Generating Analog Voltage with Raspberry Pi

I recently had the need to generate analog voltages from the Raspberry PI, which has rich GPIO digital outputs but no analog outputs. I looked into the RPi.GPIO project which can create PWM (which I wanted to smooth using a low pass filter to create the analog voltage), but its output on the oscilloscope looked terrible! It stuttered all over the place, likely because the duty is continuously under software control. I ended up solving my problem with a MCP4921 12-bit DAC chip (about $1.50 on eBay). It’s controlled via SPI, and although I could have written a python program to bit-bang its protocol with RPi.GPIO I realized I could write directly to the Raspberry Pi SPI device using the echo command. Dividing 3.3V into 12-bits (4096) means that I can control voltage in steps of less than 1mV each, right from the bash console!

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Video: The Problem (RPi PWM jitters)

Video: My Solution (SPI DAC)

Hardware Connection

There’s very little magic in how the microchip is connected to the Pi. It’s a straight shot to its SPI bus! Here’s a quick drawing showing which pins to connect. Check your device against the Raspberry Pi GPIO pinout diagram for different devices.

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Controlling the DAC with a Bus Pirate

Before I used a Raspberry Pi to control the DAC chip, I tested it out with a Bus Pirate. I don’t have a lot of pictures of the project, but I have a screenshot of a serial console used to send commands to the chip. One advantage of the Bus Pirate is that I can type bytes in binary, which helps to see the individual bits. I don’t have this ability when I’m working in the bash console.

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I’m less familiar with the Bus Pirate, but this was a good opportunity to get to know it a little better. It look me a long time (requiring I pull out the logic analyzer) to realize that I had to manually enable/disable the chip-select line, using the “[” and “]” commands. When I set up the SPI mode (command m5) I told it to use active low, but I wasn’t sure how to reverse the active level of the chip-select commands, so I just did ]this[ instead of [this] and it worked great.

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This is the signal probed when it was controlled by the Raspberry Pi, but it looked essentially identical when values were sent via the Bus Pirate. The only difference is there was an appreciable delay between the “]” commands and each of the bytes. It worked fine though.

Controlling the DAC with Console Commands

Once the hardware was configured, the software was trivial. I could control analog voltages by sending two properly-formatted bytes to the SPI hardware device. Importantly, you must use raspi-config to enable SPI.

# set analog voltage to minimum value (about 0V)
echo -ne "\x30\x00" > /dev/spidev0.0 # minimum

# set analog voltage to something a little higher
echo -ne "\x30\xAB" > /dev/spidev0.0 

# set analog voltage to maximum value (about 3.3V)
echo -ne "\x3F\xFF" > /dev/spidev0.0

Helpful Links:

 


     

Hacking a Cheap Ammeter / Voltmeter to Provide a Bluetooth PC Interface

I love analyzing data, so any time I see a cool device to measure something I usually want to save its output. I’ve lately come to enjoy the cheap panel-mount volt meters and current meters on eBay, and figured it would be cool to hack one to provide PC logging capability. After getting a few of these devices for ~$8 each on eBay and probing around, I realized they didn’t output measurement data on any of the pins (not that I really expected they would), so I coded a microcontroller to watch the lines of the multiplexed 7-segment display and figure out what the screen is displaying (an odd technique I’ve done once or twice before), then send its value to a computer using the microcontroller’s UART capabilities. Rather than interfacing a traditional serial port (using a MAX232 level converter, or even a TTL-level USB serial adapter) I decided to go full-scale-cool and make it wireless! I succeeded using a HC-06 Bluetooth serial adapter which you can find on eBay for ~$3. Although I have previously used custom software to hack the output of a TENMA multimeter to let me log voltage or current displayed on the multimeter, now I can measure current and voltage at the same time (wirelessly no less) and this is a far less expensive option than dedicating a multimeter to the task! The result is pretty cool, so I took pictures and am sharing the build log with the world.

The video summarizes the project, and the rest of this page details the build log. All of the code used to program the microcontroller (AVR-GCC), interface the device with the Bluetooth serial adapter, and plot the data (Python) is available as part of a GitHub project.

