Arduino – initial experiences

skip to Arduino/WiFi bit, also Issues Raised and a Cunning Plan

Requirements & Constraints

On the hardware side of this project, I want to capture local seismic and ELF/VLF radio data. I’ve given myself two major constraints: it should be simple; it should be low cost. These constraints are somewhat conflicting. For example, on the seismic side, a simple approach would be to purchase a Raspberry Shake, an off-the-shelf device based on a Raspberry Pi and an (off-the-shelf) geophone. Unfortunately, these gadgets start at $375 USD, and that’s only for one dimension (and there may be software licensing issues). I want to capture 3D data, and want to keep the price comfortably under $100. Note that project non-constraints are absolute measurement, calibration etc. So the plan is to hack something. I’m taking rather a scattergun approach to the hardware – find as many approaches as are feasible and try them out.

Both the seismic and radio sensor subsystems have particular requirements when it comes to physical location. The seismic part should ideally be firmly attached to local bedrock; the radio part should be as far away as possible from interference – mains hum being the elephantine wasp in the room. For my own installation this will probably mean bolting the seismic part to my basement floor (which is largely on bedrock) and having the radio part as far up the fields as I can get it.

What seems the most straightforward starting point is to feed data from the sensors into a local ADC, pass this through a microcontroller into a WiFi transceiver, then pick this up on the home network. (WiFi range may well be an issue – but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it).

The two microcontroller systems that seem most in the frame due to their relatively low cost are the aforementioned Raspberry Pi and the Arduino family. For a first pass, something Arduino-based seems the best bet – they are a lot cheaper than the Pis, and have the advantage of having multiple ADCs built in (compared to the Pi’s none – though there are straightforward add-ons).

Arduino Fun

Quite a while ago I ordered a couple of Arduino Unos and WiFi shields from Banggood, a China-based retailer of low cost stuff. My only prior experience with Arduinos was when my brother was building something MIDI-related and hit a code problem. He mailed me on the offchance and amusingly I was able to solve the problem in my reply – it was a fairly easy bit of C (I hadn’t done any other C for years, but coding is coding).

I instantly fell in love with the Arduino boards (actually a clone by GeekCreit). After very little time at all I was able to use the Arduino IDE to get some of the example code running on one of the devices. Light goes on, light goes off, light goes on… Very user friendly.

ESP8266 Nightmares

In my naivety, I assumed the WiFi shields would be as straightforward. Most probably are, but the ones I ordered have been distinctly painful so far. But I can at least put slow progress so far down as a learning experience. Essentially the ones I got have several issues. The story so far:

The boards I got are labeled “Arduino ESP8266 WiFi Shiald Version 1.0 by WangTongze”. Yup, that’s ‘Shiald’, not auspicious. The first major issue was that the only official documentation was in Chinese (mandarin?). I wasted a lot of time trying to treat them as more standard boards. But then found two extremely helpful blog posts by Claus : Using ESP8266 Shield ESP-12E (elecshop.ml) by WangTongze with an Arduino Uno and Arduino ESP8266 WiFi Shield (elecshop.ml) by WangTongze Comparison.

The first of these posts describes a nifty little setup, using an Arduino board as a converter from USB to TTL level RS232 that the Shiald can understand (I didn’t think to order such an adapter). It looks like this:

arduino1

By default the Shiald plugs its serial TX/RX pins to the Arduino’s, which does seem a design flaw. But this can (apparently) be flipped to using software serial via regular digital I/O pins on the Uno. A key thing needed is to tell the Shiald to use 9600 baud rather than its default 115200. The setup above allows this. This part worked for me.

However, at this point, after bending the TX/RX pins out of the way on the Shiald and plugging it in on top of the Uno (with jumpers to GPIO for TX/RX), I couldn’t talk to it. So going back to Claus’s post, he suggests updating the Shiald’s firmware. Following his links, I tried a couple, ended up with the setup spewing gibberish (at any baud rate).

