Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Summer Hackathon

Over the past year, I have not had as much time as I would have liked to devote to my electronics projects because I have been so busy with school. Hopefully I will be able to catch up this summer. My goal is to finish some projects I have already started on and start on some others I have been planning for a long time.

Here is a list of what I will be working on. Even though I probably won't have time to finish them all, these are my goals for the summer.

EEPROM Computer
As part of another project, I got interested in using an EEPROM lookup table to do four bit additions and ended up with this test setup. A 32 KB EEPROM can hold 64 tables, which is enough to implement all the op codes for a full CPU. Hopefully this will greatly reduce the amount of logic involved. All that should be needed are some counters, buffers, and a multiplexer.
So far I have finished most of a simulation in Atanua and started on a symbolic assembler. After I finish the assembler and have the simulation running, I will move everything to perfboard and program the op codes and source code into real EEPROMs.

8-bit Homebrew Computer
This project is something I have been thinking about for a long time. I won't say exactly how I plan to do it yet but looking on the internet I haven't found anything similar. It won't be possible to simulate this project in Atanua, so I plan to build it directly on a breadboard. The same assembler from the EEPROM Computer should be able to be changed to work for this also. I'm not sure yet whether it will be worth it to make a PC simulator for this project.

Brainfuck Micrcontroller
After I finished the simulation for this project, I did not do much more work on it. The simulated version is four bits and will have to be expanded to eight in the final hardware. The software for the project is very simple, as all it does is convert Brainfuck commands into simple op codes. 

Juggalo Robot
My brother and I started work on converting a remote control car into a robot. It will have a baby doll on top with moving arms and a rotating head. He decided to paint the doll's face and make the robot juggalo themed. He got motor drivers working with an Arduino for servos in the arms and a stepper for the head. My work so far has been to reroute motor control signals on the car from the motors to a microcontroller. That way another microcontroller in the remote control can send motor control signals over the radio, which the microcontroller in the car will intercept and interpret. Then it can activate the motors, servos, or stepper according to the signal sent by the remote. The hardware is mostly finished. All that's left is the software, which should be pretty simple. 

Last year we had a fun night doing projects with some SparkCores at our hackerspace and I decided to get a hold of an ESP8266. At $4 it was much cheaper than a SparkCore, even if it is not as easy to program. Unfortunately, I have not had time to even hook it up and try anything with it. One of my plans is to install it in a calculator for an idea I have been thinking about for a long time. One of the challenges will be getting it to connect correctly to WiFi at my university or local cafes. Another idea is to use it to program MSP430s or EEPROMs from my Chromebook, since it can't program them directly over USB.

Wireless Breadboard
This is a project I put a lot of thought into before I found out that it has already been done. My plan is to use IO expanders to control every row of a breadboard with a microcontroller. For rows that should be connected wirelessly, the microcontroller will read and relay signals to the appropriate row. This will be comparatively slow because the microcontroller will be bitbanging both the input and output of the IO expanders. Another project I saw used an FPGA, which would be much faster, but using IO expanders will hopefully be an acceptable solution, even if it is much slower.
All the connections between rows will be set on the PC, which is hopefully more convenient than plugging in wires. The main advantage will be monitoring the rows and displaying data in an easy to read way on the PC. This should really speed up debugging. Also, output signals can be controlled from the PC, so programming EEPROMs or other chips should be easy.

For my next 6502 project I want to use a CPLD for the address decoding. The ATF1508 is one of the few ones left in production that runs at 5 volts. It can be programmed over JTAG, so I started soldering a programmer that will use an MPS430. The chip comes in PLCC. so soldering the adapter will be a little inconvenient. My plan is to add LEDs and dip switches so I can test my designs after programming.

BASIC Interpreter
A couple of projects I would like to do eventually will need to run a BASIC interpreter. One of them is the wireless breadboard mentioned above. It would be better for new functionality, like device programming, to be done with some kind of script. That way, new scripts can be transfered to the chip at run time, instead of having to reflash the chip every time.

LCD Programming
Some of the upcoming projects will need an output of some kind. A four inch LCD should work well for the ones that a 20x4 character LCD isn't enough for. Hopefully I can get one kind of LCD going that will work for several of the projects. Another option is a 5.5 inch LCD I got a few years ago. It is much larger but requires -27 volts for contrast. This is not easy to generate, but if I can get it going, I will hopefully be able to buy several more pretty cheaply. It would work well with homebrew projects if I can get it working without a microcontroller. The STM32F429 board I have been working with also has an LCD that I would like to get going.

