You can etch a simple PCB at home with a few chemicals and some patience. However, once you get to multilayer boards, you’re going to want to pay someone to do the dirty work.
The folks behind the USB Armory project visited the factories that build their 6 layer PCB and assemble their final product. Then they posted a full walkthrough of the machines used in the manufacturing process.
The boards start out as layers of copper laminates. Each one is etched by applying a film, using a laser to print the design from a Gerber file, and etching away the unwanted copper in a solution. Then the copper and fibreglass prepreg sandwich is bonded together with epoxy and a big press.
Bonded boards then get drilled for vias, run through plating and solder mask processes and finally plated using an Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold (ENIG) process to give them that shiny gold finish. These completed boards are shipped off to another company, where a pick and place followed by reflow soldering mounts all the components to the board. An X-Ray is used to verify that the BGA parts are soldered correctly.
The walkthrough gives a detailed explanation of the process. It shows us the machines that create products we rely on daily, but never get to see.
I2C has a seven-bit address space, and you’re thinking “when do I ever need more than 127 devices on a pair of wires?” So you order up some parts only to find that they have one, two, or three user-configurable address pins for any given device type. And you need a bunch more than four or eight capacitive sensor buttons on your project. What do you do?
If you’re reader [Marv G], you think outside the box and realize that you can change the addresses on the fly by toggling address pins high and low with your microcontroller. That is, you can use a single I2C address pin for each device as a chip select signal just like you would have with SPI.
That’s it, really. [Marv G] goes through all of the other possible options in his writeup, and they’re all unsavory: multiple I2C busses, a multiplexer, buying different sensors, or changing micros. None of these are as straightforward as just running some more wires and toggling these with your micro.
We’d even go so far as to suggest that you could fan these chip select lines out with a shift register or one of those 1-of-N decoder chips, depending on how many I2C devices you need to chip-selectify. (We’re thinking 74HC595 or 74HC154.)
So you just scored a vintage piece of test gear, or maybe you just bought a fancy new DMM (Hmm…We love that new multimeter smell!) But can it read voltage accurately? How can you be sure? Well, that’s why you should build yourself a voltage reference box.
Youtuber [Scullcom’s] latest video has you covered. Wants some specs? Sure. How does a precision 10v and 5v output with only ±0.025% and an amazing 2.5ppm/°C sound? That’s very impress for something you can cobble together yourself. We find it interesting that he actually uses some ebay parts to pull off this build. The LiPo battery, USB LiPo charging circuit, and boost regulator are all sourced from ebay. Not to worry though, as these parts are only used to supply power to a 15 volt linear regulator. The real magic happens in the Texas Instruments REF102 precision voltage reference. You give it a decently clean 12-36 volts, and it will give you a 10 volt reference out. These amazing chips are able to obtain such precision in part because they are calibrated (or more specifically “laser trimmed”) from the factory. A secondary output of 5 volt is achieved by using a differential amplifier.
Warning: The video after the break is a bit on the long side(43 mins), so you might want to make some popcorn. But we find [Scullcom’s] teaching style to be lovely, and he does a wonderful job of explaining the project start to finish, soup to nuts.
Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) let you program any logic you’d like onto a chip. You write your logic using a hardware description language, then flash it to the FPGA. You can even design your own processor and flash it to the chip.
That’s exactly what [jamieiles] has done with the Oldland CPU. It’s an open source 32 bit CPU core that you can synthesize for use on an FPGA. Not only can you browse through all the Verilog code in the Github repo, but there’s also a bunch of tools for working with this CPU core.
Included with the package is oldland-rtlsim, which lets you simulate the processor on a PC. The oldland-debug tool lets you connect to the processor for programming and debugging over JTAG. Finally, there’s a GNU toolchain port that lets you build C code for the device.
Going one step futher, [jamieiles] built a full SoC around the Oldland core. This has SPI, UART, timers, and more features you’d expect to find in a microcontroller. It can be flashed to the relatively cheap Terasic DE0-Nano board.
[jamieiles] has also ported u-boot to the processor, and the next thing on the list is the Linux kernel. If you’ve ever been interested in how CPUs actually work, this is a neat project to look through. If you want more open source CPU cores, check out OpenCores.