At this point – after a good few hours yesterday, I was ready to cut my losses with the WiFi Shialds. I’d mentioned to danbri that I was struggling with these cards and he mentioned that he’d had the recommendation (from Libby) of Wemos cards. So I started having a look around at what they were. As it happens, they have a page on their wiki Tutorial – Returning a Wemos D1 Mini to Factory Firmware (AT). The D1 uses the same ESP8266 chips as my Shiald, so this morning, nothing to lose, adjusted the script and gave it a shot. Going back to the setup in the pic (with DIP switches tweaked as Claus suggests) it worked! (Tip – along the way of flashing, I had to press the Shiald’s reset button a couple of times).

arduino-at

So far so pleasing – I thought I might have bricked the board.

(See also ESP8266 Wifi With Arduino Uno and Nano)

After this I’d tried with the Shiald mounted on top of the Arduino in a good few configurations with various different software utilities, haven’t yet got everything talking to everything else, but this does feel like progress.

Issues Raised and a Cunning Plan

Sooo… these Shialds have been rather thieves of time, but it’s all learning, innit.

These bits of play have forced me into reading up on the Arduinos a bit more. For this project, a key factor is the ADC sample rate. It seems that the maximum achievable for a single ADC is around 9kHz (with 10 bit precision). That should be plenty for the seismic sensor. The radio sensor is another matter. I’d like to be able to cover up to say 20kHz, which means a sampling rate of at least 40kHz. I’m still thinking about this one, but one option would be to use an ADC shield – these ones from Mayhew Labs look plenty – though getting the fast data along to WiFi could well be an issue (intermediate baud rates). If necessary, some local processing could be a workaround. I have been intending to present the radio data to the neural network(s) as spectrograms so maybe eg. running an FFT on the Arduino may be feasible.

Along similar lines, I may have a Cunning Plan, that is to shift some of the processing from digital to analog. This is likely to need a fair amount of research & experimentation, but the practical circuitry could be very straightforward. It seems at least plausible that the earthquake precursors are going to occur largely in particular frequency regions. The Arduino has 6 analog inputs. So imagine the radio receiver being followed by 6 bandpass filters, each tuned around where precursors may be expected. A simple diode & (leaky) capacitor peak level detector for each of these could provide a very crude spectrogram, at a rate the Arduino could easily handle. Op amp BP filters are straightforward and cheap, so an extra $5 on the analog side might save $40 and a oad more work afterward.

Regarding the research – a key source is (of course) Renato Romero’s vlf.it, notably the OPERA project – although that does seem to focus at the low end of potential frequencies.

Advertisements

Revisiting Hum Filters

Skip to filter circuits:

I’m in a relatively noisy environment when it comes to mains hum having overhead power lines nearby. So any ELF/VLF receiver I put together will have to deal with this.

To get an idea of what kind of filtering I might need I simply put a jack plug with bare terminals into the mic in of a laptop, held on to it to make myself an antenna, and recorded for half a minute using Audacity. Here’s a snippet of the resulting waveform:

hum

Yup, that is one well-distorted sine wave. Reminds me of the waveform going to bulbs from triac-based dimmers, though haven’t any in the house.

More usefully, here’s the spectrum plot (Audacity rocks!) :

hum-spectrum

There’s a clear peak at 50Hz. Next highest is at 150Hz, the 3rd harmonic. It’s around 12dB down, which (assuming it’s the voltage ratio being shown, ie. 20*log10(V2/V1)) is 1/4 of the voltage. Next comes 100Hz, the 2nd harmonic, about 30dB down, about 1/32 of the voltage (from ratio = 10^(dB/20)).

(I’m in Italy where like most of the world the mains AC frequency is 50Hz. In the Americas it tends to be 60Hz).

So I reckon I definitely need to cut the 50Hz as much as possible, probably 150Hz too.

