precious I/O lines, I wanted to use one line for three states:

Picture 2.png

Red (logic 1), green (logic 0), and off (tri-state).

The way this SMD bi-color LED is connected is:

Picture 3.png

The idea being that together, the forward voltages of these LEDs is more than 3.3V, so they can’t both light up. Both are rated at 2.0 V typical (2.4 V max) forward voltage.

And in fact it almost works as expected. The only problem is that when the I/O pin is left floating, the red LED still lights up dimly – it’s hard to see in the photo, but it really does.

These LEDs are rated at 80 mA peak and 30 mA continuous, btw – so I figured I wouldn’t need a resistor, at least for the test. For a more permanent setup, a 100 Ω resistor between this circuit and the I/O pin would probably be better.

I wonder if there is a simple way to turn the red LED completely off – a 1N4148 diode between 3.3V and the red LED perhaps? That might also dim it a bit, since it’s brighter than the green one.

Geek news: this is post # 2^8 :)

Update – the extra diode helps. Here’s a better test, showing red, orange, green and off:

Picture 2.png

The “orange” isn’t truly convincing with the clear LED I’m using, but its reflection on a piece of white paper looks ok.

Four states on a single I/O pin!

Solder paste on gold-plated boards

In Hardware on Sep 22, 2009 at 00:01

Did I mention that blue + gold is the new chique around here?

All JeeLabs boards will use a blue solder mask and gold plating from now on, which is very nice for soldering. And because I think it looks nice :)

You may have seen this already, because all recent JeePlug proto boards use that design.

To make sure that solder paste would work properly, I did a little reflow test. First a hefty dab of solder paste of varying thickness, and three 0603 resistors:


Can you spot that third resistor? Hint: it’s parallel to the lettering.

Then into the reflow grill, taken up to 250°C as required for lead-free solder:


Notice how each of the resistors aligned itself nicely, due to the capillary pull of liquid solder. And how all the solder paste ended up on the gold contacts – that’s what solder masks do: repel solder!

Here’s the other side after reflow:


Not that this matters much, since solder paste is normally only applied to pads on the top side…

More re-design needed

In Hardware on Sep 21, 2009 at 00:01

This is embarrassing…

It looks like some trivial plugs in Plug Panel 1 do work, but everything of even the slightest complexity (and usefulness) is faulty :(

The Expander Plug has a completely incorrect pin allocation for the MCP23008 18-SOIC chip. Which I had to create from scratch in EAGLE, and obviously I’m still learning just how to do that. Lesson one: don’t move pins in a package around without checking their pin numbers afterwards!

Unfortunately, that means the LCD Plug I sent off a few days ago will also come back useless :(

The Thermo Plug can’t turn off its buzzer because a trace is shorted out to a pad (I guess I didn’t do a DRC), and the thermocouple interface isn’t working because the AD597 chip needs at least 5V as power supply. So much for sensing or controlling anything. Oh well, I suppose the NTC and 1-wire inputs work.

The Room Plug didn’t work with a 1-wire DS18B20 sensor, in fact it looks as if the 1-wire sensor is hooked up the wrong way around since it’s shorting out the 3.3V supply. And the EPIR sensor isn’t responding either. I haven’t tried other configurations yet.

The Clock Plug mistake was described yesterday. It’ll probably work with a DS1340 chip i.s.o. a DS1307.

The I2C Connector … well, ehm, I mixed up the AIO and DIO pins. Incredible stupidity.

Oh, yes, there is some good news – the Breadboard Connector “works”:


But then again, it’s a bit hard to mess up a tiny pcb with no electrical components on it :)

Drat. Back to the drawing board. I may need several iterations to get my act together. This will add weeks to the process. Of course it’s a learning experience, such as: lesson 2 – check and double-check, and lesson 3 – check everything again. E v e r y t h i n g !

