What is an Atom Chip

Atom chip by RAL Space
Cold atom chip as a source for atom interferometer​. Credit: RAL Space, STFC, UKRI

If you follow physics or science news, you will know that a huge part of current physics research is in the field of particle physics. Scientists aim to understand and harness the power of atoms. In laboratories across the world, scientists have been using silicon circuitry to sense the effects of their experiments, with huge silicon detectors being commonplace. You will also find silicon circuitry in the driving circuits of things like magnets and lasers, but these instruments are usually large, as it only needs to fit in a lab. There is no need to minimise. There is also an upcoming exciting area of physics that uses all of these techniques to truly harness the power of the atom known as Cold Atoms. The world of cold atoms uses the concept of trapping small amounts of atoms in a very small area, and super cooling them very close to absolute zero. At this temperature the quantum effects of the atom take over, and can be observed and maybe even harnessed.

 Atom Chip
A close up of an atom chip by The Atom Chip Lab at Ben-Gurion University

This is where Atom chips come in. They are not the only way to practice cold atoms by any means, but it is becoming a popular method to practice the art. The popularity is down to how small the overall circuit is, and the lower amounts of instrumentation needed to drive it. That being said, they are also more temperamental, and much more sensitive to things like noise. The way to trap atoms in an area is to use electric, magnetic and optical fields, all these things have control of the location and activity of the atoms. Atom chips use these three fields to confine, control and manipulate the cold atoms. If you imagine a normal Integrated Circuit (IC), the electrons move through the surface, through things like transistors, capacitors and resistors. In Atom chips the atoms are trapped above the surface, and using forces that we can control, we manipulate their motion, and internal state. The electric, magnetic and optical fields come from small structures on the chip, sometimes protruding out.

Atom chip at Vienna University of Technology
Another example of an atom chip at TU Wien. Credit: Vienna University of Technology

The area that the atoms are held in is often around 1 micrometer squared, and the amount of atoms is around 10,000. This is a surprisingly small amount when you think about it, that’s the amount of students you would find at most universities. The atoms are held at a few hundred nano Kelvin, and due to their design are often well isolated from the warm solid state environment around it. This allows their quantum state to remain undisturbed for tens or even hundreds of seconds. This is partly the basis of modern Atomic clocks. In fact the atoms used are usually the same, strontium or cesium. When you see images of modern atomic clocks, there usually is some sort of atom chip controlling the cold atom cloud directly. This is down to the ease of both reducing the size and complexity of the clocks without impacting the resolution of the clock circuit itself.

Cold Atoms Lab ISS
An artists impression of the Cold Atoms Lab on the International Space Station. Using techniques similar to the ones mentioned here. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The basis of the trapping part of the circuit uses something known as a magnetic trap (sometimes known as a micro trap). Imagine a wire, for the moment we will imagine it it straight. When a current is induced through it a magnetic field is created around it, a bit like a tube moving round the wire at a certain distance. This is the red line on the diagram below. As you learnt in physics class, the intensity of that magnetic field is directly proportional to the current running through the wire. Control the current then we control the magnetic field. In a magnetic trap there is also another magnetic field induced across the entire experiment, that we can assume is constant and uniform. This is represented by the green line, and is called B. Although there is only one green line, The magnetic field ie everywhere, but the green line is the bit we really care about. Now it took me a while to visualise this, but these two magnetic fields interact, and add up. So if the wire magnetic field is travelling the same way as the field B at any point then the magnetic field gets stronger, if the magnetic field oppose then the field will get weaker at that point. This means there is a magnetic gradient across the entire experiment.

The point we care about is where the magnetic field is zero, meaning the wires magnetic field is equal to, and opposing the field B. As the magnetic field from the wire gets less as it gets further away from the wire, there is a point at a certain radius (R on the diagram) away from the wire where this is the case. The atoms used want to be in the lowest energy state, and are trying to get away from the magnetic field, so it will “seek out” the point with the minimum magnetic field. in this case, the point R distance away from the wire. The wire now has a single line of trapped atoms R distance away from it. Now imagine that wire is bent into a circle with a radius of R. All those atoms are no longer trapped in a line, but now at a single point in the center of the wire. In practice to get the required magnetic field strength it will be a coil rather than a single wire, but the concept is the same. You now have a collection of atoms trapped in a small area defined by you, to do an experiment. Most of the time the atoms are then super cooled with lasers, or trapped and compressed further. This allows experiments with Bose Einstein Condensates, and potential to make quantum “qbits” for quantum computers, but that is a post for another day.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, physics or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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LM3909 – An IC Just to Flash an LED

So during my placement year I was getting really into old electronics, and old IC’s, especially those no longer in production. We were also on a project where we were trying to design a circuit that would flash an LED for a short period of time from the charge on a small super capacitor. The big issue we had was how to minimise current flow, and power an LED at really low voltages, less than 2V. This on the face of it seems like a simple problem, until you start to think about it.

Million Mile Light
Products like the Million Mile Light, a flashing low powered, high brightness LED indicator need to flash for long periods of time on very little charge, much like the problem I faced. Credit: Million Mile Light

There are two go to ways that most engineers would go with to make a flashing LED with a constant flash rate. First is to use a small microcontroller, such as an ATTiny, or a Pic12F series, and use software to flash the LED. This seems good on the surface (and it is what we used in the end product) but it has a big drawback, it can only output a voltage less than the power rail. some versions of the PIC12LF’s can function down to 1.8V, perfect for our power supply needs, but LED’s need upwards of 2.7V (usually) before they start to light, so although our micro will work the LED wont. The second go to way to make an LED flash would be to use the classic 555 timer, one of the most manufactured chips of all time. There is a good reason it is famous, it is extremely versatile. You can decide the frequency based purely on the capacitor and resistor choices. We still have a similar drawback though, a 555 timer needs at least 4.5v as a power supply. So with our potential sub 2V power supply, neither the IC or the LED will turn on. That is one way to conserve energy!