Digital filters are relatively straightforward to implement in software, but here there’s a snag. The incoming signal is analog, so will need to go through an ADC. The ELF/VLF signal of interest is likely to be of very small amplitude compared to the mains hum. So using say a 16-bit ADC, capturing the whole signal at maximum resolution, it’s conceivable that the interesting signal only occupies a couple of bits, or maybe even be below a single bit. So really the filtering has to happen in the analog chain, before the ADC. Experimentation will be needed, but I imagine a setup like this will be required:

vlf-in-block

There are a few options for the kind of receiver to use, essentially coil-based (magnetic component of the radio wave) or antenna (electrical component), the nature of the early circuitry and pre-amp will be dependent on this. But the main role of the pre-amp is to boost the signal well above the noise floor of subsequent stages (using low-noise components). At a first guess, something in the region of x10 – x100 should be adequate.

Next comes the filter(s). Now the fortunate thing here is that the ELF/VLF frequency ranges I’m considering, say 5Hz-20kHz are pretty much the audio frequency ranges and are thus within the scope of standard audio components. Well, 5Hz is below the nominal 20Hz-20kHz figures given for audio, but the key thing is that at the high end, it’s nowhere near anything requiring exotic components. Even the humble 741 op-amp (dating from 1968) has a unity-gain bandwidth around 1MHz. For the TL071 family, a reasonable low-cost default these days it’s 3MHz.

One option for filtering the mains hum out would be to use a high pass filter and only look at the higher end of VLF (conversely, a low pass filter and go for ELF). But notch (band stop) filters can be pretty straightforward, so it should be productive to target just the 50Hz (and maybe 150Hz).

(A more exotic approach would be to use something like an analog bucket brigade line device as used in many analog phaser & flanger audio effects boxes, with its delay fixed at the period of the fundamental 50Hz. Mixing this inverted with the input signal non-inverted will cause cancellation at the fundamental and all it’s harmonics, ie. a comb filter. But not only does that seem overkill here, it will in effect degrade the signal of interest).

There are a few alternatives for notch filters. While they can be built from passive components, there are significant benefits to using active components, especially in terms of controlling the parameters. For these reasons and circuit simplicity, op-amps are a good choice over discrete components.

There are three leading candidate circuit topologies, as follows.

Active Twin-T Notch

This classic passive circuit is the starting point.

twin-t00

The notch frequency is given by fc = 1 / (2 pi R C)

This assumes a low impedance source for Vin and a high impedance connected to Vo, which can easily be achieved using op-amp buffers. One drawback of this setup is that its selectivity, the slope of the sides of the notch, is fairly poor. This can be significantly increased by using op-amps to bootstrap the T :

Twin-T-Notchfilter

The notch frequency is determined as for the grounded T above, only this time the Q/selectivity can be varied, according to the values of R4 and R5.

But a troublesome problem remains: all 6 components on which the frequency depends have to have precise values to place the notch where required. Any variation is likely to lead to a sloppy notch, of low Q. While 1% tolerance resistors are the norm these days, capacitors tend to have tolerances more like 5 or 10%.  One option is to use reasonably well-matched capacitors (from the same batch) and vary the resistors. But this still leave 3 variables, with some level of interdependence.

(I’ve actually got this one on a breadboard at the moment. For a one-off circuit it isn’t unreasonable to use resistors a little below the calculated values in series with pots, and once fine tuned replaced with fixed values).

Bainter Notch

This is quite a nifty circuit (and new to me). The main benefits are described in the title of Bainter’s own description : Active filter has stable notch, and response can be regulated. Notch depth depends on gain and not (passive) component values.

Bainter_Notch_Filter

I’ve yet to play with this one, but it certainly shows promise. A downside is that the component values calculation is rather unwieldy. Another ref. is this TI doc: Bandstop filters and the Bainter topology.

State Variable Filter

The State Variable topology is very versatile, offering high- and low-pass outputs as well as bandpass. By mixing the high- and low-pass outputs or the input with the bandpass output, a notch can be achieved. Crucially the gain, center frequency, and Q may be adjusted separately. A bonus compared to the Twin-T is that the frequency is determined by just 2 resistors and 2 capacitors. A few days ago I stumbled on a tweaked version of the standard topology which offers a few advantages. I won’t go into details here, it’s all described in the source of this diagram – Three-op-amp state-variable filter perfects the notch.

new-sv-notch

Once I’ve played with the Twin-T a bit more, I’ll have a go with this one. I have a good feeling about it.

