Μακρύ και Στρογγυλό

Thunderbolt and Lightning

 The Kaminari Lightning Detector Pyramid I recently found an article about the AS3935 Franklin Lightning Sensor. As I am already recording some weather data, it immediately raised my interest.

The sensor module can be found at many online shops selling products from China. It is not really cheap, but still affordable. I decided to use an ESP8266 as microcontroller, so I can read the sensor data by WLAN. The sensor is connected to the ESP via SPI. There was also some space left for a SK6812 RGBW LED indicating the sensor status.

The result of this project can be found at GitHub. It's called Kaminari (which is Japanese for lightning), and also comes with OpenSCAD files for a 3D printed, pyramid shaped case with illuminated tip. In this article I will explain a bit about how I developed the Kaminari firmware.

The first problem was the calibration. The sensor is roughly pre-calibrated, but must be fine-tuned to 500 kHz ±3.5% via the TUN_CAP register. For this purpose, the antenna frequency can be routed to the IRQ pin and then be measured by the ESP. I chose to prescale the frequency by a ratio of 128, giving an IRQ frequency of 3,906.25 Hz. For measurement, I've set an IRQ handler that is just counting up a variable on each interrupt. I then reset the counter, wait for 1000 ms, then read the counter, and get the IRQ frequency in Hz units. It's not 100% accurate, but good enough for this purpose.

The TUN_CAP register offers 16 calibration steps. Just incrementing it until the frequency matches, would take up to 16 seconds. Instead I used an algorithm called successive approximation to find the correct calibration value in only 4 iterations, taking a quarter of the time.

 The AS3935 connected to an ESP8266 To my disappointment, it turned out that the manufacturer of my module (CJMCU) has used nonstandard components, so my module could only reach a maximum frequency of about 491 kHz. I first suspected that the ESP might be too slow for this kind of measurement, but a scope connected to the IRQ pin confirmed the frequency. Well, it is still within the required tolerance, but it gives a suboptimal tuning result and renders the TUN_CAP register useless.

The next problem is finding a good noise floor level. This is some kind of background radio noise filter. If the level is too low, the sensor cannot operate properly because of interfering background noise. If it is set too high, the lightning detection quality declines.

The noise floor level cannot be calibrated just once at the start. Radio noise sources come and go, may it by turning on an electronic device or just by a change in the weather. I did some experiments, and the most promising solution is a kind of tug-of-war. When the AS3935 detects too much noise, it triggers an interrupt, and the noise floor level is raised to the next higher step. If the last level change was 10 minutes ago, the ESP attempts to reduce the level by one step.

In order to reduce the number of level changes, I have added a counter. Each noise interrupt increments the counter, and every 10 minutes the counter is decremented. The level is raised when the counter reaches 2, and lowered when the counter reaches -2.

Sometimes I noticed a "noise level runaway", where the AS3935 triggers a lot of noise interrupts in a very short time, raising the noise floor level to its maximum value immediately. To stop that behavior, further noise interrupts are being ignored for one minute after a noise interrupt has been processed.

Now the noise floor level has settled to an average of 95 µVrms here. In the graph, one can see that the level is raised at some time, but then reduced again after a while. One can also see the frequent attempts to lower the level a bit further, immediately followed by a raise back to the average level. It seems that the AS3935 and the ESP have negotiated a good compromise. 😉

The AS3935 seems to be set up in an optimal way now, but I still get some false lightning events from time to time. There are a few registers left to experiment with, namely WDTH (watchdog threshold), SREJ (spike rejection) and MIN_NUM_LIGH (minimum number of lightning). I have raised the watchdog threshold to 2, and did not have a false lightning event since then.

Now I have to wait for some real lightnings… 😄

DS3231 RTC on Raspberry with Fedora

A minor downside of the Raspberry Pi is that it is not equipped with a battery backed-up real-time clock. After every reboot, the system time is messed up and needs to be corrected by NTP, which in turn requires a network connection.

Luckily, there are readily assembled RTC modules available. They base on the DS3231 real time clock chip. A tiny battery is keeping the time when the Raspberry is disconnected from power. You can find those modules for less than two Euros a piece at marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, or Alibaba. The module is just plugged onto the pin header of the RasPi.

It is quite easy to use the RTC on Raspbian. On Fedora for Raspberry Pi, the installation was a little more tricky though.

In a first step, the RTC must be added as a new I²C device:

/usr/bin/echo ds3231 0x68 > /sys/class/i2c-adapter/i2c-1/new_device

(If you have a Raspberry Rev 1, you'd use /sys/class/i2c-adapter/i2c-0/new_device instead.)