A cut out from the datasheet, with a basic view of the circuit inside the IC, which I will go through in another post, and a pinout diagram, very useful for prototyping. Credit: National Semiconductor.

This is where the LM3909 came in to play. You have to remember that this chip was developed prior to 1995 (so it is older than me) when the electronics market was very different. Battery technology was not the same, and nowhere near as cheap. It was much more common for people to want to use off the shelf single use batteries such as AA, C and D batteries, or even coin cells in most projects. If you wanted something with a little flashing light on it there were plenty of applications for it. There are buoys in the ocean, store signs and displays, and Christmas lights, all of which would benefit from minimising weight of batteries, but lasting for serious amounts of time. Just as a reference, you could get to 4.5V (to power a 555) by using 3 AA batteries, but the voltage across them would soon dip below this, so you would need at least 4 in most applications. 4 AA batteries take up a lot of space, and weight, not great for many of these applications. Plus most of the chips we have discussed use a fair amount of power, the 555 uses at least 3mA while running, not including the dissipation in the resistors, and all of the power charging the capacitor wasted.

1.5v schematic
A snippet of the datasheet, showing the simplest connection diagram, and a graph of typical current consumption with relation to the battery voltage. It also has a great table describing how long standard batteries tend to last in this configuration, up to 2 years! Credit: National Semiconductor.

So how does the LM3909 solve these issues? well it makes use of a clever concept similar to the 555 of charging up a capacitor. The difference is that the 3909 uses that charge in the capacitor to flash the LED. Although it is slightly more complex than the below schematic, you can think of it as there being a switch inside that oscillates between two states. We will go through how it actually works in a future post. To start with the capacitor is in series with the battery, and in parallel with the LED. The LED wont light, but the capacitor charges up to near the power supply voltage. Once charged, the switch inside flips, and now the power supply, charged capacitor, and LED are in series with each other. To the LED it now sees the capacitor (charged to 1.5V) plus the 1.5V power supply, equivilent to 3V, more than the forward voltage it needs to turn on. As there is a very small resistance, the LED will be on as long as the capacitor has some charge, which isn’t very long as it will discharge fairly quickly. This is the “flash”, as once the cap is discharged the LED will turn off, and the switch will flip back. The capacitor starts charging again, and the whole process restarts. This goes on for as long as the battery has power to give.

Rob Paisley
A great description of the basic principle of how the LM3909 works, charging the capacitor up, and then releasing all that energy through the LED, with increased voltage. Credit: Rob Paisley.

A couple of points to note, the timing and the brightness of the flashing is based upon the capacitor you use, which is quite clever. There are two settings, depending in the pin you put the capacitor in will also double (or halve) the time the cap will take to charge. This means slower flashing, but longer lifetime. Having a smaller capacitor will mean faster, but less bright flashing, and a bigger cap will therefore be slower and much brighter flashing. The design of the chip also means that only two external components are needed for it to work, a capacitor and the LED, compared to the many resistors and extra cap needed on things like a 555 timer. The fact it can use less than 1.5V power source means we can use a single AA battery to power this device, and according to the data sheet it can last up to 6 months on one battery! I have one on my desk that has lasted longer than this.

my LM3909 circuit
My version of this circuit fit into a AA battery box, with it being powered by a single AA battery. It has a switch meaning I can turn it on and off. Poundland LED lights are a good source of these!

All in all I can see why National Semiconductor decided to make this chip, it filled a gap, and was used widely for a long time. Developments in battery technology, and more complex designs needed for the applications this was for has meant that they no longer make the LM3909, but they are still available on Ebay and some Chinese manufactures make them. There is also a design out there to make a discrete version of the LM3909, and I may try that for a future post, as it looks interesting.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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Locating Where a Sound is Coming From

For my masters year, half the marks came from one module, the masters project. Being a team effort, we were in a group of three. Putting our heads together, and taking ideas from lecturers, we made a list of potential projects. We knew for one that I wanted to be making hardware, and the other two wanted to use/learn machine learning and maybe FPGA’s. After much deliberation we decided to make a project that listened for a sound, and using time difference of arrival worked out where the sound came from. This post is mostly about the hardware and circuitry designed for the project.

The final board for our masters project. Contains four amplifier sections for the microphones and a micro controller with USB interface.

With a world with a big focus on safety in public places, we thought it would be a good product for the security industry, potentially with links to smart cities. Imagine a shopping center, somewhere with lots of security already. They tend to have lots of security cameras, alarm systems and a dedicated guard. This isn’t uncommon in big public places/attractions, especially in the UK. Sports stadiums, train stations and museums are always looking for new ways to protect themselves and isolate problems. The example that inspired us was the horrendous shooting in Las Vegas at a concert in October 2017, just as we were picking projects. The main problem was that the security services did not know where the shooter was, meaning it took longer to get to him. If they had a system like we envisaged, the microphones would pick up the sound and triangulate it. The location could then be sent to relevant authorities to use.

The front page of the New York times just days after the Las Vegas shooting

To start with we needed microphones. We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, and microphones can be easily bought off the shelf. For ease we used standard stage microphones, that had 3-pin XLR outputs. Although we had been warned that they would not work they had a good omnidirectional pattern, and had lots of good documentation. One issue with them is the output is balanced, which means it needs to go through a pre-amp. To get an idea of what a balanced signal is, imagine a ground connection and two signals. The two signals are the same, but one is inverted. This means when it travels down the cable it is much less susceptible to interference. This is part of the reason we liked using stage rated equipment, as sound engineers have already worked out issues with transporting sound signals long distances through noisy situations. We concluded from research that the signals could reach over 100m, which was the number we were aiming for.