Hall Effect-based Seismometer, Sanity Check Experiments

PS. Oops! I made a silly mistake in the breadboarding, if you look closely at the photo you can see that the 10k ground resistor at the input of the op amp is going to + input, not – as intended. Which kind of messes up all my measurements. Hey ho. I have since made a ball-bearing in a jar (1 axis) sensor and roughed out a signal conditioning circuit (which will now need tweaking…), so will repeat the experiment here and do another post asap.

A fun part of this project is the investigation of hardware possibilities for detecting seismic events and ELF/VLF signals. Even though I’m aiming towards minimum budget hardware, my funds for this have been virtually non-existent so I’ve not got much done (grumble, grumble).

For a seismometer, the requirements as it seems to me, are: simplicity, reasonable sensitivity and low cost. Ideally I want to monitor all 3 dimensions with relatively wide bandwidth. A non-requirement is any kind of absolute accuracy or calibrated measurement.

There are a variety of options for seismic sensors, most that I’ve seen fall down for these requirements in one way or another. I won’t go into them here – try searching for accelerometers (low sensitivity), geophones (expensive), pendulum-based systems (complicated build, 3 dimensions would be very tricky…). To give a ballpark, prices for a ready-made seismometer system based on the Raspberry Pi, the Raspberry Shake, start at $375 USD. That’s for one dimension, using a geophone sensor.

Almost a year ago I sketched out an idea for something that might work.

DSCN7976

At the time I picked up a linear Hall Effect device from Jaycar, a UGN3503UA, costing just $7.75 AUS. It’s in case very like a transistor, just 3 pins : +ve, -ve power and output. An example use in the datasheet uses the same principle as I want to exploit:

gear-sense

A magnet is glued to the back of the sensor. As a (ferrous material) cog approaches the sensor, the magnetic field increases, correspondingly increasing the devices output voltage.

The other day a bag of ball bearings arrived. I just got around to having a play. This is what the setup looked like:

DSCN7974

I’ve got the Hall Effect device soldered to a connector to make breadboarding easier. On the left of it is a blob of Blue Tack attaching a 1cm diameter/3mm deep neodymium magnet. On the right, a 5/8″ steel ball precision mounted between my finger & thumb.

Right now I’ve only got a crude +/- homebrew power supply, so I’m using an op amp to buffer a potential divider to provide a lower voltage to suite the device. Another op amp is used to provide a 10x amplifier from the output of the device.

When I put the magnet in direct contact with the sensor it saturated it at one extreme or the other. I seemed to get best results with around 1cm space in between. With a 5.2v supply to the sensor, this led to a no-magnet output of 2.52v (after the 10x amplification). With the magnet, this changed to 3.07v or 1.76v depending on polarity. With the ball bearing at 1cm away this changed by approx 0.01/0.02v, steadily increasing from there to 3.50/1.22v when the ball bearing touched the sensor.

This sensitivity was less than I’d hoped, but will hopefully be enough to be usable if I tweak a few of the components. I reckon it’s definitely worth going for a prototype, see how it behaves in practice.

I’ll need to find a very small jar 🙂

Here are my full notes:

seismo-experiment

 

 

 

Hardware Delusions

The key front end sensors I wish to build for this project are an ELF/VLF radio receiver and a seismometer. The frequency ranges of interest here are < 20kHz,  in other words, in the audio range (and probably extending a little lower).

As it happens, in a past life I studied audio frequency electronics, transducers, signals and systems, DSP and so on formally for 3 years, have written articles on (nonlinear) analog electronics for a magazine, and probably more significantly have been an electronic music hobbyist for around 40 years. In short, I consider myself something of an expert in the field. The word for this is hubris.

I started planning the sensors like a bull at a gate. On the seismic side, I hadn’t really thought things through very well. On the radio side – I’d only really skimmed Radio Nature, and my knowledge of radio reception is minimal. Since then, the flaws in my ideas have poured out.