Man, do I feel JeeSilly right now…

Clock Plug v1

In AVR, Hardware on Sep 20, 2009 at 00:01

The Clock Plug adds a real-time clock to a JeeNode:


A demo for setting it and reading it out follows:

Picture 2.png

Unfortunately, there seems to be a problem with it – it does not start up reliably, and connecting the backup battery makes it stop?

Oh, wait – the DS1307 is specified for a 4.5 .. 5.5V power supply, and I’m driving it from the 3.3V line! And yes, sure enough, it works fine when powered from 5V.


Time to look for another chip. Ah, looks like there is a pin-compatible one which does work at 3.3V – here’s a post from someone who fell into the same trap.

Update – the DS1340Z works fine, see this followup post.

Memory Plug v1

In AVR, Hardware on Sep 19, 2009 at 00:01

The Memory Plug adds flash memory to a JeeNode:


This particular one has 2 different brands of 512 Kbit chips on it: a AT24C512B by Atmel and a M24512 by STMicroelectronics, for a total of 128 Kbyte. By fully populating it with 1 Mbit chips, this plug can contain a whopping half megabyte of memory :)

Here’s small sketch to test reading and writing to it:

Picture 1.png

A value will be incremented each second. When restarted, the value will continue to increase since the last setting, demonstrating the non-volatile memory. The demo uses I2C address 0×50 to address chip #0 – chip 1 #is at 0×52, chip #2 at 0×54, and chip #3 at 0×56.

This demo is available as the eemem example in the Ports library.

Here’s the plug hooked up to a JeeNode:


This plug supports daisy-chaining of more I2C-type plugs.

So there you have it – a Solid State Disk!

Plug Panel 1 is in!

In Hardware on Sep 18, 2009 at 00:01

Woohoo, got my 10 prototype boards with 6 plugs and 2 connector boards in:


Already, several major and minor issues have appeared. I’ll report here as I investigate exactly how good or bad all these tiny boards have come out.

Here’s a first one, the Blink Plug:


The header has been soldered flat and on the bottom side, so that through-hole pins are raised slightly above the base level. This is a convention I intend to use for all plugs: male, flat, bottom-side, left. And with I2C daisy-chainable plugs: an optional female header on the right.

Here’s a silly way to use the plug… on an Arduino!


(apologies for the ugly flash picture)

The “port” header is pushed into Arduino pins 8 through 13. A trick is used to supply power via the I/O lines:

Picture 4.png

This demo sketch is available here as “arblink.pde”.

Note that with this very simple Blink Plug, pressing a button always turns its LED on. The proper LED state is restored once the button is released.

Connecting a battery

In Hardware on Sep 17, 2009 at 00:01

There are a number of ways to run a JeeNode off batteries. The lower bound is around 3.5 .. 3.6 V, depending on current draw. With 3.5V, the voltage regulator only has about 0.2V to work with, which is probably ok as long as the total current consumption stays under 50 mA or so. The maximum allowed voltage is around 13V, but drawing too much current at that level will lead to excessive heating and cause the voltage regulator to shut down.

So with alkaline and NiMH, you need only 3 cells.

For temporary connections, use the FTDI connector:


For more permanent connections to the JeeNode v3, you can hook up a 3-or-more-cell battery pack as follows:


The 10 µF capacitor next to the battery connectors can then be folded flat over these wires again, if needed.

Another option would be a 9V battery:


Keep in mind that 60% of those 9V will be turned into useless heat in the voltage regulator…

And then, there is the option of using a rechargeable Lithium cell (LiPo). They supply 3.7 .. 4.1 V – a perfect match, if you take the proper safety precautions with charging them.

Update – note that the FTDI connector and battery connectors are both attached to the same “PWR” line, so please remove the battery (or add a disconnect switch) when connecting the unit to FTDI.

JeeNode pinout

In Hardware on Sep 16, 2009 at 00:01

I don’t think I published this pinout overview before:

jeenode pinout.png

Also available as PDF – use your printer’s print-4–pages-per-sheet setting to print a smaller version as reference.

Port extension

In Hardware on Sep 15, 2009 at 00:01

Found these 6-pin female-to-female cables at Seeed Studio:


Available in 100, 200, and 300 mm lengths.