One of the pre-amplifier sections used on the board, using four operational amplifiers.

Once the signal got to the box it needed to be converted to a signal that could be read by an ADC. To do this we used an INA217, a pre-amp designed for basically this purpose. An instrument amplifier, it measures the difference between the signals and amplifies them, outputting a voltage with reference to ground. The signal from the microphone is tiny, in the tens of milivolts range, so it needed some dramatic amplification to get it near the 5V ADC. The INA217 did a good job but we put a second stage amplifier to give it the extra push, as very large gains can sometimes be bad for a number of reasons. We used an OP07D but if we were to do it again we would get a rail-to-rail to get better results. This amp had a pot as one of the gain resistors so that we could easily trim the gain depending on test. Finally, the signal at this point sat between -2.5V and +2.5V so we needed to shift it up so it was between 0 and 5V. This was done with a simple shift circuit and an amplifier. We used another OP07D to make buying easier.

Me manufacturing the PCB, at this point I was inspecting to see how well it had been soldered.

From here the signal gets read by the 12 bit ADC in an STM32 microcontroller. It then streams the data via the USB to a PC where MATLAB picks it up. This is where my knowledge is a bit lacking as I did not make it. In essence MATLAB uses a machine learning algorithm that had listened to over 1000 gunshots, screams and explosions. It has categorized them, and used a number of features to notice the difference. Then when playing a new sound of one of these things (not heard by it before) it categorizes it and outputs it to the user. It also used a selection of sounds from the background to know when there is not one of these events happening, else there will false negatives.

One of our set ups to get a useful output and test the amplifiers were working properly.

All in all the project did actually work. It detected gunshots and screams being played into the microphone, and the triangulation algorithm worked, just not in real time. We managed to win the best masters project, mainly because we had good quality hardware, a partially working system and a good business case behind it. There is a lot of scope of where this project could go, and many things that could be improved, but we were happy with how it came out. I may be able to use some of the circuitry on other projects, who knows. If you are interested in more of the project, maybe some more detail about the hardware or manufacture, comment or message on Twitter. Thanks for reading.

A good example of how much difference there is between the microphones when a big sound was made. Minute distances made a big time difference.

Considerations When Making a Current Shunt Sensor

For battery powered projects, current consumption is a really important consideration when designing the circuitry. While designing my final year project I spent a huge amount of time researching how to put together a simple current sensor. Considering most applications for me are DC, fairly low current and low voltage, the most obvious design is to make a current shunt. The basic idea of a current shunt is that you put a very low value resistor between the circuit you want to measure and ground, and measure the voltage across it. When one side is of the shunt resitor is ground it is low side, there are also high side versions but are mlre complex. As the resistor has a small resistance, there will be a low voltage drop (usually mV) across it meaning it shouldn’t affect the load circuitry. The voltage will also be proportional to the current running through it, meaning if you measure it, and do the right maths you can get a consistent and reliable current reading. This post is about how to get that tiny voltage into 1’s and 0’s, while thinking about the considerations that have to be made about the design to make it accurate and reliable in the environments you want.

Final Year Project
My final year project needed current sensors on the motors as well as monitoring the drain on the battery.

The first thing that needs to be decided is the shunt resistor itself. A shunt resistor is basically a low value resistor, with very tight and known tolerance usually with a fairly high power rating. It can be used in AC and DC circuitry, with the concept behind it being that as a current flows  though it, a voltage is induced across it. The voltage can then be measured and using a simple calculation (based on ohms law) converted into a value for current. The value of the resistor depends on what it is measuring and what is measuring it. Start with what is measuring it. If you are like me, it is likely that it will be read by an ADC, probably on a 5V or 3V3 microcontroller. The voltage across the resistor is going to be amplified between 10 and 100 times (we will get to why in a moment) so pick a maximum voltage within that range. I tend to go with 100mV maximum voltage drop, which for a 5V ADC would require an amplification of 50. Then, take the maximum value of current you want to be able to measure. You can then use ohms law to figure the resistance you need. For example if I wanted to measure 1A, the resistor would be 100mV/1A = 100 mohm. Now we know the resistor value, use the power equation to work out the power eating we want. For this example we would need P = I V = 1 x 0.1 = 100mW. This is the minimum power rating you need, I personally would get a 250mW or even a 500mW just to keep the temperature of the circuit down.

The simple equation to work out what sizesunt resistor to use. Credit: Texas Instruments 

Now we have a voltage that will be somewhere between 0 and 100mV with reference to ground. We want this value to be scaled up to 0 to 5V. To do this we are going to use an operational amplifier. There are plenty out there, and most people have their favourites and I’m not here to convince you otherwise. I tend to use an op amp that I am using somewhere else in the circuit to make life easier. There are a few things you do need from an op amp in this circuit though, it needs to be rail to rail, and have a low input offset voltage. Offset voltage in an op amp is the voltage difference on the inputs, and even though they are tiny differences they can have a big effect because we are amplifying small voltages, and any noise or offset will be amplified too. The op amp needs to be in a simple non inverting configuration. The equations needed to design this are in most first year textbooks and there are plenty of calculators online. I have set a gain of 50 in my calculation, which is in the fairly common range. The output of the amplifier can then go straight straight into an ADC to be measured.

The basic layout of a current shunt sensor showing where the shunt resistors and gain resistors go in the circuit. Credit: Texas Instruments 
The first version of my current sense test circuit, using an OP170 made by TI.