If you’ve ever used an old-school analog oscilloscope (an experience everyone should have!) you probably noticed that the trace is simply drawn by a beam that scans across the CRT at a constant rate, creating a straight line when there’s no signal. The input signal simply affects the y-component of the beam, deflecting it into the shape of your waveform. [Steve] wrote in to let us know about his home-built “oscilloscope” that works a lot like a simple analog oscilloscope, albeit with a laser instead of a CRT.
[Steve]’s scope is built out of a hodgepodge of parts including Lego, an Erector set, LittleBits, and a Kano Computer (based on a Raspberry Pi). The Pi generates a PWM signal that controls the speed of a LittleBits motor. The motor is hooked up to a spinning mirror that sweeps the laser across some graph paper, creating a straight laser line.
After he got his sweep working, [Steve] took a small speaker and mounted a mirror to its cone. Next he mounted the speaker so the laser’s beam hits the mirror on the speaker, the spinning sweep mirror, and finally the graph paper display. The scope’s input signal (in this case, audio from a phone) is fed into the speaker which deflects the laser beam up and down as it is swept across the paper, forming a nice oscilloscope-like trace.
While [Steve]’s scope might not be incredibly usable in most cases, it’s still a great proof of concept and a good way to learn how old oscilloscopes work. Check out the video after the break to see the laser scope in action.
The Nordic Semiconductor nRF24L01 is the older sibling of the nRF24L01+ and is not recommended for new designs anymore. Sometimes, if you’re looking for a cheaper bargain, the older chip may the way to go. [necromant] recently got hold of a bunch of cheap nrf24l01 modules. How cheap ? Does $0.55 sound cheap enough?
Someone back east worked out how to cost-optimize cheap modules and make them even cheaper. At that price, the modules would have severe performance limitations, if they worked at all. [necromant] decided to take a look under the hood. First off, there’s no QFN package on the modules. Instead they contain a COB (chip on board) embedded in black epoxy. [necromant] guesses it’s most likely one of those fake ASICs under the epoxy with more power consumption and less sensitivity. But there’s a step further you can go in making it cheaper. He compared the modules to the reference schematics, and found several key components missing. A critical current set resistor is missing (unless it’s hiding under the epoxy). And many of the components on the transmit side are missing – which means signal power would be nowhere near close to the original modules.
The big question is if they work or not ? In one test, the radio did not work at all. In a different setup, it worked, albeit with very low signal quality. If you are in Moscow, and have access to 2.4Ghz RF analysis tools, [necromant] would like to hear from you, so he can look at the guts of these modules.
[Dark Purple] recently heard a story about how someone stole a flash drive from a passenger on the subway. The thief plugged the flash drive into his computer and discovered that instead of containing any valuable data, it completely fried his computer. The fake flash drive apparently contained circuitry designed to break whatever computer it was plugged into. Since the concept sounded pretty amazing, [Dark Purple] set out to make his own computer-frying USB drive.
While any electrical port on a computer is a great entry point for potentially hazardous signals, USB is pretty well protected. If you short power and ground together, the port simply shuts off. Pass through a few kV of static electricity and TVS diodes safely shunt the power. Feed in an RF signal and the inline filtering beads dissipate most of the energy.
To get around or break through these protections, [Dark Purple]’s design uses an inverting DC-DC converter. The converter takes power from the USB port to charge a capacitor bank up to -110VDC. After the caps are charged, the converter shuts down and a transistor shunts the capacitor voltage to the data pins of the port. Once the caps are discharged, the supply fires back up and the cycle repeats until the computer is fried (typically as long as bus voltage is present). The combination of high voltage and high current is enough to defeat the small TVS diodes on the bus lines and successfully fry some sensitive components—and often the CPU. USB is typically integrated with the CPU in most modern laptops, which makes this attack very effective.
To err is human. And to order the wrong component foot print is just part of engineering. It happens to us all; You’re working hard to finish a design, you have PCBs on the way and you’re putting in your order into your favorite parts supplier. It’s late, and you’re tired. You hit submit, and breathe a sigh of relief. Little do you know that in about a week when everything arrives, that you’ll have ordered the wrong component package for your design.
Well, fear not. [David Cook] has a solution that could save your bacon. He shows you how to design multiple footprints into your board to avoid the most common mistakes such as voltage regulators with different pin-outs than expected. Other uses for the trick include, common trim pots with different pin spacing and a layout for decoupling caps that will fit both a 0.1″ and 0.2″ footprints.
