Category: Electronics

Brain Transplants for Toys

I have a bunch of old toy skeletons sitting around. They are not toy versions of the bones of animals, but the frameworks and some of the motors from things like a toy tracked robot, an RC truck, a few toy robot insects, some tiny RC cars, a robot base with continuous-rotation servos, and so forth. All of these things have motors or servos in them. All of them need some form of controller to make them into autonomous robots to do my bidding (or wander around banging into things).

To that end, I’ve developed a little embeddable controller around the ATMega8, ATMega48/88/168, and other pin-compatible microcontrollers. That is the same chip used in the Arduino, so my board will be software-compatible with the Arduino as well.

My controller, which I’m calling ToyBrain, has a pair of 1A (stackable for more current) H-Bridge motor drivers, so it can control up to four motors in one direction, two motors bidirectionally, or one stepper motor. It also provides two headers for servo motors. For inputs, it has four analog or digital inputs and two digital inputs that are connected to interrupt lines, so it can do things like handle bumper switches in an interrupt service routine.

I’ve ordered 10 boards. When they arrive, I’m going to populate them with whatever chips I have around and try to get a few of my old toys running. Assuming everything goes well and I get a polished device together over the winter, this may end up being something I sell at the MIT flea regularly. I’ll hook up a bunch of toys with the same controller, to show off its versatility, and offer the controller as a kit people can buy.

Reactive Inflatables

I’m working on a project to make inflatable sculptures that react to contact. The inflatable shapes are sewn together out of materials like umbrella fabric and ripstop nylon. Those fabrics block air well, and so a shape made of them can be inflated by a fan.

I am planning to have them react to contact by monitoring the speed of the fans that inflate them. If the inflated shape is pushed, the air pressure in it will increase, and escaping air will try to turn the fan backwards. This should show up as a decrease in fan speed, which I can detect with a microcontroller. The fans are computer cooling fans, so they already have speed sensors built into them. The speed sensors were originally intended to allow the computer that the fans cooled to detect fan failure and shut down gracefully.

I have a couple of inflatable shapes together, but I need a beefier 12V benchtop supply to run them. each fan draws 1.1A at 12V. That is a lot more than a normal computer fan, but these are high-volume server cooling fans, so they move a lot more air.

Seizuredome light construction photos

The Seizuredome light is an icosahedron made out of aluminum. Each face is 5.5 inches on a side, so the whole thing ends up being about the size of a soccer ball. Each face has three 1″ aluminum spikes sticking out of it, so that when it is not hanging, it does not rest on any of the LEDs.

The light started life as a sheet of aluminum, 24″ on a side. I plotted the net of the icosahedron by constructing a bunch of equilateral triangles with a compass and straightedge. Geometry class is only useless if you’re not planning to make anything interesting in your life.

Vindication for geometry teachers

After that was all plotted out, I cut it out with tin snips and cut arcs out of the corners with a nibbler. The arcs will make the finished shape have a hole at each vertex. Those holes are where I will run the wires for the LEDs, but they also let me more or less ignore the thickness of the material, which would otherwise possibly make the corners look bad.

Light parts

Then I drilled holes in all the pieces. The holes in the faces are for LED and spike mounting. The ones in the tabs are for rivets that hold the shapes together.

Flat shapes

I bent the flat shapes in an improvised metal brake to get them 3-D, and then riveted them together to hold the shape.

Now in 3-D!

The finished shape seems to fit together pretty well.

The general idea

I added more holes for sheet metal screws. I also added a flat plastic platform inside, so that the electronics have something to rest on, and screwed the spikes to the outside. The spikes are intended to be ornaments for punk clothing, but they mount with screws, so you can stick them on anything you can drill a hole in.

Made of hate

The electronics are also mostly together. I just have to finish up the code, and then mount the control circuit inside, the LEDs outside, and add a power switch.

Seizuredome electronics

Rave in a Briefcase

As part of preparations for a local party, I am building a sound system to fit in a small suitcase and run on 12V DC. The system consists of a small DJ mixing deck and a car audio amplifier. Powering the car amp is easy, as it was designed to take 12V DC power. Powering the mixing deck is not so easy.

Mixers are audio gear, so they tend to have audio signals that are AC, and have components above and below 0V. As a result, they have double-ended power supplies. For the mixer I have, there is an 18V AC power brick, which gets rectified, filtered, and put through a +15V regulator and a -15v regulator. 15, being higher than 12, is an inconvenient number of volts to get out of a 12V battery. Since it’s double-ended, I really need a voltage spread of 30V, with a 0V rail in the middle.

The simple, stupid way to do this is to power the rig with two 12V batteries and two 6V batteries. Across each set of one 6V and one 12V, I would have 18V, and if each of the pairs of batteries shared a common ground, that would be my 0V rail. Unfortunately, I’d also have to manage charging, connecting, and monitoring charge on all of those batteries, not to mention carrying them to wherever I was using the audio. Lead-acid batteries are heavy. Since this is inelegant, heavy, and requires lots of fiddling, I’m going to call it “Plan C” and only do it if everything else fails.

Another simple solution is to use a 12V DC to 120V AC inverter. That takes up a lot of space, and isn’t all that efficient, but it means I don’t have to build a replacement power supply for the amplifier. I have all the parts for it, and it requires less hauling and fiddling than Plan C, but it is still inefficient, so this is “Plan B”.

Since the AC wall wart is rated for 300mA, I have an upper bound on what the mixer can draw. That means I can start looking into DC/DC converters. Vicor makes a 12V to 15V converter, but it costs $99 dollars and I would need two of them. Since I don’t need a lot of current, I can probably make a pair of step-up converters that have a 15-18V output. This site has a simple schematic, and more importantly, the equation for the output voltage, given the current and frequency of a switching circuit in the converter. The control IC takes care of monitoring the output voltage and varying the frequency, but I may be able to use a simpler circuit and change the frequency by splitting off part of the output voltage and feeding it back to the RC timer circuit.The whole circuit would be small, and probably more efficient than using an inverter and the power supply of the mixer.