The RTC does not store the time zone, so we need to tell the system that we'd like to use the system's time zone:

timedatectl set-local-rtc 0

And finally we copy the current system's time to the RTC chip:

hwclock -w

The RTC is now set up and ready for operation. But we're not done yet. When the system boots up, the DS3231 is unknown to the system again. We have to add a systemd service for adding it and reading the time, by creating a file called /etc/systemd/system/my-rtc.service with the following content:

[Unit]
Description=Enable battery backed-up RTC
Before=basic.target
After=sysinit.target
DefaultDependencies=no

[Service]
Type=oneshot
RemainAfterExit=yes
ExecStartPre=-/usr/bin/bash -c '/usr/bin/echo ds3231 0x68 > /sys/class/i2c-adapter/i2c-1/new_device'
ExecStartPre=-/usr/bin/sleep 0.2
ExecStart=/usr/sbin/hwclock -s

[Install]
WantedBy=basic.target

The service is enabled via:

systemctl enable my-rtc

And now every time the system boots up, the DS3231 is added as I²C device and the system clock is set to the time found in the RTC. If a network is available, NTP will later take over and set the network time.

It's not the most elegant solution, I guess. I had to add a sleep command because it turned out that the hardware is not immediately available after adding the device. I'd like to hear from you if you found a better way.

Remember to manually use hwclock -w from time to time, to reset the RTC to the correct time. If you shut down your RasPi frequently, you could add another systemd service that automatically writes the current time on system shutdown.

Premium Wall Bias Lighting, Part 3

I haven't forgotten about you. Some private stuff kept me from completing this project for a while. To make it up, I have added OpenSCAD files for a 3D printed case.

The controller was a little tricky to complete, mostly because of the very different component heights. I decided to use two circuit boards that are stacked onto each other by headers.

On the upper board, there are only the two buttons and the LCD, as well as the transistor and resistor for the LCD backlight. As I only used one-layer TriPad strip boards, I had to use this one upside down for the male headers to point downward. This rather unconventional use made it a little tricky to solder the buttons and LCD headers on the actual bottom side of the board.

The soldered controller boards. The lower board contains all the other components, as well as the wiring. The rotary encoder also made it to the lower board, because it is much taller than the other buttons. This way, the top of the button caps are almost level and nice to look at.

The result is surprisingly compact for a DIY solution. The button caps and the LCD are just perfectly positioned for a case.

With plastic feet attached, you can use the controller as it is. You can also get a plastic case with transparent top, drill three holes in it for the button caps, and mount the sandwich with spacers. But if you have the chance, you should definitely go for a 3D printed case.

I have set up a project at GitHub. It contains the circuit diagram, the bill of materials, the firmware source code, and OpenSCAD files for a printed case. There is no firmware binary yet, as you need to adapt the source code to the length of your LED strip anyway.

You will find the OpenSCAD files for the case in the GitHub project. There are bonus OpenSCAD files in the project, for printing a customized case. Due to the absence of properly layouted PCBs, I am aware that each controller is going to look differently when finished. In the parameter.scad file, you can change all kind of parameters, so you should be able to make your individual case in, well, almost any case (silly pun intended). 😄

The SPI flash memory of the Feather M0 Express is not used yet. In a future release, I may add a settings menu for the LED strip size. The controller is also forgetting all its settings when disconnected from the power. This needs to be addressed in a future release as well.

But after all, this is a start for your own DIY wall bias lighting. Feel free to send pull requests for enhancements!

Again, remember that you must remove the jumper before connecting the Feather to an USB port, otherwise your computer will be damaged.

Premium Wall Bias Lighting, Part 2

The completed prototype on a breadboard In the first part, I have assembled a working proof-of-concept for my premium wall bias lighting. Thanks to CircuitPython, it just took a couple of minutes to program a light effect once the hardware was working.

Now it's time to extend the hardware to its final stage. I'd like to have a LC display that shows the current settings. A button and a rotary encoder allows to browse through different menus and change the parameters. And finally, the strip shall be switched on and off by an illuminated power button.

Thanks to the bread board, the components were quickly added and connected to the Feather with some wires. Polling the buttons is a basic functionality of CircuitPython. It was also incredibly easy to poll the rotary encoder, because CircuitPython already comes with a library for that.

It took a lot more time to set up the LC display. CircuitPython supports SPI out of the box, but the SSD1803A controller of the display uses a weird protocol. Each command byte must be split up into two nibbles (4 bits), which are packed into bytes again, with the bit order reversed. The SPI library does not offer support for it, so I had to do all this bit mangling in Python, which turned out to become a rather ugly piece of code.

But then, finally, a minimal version of the firmware was working. I could turn the light on and off, select between two light effects, and I could also control the brightness.

However the Feather often took long breaks, where it did not react on key presses for multiple seconds. I guess the reason for that is Python's garbage collector, which stops the world while it is collecting unused objects and freeing some memory. This was actually a pretty annoying behavior that rendered the controller unusable.

After I added a third light effect, I also started to run into frequent out of memory errors. It seems that I have reached the limits of what is technically possible with CircuitPython on a Feather.

Was my approach too ambitious?

Luckily it wasn't. The Feather can also be programmed in C++, using the well known Arduino IDE. It comes with a lot of libraries that are ready to use. It's all very lightweight and is looking very promising. So why did I use Python in first place? Well, it is because I wrote my last lines of C++ code about 20 years ago. 😅

Porting the existing Python code to C++ was easier than I had expected. The SPI library now even supports reversed bit order, so it was much easier to address the LC display. On the down side, I had to test several libraries until I found a reliable one for the rotary encoder.