We’ll file this under the “Why Didn’t I Think of That” category. It’s a super simple hack, but that’s what we love about it. We could see this being very handy for people who often scavenge parts. Also, for makers that sell just a bare PCBs (without parts) to those that want just a board. No, it won’t save you if your need an SMD and you mistakenly ordered a dip, but at the end of the day, it’s a nice trick to keep up your sleeve. You might never know when you’ll need it.
A bunch of audio heads over at the Head-Fi forum were discussing handy and quick heat sinking methods, leading to much speculation and conjecture. This finally prompted [tangentsoft] to take matters in his own hands and run some tests on DIY Heat Sinks.
The question that sparked this debate was if a paper clip is a good enough heat sink to be used for a TO220 package. Some folks suggested copper pennies (old ones minted 1981 and earlier – the new ones are zinc with copper plating and won’t help much). [tangentsoft] built a jig to test six LM317 regulators in constant current mode set to 0.125A and 2w dissipation. The six configurations were a paper clip, a single penny bolted to the regulator, a regular Aavid TO220 heat sink, a set of 4 pennies bolted, a single penny epoxy glued and finally a single penny soldered directly to the regulator.
The results were pretty interesting. The paper clip scored better than any of the single pennies! The quad-penny and the Aavid heat sink fared above all the other configurations, and almost at par with each other. [tangentsoft] posts his review of each configurations performance and also provides details of his test method, in case someone else wants to replicate his tests to corroborate the results. He tested each configuration independently for one hour, gathering just over 10000 readings for each setup. Other nearby heat sources were turned off, and he placed strategic barriers around the test circuit to isolate it from the effects of other cooling / heating sources. He even removed himself from the test area and monitored his data logging remotely from another room. When he noticed a couple of suspect deviations, he restarted the test.
[tangentsoft] put all the data through Mathematica and plotted his results for analysis, available at this link [pdf, 2.8MB]. So the next time you want to heat sink a regulator for cheap, just hunt for Clippy in your box of office supplies. Do remember that these methods will work for only a couple of watts dissipation. If you would like to cast and build your own heat sinks out of aluminum, check out this post about DIY Aluminum heat sink casting. And if you need help calculating heat sink parameters, jump to 12:00 minutes in this video from [Dave]’s EEVBlog episode on Dummy loads and heat sinks.
The folks at Zeptobars are on a roll, sometimes looking deep inside historic chips and at others exposing fake devices for our benefit. Behind all of those amazing die shots are hundreds of hours of hard work. [Mikhail] from Zeptobars recently tipped us off on the phenomenal work done by engineer [Vslav] who spent over 1000 hours reverse engineering the Soviet KR580VM80A – one of the most popular micro-controllers of the era and a direct clone of the i8080.
But before [Vslav] could get down to creating the schematic and Verilog model, the chip needed to be de-capped and etched. As they etched down, they created a series of high resolution images of the die. At the end of that process, they were able to determine that the chip had exactly 4758 transistors (contrary to rumors of 6000 or 4500). With the images done, they were able to annotate the various parts of the die, create a Verilog model and the schematic. A tough compatibility test confirmed the veracity of their Verilog model. All of the source data is available via a (CC-BY-3.0) license from their website. If this looks interesting, do check out some of their work that we have featured earlier like comparing real and fake Nordic dies and amazing descriptions of how they figure out the workings of these decapped chips. If this is too deep for you check out the slightly simpler but equally awesome process of delayering PCBs.
Amateur radio is the ultimate hacker’s hobby. You can design, build, and put on the air your own high power transceivers. And with this homemade gear you are able to reach out directly, not relying on any infrastructure whatsoever, to connect with people all over the world. It is a thrilling experience to communicate with that long distance station using equipment you created, where you know at that instant what every single transistor is doing as you key down the mic.
In a previous post I described how SSB radio equipment worked and provided an example of a single-band 20m SSB transceiver. In this post I will discuss a multi-band SSB transceiver, an entire homemade amateur station including amplifiers, and conclude with software defined radio (SDR) that you can make in one weekend.
10m and 6m Dual-Band SSB
My second SSB transceiver was dual-band spanning both 6m and 10m wavelengths. I built this radio as part of the ARRL ‘home brew challenge 3′. This followed the same block diagrams as those shown in the previous post except that the two frequency bands of interest spanned one whole octave at 28 MHz and 54 MHz, resulting in additional switching and a wider bandwidth VFO.
Similar fabrication techniques were used, resulting in an old-school appearance.