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This is what one of these modules looks like, and how it is intended to be used. One of the connectors has 3 wires (black = ground, red = power to run the display (anything up to 30V), and yellow = voltage sense wire). The other connector is thicker and is the current sense circuit. The black wire is essentially short-circuited to ground, so unfortunately this can only be used for low-side current sensing.

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The side of the display indicates which model it is. Note that if you wish to buy your own panel mount meters, look carefully at their current measuring range. Most of them measure dozens of amps with 0.1 A resolution. There are a few which only measure <1 A, but down to 0.1 mA resolution. This is what I prefer, since I rarely build equipment which draws more than 1 A.

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On the back you can see all of the important components. There’s a large current shunt resistor on the right, solder globs where the through-hole 4 character 7-segment displays fits in, and the microcontroller embedded in this device is a STM8S003 8-Bit MCU. This chip has UART, SPI, and I2C built-in, so it may be technically possible to have the chip output voltage and current digitally without the need for a man-in-the-middle chip like I’m building for this project. However, I don’t feel like reverse-engineering the hardware and software which takes measurements of voltage and current (which is an art in itself) and also figure out how to drive the display, so I’m happy continuing on developing my device as planned! I did probe all the pins just to be sure, and nothing looked like it was outputting data I could intercept. That would have been too easy!

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I snapped the device out of its plastic frame to be able to access the pins more easily.

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I then soldered-on headers to help with reverse-engineering the signals. Note that this was part of my investigation phase, and that these header pins were not needed for the end product. I have multiple panel mount ammeter / voltmeter modules on hand, so I left this one permanently “pinned” like this so I could access the pins if I needed to. A quick check with the continuity tester confirmed that every segment of every character (of both displays) is continuous (wired together).

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These headers made it easy to attach my 16-channel logic analyzer. I’m using an off-brand Saleae compatible logic analyzer. Their software is open source and very simple and easy to use. Saleae sells their official logic analyzers (which are well made and company supported) on their website, but they are expensive (although probably worth it). I purchased an eBay knock-off logic analyzer ($40) which “looks” like a Saleae device to the computer and works with the same open source software. If I were really serious about building professional products, I would certainly invest in an official Saleae product. For now, this is a good option for me and my hobby-level needs. An 8-channel version if as low as $10 on eBay, and $149 from Saleae.

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Connections are straightforward. I began probing only a single display. This is a good time to mention that an understanding of display multiplexing is critical to understanding how I’m reading this display! If you don’t know what a multiplexed display is, read up on the subject then come back here. It’s an important concept. While you’re at it, do you know what charlieplexing is?

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After gazing at the screen of squiggly lines, I was able to piece together which signals represented characters (due to their regularity) and which represented segments (which changed faster, and were more sporadic).

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I’ll be honest and say that I cheated a bit, using a very high value current limiting resistor and applying current (backwards) into the pins when the device was unplugged. I manged to illuminate individual segments of specific characters in the LCD. This supported what I recorded from the logic analyzer, and in reality could have been used to entirely determine which pins went to which characters/segments.

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Here’s what I came up with! It’s not that complicated: 16 pins control all the signals. The microcontroller raises all lines “high” to only one character at a time, then selectively grounds the segments (A-H) to pass current through only the LEDs intended to be illuminated. Characters are numbers and segments are letters. Note that “A” of the top display (voltage) is connected to the “A” of the second display (current), so both rows of 4 characters make 8 characters as far as the logic is concerned. The transistor isn’t really a discrete transistor, it’s probably the microcontroller sinking current. I used this diagram to conceptualize the directionality of the signals. The sample site of letters is high when a letter is illuminated, and the sample site of a segment is low when that segment is illuminated (the sample site of the segment is the base of the imaginary transistor).

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Knowing this, I can intentionally probe a few segments of a single character. Here is the logic analyzer output probing the second character (top), and two representative segments of that character (bottom). You can see the segments go nuts (flipping up and down) as other segments are illuminated (not shown). If you look closely at the blue annotations, you can see that each character is illuminated for about 1 ms and repeats every 13 ms.

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Now it was time to make my device! I started with a new panel meter and an empty project box. By this point I had reverse-engineered the device and concluded it would take 16 inputs of a microcontroller to read. I chose an ATMega328 which was perfect for the job (plenty of IO) although I could have used a much less powerful microcontroller if I wanted to interface an IO expander. The MCP23017 16-bit IO expander may have been perfect for the job! Anyway, I drilled a few circular holes in the back with a step-bit and cut-away a large square hole in the front with a nibbler so everything would snap-in nicely.