Now let’s look at a few places where errors can come into a design like this. There are two types of errors that occur in a circuit like this, gain error and offset error. A gain error is one where the output error gets further away from the ideal output as the current gets higher. An offset error is one that has the same amount of error whatever the input, just like an offset. The only common source of offset error in a circuit like this is from the offset error in the op amp discussed previously, solved with an improved choice of amplifier. The gain errors are usually due to a difference in resistance from the ideal. Many things can cause this, one is the tolerance of the resistor used, we want to use a precision resistor of 1% or less tolerance. Another cause could be temperature changes in the resistor itself, it may be next to a large MOSFET or other hot component, or could have too low of a power rating making it heat up, wither way a change in temperature means change in resistance. Layout can also be an issue, if tracks are too thin or too long they can add extra unwanted resistance.

Great graphs showing the difference between gain an offset error. Credit: Texas Instruments.

If you want to add a bit of fancyness into the project, or really need to measure down to low currents, you need to tackle the zero-current error. The problem is that when using an op amp, even a rail to rail one, it never quite reaches the power rails. Even the best ones can only get within 100mV or so of the power rails, this is known as saturation. Solving this involves moving the power rails slightly so the saturation point is less than ground. If you have a negative voltage rail you can use that but home projects tend to be single supply, so we need another power source. This can be made using a voltage inverter (a type of charge pump). Usually only needing an external capacitor to work, they are cheap and easy to integrate into a project. I used a LTC1983, which creates a negative 5V rail, but there are plenty of others such as the LM7705. Research what fits your circuit and cost point, and just attach the negative output to the negative supply rail of the op amp.

 A great graph showing how the zero current error occurs, and what it would look like if you tested it. Credit: Texas Instruments.

Most issues with error can be fixed during the hardware design phase. You can pick better op amps, such as ones designed to combat offset voltage. Some amplifiers have internal calibration procedures, and some such as chopper stabilizers are specifically designed to correct these problems. You can also use a potentiometer instead of a power resistor, but they are more susceptible to temperature and can be knocked. Another way is to fix issues in software by creating a calibration procedure. Using a calibrated precision current source and a multimeter, measure the reading of the ADC and compare the value to the reading from the instruments. You should get an offset and gain value that can then be used to calibrate the sensor.

A simple set up that I used to calibrate an early sensor, with a big power resistor as the load and a variable power supply to change the current. Marked down to put into calibration.

I would suggest trying out a few of these sensors in future projects, they don’t cost too much, and can be a valuable addition to a design. Especially for power sensitive devices, or smart sensors, this could be a better solution than an off the shelf or breakout board solution. If you want to hear more about my current sensor designs, and how well the testing and calibration went then comment or tweet at me. I already have some documentation that I may release at some point.

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Getting Ugly, Dead Bugs, and Manhattan Style

If you are anything like me, you love to build small circuits. I like to try and get my head around how things work by making it in front of me. This is usually in the form of breadboarding, but sometimes that doesn’t cut it, and soldering is needed. Veroboard tends to be my go to for building a simple circuit as something a bit more permanent, but it doesn’t always lend itself to certain designs. Take a design with lots of grounding points in the design, like an RF circuit, it can be difficult to have lots of ground strips everywhere, and the extra capacitance can mess with those high frequency signals. Also, designs with lots of different separate signal traces going round the board can make for a real pain. lots of slicing the traces, which tend to lead to mistakes. With my constant desire for order and straight lines, and pretty layouts this can get annoying quickly. Recently I have found a few new and simpler ways to throw together simple circuitry. For any budding electronic engineer, they are good skills to add to an arsenal.

A veroboard design of a hybrid microphone amplifier and level shifter I made for a recent project, prototyped on veroboard, many mistakes were made.

Ugly Circuits

As the name suggests, ugly circuits are not always the prettiest of designs. There are a few different definitions of what makes an ugly circuit, but my favourite is any circuit where the components are not completely mechanically connected to the substrate. The substrate usually being a copper clad board, but not always. This method can be a tricky one to master, as it is literally a balancing act. The prefered method that I see this being used is having a single copper clad board as a giant unobstructed ground plane. Two wire passives are usually the easiest to start with (standard resistors/capacitors), soldering one side to ground, then soldering the other side to another component in the air. This means any point that is not grounded is usually floating physically in the air (but depending on how good you are it could have floating voltage too). This can be a big benefit to RF circuitry or circuits that need good solid grounding. The unobstructed copper clad board means anything connected to it has a great connection to ground. It is fairly easy to build simple passive filters, but gets very fiddly and fragile if you aren’t careful.

A very “haywire” circuit constructed in the ugly style by Rick Anderson – KE3IJ in 2006. An experimental stage of his AGC-80 Regan receiver.
Not sure on the origin of this one, but it is more chaotic rather than ugly. It is definitely in the ugly style.

Technically ugly circuits don’t have to have a substrate at all, although it makes life easier. There are plenty of examples out there of ugly circuitry that just connects pins to pins via small wires. As said before, it can be very fiddly to make a circuit like this, but it is much cheaper to make singles as there is no need for expensive copper clad board. Plus after plenty of practice one can get very good at doing it. The wires connecting the parts together can be part of the structure of the unit, and if designed correctly could be very strong. The construction method can be useful in certain circumstances, and as long as you have the components, it can be build easily with just a soldering iron and solder. Although there are some amazing looking circuits made from this method, the majority do earn the name of an ugly circuit. If you can make a pretty one I would love to see.

Nathanxl at the Electro music forums creates some amazing almost artistic music project using the ugly style, but they look incredibly hard to make.
An Arduino Uno made without any substrate, just wires and components. Made by Kimo Kosaka, it is not an ugly, but it uses an ugly style of construction.

