DIY Electronics

ProFPGA unveils FPGA prototype boards

ProFPGA came out of stealth at the Design Automation Conference (DAC 2012) in San Francisco with a technology agnostic hardware system for developing FPGA prototype. ProFPGA is a spinoff from ProDesign Europe (, located in Germany. The system that can be used with Xilinx or Altera FPGAs and can be implemented with any commercially available development tool, including those from Synopsys, Xilinx or Altera.

Teen robotics team learns realities of high-tech product development

By Lou CoveyNew Tech Press Editorial Director

The FIRST national robotics championship brings together teams from high schools and high school districts from all over the US to solve a particular set of challenges every year.  At this year's competition in St. Louis, Missouri, the week of April 23, the teams will work cooperatively in a series of 3-on-3 basketball games using homegrown robots, mostly student designed.

One of the veteran groups, Team 100 from the Sequoia Union High School District in San Mateo County, California is going to the competition as a "wild card" participant.  The team has had a long experience in the competition going back to 1995 (national champion.)  In the path toward their current creation, the team found that what the basic design provided was not sufficient for the task.

Woodside High School junior Andrew Blatner, part of the electronics engineering crew for Team 100, said the standard CAN bus (controller area network) that the teams use in their projects was insufficient to deal with the communication between motor controllers.  The team attempted to use a workaround that converted the ethernet signals.  "That still didn't solve all the problems we were having in competition so we switched to direct communication to individual controllers."

Team advisor Laura Rhodes said another problem was a limitation on the number of inputs the project needed, so one of the team members, Ethan Anderson, Woodside High School senior, brought up the idea of using an Arduino development board to expand the available number of inputs.  Anderson had some experience using Arduino in personal home projects and several advisors had additional input based on their experience.

A remarkable aspect of the project is how it mirrored problem solving efforts experienced by professional product development teams, as in the software phase of the project.  Connor Wake, Sequoia High School senior and part of the software sub-team, said several new aspects of the competition created unique software control issues.  The team decided early on to switch from National Instruments Labview to Wind River C++ to handle the use of cameras, motor controls for shooting the ball at different angles and speeds and to control intakes to avoid jamming.  New team members had to be trained in the use of the tools and legacy code integrated.

What was unusual in the project development was the lack of "walls" between the sub teams. Wake spoke in detail of the various mechanical aspects of the robot, and Anderson demonstrated more than a working knowledge of the software difficulties.

Rhodes said the goals of Team 100 students have always been to acquire real–life skills and gain hands-on engineering experience. Originally, the team consisted of solely of Woodside High School students, but in 2003, a large group of students from Carlmont High School, a neighboring district school, joined the team, soon becoming a permanent addition. During recent seasons, Sequoia High School students have also been added to the roster, creating the current tri-school team. The team's primary sponsor is DreamWorks P.D.I.


UBM survey shows interesting trends in prototyping

UBM released some of the findings of its annual Embedded Study at a special press breakfast on Tuesday at Design West, with some fascinating potential for engineers looking to make the "next big thing" in electronics. The first surprising bit of information is that 26 percent of the respondents reported they were using in-house and Linux-based RTOSes with grow-your-own systems jumping 30 percent.  This is bad news for proprietary commercial providers who have traditionally seen in-house software as its primary competitor.  The primary reason for the jump is the engineers prefer software where they can access the full source code.  That one bit of information should be good news for commercial provider Micrium (element14 supplier) that does offer the source code.

More importantly for developers is the news for Arduino.  The survey asked what chip the are considering using in their next project and 15 percent said Arduino boards.  Holland said the respondents may not have understood the question, since Arduino is not a chip but a board, but a couple of slides later, Holland pointed out that the number of engineers planning on using an FPGA in their next project dropped... by about the same number of engineers.  One could make the correlation that Arduino development boards are replacing FPGAs at least in prototyping.

After the breakfast, Jeff Jussel, senior director for technical marketing at element14, said he could see that correlation when you look at the rising sale of Arduino boards from element14.  "It makes sense," he stated.

Raspberry Pi to narrow Digital Divide?