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I soldered wires to intercept the signal as it left the device’s microcontroller and went into the LED display.

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I then soldered the wires directly to my microcontroller. I also have an extra header available for programming (seen at the bottom) which I was able to remove once the software was complete. The red clip is clamping the serial Tx pin of the microcontroller and capturing the output into a USB serial adapter. Initially I debugged this circuit using the microcontroller’s on-board RC oscillator (1MHz) transmitting at 600 baud. I later realized that the serial bluetooth module requires 9600 baud. Although I could hack this with the internal RC clock, it was very unstable and garbage characters kept coming through. Luckily I designed around the potential of using an external crystal (pins 9 and 10 were unused) so it was an easy fix to later drop in a 11.0592 MHz crystal to allow stable transmission at 9600 baud.

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Now you can see the power regulation (LM7805) providing power to the MCU and wireless bluetooth module. Here’s the HC-06 datasheet (which is similar to HC-05) and another web page demonstrating how to use the breakout board. Also, I added a switch on the back which switches the voltage sense wire between the power supply and a sense connector which is on the back of the project box (red plastic banana jack).

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The bluetooth adapter expects 3.3V signals, so I added a quick and easy zener diode shunt regulator. I could have accomplished this by running my MCU on 3.3V (I didn’t have 3.3V regulators on hand though, and even so the module wants >3.6V to power the wireless transmitter) or perhaps a voltage divider on the output. On second thought, why did I use a zener ($!) over a resistor? Maybe my brain is stuck thinking about USB protocol standards.

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Since the chip was unstable transmitting 9600 baud, I tightened it up using a 11.0592 MHz crystal. The advantage of making your entire circuit look sketchy is that bodge jobs like this blend in perfectly and are unrecognizable!

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A quick reprogram to set the AVR fuses to switch from internal clock to external full-swing crystal was easy thanks to the female header I was able to pop out. I only recently started soldering-on headers like this with ribbon cable, but it’s my new favorite thing! It makes programming so easy.

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I packed it all in then added hot glue around the primary components (not shown). Again, if this were a production product I would have designed the hardware very differently. Since it’s a one-off job, I’m happy with it exactly like it is! It works, and it withstands bumps and shakes, so it’s good enough for me.

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I tested on a big piece of electrical equipent I’m building on the other side of the room. This device has its own 13.8V regulated power supply (and its own shelf!), so the wireless capability is fantastic to have. I just dropped this device between the power supply and the device under test. Rather than record the power supply voltage (which would always be a boring 13.8V) I decided to record a voltage test point of interest: the point just downstream of an LM7809 voltage regulator. I expected this voltage to swing wildly as current draw was high, and was very interested to know the voltage of this test point with respect to current draw. Although I have previously used custom software to hack the output of a TENMA multimeter to let me log voltage or current of this exact circuit, now I can measure both at the same time! Additionally, this is a far less expensive option than dedicating a multimeter to the task.

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I’m using RealTerm to access the serial port and log its output to a text file.

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A quick python script lets me graph the voltage/current relationship with respect to time. The (short) code to do this is on the GitHub page, and is demonstrated in the YouTube video.

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Here’s some data which shows the relationship between voltage (red trace) probed just downstream of an LM7809 voltage regulator and the total current draw of the system (blue trace). This data was recorded in real time, wirelessly, from across the room! This is exactly the type of interesting reading I was hoping to see.

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Now that it’s all together, I’m very happy with the result! This little device is happy serving as a simple voltage/current display (which is convenient in itself), but has the added benefit of continuously being available as a Bluetooth device. If I ever want to run an experiment to log/graph data, I just wirelessly connect to it and start recording the data. This build was a one-off device and is quite a hack (coding and construction wise). If I were interested in making a product out of this design, construction would greatly benefit from surface mount components and a PCB, and perhaps not necessitate super glue. For what it is, I’m happy how it came out, pleased to see it as a Bluetooth device I can connect to whenever I want, and I won’t tell anyone there’s super glue inside if you don’t.