Dead Bugs

No, this method does not actually use dead insects as a manufacturing material, but it may look like it. The idea is to take an IC, traditionally in a DIP package, and place it upside down on the substrate. Usually glueing, but not always, with the pins facing upwards, so it has the look of a dead bug. The pins can be bent to attach to the substrate if required, but they tend to be facing up. Taking many methods from ugly, the pins are usually directly connected to passives or wires to other chips. This means the mechanical connections are usually in the air. The benefit to this method is that you don’t have to waste time drilling holes in in the substrate, and can integrate IC’s into an ugly design fairly easily. If trying to use this method, just be weary that all the pins on the chip will be the wrong way round as it gets flipped when placed upside down. I recommend making your own diagram to go from to make life easier.

As you can see in this use of dead bug mixed with ugly construction made by JCHaywire is the chip flipped over and the pins moved about with all the connections floating in the air

Although not really dead bugs, the concept can be seen in many modifications of PCB’s. It is easy to order the wrong package or get sections of pins wrong when designing and ordering PCB’s, especially if you have manually made the part. So it is not uncommon to find upside down IC’s on prototype PCBs or even sometimes on short runs. That being said, anything smaller than a DIP or SOIC package can get very fiddly, and is difficult to hand solder, and will need some extra magnification. Don’t be deterred though, there are many examples of even QFN and even BGA devices being hand soldered in the dead bug form, with very thin gauge jumper wires. With plenty of practice and spares, it can be a useful method of saving money without having a new run of PCB’s.

A bodge on a PCB before the real chip arrives, a 6650 is being used in dead bug style to get the circuit working by Dave Curran.

Manhattan Style

This one is my favourite styles of circuit design on the cheap and quick, and if done right can be very pretty and efficient. The big issue with the ugly method is that it is difficult to create, and often difficult to follow, and horrible to document. Manhattan is an upgrade, using cut out sections of copper board as small islands, much like manhattan. This method means there are no connections floating in the air, as all points on a component are mechanically connected to copper clad in some way, even if it is only a small bit. This leads to generally a much nicer laid out board, that can easily be followed and replicated. It also allows for use of SMD components, which is possible with ugly, but very difficult. The small pads don’t have to be separate, they can simply be cut outlines on the same backplane, making the process cheaper, but get it wrong and it can get messy. I much prefer manhattan as a quick construction method, due to its neat look and ease of use. Another reason for the name Manhattan is the fact the capacitors and resistors tend to line up and are perpendicular to the substrate, looking a bit like tower blocks and skyscrapers like Manhattan itself.

A great example of Manhattan style soldering by Dave Richards. Solid copper substrate with QRPme pads to attach components together. 
Another impressive circuit in the Manhattan style by Dave Richards, this one is a high performance regen receiver, with a full write up on his blog.
An example by VE7SL – Steve of making his own pads for his amateur radio transmitters and receivers, using an Ebay punch to make the pads.

One step on from Manhattan style, and the final step before fully fledged PCB’s is a little known style called Pittsburg, much like the steak. I have also seen it be called muppet style, and I am sure there are many other names for it. It is very similar to an actual PCB, usually etched, a layout is carved into the board, with traces and pads. The difference from a PCB is the fact there are no holes anywhere to be seen. Meaning you get the benefit of being able to etch a nice looking layout at home, and the benefit of not needing expensive routers/drills that quickly break. To allow for the pads to be soldered to as the main mechanical connection they are much bigger to allow for more solder on a bigger surface area. These pads would be overkill for a thru hole project, but also allows for easy use of SMD components. You can sometimes see specialist pads like Pittsburg to use SMD chips on a Manhattan style board. It is a matter of taste and confidence. These methods are obviously not suitable for all prototypes, but could come in useful for your next project. 

A Pittsburgh style PCB at one point sold by Joe Porter, unsure if they are still sold.

A good source of the small pads used in Manhattan can be found here. Reasonable price, and if you are doing lots of prototyping you can even buy the tools to make it yourself!

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or military history. If you are interested, follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

Semi Autonomous Robotic Platform

As part of my degree I had to complete a project as part of the third year in the field of robotics and electronics. I chose to make a robotic platform, a simple idea that could be completed to a high quality with the right amount of effort. What is a robotic platform I hear you ask? well it essentially is a small buggy/rover that that moves around an assigned area completing simple jobs such as transporting goods, picking up parcels or any job that needs a moving vehicle. Usually autonomous, and very expensive, the majority of systems are very application specific. Some simple systems without any sort of control system can cost tens of thousands of pounds, and are not easy for the average employee to operate. Tackling the problem of expensive, application specific robotic platforms was the basis of my project.

4WD robotic platform
The Nexus 4 wheeled drive mecanum robot has an arduino based control system, and mecanum wheels, but will set you back $1500

Named the Semi Autonomous Robotic Platform, the idea was very simple, make a modular system, with building blocks that could be easily interchanged, and didn’t cost the world. These modules were things like motor controllers, sensors and power systems. If a user had a working platform built from this system, it would take minimal effort to swap out any of these modules to bigger motors or better sensors. This means a user can make a robot and only buy the bits they need, and even make their own modules, as long as they fit to the standard written as part of the project.

system block diagram
The initial block diagram of the system, showing how the modules can be controlled in hierarchy structure.

In most robotic systems, mainly to keep costs cheap, there is one controller that controls everything. This idea makes sense for small integrated systems that don’t need to change, but doesn’t really work when systems need to be dynamic. For instance, say you decide that your DC motors driving your robot aren’t giving you the control you want. You source some stepper motors, but this means completely changing the motor controller and therefore the software that controls it. Because one controller is in charge of everything, the software for the whole system needs to be re-written, and re-tested. That small change could have affected any of the other systems that that controller is in charge of. Make a change that breaks something important, you could set back a project weeks. This shows how painful a setup like this can be, especially when it starts to become a complex robot. Add on top of that the potential for computer intensive algorithms being used on the robot, like route planning or SLAM, and that controller suddenly has a lot to do. My system design separates these jobs out to a selection of individual controllers, such as a system specifically for motor control, or power systems. These controllers can deal with the nitty gritty hardware, and leave the master controller to orchestrate a higher level version of control.