Seismic Errors

I’ve got a design for seismic signal sensors roughed out. While a magnet & coil is a more traditional way of detecting audio frequency deflections, I thought it would be neater somehow to use semiconductor Hall Effect devices. A standard design for a proximity detector is one of these components (which are housed much like transistors) backed by a magnet. When a something like a piece of iron passes by, the magnetic flux varies and hence the output of the device (linear output devices are available).

So for my seismometer, the moving part will be a steel ball bearing on a spring, hanging in a jar of oil (for damping). There will be 3 sensors located in the x, y & z directions (N-S, E-W, up-down) relative to this.

One potential complication with this setup had occurred to me. For a (relatively) linear response, the ball bearing would have to move in line with the face of the sensor. Obviously, in practice, most of the time the movement will be off-axis. However, my thinking went, there should still be enough information coming from all 3 sensors in combination to potential determine the deflection of the ball bearing. The data produced by these sensors will ultimately go into a neural network system, and they’re good at figuring out peculiar relationships.

But I’d missed another potential source of problems, it only came to me a couple of days ago. There is likely to be significant, pretty complex, interaction between the ball bearing and all 3 magnets. Whether or not this additional complication will be such that that the directional seismic information is totally obfuscated remains to be seen. I plan to experiment, maybe I’ll need 3 independent sensors…

Loopy

A little learning is a dang’rous thing. The danger I faced was wasting time & money in building a VLF receiver that simply couldn’t work.

I’d only skimmed the material, but something about the use of a coil as a receiver appealed to me. But the designs I’d seen were all pretty big, say around 1m in diameter. Hmm, thinks I, why not shrink that down to say 30cm and just boost the gain of the receiver circuit. It was only after I’d wound such a coil and picked up nothing but hum & noise that I got around to reading a little more.

It turns out there are two related issues involved: the way a small (relative to wavelength) loop antenna works isn’t exactly intuitive, and also its output is very low. It’s frequency-dependent, but the level of the desired signal is at a similar order of magnitude as the thermal noise generated by the loop, less than that of many op amps. The good Signore Romero, author of Radio Nature, has a practical discussion of this in his description of A Minimal ELF Loop Receiver. (Being at the low end of the frequency range of interest make this rather a worst-case scenario, but the points still apply). Basically there’s a good reason for having a big coil.

Another possible design flaw coming from my lack of learning is that I initially thought it would make sense to have coils in the x, y & z dimensions. As it turns out, because VLF signals are propagated as ground waves (between the surface of the planet and the ionosphere), pretty much all a coil in the horizontal plane will pick up is local noise such as mains hum. But I’m not yet discarding the inclusion of such a loop. Given the kind of neural net processing I have in mind, a signal that is comprised of little more than local noise may well be useful (in effect subtract this from the other signals).

But even having said all this, a loop antenna may still be of no use for me here – Noise Annoys. Renato has an image that nicely sums up the potential problem:

renato-noise

Right now I don’t have the funds to build a loop antenna of any description (big coils use a lot of wire!) but as and when I can, I’ll probably be looking at something along the lines of Renato et al’s IdealLoop (the image above comes from that page).

I do have the components to put together some kind of little portable whip antenna (electric field) receiver, I think I’ll have a look at that next, particularly to try and get an idea of how the noise levels vary in this locale.

I’ve also got one linear Hall effect sensor, so I can have a play around with that to try and get some idea of my seismometer design’s viability.

 

A Quick and Dirty Audio Signal Generator

It was pretty clear that my ELFQuake setup would need fairly major mains hum filtering, especially since this location is very close to overhead power lines. This was emphasized the other day when I tried a little AM radio, all but two stations on MW were totally drowned out by hum.

When I was last experimenting with the filter circuitry I found the limited equipment I have rather frustrating. When it came to a signal generator, I didn’t have much joy using either a tablet app or the BitScope waveform generator. What I really wanted was a knob to twiddle for easy tweaking of the frequency. So a couple of days ago I spent a few hours knocking together a simple analog circuit. My requirements were essentially the twiddly knob and something approximating a sine wave. The constraints were the components I had at hand, and no desire to spend too much time over it.

What I came up with is as follows. The circuit starts with a simple triangle/square wave generator using standard analog computational elements based around op amps:

tri-osc

I’m using a TL084 quad op amp with a +/- 12v supply.