Code used for this project is available at GitHub


     

Adding ADC to Microcontrollers without ADC

I recently had the need to carefully measure a voltage with a microcontroller which lacks an analog-to-digital converter (ADC), and I hacked together a quick and dirty method to do just this using a comparator, two transistors, and a few passives. The purpose of this project is to make a crystal oven controller at absolute minimal cost with minimal complexity. Absolute voltage accuracy is not of high concern (i.e., holding temperature to 50.00 C) but precision is the primary goal (i.e., hold it within 0.01 C of an arbitrary target I set somewhere around 50 C). Voltage measurement is usually a balance of a few factors: precision, accuracy, cost, simplicity, and speed. The method I demonstrate here maximizes precision and simplicity while minimizing cost. High speed operation is not of interest (1-2 measurements per second is fine), and as mentioned before accuracy is not a chief concern as long as precision is maximized. I would feel neglectful if I didn’t give a shout out to a few alternatives to this method: Using the 10-bit ADC built into most AVR microcontrollers (my go-to for ATMega328 at ATTiny85, but the ATTiny2313 doesn’t have any) often combined with an op-amp like this, using an IC like the MCP3208 8-channel 12-bit ADC (very expensive at $3.66 on mouser) are a good option, and fancy alternative dual slope methods as described in this really good youtube video and even mentioned nicely in the digital volt meter (DVM) / LCD driver ICL1706 datasheet. Those addressed, my quick and dirty idea uses only a couple cents of components and 3 pins of a microcontroller. There is much room for improvement (see my notes about a 555 timer, voltage reference, and operational amplifiers at the bottom) but this is a good minimal case starting point. This type of measurement is perfect for high precision temperature measuring using things like an LM335, LM35, or thermistor.

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The concept behind this method is simple: use a current-limiting circuit to charge a capacitor at a constant rate so voltage rises linearly with time (rather than forming an exponential RC curve), and time how long that voltage takes to cross your test voltage.

A circuit which compares two voltages and outputs high when one voltage surpasses the other is called a comparator, and many microcontrollers (including ATMEL AVRs) have analog comparators built in (which compare AIN0 and AIN1, the result of which accessable by accessing the ACSR&(1<<ACO)) bit value (at least for the ATMega328, according to the datasheet). I can use the AVR’s comparator to time how long it takes a capacitor to charge to the test voltage, and output to that to the serial port. Note that I designed this entire circuit to use the most common transistor/resistors I could think of. It can be fine-tuned to increase speed or increase precision, but this is a great starting point. To generate a constant current I need a PNP transistor (I had a 2N2907 on hand) with a voltage divider on the base and a current limiting resistor above the transistor for good measure (in retrospect, with a more carefully chosen set of values this may not be needed). This is all that’s needed to charge the capacitor linearly and generate a positive ramp.

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My test setup is a mess, but it demonstrates this idea works well, and is stable enough to run some experiments. In the frame you can see the ATMega328 microcontroller (big microchip), LM335 temperature sensor (the TO-92 closest to the MCU), a TTL FTDI serial/USB adapter (red board, top), and my USBTiny AVR programmer (blue board, right), and oscilloscope probes.

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To prevent this linear charger from charging forever, I make the microcontroller read the comparator which compares my test voltage with that of the ramp. If the test voltage is reached, or if the ramp reaches a cutoff voltage first (meaning the test voltage is too high to be measured), the count (time between last reset and now) is sent to the computer via serial port, and the capacitor is discharged through a PNP resistor. In the schematic, this is the “reset” pin. Note that the “measure” pin is AVR AC0, and AC1 is the test voltage. When all this is assembled, you can see how the linear ramps are created every time the reset transistor shuts off. Note that every 10th ramp is higher than the rest (shown here as the one left from center). This is because every 10th reading the data is summed and sent to the serial port, causing a little extra time before it is reset again. While the time value has been recorded of the comparator match of the test voltage and the ramp voltage, the capacitor is allowed to continue charging until the next cycle.

Interestingly, this method is largely insensitive to power supply noise. I’m using an extremely noisy environment (breadboard, DIP power regulator) but the recordings are rock solid. I suspect this is because the ramps are timed based on constant current, not abbsolute voltage, and that the ramps are fast enough to not be sensitive to slow changes in voltage. In reality, I don’t think I can adequately explain why the readings are so good when the supply is so shaky (the positive voltage rail is all over the place). It works, so I’m happy with it, and I’ll keep pushing forward.