Final Year Project
My design, near the end of the project, with the mecanum wheels, ultrasonic sensors and multiple controllers.

The added benefit of separating out all these jobs means that multiple engineers can work on the same robot, at the same time on different areas and not be worried about breaking the other person’s design. The system specification defines how the modules interact in terms of communication speeds/type, the way to alert other modules and how those communications are scheduled. The master controller (shown in the system block diagram in green) schedules all these communications and decides which modules need specific information. Warnings, control signals and user inputs are all calculated and scheduled, then communicated to and from the required modules. A power system doesn’t care that a user has pressed a button to scroll through an LCD screen, and the master controller means it doesn’t see it.

The above video shows how the robot moves with its mecanum wheels, and how it can easy move around environments. I will explain the more technical parts of the project in a later post, but this simple idea became a very heavy hardware based project, rather than the software project it started as. I learnt about mechanical design, PCB design and good techniques associated with electronic design. For these reasons, the robot won the “Best Project” award for 2017. Thank you to: Cubik Innovation for help with electronic design, and providing PCBs, VEX Robotics for donating the wheels, and Altium Designer for providing their electronic design software. I would not have been able to produce the robot I did without them.

How Going To The Moon Kick-started the Silicon Age

In the late 1950’s, there were three people who were at the epicenter of a huge breakthrough in the world of electronics, the invention of the Integrated Circuit (IC). Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments, Kurt Lehovec of Sprague Electric Company, and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor. In August 1959, Fairchild Semiconductor Director of R&D, Robert Noyce asked Jay Last to begin development on the first Integrated Circuit. They developed a flip-flop with four transistors and five resistors using a modified Direct Coupled Transistor Logic. Named the type “F” Flip-Flop, the die was etched to fit into a round TO-18 packaged, previously used for transistors. Under the name Micrologic, the “F” type was announced to the public in March 1961 via a press conference in New York and a photograph in LIFE magazine. Then in October, 5 new circuits were released, the type “G” gate function, a half adder, and a half shift register.

The Type F flip flop
Junction-isolated version of the type “F” flip-flop. The die were etched to fit into a round TO-18 transistor package

Type F life image
Physically-isolated Micrologic flip-flop compared to a dime from LIFE magazine March 10, 1961

These first few integrated circuits were relatively slow, and only replaced a handful of components, while being sold for many times the price of a discrete transistor. The only applications that could afford the high prices were Aerospace and Military systems. The low power consumption and small size outweighed the price drawbacks, and allowed for new and more complex designs. In 1961, Jack Kilby’s colleague Harvey Craygon built a “molecular electronic computer” as a demonstration for the US Air Force to show that 587 Texas Instruments IC’s could replace 8,500 discrete components (like transistors and resistors) that performed the same function. In 1961, the most significant use of Fairchild Micrologic devices were in the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). It was designed by MIT and used 4,000 type “G” three input NOR gates. Over the Apollo project, over 200,000 units were purchased by NASA. The very early versions were $1000 each ($8000 today) but over the years prices fell to $20-$30 each. The AGC was the largest single user of IC’s through 1965.

apollo guidance computer logic module
Apollo logic module assembled by Raytheon to be used in the AGC

Type G micrologic
Philco Ford also produced the Fairchild Type ‘G’ Micrologic gate for the Apollo Guidance Computer – this is the flat pack verison

Note that although Fairchild designed and owned the type “G” device, they were mostly made by Raytheon and Philco Ford under licence from Fairchild. Over this time many semiconductor manufacturers such as Texas Instruments, Raytheon and Philco Ford were also making large scale silicon production for other military equipment. These included the LGM-30 Minuteman ballistic missiles, and a series of chips for space satellites. This major investment from the government and the military kick started the development of the increasingly complex semiconductor, and eventually forced the prices low enough for non military applications. The processes improved and by the end of the Apollo program, hundreds of transistors could be fitted into an IC, and more complex circuits were being made. Eventually the costs of adding more transistors to a circuit got extremely low, with the difficulty being the quality of manufacturing. It could be argued that NASA and the Pentagon paved the way for silicon device production as we know it today.

Four Bit Carry Adder/Subtractor Circuit

After creating my 1 bit full adder design found in a previous post, I decided to go for something a little more complicated. I wanted to prove to myself that the ripple carry system worked, so the obvious choice is to make a multi bit device. 4 bits seemed like a good amount, it’s a value used in some early ALU’s so it can be used in a future project. To make it more interesting I added in the ability to make the device a Subtractor at the same time. When you look at the schematic, it only requires one more device per adder, so it’s not even an expensive thing to implement, but adds lots of functionality. As with the 1 bit adder, I have attempted to build this adder using only single logic chips.

4 bit adder-subtractor circuit

The first stage is to know the logic circuit, its widely known and can be found pretty easily all over the web. I’m not going to explain how it’s created (I can always make a separate post on that) but I can describe how to use it. The aim is for the device to take two 4 bit inputs (0 – 15), along with a carry from another adder. So the adder needs to be able to output a value between 0 and 31. In binary this can be shown as 5 bits, so we have 2 outputs. This the S output is a 4 bit bus, and the Co output bumps this up to the 5 bits we need to make 31. A truth table can be made for this but it would be 32 lines long, so too much for this post. You could regard it as a personal challenge if you want to attempt it on your own.