By adding an extended-length 6-pin male header as shown on the right, this can be turned into a convenient extension cable for ports and plugs.

The color coding helps create a convention for ports, since their connectors are not polarized, but be careful – it looks like my batch used a different set of colors than what is currently showing on their website. And the colors also differ from an FTDI cable, alas.

Ah, conventions… so many to choose from! ;)

Second plug panel

In Hardware on Sep 14, 2009 at 00:01

Here’s the second panel of plugs I’m about to send off:

Picture 1.png

Some pretty odd stuff on there. Top left is a breakout board I’m making for a 30-pin FPC connector. Just because it was easy to add, not likely to be of use to anyone else.

The Voltage Plug has up to four 12-bit DAC’s connected via I2C. Yes, I do have something in mind for them…

The LCD Plug now comes with a tiny “end plug” attached which can be separated from it if needed. It’s a 3.3V to 5V boost regulator. This makes sense for an LCD backlight, but I need to work out usage scenarios, otherwise this will cause major trouble – with 5V regulating down to 3.3V while at the same time boosting it back up…


In Hardware on Sep 13, 2009 at 00:01

Here’s a simple design for a little “Proto Board” which covers all the port headers and the ISP/SPI connector:

Picture 1.png

The PWR/I2C header on the JeeNode is not covered by this board. I’m still exploring some options, hence the unmarked rectangle at the right end. The board is deliberately slightly asymmetric, to make it easier to remember which way it goes on.

Holes will be plated through as always, with text labels on the other side as well.

I’m considering not adding any connections to allow all solder pads to be used in various ways. This does mean wires need to be attached directly to the header pins to use them.

Just exploring for now – I’ll probably add this to the next panel prototype run, just to see how it works out.

Even more plugs

In Hardware on Sep 12, 2009 at 00:01

This plug thing is starting to become addictive…

I’ve been working on another set of plugs, to extend the interfaces further. Here’s a preview of a few new ones, all using I2C and daisy-chainable:

Picture 1.png

From left to right:

  • UART Plug – a serial port with 64-byte RX/TX buffers and RTS/CTS lines
  • Analog Plug – 8 analog inputs with 12 bit resolution
  • LCD Plug – a piggyback board for LCD displays with a standard 16-pin header

Most of these plugs will have jumpers to allow connecting more than one of them to the same port (as I2C bus). So within the limits of power consumption, I2C bus lengths / loading, and processing bandwidth, this should allow for quite a bit of extensibility.

Boot loader problems

In AVR, Software on Sep 11, 2009 at 00:01

Whoops – I messed up with several packages I’ve sent out to people. Ouch.

The gory details are in the discussion forum, but here’s the short version:

  • I’m shipping ATmega’s pre-programmed with the Arduino bootstrap and the RF12demo sketch. Mighty convenient, since it can get you going a lot quicker.
  • And to simplify my work I, ehm… sort of tried to automate it a bit.
  • So I burn the bootloader with the Arduino IDE and the burn the RF12demo sketch using “avrdude” from the command line.
  • Cool. Except that the second step undid the work of the first step… doh!
  • So I ended with ATmega328′s which have the RF12demo but no bootstrap loader.

It turns out that avrdude erases a chip by default when re-programming it. So the bootloader, which is loaded in high-mem, got cleared when storing the demo in low-mem. And of course that doesn’t show in a quick test: the demo on the chip, which I always check, works just fine. Which is why I sent out a few bad JeeNode kits and JeeLinks.

All it took to fix this was one lousy little “-D” command option for avrdude!

So now I’ve decided to automate all the way, and burn the fuses, the bootloader, and the demo sketch all in one go – from the command line.

Here’s what it takes – I have these files in one directory:

Picture 1.png

The hex files were copied from the Arduino “bootstrap” area and the RF12demo “applet” build area, respectively.