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Lately I’ve been using RealTerm as a feature-rich alternative to HyperTerminal and a more convenient method than requiring custom python scripts be written every time I want to interact with the serial port in a way that involves debugging or logging or other advanced features. Here you can see the real time output of this device logging time to comparator match as it also logs to disk in a text file. This is great for simultaneously logging data (from RealTerm) and graphing it (from custom python scripts).

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This is what happens when I touch the temperature sensor for about 30s. I’m recording the time to voltage crossing of an LM335, so the number decreases as temperature increases. Also each data point is the average (actually the sum) of 10 points. It would be trivial to create some voltage test points, create a calibration curve, and infer the voltages involved, but this is more than enough already to prove that this method is robust and clean and precise and I couldn’t be more satisfied with the results! With a pair or capacitors and a few passives, this is totally implementable virtually anywhere. Considering my room is about 78F and my finger is about 98F, this 20F spread is about 1500 data points. That means each degree F is about 75 points, so I can resolve better 0.02 F (about 0.01 C) with this crude setup.

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If I let it run for about an hour, I catch my air conditioning coming on and off. Warmer temperature is higher voltage which means less time to charge, so the downslopes are my AC cooling my home and the up slope is my home passively warming. The fluctuations are only about 100 units which I (backwards calculate) assume are about 1-2 F.

These numbers seem so arbitrary! How can we calibrate this? This opens up a Pandora’s box of possible improvements. I’ll close by saying that this project works great exactly how it is to meet my needs. However, some modifications could be made to change the behavior of this device:

  • Slowing things down: A larger capacitor value (or higher resistor value) would increase the time or charging, lengthen the time to comparator threshold crossing, and increase precision. The readings would be slower (and more susceptible to noise), but it’s an option.
  • Self-calibration: Components (Rs and Cs) are sensitive to temperature and charge time can fluctuate with age, wear, temperature, etc. To self-calibrate with each sweep, add an additional comparator step which compares voltages between a precision voltage reference and your ramp would be a way to self-calibrate your ramp charge rate with each sweep. Optimally do this with two voltage references (3.3V and 1.8V are common) but comparing 0V to a single voltage reference would be a great step.
  • Don’t have the microcontroller gate: A 555 is perfectably capable of generating pulses to reset the ramp every so often, and frees up a pin of the microcontroller.
  • Use an op-amp for constant current charging. It seems like a lateral move, but if your deign already has an op-amp chances are there may be some unused amps, so eliminate a transistor for this purpose! Check out the constant current source section from TIs handbook on operational amplifier applications.
  • Use an op-amp for the comparator(s). The microcontroller’s comparator is handy, but if yours doesn’t have one (or you don’t feel like using one) configuring an unused op-amp stage as a comparator is a good option. The digital output could also trigger an interrupt on the digital input of a MCU pin as well!
  • Use timer and counters to measure time while using an external interrupt to gate the count. Your microcontroller’s on-board counter is likely extremely powerful so utilize it! This example doesn’t use it actually, but using it would let you count up to the CPU clock’s frequency of ticks between ramp starts and the comparator match.
  • Eliminate the microcontroller. Yeah, you heard me. If you use an op-amp keep resetting the ramps, and op-amp comparators to generate digital outputs of threshold crossings, you can use a standard counter (configured to latch then clear when the reset event is engaged by the 555 which induces resetting of the ramp by draining the capacitor), just use a counter IC to capture the value. You can clock it as fast as you want! You could even have it output its value directly to LED or LCD displays. In fact, this is how some digital volt meters work without the need for a microcontroller.