Improved 6502 Trainer
The 6502 Virtual Trainer was nearly finished when I stopped working on it months ago. It works really well, except that the max speed is just under 0.02 MHz. Now that I have my STM32 board running, I hope to port the code for the project from the MSP430. It ran the BCD multiply routine from the microcontroller comparison about 15 times faster, although that's probably not a good indicator of how much faster it would be for this project. There are a few changes to how UART works that might speed things up also. Another speedup will come from driving the GPIOs directly, instead of through IO expanders. Hopefully all of this together will give me the 50x speedup I need to hit 1MHz. At first I intend to make a board that will plug into the STM32 board directly and possibly use a UART cable for communication. When I figure out how to design PCBs I will make a standalone board with an STM32F429 and an FT232.

Improved RPN Calculator
For one of my friends I would like to remake my original RPN Scientific Calculator. This time I will use an LPC1114, which will allow me to copy numbers to the chip's memory before calculating. This should greatly increase calculation time because the external memory won't have to be accessed during any calculations. This will also make the firmware smaller. It should easily fit into the 32 KB the chip has, so two microcontrollers won't be necessary. Also, I would like to use a 23LC1024 SPI SRAM this time instead of parallel RAM. Altogether, the circuit should be very small.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

GCC for STM32F429

About a year ago I bought a Discover kit from ST. This one has an STM32F429, which is an ARM M4 running at 168MHz with 256 KB of RAM and 2MB of Flash. This seemed like the beefiest microcontroller I would need for a long time. It also has a 2.4" LCD and an external 64 Mbit SDRAM. At only $24 it seemed like a really good deal.

Last year when I had some free time, I tried to get a blinky program running for the board without much luck. The example I found had a makefile but I could not get make to work with it. For one, it could not find the rm utility to delete files. Since then I have found out that utilities like these can be installed on Windows also.

Next, I tried getting GCC working with Eclipse. For all other microcontrollers I use Code::Blocks, but the tutorials I found used Eclipse. One tutorial had no less than 25 steps to get it working, which is absolutely ridiculous if all you want to do is blink an LED. Good for the author of the blog for being so extensive but I wish ST offered an easy way to get GCC working just to get started. Another option many websites pointed to was Sourcery CodeBench. There is a free version for five different processors but the ARM version is no longer free. Next, I tried OpenSTM32. This is the Eclipse IDE prepackaged with GCC and everything needed to compile. It installed fine but when I tried to update it, the installation failed. Using the old version, I tried to generate a new project using the Standard Peripheral firmware, which for some reason is not included in OpenSTM32. The download for that also failed. Next up was Keil. It seems to work well but I do not like being limited to only 32 KB of firmware. App note 230 from Keil shows how to get it working with the STM32F4 Discovery board, which is similar to the board I have. The app note shows how to use the Pack Installer in version 5.10 of the MDK software to download a blinky program or another blinky program based on an RTOS with threads. Unfortunately, the blinky program the entire app note is based on is completely missing from the packages in version 5.14 of MDK. There doesn't seem to be any way to install a simple example without the added complications of an RTOS, which is certainly overkill for blinking LEDs.

What I settled on in the end was a set of GNU ARM Eclipse Plug-ins. There is only one thing to install in Eclipse and the plug-ins generate everything from a wizard. The included blinky program is set to work with the STM32F4 Discovery board, but it compiled and ran fine after I changed the LED pin defines. To upload I used ST-LINK, which is also quirky in that it does not actually use the file you select in the Program window. Instead it uses the last file that was "loaded," so if you select a file then recompile, it will not actually use the new version. This is annoying and took a while to figure out. After I was sure I had things working right, I set Eclipse to upload with ST-LINK automatically after each compile.

To test the new setup, I ran the BCD multiply test from the microcontroller comparison. Since I'm on vacation and don't have all my other stuff, I timed it with a stopwatch and got about 24 seconds. This is five times faster than the LPC1114, which is pretty good. Next, I would like to design an improved version of the 6502 Virtual Trainer with this chip.

Monday, May 4, 2015

4x4 Full-Adder EEPROM Lookup Table

My first use for the EEPROM programmer I have been working on is a lookup table. This will be for another project I have not started on yet. Before I plan much more for that, I wanted to make sure my idea would work. This project will need to add and subtract 8 bit numbers and a lookup table is one way to do that. The 8k EEPROMs I'm using have 13 address lines which allow four pairs of bits to be added with a carry bit. When I first started I fed the carry output of each pair into the carry input of the next pair. This wasted outputs and inputs. It probably would have taken a long time for the carries to propagate also. Now, it only needs nine inputs and the remaining four could be used to select functions other than adding. The data in the EEPROM was simple to generate with a small script that calculates all possible input combinations.