The makefile contains these commands:

Picture 2.png

So all I need to do now is to plug in the ISP programmer and put a fresh ATmega chip in its socket, then type “make”. This works for both the JeeNode and the JeeLink chips.

Easy… once done right!

Build progress

In Hardware on Sep 10, 2009 at 00:01

Aha, now we’re getting somewhere:


Almost perfect reflow this time – only had to fix 2 solder bridges on the rightmost FTDI chip, then add the USB connector and wire antenna. All four worked right away!

The trick is to press harder on the stencil at the end, so that a truly thin layer of paste remains when lifting it off. It was a bit too thin in some places in fact, so I had to dab a bit of extra paste on a few pads.

This stencil thing is indeed a huge time-saver over applying paste with a syringe to each individual dot. It’s not just the amount of work, it’s also the type of work: keeping a steady hand while doing all those 100′ish dots per board was extremely tedious.

The total time spent on assembling these four boards was 1:30 hours – not stellar, but ok.

Four more boards done!

Smaller still?

In AVR, Hardware on Sep 9, 2009 at 00:01

Now that the JeeLink is a reality, and SMD has become an option, I’m already wondering how far to take this…

Because, well, there’s this neat USB stick case available:


I suspect that the same FTDI + ATmega + RFM12B as on the JeeLink can be fitted in there, but at the cost of omitting all expansion. No ports, no headers, no reset, nothing – but nevertheless an Arduino / JeeNode / JeeLink compatible unit.

There may even be room for a few Mb of flash memory. So this could be used as central interface to a PC/Mac, and it could collect data while the computer is off – as long as the USB port is on (a powered hub perhaps).

Would it make sense to create a separate unit for this? Just for the wow factor? Let me know, please…

Final JeeLinks

In AVR, Hardware on Sep 8, 2009 at 00:01

After the goof-up of not heating the boards up enough for lead-free solder, I simply re-did the reflow with a 250°C temperature profile. This appears to be near the limit of what my reflow grill can do, btw.

Here’s a fully assembled JeeLink:


Note that I soldered all headers in, including two which aren’t supplied standard with the JeeLink:


As shipped, the JeeLink comes with the 4 port headers, not yet soldered in.

While it still takes me quite a bit of time to assemble these JeeLinks, all four of the ones I did are now working (ahem, that’s a lie: I shipped two JL’s without proper testing… impatient as I was!).

So this story has a happy ending – the JeeLinks are ok now, it’s time to move on …

SMD pick and place

In Hardware on Sep 7, 2009 at 00:01

Now that the solder stencil is ready for use, I went ahead and tried it – using solder paste and a (not-so-wide) squeegee type tool. Here’s the result:


If you look closely, you can see how nicely the paste ends up on the pads:


The stencil needs to be cleaned for future re-use, though:


(sorry for the incandescent light reflection)

Ok, now the tricky part – the “pick and place machine” (me). The result:


That’s the illuminated magnifying glass I’m using, by the way.

Looks perfect to me:


Baking now, in my JeeNode-based reflow controller:


Hm, this stuff is considerably smellier than before. Here’s the result…


Wait a minute – if you look closely you can see that a lot of the pads show up as a gray surface, not the shiny metal I was expecting!

WHOOPS – I used a temperature profile for leaded solder, but this is lead-free solder – silly me!

Stay tuned for the rest of this story… tomorrow.

Solder paste

In Hardware on Sep 6, 2009 at 00:01

As I mentioned before, the main problem I have with SMD’s on JeeLinks is applying too much solder paste.

Well, I just got a few test stencils in the mail from Paul Badger of Modern Device, who is experimenting with a laser cutter and a variety of plastic sheets.

So here’s my first DIY solder paste stencil jig for JeeLinks:


In good DIY fashion, it’s made of things I “happened” to have lying around, such as a piece of “foam” used by photographers, i.e. a few millimeters of foam (PU?) sandwiched between two thin plastic sheets. It’s easy to cut so size, and a bit of a cushion might actually help level out the pressure when applying paste. I used hot glue to fix a couple of pcb scraps to the board, and a single line of adhesive tape to fix the stencil.