All code used in this project is available on its GitHub page


     

VHF Frequency Counter with PC Interface

Projects I build often involve frequency synthesis, and one of the most useful tools to have around is a good frequency counter. Being a budding programmer and data analysis guru, I love the idea of being able to access / log / analyze frequency readings on my computer too. Commercial frequency counters can be large, expensive, and their calibration is a chicken-and-egg problem (you need a calibrated frequency counter to calibrate a frequency reference you use to calibrate a frequency counter!). For about the cost of a latte I made a surprisingly good frequency frequency counter (which directly counts >100 MHz without dividing-down the input signal) by blending a SN74LV8154 dual 16-bit counter (which can double as a 32-bit counter, $1.04 on mouser) and an ATMega328 microcontroller ($3.37 on Mouser). Although these two chips are all you need to count something, the accuracy of your counts depend on your gate. If you can generate a signal of 1 pulse per second (1PPS), you can count anything, but your accuracy depends on the accuracy of your 1PPS signal. To eliminate the need for calibration (and to provide the 1PPS signal with the accuracy of an atomic clock) I’m utilizing the 1PPS signal originating from a GPS unit which I already had distributed throughout my shack (using a 74HC240 IC as a line driver). If you don’t have a GPS unit, consider getting one! I’m using a NEO-6M module ($17.66 on Amazon) to generate the 1PPS gate, and if you include its cost we’re up to $22.07. Also, all of the code for this project (schematics, C that runs on the microcontroller, and a Python to interact with the serial port) is shared on GitHub! You may be wondering, “why do GPS units have incredibly accurate 1PPS signals?” It’s a good question, but a subject for another day. For now, trust me when I say they’re fantastically accurate (but slightly less precise due to jitter) if you’re interested in learning more read up on GPS timing.

 

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This is the general idea behind how this frequency counter works. It’s so simple! It’s entirely digital, and needs very few passive components. sn74lv8154 is configured in 32-bit mode (by chaining together its two 16-bit counters, see the datasheet for details) and acts as the front-end directly taking in the measured frequency. This chip is “rare” in the sense I find very few internet projects using it, and they’re not available on ebay. However they’re cheap and plentiful on mouser, so I highly encourage others to look into using it! The datasheet isn’t very clear about its maximum frequency, but in my own tests I was able to measure in excess of 100 MHz from a breadboarded circuit! This utilized two cascaded ICS501 PLL frequency multiplier ICs to multiply a signal I had available (the 11.0592 MHz crystal the MCU was running from) by ten, yielding 110 MHz, which it was able to measure (screenshot is down on the page).

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The 1PPS gate signal is generated from an inexpensive GPS module available on AmazonI’ve hinted at the construction of this device before and made a post about how to send output signals like the 1PPS signal generated here throughout your shack via coax using a line driver, so I won’t re-hash all of those details here. I will say that this module has only VCC, GND, and TX/RX pins, so to get access to the 1PPS signal you have to desolder the SMT LED and solder a wire to its pad. It requires a bit of finesse. If you look closely, you can see it in this picture (purple wire).

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I first built this device on a breadboard, and despite the rats nest of wires it worked great! Look closely and you can see the ICS501 frequency multiplier ICs I wrote about before. In this case it’s measuring the 10x multiplied crystal frequency clocking the MCU (11 MHz -> 110 MHz) and reporting these readings every 1 second to the computer via a serial interface.

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Frequency measurements of the VHF signal are reported once per second. Measurements are transmitted through a USB serial adapter, and captured by a Python script. Note that I’m calling this signal VHF because it’s >30 MHz. I am unsure if this device will work up to 300 MHz (the border between VHF and UHF), but I look forward to testing that out! Each line contains two numbers: the actual count of the counter (which is configured to simply count continuously and overflow at 2^32=4,294,967,296), and the gated count (calculated by the microcontroller) which is the actual frequency in Hz.

This screenshot shows that my ~11.05 MHz crystal is actually running at 11,061,669.4 Hz. See how I capture the 0.4 Hz unit at the end? That level of precision is the advantage of using this VHF-capable counter in conjunction with a 10x frequency multiplier!

Once I confirmed everything was working, I built this device in a nice enclosure. I definitely splurge every few months and buy extruded split body aluminum enclosures in bulk (ebay), but they’re great to have on hand because they make projects look so nice. I added some rubber feet (cabinet bumpers from Walmart), drilled holes for all the connectors with a continuous step drill bit, made a square hole for the serial port using a nibbler, and the rest is pretty self-evident. Labels are made with a DYMO LetraTag (Target) and clear labels (Target, Amazon) using a style inspired by PA2OHH. I tend to build one-off projects like this dead-bug / Manhattan style.