By Lou CoveyEditorial Director 

The effort to close Digital Divide -- the separation between those who can and can't afford access to the Internet -- has been a point of frustration for government and social activists for more than a decade. However, the rousing success of the Raspberry Pi computer launch on Leap Day could significantly close the Divide with the right price point and distribution strategy and punch a hole in commercial efforts to derail low-cost computing.

The United Nations established the World Information Society Day (May 17) for the first time in 2001 and since then there has been a steady stream of programs and products aimed at closing the divide, from the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) non-profit organization to Intel's Classmate PC.  Even the popularity of netbooks and tablets demonstrated the demand for low cost "ports" to the internet.  None, however, have made a significant dent in the problem.  In the US, where the gap is the smallest, 22 percent of the population still lacks internet connectivity, a figure that has barely improved since 2000 (Internet World Stats).

Several issues continue to dog efforts to close the divide: usability, price and supply. OLPC entered into competitive issues with suppliers early on and is still struggling to bring the devices to below $100 without significant charitable and government subsidy.  Intel, in particular, cut ties with the organization over the price per unit and launched the Classmate PC with greater functionality, and made it difficult to the OLPC offerings to gain significant market presence.

The long-anticipated Raspberry Pi, however, smashed the $100 barrier with a $35, fully internet enabled, credit-card sized device, manufactured and distributed by several sources, including Premier Farnell.  The current version is in one, uncased configuration, powered by an ARM-based Broadcom system on chip, with two USB slots, 256MB of RAM, HDMI slot, SD memory card slot and an Ethernet port, running Fedora Linux OS.

The primary target for the device is education, especially below the college level, but according to Jeff Jussel of, Premier Farnell's engineering community, the foundation's wants to build an open user community of experienced engineers first, to provide essentially free resources for students to learn how to use the technology. "The Foundation really designed this for education - to give schools and students an exciting platform for rekindling interest in programming.  I think this is the most exciting computing platform for education since I had my first Apple IIe as a kid." (hear full interview with Jussel)

Hence the partnership with electronics distributors rather than chip and system manufacturers. Enter the first problem: While both the foundation and distributors anticipated a significant demand for the product, they had no idea how big it would be.

"We made a limited run," said Jussel, "just to see how fast they would go and we knew we would run out of inventory early on. We thought initially demand would be in the thousands."  That was an understatement.  Worldwide demand exhausted the inventory in two hours and caused the servers for both the distributors and the foundation to crash briefly.

"Demand was actually in the 10s of thousands," said foundation co-founder and executive director Eben Upton (hear interview with Upton).  "We knew we had something special.  We just didn't know how special."

Orders came in primarily from the developer community, as anticipated, leaving very little for education at the outset.  Upton admitted that marketing efforts to education have been focused almost exclusively to the United Kingdom where the government has provided significant support.  In the US, however, not only is Raspberry Pi seen as a misspelled dessert, alternatives like Beagleboard and Cotton Candy are also unknown outside of colleges.  New Tech Press contacted several secondary education technology leaders who did not know of any of the options.

Woodside High School in Redwood City, California has been nationally recognized for its innovative approaches to using and teaching technology, including being competitive in national robotics competitions has yet to use any of the options, and the faculty had not yet heard of Raspberry Pi. David Reilly, principal at WHS said options like Cotton Candy, in excess of $100 would be outside of the budgetary restraints of even the most well-off schools, but the $35 Raspberry Pi might actually been doable.

Jussel said Premier Farnell, through its element14 online community, will soon be launching a program in the US not only to raise awareness of the technology, but to get samples into the hands of educators by the beginning of the start of the new school year.

Once the education market is penetrated, Upton hopes the next step is attacking the Divide.  Upton said the foundation's program began 6 years ago to deal with an ever increasing lack of programming skills of students entering the Cambridge University computer sciences programs.  A study showed that many of the students had no regular access to computers prior to enrolling, a problem that seems to be increasing in families below the poverty level in developed countries.  The availability of a fully functioning, low-cost computing system could rapidly close the gap as long as students had the ability to learn how to use them.