This jig opens up to take a panel with 4 JeeLink boards, like this:


It’s all about getting the alignment right, of course:


Will it work? I’ll report in the next few days…

No longer under the radar

In News on Sep 5, 2009 at 00:01

Looks like the days of innocence are over for this weblog:

Picture 1.png

Not to worry (it’s all filtered out automatically), but I still have to scan that stuff once in a while to make sure there are no false positives.

Oh well, I s’pose it comes with the territory…

Boards done

In Hardware on Sep 4, 2009 at 00:01

Ok, the 8 little board designs are done and have been sent to manufacturing (doesn’t that sound impressive?). Here’s the final layout check:


(This is a screenshot from ViewMate, with all the Gerber files generated by Eagle loaded in.)

Here is a summary of what each board does, from left to right, top row:

  • The Blink Plug is as simple as it gets: two LEDs and two push-buttons.
  • The Expander Plug has 8 general-purpose digital I/O lines – based on the MCP23008 chip, it uses an I2C bus and allows daisy-chaining. Two jumper pads allow up to 4 of these plugs on the same bus.
  • The Thermo Plug ties the AIO pin to either an NTC (thermistor), or a K-type thermocouple (via an expensive AD597 chip), or a DS18B20 1-wire sensor. The DIO signal drives either an on-board buzzer or an external relay / light / DC motor via a transistor.
  • The I2C Connector is not a plug but hooks up to the 4-pin PWR/I2C header on the JeeNode and provides a “port-like” 6-pin bus for I2C-based plugs.

In the bottom row:

  • The Room Plug is a shield-like daughterboard which plugs into ports 1+4 or 2+3. It supports an SHT1x temperature/humidity sensor or a DS18B20 1-wire sensor, a PIR or ePIR module, and an LDR.
  • The Memory Plug is an I2C-type daisy-chainable plug with 1 .. 4 EEPROM chips (up to 512 Kb).
  • The Clock Plug is an I2C-type daisy-chainable plug with a DS1307 real-time clock and battery backup.
  • The Breadboard Connector is the thing marked “plug” in this previous post. It’s not a plug, just a bit of wiring between a bunch of pin headers. It also works on the rightmost pins of the Expander Plug.

I2C plugs are at least 0.1″ wider than daughterboards, so that they can’t accidentally be plugged into two ports at once (which would short-circuit just about everything!).

I haven’t tried all of this yet, the I2C stuff in particular is untested. I have no idea how many of these plugs could be daisy chained reliably, or what the limits are in terms of power drain. But with the I2C Connector, things should be fairly robust since it has pull-up resistors to bring the I2C bus in spec, as well as a 3.3V regulator.

Note also that all these I2C buses (up to 4 bit-banged ones and 1 with MPU hardware support) use 3.3V logic levels. Just like the rest of the JeeNode, I’ve decided to use 3.3V as standard voltage for everything. The “PWR” pin carries whatever voltage is fed into the system, though it will most likely be about 5V in many cases. More and more sensors and memories come in 3.3V versions, these days.

It’s far too early to say how far this can be taken. Can we connect up to 160 individual I/O pins on a JeeNode? (5 buses x 4 expander plugs), or 2.5 Mbyte of EEPROM memory? (5 buses x 1 memory plug) – I doubt it. Besides, if connecting the maximum number of I/O lines were a goal, I’d probably combine several 16-line expander chips on a special-purpose plug instead, or even use 40-line expanders.

Done! The next challenge is to maintain all this flexibility in the software.

Update – I’ve added some docs, very preliminary for now, i.e. until the boards get a proper workout.

Lots of plugs

In Hardware on Sep 3, 2009 at 00:01

After a lot of head scratching, I’m getting ready to have some prototype boards made. Here’s a recent version of the Gerber files:


And here’s a 3D rendering of the same which was astonishingly easy to do (I’m not going to finish it or fix the quirks – this was just to try out Eagle 3D):


You’re looking at eight tiny boards, most of which have already been presented in recent posts. It’s also eight ways to mess up in some more or less silly way, but hey that’s all part of the game.