So I got onto Altium and made a schematic of this circuit using some of the low voltage 7400 LVC series individual logic gates that I used on the previous adder I made. They come in SOT23-5 packages which are leaded a nice size to solder. Plus they are a size where it’s possible to probe the pins fairly easily. Luckily Altium shows the components as their logic symbols. Below I have shown the first two adders, the third and fourth are basically the same as the second one, which is the idea of the ripple carry adder.

The first two adders of the four found on the board

I also added a few LEDs to show what parts are on and off. This means the user can see the inputs and outputs. These LEDs run off the 5V input voltage, and have 220Ω current limiting resistors in series with them. Also, I have put in some 0.1 inch header pins so it can be attached into a breadboard and maybe even a micro.

The LEDs for the carry bits and outputs

The LEDs for the input bits

As a base of my circuit, I have decided on a double sided 100mm x 100mm board. This is quite big as you can see for the circuit I have made, but gives plenty of space for a soldering iron to get access. As well as this, it gives a nice amount of space for multimeter probes. I also tried to keep the individual logic chips in a similar arrangement as the schematic. This is meant to be used as a learning device, so it’s useful for the chips to line up with the diagram. The header pins for the inputs and outputs are placed on opposite sides of the board to make it more obvious for the user to see it. And the pins have designators written on the board so the user can see what each pin does. The input and output busses are placed in fairly logical places, and grouped together. There is no point having all the A inputs intertwined with the B inputs. The pins for the power and ground are on opposite sides with their own headers, only one needs to be connected for it to work. The LEDs that are directly attached to the pins are placed closer to the logic circuitry, but labeled clearly on the silkscreen. Most of the routing to the LEDs is on the underside of the board, else the top could get confusing. All the designators for components have been made half the normal size due to the small amount of parts used in the project. The below images show the PCB layout I created with the top copper being red, bottom copper being blue, and the silkscreen shown in yellow.

Top Copper

As you might be able to see, I have tried to keep all the power on the bottom side of the board. This leaves lots of space for the logic signals on the top, where the user is more likely to see. As you can see, most of the inputs and outputs of the circuit are also on the bottom side. This is because the way the busses work and input into the adder needs lots of crossing over and would add confusion into the design. This is why labels were used instead.

Bottom Copper

To make it easier to see, I made a larger image of the first and last adder in the series. As you can see, the only real difference in them is that the first has the add/subtract input shown by an LED, whereas the last shows the carry from the previous adder (C0). This is because the A/D bit is attached to all the adders, but the first bit doesn’t have a carry bit input. The carry on that adder is the input for the A/S. It serves the function of inverting the first bit, so that it works like 2’s complement when in subtract mode.

The layout of the first adder in the series

The layout of the last adder in the series

As noted above I used 7400 LVC series logic gates. The SOT23-5 package chips have the suffix of “BVD”. See the datasheets for each of the devices for more information. I have written a simple bill of materials below:

12x SN74LVC1G86DBVT – XOR gate
8x SN74LVC1G08DBVT – AND gate
4x SN74LVC1G32DBVT – OR gate
17x DO-214 LED’s
17x 0805 220Ω resistors
6x 5-pin 0.1″ header pins

The main downside to this type of adder is that is is very slow. Especially when you get to high bit amounts that you are trying to add. This adder will take at least 4 times as long as a single adder to add the two numbers together because the signal has to propage through 4 full adders. This problem is known as propagation delay, each logic chip will take a very short time to compute the output. Although this time is not perceivable by the human eye, if there are 100’s of logic gates in a row, then the delays start to add up and be a problem. If this circuit is to be used in a computer, it could need to make calculations thousands, or maybe millions of times a second, and a carry bit adder is not generally good at that. There are other, faster adders that I will show in a future post.

One Bit Adder Project

One thing that has always been interesting to me is using logic circuitry in electronics. It’s easy to implement something on a microcontroller in just a few lines of code, but the real challenge comes from making a boolean project using real logic gates. It’s something we all learn about if you have taken a basic computer science class, or even digital electronics. One of the first circuits you ever learn about is the adder. It’s pretty simple, teaches you how to cancel down boolean equations, and only has a few inputs and outputs. I have decided to try and make the circuit using real components, and see if I can get it to work.

full adder layout

The first stage is to know the logic circuit, its widely known and can be found pretty easily all over the web. I’m not going to explain how it’s created (I can always make a separate post on that) but I can describe how to use it. The aim is for the device to take two 1 bit inputs, along with a carry from another adder. So the adder needs to be able to output a value between 0 and 3. In binary this can be shown as 2 bits, so we have 2 outputs. The S output represents bit 1, and the Co output represents bit 2. Below is the truth table I used, if you want a little challenge, try and get the above circuit using boolean algebra.

A B Ci Co S
0 0 0 0 0
0 0 1 0 1
0 1 0 0 1
0 1 1 1 0
1 0 0 0 1
1 0 1 1 0
1 1 0 1 0
1 1 1 1 1

So I got onto Altium and made a schematic of this circuit using some of the low voltage 7400 LVC series individual logic gates. They come in SOT23-5 packages which are leaded and a nice size to solder. Plus they are a size where it’s possible to probe the pins fairly easily. Luckily Altium shows the components as their logic symbols.

1 bit adder 1 schematic

I also added a few LEDs to show what parts are on and off. This means the user can see the inputs and outputs. These LEDs run off the 5V input voltage, and have 220Ω current limiting resistors in series with them. Also, I have put in some 0.1 inch header pins so it can be attached into a breadboard and maybe even a micro.