Schematics and details are found in the full article in March 2013 QST, and design notes here. The interesting thing about this radio is that its VFO, power amplifier, and front-end cover all HF bands up to the VHF band 2m. This radio could quite easily be made into an all-band radio if the filters were built-out.
An Entire Station!
The most impressive home built station I’ve ever seen was by Mark Mandelkern, K5AM. Mark published details of all this gear in QEX magazine back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with schematics, block diagrams, and more are available here.
In Mark’s Own Words
“All the gear was newly designed and built from scratch. But I was not about to reinvent the superheterodyne. Each project begins with a thorough study of the handbooks and relevant magazine articles. I glean ideas from all previous builders, to whom many thanks are due. Design means selecting and choosing the best ideas which will help produce the intended results. Individual circuits are described in the handbooks; the real design work is to combine them into a complete functioning unit. Getting a whole station built in a finite interval of time meant using mostly tried-and-true methods, and setting to work without trying to invent a new circuit for each stage.”
Others who have made their own multi and single-band SSB transceivers:
And others suggest searching on YouTube for on-air demos of some of these radios or post in the comments section.
Phasing SSB and Software Defined Radio
There are other methods to implement SSB equipment, including direct-conversion using phasing (either digital or analog). In this architecture, an I/Q image rejection mixer is used to mix up (for transmit) or down (for receive) to directly modulate or demodulate SSB signals. The back end after the IQ mixer can be implemented with either op-amps or digitization. This is one of the common architectures for early SSB transmitters and today this is the preferred architecture for entry-level software defined radio (SDR) receivers and transmitters.
Software Defined Radio (SDR)
SDR might be a great option for those of you who are more interested in building a kit or writing code instead of building a scratch-built design. In many cases the software is already written. And let’s face it, SDR is the future of radio by pushing what was previously analog circuitry into the digital domain, which trades CPU cycles for reductions in analog circuit complexity.
The best performing software-defined (or DSP) receivers use a hybrid architecture mixing the best practices of analog design with an SDR back-end (sometimes known as a ‘roofing filter‘). This provides the high-dynamic range architecture of an analog radio with the flexibility of a software defined radio. This is why the Elecraft K3 is a top performing radio (it is also available as a kit).
The only way to get started is to build something. Start small, check out the QRP community, try making a single-conversion receiver, try an entry-level SDR, and finally move up to something with a crystal IF filter. Borrow and scale circuits from books such as these:
Or leverage complete ICs and modules like those from Mini-Circuits. There is nothing like making that first long distance contact on radio gear you created from scratch.
My cousin, Juliet Hurley, MBA, MSF, MAC for type editing this post.
Author Bio Gregory L. Charvat only operates radio equipment he builds from scratch, is the author of Small and Short-Range Radar Systems, co-founder of Hyperfine Research Inc., Butterfly Network Inc. (both of which are 4catalyzer companies), visiting research scientist at Camera Culture Group Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, editor of the Gregory L. Charvat Series on Practical Approaches to Electrical Engineering, and guest commentator on CNN, CBS, Sky News, and others. He was a technical staff member at MIT Lincoln Laboratory where his work on through-wall radar won best paper at the 2010 MSS Tri-Services Radar Symposium and is an MIT Office of the Provost 2011 research highlight. He has taught short radar courses at MIT where his Build a Small Radar course was the top-ranked MIT professional education course in 2011 and has become widely adopted by other universities, laboratories, and private organizations. Starting at an Early Age, Greg developed numerous radar systems, rail SAR imaging sensors, phased-array radar systems; holds several patents; and has developed many other sensors and radio and audio equipment. He has authored numerous publications and has received press for his work. Greg earned a Ph.D in electrical engineering in 2007, an MSEE in 2003, and a BSEE in 2002 from Michigan State University, and is a senior member of the IEEE where he serves on the steering committee for the 2010, 2013, and 2016 IEEE International Symposium on Phased Array Systems and Technology and chaired the IEEE AP-S Boston Chapter from 2010-2011.
The Red Pitaya is a credit-card sized board that runs Linux, has Ethernet, and a good bit of RAM. This sounds a lot like a Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black, but the similarities end there. The Red Pitaya also has two RF inputs, two RF outputs, and a load of digital IOs, all connected to an Xilinx SoC that includes an FPGA. [Pavel] realized the Pitaya had all the components of a software-defined radio, and built an implementation to prove it.