In the US, according to the AC Nielsen company, low-income minority families are more likely to own smart phones and high-definition televisions, than middle income white families, but less likely to own a personal computer.  The families use the phones as their internet connection because the phone and data service are more cost effective than a high-speed cable connection.  Upton said the Raspberry Pi was specifically designed to be able to be plugged into a phone, keyboard and HDTV to keep the overall cost for the system below $100.

How can the engineering community and electronics industry use Raspberry Pi to help achieve the ultimate goal of closing the Digital Divide?  Join the conversation with your ideas at

Discrete converter design shortens time to market

An article from Texas Instruments discusses the use of isolated 3.3 to 5V converters in long distance data-transmission networks. The article states that although isolated DC/DC converter modules for 3.3 to 3.3V and 5 to 5V conversion are readily available on the market, 3.3 to 5V converters in integrated form are still hard to find. Even if a search for the later proves successful, these specific converters— in particular, those with regulated outputs—often possess long lead times, are relatively expensive, and are usually limited to certain isolation voltages.

A low-cost alternative to integrated modules is a discrete design, if an application requires isolation voltages higher than 2kV, converter efficiency higher than 60%, or reliable availability of standard components. The drawback of designing a discrete DC/DC converter is that it requires a great deal of work: choosing a stable oscillator structure and break-before make circuit, selecting good MOSFETs that can be driven efficiently by standard logic gates, and performing temperature and long-term-reliability tests. This entire effort costs time and money. Therefore, before rushing into such a project, the designer should consider that integrated modules have usually passed temperature tests and have met other industrial qualifications. These modules not only represent the most reliable solution, but also provide a fast time to market. The see the entire article at Element14.

Component Engineering Community Launches

This week, a free, online community for components engineering (CE) professionals has been launched at This new site offers a forum for engineers to resource information, as well tools to create and maintain a CE department within their respective organizations. The site includes free, downloadable content of procedures, processes, flowcharts, and guidelines, as well as tools and resources for learning the basic disciplines of components engineering. The site also provides resources for both fundamental and advanced component-specific education.

Douglas Alexander, the founder and principle consultant, created this website to capture and increase the knowledge of experienced of CEs.  In addition to the current content, contributions of original white papers and other related document contributions are welcomed.

“After working in this field of electronics for over 30 years, and finding no website or book dedicated to this core discipline, I was determined to develop a site giving proper recognition to the community of engineers working behind the scenes at almost every manufacturing and engineering company known today.”

The title of components engineer has been around for many years, Alexander said. There is a vast body of knowledge and capability resident in those who, for various reasons, have not worked in their field for some time but are not ready to retire. “Experience and knowledge should not be retired even if you are. Now, here is where you keep it alive.”

Retired, semi-retired, and full-time CE professionals are welcome to submit their credentials, work-experience, and working locations on the site by email. Fees are confidential between the consultant and the clients.

“There is a catch,” Douglas explained, “The individual requesting a posting as a consultant, must demonstrate a competency level by submitting white papers and/or other CE specific documentation that will be reviewed by members of the site for acceptability.” These documents will be credited to the authors and will be reviewed by prospective clients to determination of the consultant’s applicable knowledge and ultimately “worthiness” for hire.

Alexander said the site is a collaborative effort and will fulfill its full purpose as the community grows with the individual contributions from experienced practitioners. “It is my sincere desire to provide an opportunity for those who want to consult in this special field of engineering to contribute to these pages and form or reestablish peer-to-peer relationships with others of like mind and spirit.”

Five companies you might have missed at ESC-SV 2011

The Embedded Systems Conference, especially the Silicon Valley edition, is an eclectic collection of cutting edge technology. This year, ESC-SV 2011 was no exception. Yes, there were the regular software, RTOS, component and design services companies, but there was also significant presence of distributors like DigiKey and element14 that were drawing a lot of attention. On the periphery of the exhibition were the companies that lack the marketing resources of the major players and while most were satisfied by the amount of customer traffic, they were a little wistful about the lack of attention they were getting from the press. Luckily for them, New Tech Press was there, and boy did we find some cool companies.

So here are five of the companies that weren’t among the usual suspects at ESC, and that you might have missed.