1 bit adder 1 schematic

As a base of my circuit, I have decided on a double sided 50mm x 50mm board. This is quite big as you can see for the circuit I have made, but gives plenty of space for a soldering iron to get access. As well as this, it gives a nice amount of space for multimeter probes. I also tried to keep the individual logic chips in the same arrangement as the schematic. This is meant to be used as a learning device, so it’s useful for the chips to line up with the diagram. The header pins for the inputs and outputs are placed on opposite sides of the board to make it more obvious for the user to see it. The pins for the power and ground are on the same side on both headers. The LEDs that are directly attached to the pins are kept close to them, and the track is fairly obvious to show where the signal is from. The silkscreen labels which LED designates which input/output. All the designators have been made half the normal size due to the small amount of parts used in the project. The below images show the PCB layout I created with the top copper being red, bottom copper being blue, and the silkscreen shown in yellow.

1 bit adder 1 PCB top

As you might be able to see, I have tried to keep all the power on the bottom side of the board. This leaves lots of space for the logic signals on the top, where the user is more likely to see. As you can see, not all signals are on the top side due to circuit constraints, but signals that do swap over are generally short jump, and straight lines, This makes it more obvious where the tracks go without having to flip the board.

1 bit adder 1 PCB bottom

As noted above I used 7400 LVC series logic gates. The SOT23-5 package chips have the suffix of “BVD”. See the datasheets for each of the devices for more information. I have written a simple bill of materials below:

2x SN74LVC1G86DBVT – XOR gate
2x SN74LVC1G08DBVT – AND gate
1x SN74LVC1G32DBVT – OR gate
5x DO-214 LED’s
5x 0805 220Ω resistors
2x 5-pin 0.1″ header pins

How a Voltage Regulator Works: LM7805

Voltage regulators are one of the first electronic components you get introduced to as a hobbyist. Really useful when starting out, it simply takes a voltage that is too high, and reduces it down to a set voltage that you want, usually defined by the component. Solves the problem of having batteries or power supplies being a different voltage to the thing you are powering (such as your Arduino), and at as little as 50p from ebay they are easily acquired. Sounds like a great solution, but there is an issue, they are terribly inefficient. They are known to get very hot when used at high currents, and often need hefty heatsinks to stop the magic smoke from being released. To demonstrate why they get so hot we need to think about what happens during use. Remembering Kirchoff, the current going into a system is the same as the current going out of the system. If we use a simplified version of the regulator, the only thing this device changes is the voltage of the output. Due to the minimal current lost powering the circuit we assume the vast majority of power lost is in heat. Using the basic equation of:

Power (W) = Voltage (V) x Current (I)

So if we use an example of the LM7805 made by On Semiconductor (previously Fairchild) that can regulate 5V at 1A. It’s a pretty standard component, and is very typical of a voltage regulator.

If we use a 9V input the power going in is 9V x 1A = 9W.

The output power is 5V x 1A = 5W.

This means that there is 4W of power being dissipated from the regulator as wasted heat. This is a large amount when considering the size of the packages available. When thinking about problems excessive heat can cause in a circuit, it can quite easily damage itself and other components around it when not designed properly. It is why there are often big chunks of aluminium attached to the back of the components to act as a heat sink.

7805 chip in a TO-220 package. Notice the heat sink on the rear with a screw mount.

This post isnt meant to dissuade you from using regulators, they have their place in electronic circuits, and are a great starting point. All electronic engineers need to have a broad understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of linear voltage regulators to be able to handle them properly.

How it Works

LM78xx schematic 2 coloured
Schematic of the silicon inside an LM78xx device, coloured relating to the function of each area.

The above schematic can be found on the datasheet, but it’s been coloured in to show the different sections of the circuit.

The most important component in the above schematic is Q16 (Red), it controls the current between the input and output, therefore the voltage. It is placed in a darlington pair configuration with Q15 (Orange). In this configuration Q16 is amplifying the current amplified by Q15. This means that Q15 can be used to introduce error feedback. The Blue section contains a voltage divider that scales the output voltage so that it can be used by the bandgap circuit. This bandgap circuit is found in the yellow section (Q1 and Q6). This bandgap reference produces an error signal that is fed into Q7 (orange). A bandgap is used because it can provide a stable output even when the temperature of the device changes.

The orange section takes this error and amplifies it through Q15 and the darlington configuration described earlier. The purple section has overheating protection (Q13) and excessive output current protection (Q14). Occasionally on these schematics you also find excessive input voltage protection marked as Q19 in this section. These shutdown the regulator in fault conditions like overcurrent or getting too hot. The Green section is known as the “start up” circuit, because it provides the initial current needed to power the bandgap circuitry. This gives a jumpstart to the circuit when it needs it.

I chose the LM7805 because 5V is a common value to be used, but the LM78xx series has many different preset voltage versions. The bandgap circuit is trying to get its input to 1.25V, this is from the voltage divider found in the blue section. As R20 is a variable resistor, the voltage divider can be calibrated during manufacture to output exactly 1.25V at any chosen output voltage. This is great for a manufacturer because they make lots of the same chip, and it can be made to suit any voltage output they want. This is also similar to the way some adjustable voltage regulators work, such as the LM317. In adjustable chips, the voltage divider is made by the designer externally, meaning it can be applied to any situation with a simple change of resistors.

Basic Configuration

Looking at the datasheet, there are many applications for the device. but the simplest one is just an input and an output. All that’s needed is a couple of decoupling capacitors to smooth out AC signals and random noise. Voltage regulators work best with clean, smooth power. There is also the need, due to the voltage drop across the transistors, for the input voltage to be at least 2V above the required output. This is always a good rule of thumb to go by when it comes to regulators.

LM78xx basic configuration
LM78xx basic configuration

I would recommend people read the datasheet and have a play with different voltage inputs and current outputs, see how easy it is for it to get hot. In that datasheet there are some other good applications using the device, you can turn it into an adjustable voltage output, constant current supply and high current supply. These are also good projects for learning more about transistors and op amps. Equally, there are other types and brands of regulator out there, some cheap, and some quite expensive, it is worth shopping around for  the ones that suit you.