The C++ code consumes a fraction of the Python code's memory, so there is a lot left for extensions. The garbage collection breaks are also gone now, so the controller instantly responds to key presses. And I haven't even used the Feather's SPI flash memory yet. 😀

I have added some more light effects, and menus for adjusting brightness, saturation, and color temperature. Everything is working as expected now. It's time to finish the prototype phase and draw a circuit diagram.

R2 is the series resistor for the power button LED. A green LED would need an 68 Ω resistor at 3.3 V. However the LED is directly connected to the Feather, so the current should not exceed 7 mA (maximum rating is 10 mA). A 500 Ω resistor limits the current to a safe value. If you need more current for a fancy power LED, you can use one of the three 74HCT125 drivers left, or add a transistor.

R3 is the series resistor for the LCD backlight. The manufacturer specifies a 27 Ω resistor when the backlight LEDs are connected in series and powered with 5 V. If you use a different backlight, change the resistor accordingly. The BC 548 transistor permits up to 100 mA in this configuration.

Remember: You must remove the jumper JP1 before connecting the Feather to an USB port, or your computer will be damaged.

In the next part, I'm going to grab my soldering iron and build a final version. It's high time. The many wires on the breadboard prototype are annoying when operating the rotary encoder. Also its pins are too short and are often disconnecting from the breadboard when I use it.

Premium Wall Bias Lighting, Part 1

A good way to relieve the strain from your eyes while working on a PC, is to illuminate the wall behind your monitor. Jason Fitzpatrick wrote an interesting article about what bias lighting is and why you should be using it.

Many light sources can be used as bias lighting. I have used an old bedside lamp for a while. But what about something more stylish? What about a LED strip on an aluminum profile?

In this project, I am going to make a Wall Bias Lighting myself, and write a controller software for it. The source code will be released on my GitHub profile eventually, so you will be able to customize it.

Proof of Concept

To make it a true premium lighting, I use a LED strip that consists of SK6812 RGBW LEDs. It can produce colors, but it also has separate white LEDs for a clean neutral white. Even better: Each LED can be addressed and the color changed individually. It would be possible to illuminate the wall behind the monitor in a bright white, while the visible parts of the strip are in a soft blue that won't dazzle the eyes.

AdaFruit sells these LED strips under their brand name NeoPixel, but there are also no-name strips on the market that are fully compatible and considerably cheaper. The strips are usually sold on reels of up to 5 meters length. They can be shortened to the desired size with scissors, and have an adhesive tape on the back so they can be glued to aluminum profiles.

This is the bill of material for the first proof-of-concept phase of the project:

  • An SK6812 RGBW LED strip with 60 LEDs per meter
  • An aluminum wall profile for LED strips
  • 1x AdaFruit Feather M0 Express
  • 1x Level converter (read below)
  • 1x 1000 µF/16 V capacitor, 1x 500 Ω resistor (read here why they are needed)
  • 1x 5 V power brick. Each LED is said to consume up to 60 mA (I couldn't find concrete figures), so you will need 18 W per strip meter if you want to set all four colors of all LEDs to maximum brightness.

The assembly was rather simple. First I cut the profile and the strip to the desired length and glued them together. Then I connected the strip to the power supply, and the strip's data line to the Feather via the level converter.

The next thing on the to-do list was a quick test drive, to check if some of the LEDs are defective. So I installed CircuitPython on the Feather, and wrote a tiny test program that just cycles through the colors red, green, blue, and white. With this pattern, even a single defective LED would immediately catch one's eye.

I turned on the power supply, aaaand... Nothing! 😲 All the LEDs stayed black.

I checked and double checked the wiring, but everything seemed to be correct. I tested my test program on the single NeoPixel that is mounted on the Feather, and it worked there.

Puzzled, I connected my scope to the data line of the LED strip. It immediately revealed the culprit.

The Feather runs on 3.3 V, and so the signal on the data line has an amplitude of 3.3 V.

The LED strip runs on 5 V though, and also expects a signal amplitude of 5 V. The logic converter between the Feather and the strip is supposed to convert the 3.3 V signal to 5 V. However, the BSS138 based bi-directional logic level converter from my spare part box turned out to be too slow for this purpose. The output level starts at 3 V and then ramps up to 4 V.

This is not sufficient for the SK6812, which needs a 5 V signal and a very precise timing with clean signal edges. Both was not given, so the LEDs stayed black.

I replaced the logic level converter by a standard 74HCT125 buffer IC, and tried again. The LED strip immediately came to life and cycled through the colors. The scope now shows a clean (well, more or less clean) 5 V signal.

My proof-of-concept is working. 🎉 This is what the circuit looks like:

While the LED strip is powered by the power brick, the Feather is going to be powered by USB as long as I am developing the software. Later I will also supply the Feather with LED power, so it runs stand-alone.

Never connect the Feather to an USB port while it is supplied by an external power source. It could damage your computer.

What next? I'm going to add a power button, so I can turn the light on and off. For controlling the brightness and light effects, I am also going to add a display, a rotary switch, and another button. Stay tuned…