Unlike the software design-code-test-rinse-and-repeat cycle, which can be done many many times per hour, the cycle time for hardware project runs like these is measured in weeks. W e e k s !

Since I don’t expect these boards to be right on the first iteration, this means that at least some of them will be more than a month off before I can declare victory and start using this stuff all over the place. But then again, each of the boards is in itself fairly simple, who knows…

Ok, I’ll do one last round of checking, tweaking, and re-generating the final Gerber files, and then the waiting starts…

Patience. Drat.

Meet the JeeBoard

In AVR, Hardware on Sep 2, 2009 at 00:01

I hate wires. Wires to power up stuff. Wires to transfer data. What a mess.

I just want to try out physical computing ideas on my desk, next to my (wireless) keyboard and my (wireless) mouse – while exploring the possibilities of hardware + firmware + software running on my “big” computer.

So here’s to scratching my own itch: meet the JeeBoard – a little 8×10 cm unit with no strings attached – heh ;)


A first mock-up with real parts, here still using a green JeeNode v2:


On the left, a couple of demo plugs have been inserted. Those that use I2C can be daisy-chained.

One port is permanently hooked up to an I/O expander chip with 6 digital I/O lines for the mini-breadboard, 2 LEDs, and 2 pushbuttons. The on-board battery pack provides 3.6V with NiMH or 4.5V with alkaline cells.

The little overhanging board on top of the mini-breadboard “feeds” 8 wires into the center of the breadboard: +3.3V, ground, and the 6 general-purpose I/O lines.

I’m going to mess around with the layout a bit and explore some actual hookups before designing a real PCB for this. But even just looking at the mockup makes me want to start trying out stuff with it. Wireless, of course!

September – grand opening

In News on Sep 1, 2009 at 00:01

It’s September 2009, ten months after I started on my “Computing stuff tied to the physical world” adventure. Arduino, RepRap, modding, trying to fit stuff together, software in a chip – my, my, I never thought it’d be that much fun!

Here’s a part that came out of an old CD-ROM drive:


What does (did) it do? Is it human? Hmmm.

Whatever it is, this thing pretty much sums up all the geek stuff I’ve stumbled upon in these past months. Weird. Designed. Fun. Mass produced. Functional. Useless on its own. And still mostly a male thing ;)

But this isn’t just about what happened so far. The fun really is the excitement of entering a new future, best described by the motto “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it” – see the Maker’s Bill of Rights.

I’ve only started to scratch the surface of all this. It’s fascinating how many people are latching on in the same way – across all ages and all continents. With websites such as instructables springing up to collect and share the huge variety of “DIY” projects and hacks. Boundless creativity, for and by everyone.

Today is also the day I’d like to declare the Jee Labs Shop officially “open”. There are only a few “items for sale” to use marketing-speak. My main reason for doing this is that I want to create real stuff – and a shop with products is in a sense as real as it gets. You can buy things there if you want to get going quickly with stuff I’ve been working on, or you can make it all yourself using the information on my weblog. Everything is 100% open source, meaning that all the documentation is available for you to use / adapt / refine / extend in any way you like.

I owe my inspiration to the countless people who share and discuss their work and ideas openly on the web. The daily Jee Labs weblog is my attempt to give something back in return. It’s a drop in the ocean, but hey it appears to be appreciated :)

And I owe much my motivation to your comments on the weblog + forum and in particular to those of you who have bought stuff from the new shop. You know who you are, and you’ve made my day each and every time. Thank you for your vote of confidence!

As a token of my appreciation, everyone who has posted on the weblog or forum and everyone who has ordered from Jee Labs in the past can get a 20% discount on new orders. I don’t want to send around unsolicited emails to everyone, so please send an email to jcw <at> to get a discount code which can be used in the web shop until September 30th.

Ok. Back to designing, soldering, hacking, coding, sharing, and posting. Enjoy!