The input for the SDR taps directly into one of the high impedance inputs with a simple loop antenna made out of telephone cable. The actual software-defined part of this radio borrows heavily from an Xilinx application note, while everything is controlled by either SDR# or HDSDR.
[Pavel] included a pre-built SD card image with all his software, so cloning this project is simply a matter of copying an SD card and building an antenna. The full source is also available, interesting if you would like to muck about with FPGAs and SDRs.
“Wizard Staff” or “Wisest Wizard” is a drinking game played at parties where the attendees participate by taping the empty cans of the drinks they’ve consumed on top of one another to form a staff of inebriated power. A person with a longer staff is considered to be at a higher level and can therefore command lesser wizards to pound their current beverage to a point they see fit. Not everyone at a party necessarily drinks their tasty libation of choice from a can however. So, [Ahmed] and his group came up with a solution for those of us who might alternately prefer to wield a pint glass of power instead.
In their hardware project for Hack Illinois 2015, [Brady Salz], [Ahmed Suhyl], [Dario Aranguiz], [Kashev Dalmiaand] decided to add a zest of tech to the game. For their updated rendition, glasses are equipped with battery packs for mobility, a Spark micro-controller, and different colored LEDs as indicators. A couple of wires reach into the bottom of each glass to measure conductivity and keep track of the number of times it is filled and then emptied. In leu of towers of aluminum husks and duct-tape, the group developed a simple Android app for participants to log into which will track and visualize the standings of each player registered to one of the glasses. They even created a pebble version of the app that will display all the same information in case you don’t want to risk handling your phone while drinking… heh.
For an added level of fun, once a player reaches a certain level above someone else, they unlock the option to “challenge” the lesser adversary. By selecting that person’s user name in the app, the LED and buzzer on their glass will spring to life, letting them know they’ve been chosen to chug the rest of their drink. If you’re curious how they made it work, you can check out the team’s code on Github and maybe take a stab at giving the game a makeover of your own.
[Teodor] writes in with a unique Tesla coil he designed and built. Unlike most Tesla coils, [Teodor]’s design is able to run with a fairly low input voltage because it doesn’t use a static spark gap like most Tesla coils. Instead, his coil uses a relay in place of a spark gap.
[Teodor] built his coil using leftover components from his old school, making good use of some parts that might have otherwise been thrown away. The most critical component of his circuit, the relay, is just a standard normally-closed relay that is rated at 20A. [Teodor] wired the relay so that it energizes its own coil whenever it is shut. This causes the relay to briefly open every time the coil is energized, creating a resonant circuit. The resonant circuit charges a tank capacitor and places it in series with the primary coil inductor every time the relay closes, forming the tank circuit of his design.
With [Teodor]’s design, the resonant frequency of the secondary is nearly identical to that of the primary. This creates a significant voltage boost, helping produce very high voltages from such a low input voltage. The only downside to this design that [Teodor] recently discovered is that the relay contacts get red-hot after a few minutes of operation. Not optimal, but it still works! Check out [Teodor]’s writeup for more details and instructions on how to build your own.
[bhunting] lives right up against the Rockies, and for a while he’s wanted to measure the temperature variations against the inside of his hour against the temperature swings outside. The sensible way to do this would be to put a few wireless temperature-logging probes around the house, and log all that data with a computer. A temperature sensor, microcontroller, wireless module, battery, case, and miscellaneous parts meant each node in the sensor grid would cost about $10. The other day, [bhunting] came across the exact same thing in the clearance bin of Walmart – $10 for a wireless temperature sensor, and the only thing he would have to do is reverse engineer the protocol.
These wireless temperature sensors are exactly what you would expect for a cheap piece of Chinese electronics found in the clearance bin at Walmart. There’s a small radio operating at 433MHz, a temperature sensor, and a microcontroller under a blob of epoxy. The microcontroller and transmitter board in the temperature sensor were only attached by a ribbon cable, and each of the lines were labeled. After finding power and ground, [bhunting] took a scope to the wires that provided the data to the radio and took a look at it with a logic analyzer.
After a bit of work, [bhunting] was able to figure out how the temperature sensor sent data back to the base station, and with a bit of surgery to one of these base stations, he had a way to read the temperature data with an Arduino. From there, it’s just a data logging problem that’s easily solved with Excel, and [bhunting] has exactly what he originally wanted, thanks to a find in the Walmart clearance bin.