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I super-glued a female header to the aluminum frame to make in-circuit serial programming (ICSP) easy. I can’t believe I never thought to do this before! Programming (and reprogramming) was so convenient. I’m going to start doing this with every enclosed project I build from now on. FYI I’m using a USBTiny ISP ($10.99, Amazon) to do the programming (no longer the BusPirate, it’s too slow) like I describe here for 64-bit Windows 7 (although I’m now using Windows 10 and it works the same).

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The front of the device has LEDs indicating power, serial transmission, and gating. Without a 1PPS gate, the device is set to send a count (of 0) every 5 seconds. In this case, the TX light will illuminate. If a gate is detected, the TX and GATE LEDs will illuminate simultaneously. In reality I just drilled 3 holes when I really needed two, so I had to make-up a function for the third LED (d’oh!)

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The back of the device has serial output, frequency input, gate input, and power. Inside is a LM7805 voltage regulator, and careful attention was paid to decoupling and keeping ripple out of the power supply (mostly so our gate input wouldn’t be affected). I’m starting to get in the habit of labeling all serial output ports with the level (TTL vs CMOS, which makes a HUGE difference as MAX232 level converter may be needed, or a USB serial adapter which is capable of reading TTL voltages), as well as the baud rate (119200), byte size (8), parity (N), and stop bit (1). I just realized there’s a typo! The label should read 8N1. I don’t feel like fixing it, so I’ll use a marker to turn the 2 into an 8. I guess I’m only human after all.

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I should have tried connecting all these things before I drilled the holes. I got so lucky that everything fit, with about 2mm to spare between those BNC jacks. Phew!

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This is an easy test frequency source. I have a dozen canned oscillators of various frequencies. This is actually actually a voltage controlled oscillator (VCO) with adjustment pin (not connected), and it won’t be exactly 50 MHz without adjustment. It’s close enough to test with though! As this is >30 MHz, we can call the signal VHF.

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You can see on the screen it’s having no trouble reading the ~50 MHz frequency. You’ll notice I’m using RealTerm (with a good write-up on sparkfun) which is my go-to terminal program instead of HyperTerminal (which really needs to go away forever). In reviewing this photo, I’m appreciating how much unpopulated room I have on the main board. I’m half tempted to build-in a frequency multiplier circuit, and place it under control of the microcontroller such that if an input frequency from 1-20MHz is received, it will engage the 10x multiplier. That’s a mod for another day though! Actually, since those chips are SMT, if I really wanted to do this I would make this whole thing a really small SMT PCB and greatly simplify construction. That sounds like a project for another day though…

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Before closing it up I added some extra ripple protection on the primary counter chip. There’s a 560 uH series inductor with the power supply, followed by a 100 nF capacitor parallel with ground. I also added ferrite beads to the MCU power line and gate input line. I appreciate how the beads are unsecured and that this is a potential weakness in the construction of this device (they’re heavy, so consider what would happen if you shook this enclosure). However, anything that would yank-away cables in the event of shaking the device would probably also break half the other stuff in this thing, so I think it’s on par with the less-than-rugged construction used for all the other components in this device. It will live a peaceful life on my shelf. I am not concerned.

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This is the final device counting frequency and continuously outputting the result to my computer. In the background you can see the 12V power supply (yellow) indicating it is drawing only 20 mA, and also the GPS unit is in a separate enclosure on the bottom right. Click here to peek inside the GPS 1PPS enclosure.

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I’m already loving this new frequency counter! It’s small, light, and nicely enclosed (meaning it’s safe from me screwing with it too much!). I think this will prove to be a valuable piece of test equipment in my shack for years to come. I hope this build log encourages other people to consider building their own equipment. I learned a lot from this build, saved a lot of money not buying something commercial, had a great time making this device, and I have a beautiful piece of custom test equipment that does exactly what I want.

Microcontroller code (AVR-GCC), schematics, and a Python script to interface with the serial port are all available on this project’s GitHub page



Afterthought: Using without GPS

One of the great advantages of this project is that it uses GPS for an extremely accurate 1 PPS signal, but what options exist to adapt this project to not rely on GPS? The GPS unit is expensive (though still <$20) and GPS lock is not always feasible (underground, in a Faraday cage, etc). Barring fancy things like dividing-down rubidium frequency standards or oven controlled oscillators, consider having your microcontroller handle the gating using either interrupts and timers precisely configured to count seconds. Since this project uses a serial port with a 11.0592 MHz crystal, your 1PPS stability will depend on the stability of your oscillator (which is pretty good!). Perhaps more elegantly you could use a 32.768 kHz crystal oscillator to create a 1 PPS signal. This frequency can be divided by 2 over and over to yield 1 Hz perfectly. This is what most modern wristwatches do. Many AVRs have a separate oscillator which can accomodate a 32 kHz crystal and throw interrupts every 1 second without messing with the system clock. Alternatively, the 74GC4060 (a 14 stage ripple counter) can divide 32k into 1 Hz and even can be arranged as an oscillator (check the datasheet). It would be possible to have both options enabled (local clock and GPS) and only engage the local clock if the GPS signal is absent. If anyone likes the idea of this simple VHF frequency counter with PC interface but doesn’t want to bother with the GPS, there are plenty of options to have something almost as accurate. That really would cut the cost of the final device down too, keeping it under the $5 mark.

Update: Integrating Counter Serial Output with GPS Serial Output

The NEO-M8 GPS module is capable of outputting serial data at 9600 baud and continuously dumps NEMA formatted GPS data. While this isn’t really useful for location information (whose frequency counter requires knowing latitude and longitude?) it’s great for tracking things like signal strength, fix quality, and number of satellites. After using this system to automatically log frequency of my frequency reference, I realized that sometimes I’d get 1-2 hours of really odd data (off by kHz, not just a few Hz). Power cycling the GPS receiver fixes the problem, so my guess it that it’s a satellite issue. If I combine the GPS RX and counter in 1 box, I could detect this automatically and have the microcontroller power cycle the GPS receiver (or at the least illuminate a red error LED). I don’t feel like running 2 USB serial adapters continuously. I don’t feel like programming my AVR to listen to the output from the GPS device (although that’s probably the correct way to do things).  Instead I had a simpler idea that worked really well, allowing me to simultaneously log serial data from my GPS unit and microcontroller (frequency counter) using 1 USB serial adapter.

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The first thing I did was open up the frequency counter and reconnect my microcontroller programmer. This is exactly what I promised myself I wouldn’t do, and why I have a nice enclosure in the first place! Scott, stop fidgeting with things! The last time I screwed this enclosure together I considered adding super glue to the screw threads to make sure I didn’t open it again. I’ll keep my modifications brief! For now, this is a test of a concept. When it’s done, I’ll revert the circuitry to how it was and close it up again. I’ll take what I learn and build it into future projects.

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I peeked at the serial signals of both the frequency counter (yellow) and the GPS unit output (blue). To my delight, there was enough dead space that I thought I could stick both in the same signal. After a code modification, I was able to tighten it up a lot, so the frequency counter never conflicts with the GPS unit by sending data at the same time.

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I had to slow the baud rate to 9600, but I programmed it to send fewer characters. This leaves an easy ~50ms padding between my frequency counter signal and the GPS signal. Time to mix the two! This takes a little thought, as I can’t just connect the two wires together. Serial protocol means the lines are usually high, and only pulled down when data is being sent. I had to implement an active circuit.

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Using a few components, I built an AND gate to combine signals from the two serial lines. For some reason it took some thought before I realized an AND gate was what I needed here, but it makes sense. The output is high (meaning no serial signal) only when both inputs are high (no serial signals on the input). When either signal drops low, the output drops low. This is perfect. My first thought was that I’d need a NOR gate, but an inverted AND gate is a NOR gate.

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Here’s my quick and dirty implementation. A reminder again is that this will be removed after this test. For now, it’s good enough.

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After connecting the GPS serial output and frequency counter serial output to the AND gate (which outputs to the computer), I instantly got the result I wanted!

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RealTerm shows that both inputs are being received. It’s a mess though. If you want to know what everything is, read up on NEMA formatted GPS data.

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I whipped-up a python program to parse, display, and log key information. This display updates every 1 second. The bottom line is what is appended to the log file on ever read. It’s clunky, but again this is just for testing and debugging. I am eager to let this run for as long as I can (days?) so I can track how changes in satellite signal / number / fix quality influence measured frequency.