When the output of the left-hand op amp is negative, that will ramp up the integrator on the right until it flips the switch on the left (note positive feedback on that op amp). Then the integrator will ramp down until it flips the switch the other way. The frequency is simply determined by the resistors in the middle and capacitor C, as f = 1/2piRC. In practice I’ve got 6 values of C between 4u7 and 1n, producing a frequency range (measured) from about 5Hz to 200kHz. In the middle, with 100n, varying the pot in the middle gave a range from about 275Hz to 11kHz with what looked on the scope like a clean triangle wave. Switching to the top range gave a significant warping of the triangle, but I thought it might still be useful.

Next is a more interesting circuit, which modifies the triangle wave into something approximating a sine:

shaper

The transistors are just a couple of regular BC109s I happened to have a lot of. The transistors act as differential voltage to current converters with a nonlinear transfer function, with the op amp converting the currents back to voltages.

Here’s the cunning bit – the transfer function of the transistors is theoretically proportional to tanh, which looks like this:

TanhReal

Given the right scaling (and bias) this will have the effect of rounding over the upper and lower corners of the triangle waveform. This isn’t an entirely arbitrary choice of function. The first few terms of the Taylor Series for tanh are roughly the same as those for sine.

The actual component values were chosen pretty much by trial and error, adjusting values until the harmonic components appeared to be at a minimum on a frequency response display. Ideally the transistors should have been a matched pair in thermal contact and maybe some tweaking of the levels/balance/bias of this block might have made for a purer sine wave, but I was only after quick & dirty…

This is what the waveforms/freq plots look like (measured on a BitScope), first the square & sine from the first circuit block:

square

triangle

Here’s the shaped output:

sine

Though the 2nd harmonic is still about at the same level as the triangle, but the higher harmonics do seem significantly attenuated.

According to Wikipedia, the Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) of a square wave is around 48.3% – the high harmonic levels are clear on the trace above. For a triangle wave the value is around 12.1%. I’ve not done the sums to figure out the theoretical best achievable using the tanh shaping (homework anyone?), but there is a visible improvement in the displays above. I don’t know, maybe something around 5%..?

(Incidentally, the triangle wave generator can be easily modified to generate a ramp by slipping a diode in the feedback loop).

You may have noticed I’m using a quad op amp, but only 3 of them are in use. I contemplated using the 4th as a buffer or even as the heart of a switched filter. But more useful for me I reckon, and definitely more fun, was to deploy this in a white noise generator:

noise

The noise source is the reverse-biased emitter-base junction of another BC109 transistor. This is simply followed by a DC-blocking capacitor and the op amp set up to give a gain of 100. I think the capacitor I used is a 100n. There was a little bleeding through of the oscillator’s signal visible, but not enough to be troublesome. The output did look remarkably wideband, only really starting to drop off gradually around 50kHz.

noise

I then transferred everything to a piece of stripboard, and in true quick & dirty style mounted it on a scrap of wood:

vero

(Sorry about the blur). Incredibly, even though I put it onto the stripboard without any real planning, I only made one wiring mistake which took about 2 minutes to discover. But I was bitten by hubris when I wired up the capacitor switch – it’s a 2-pole, 6-way, and it took me ages to get the wiring right.

When I tested the sine wave output again there was a visible asymmetry – pointier on top, more rounded on the bottom. I think most likely I got the transistors the other way around. Rather than desolder/resolder them I tweaked the value of the shaper’s input resistor, adding a 1k in series with the 18k in the schematic above, which restored the balance.

So now I have another little addition to my little electronics workbench (big coffee table)…

desk

 

 

 

Signal Generator for Free; Notch Filter Progress

So I’m trying to put together an analog filter to cut the mains hum from a ELF/VLF radio receiver.
The sig gen built into the BitScope DSO is very limited, only offering certain fixed frequencies. This isn’t a huge amount of use for evaluating a notch filter circuit. Neither was the use of a white noise source as input to the circuit with a freq domain trace at the output, the notch wasn’t visible (had a bit more smoothing been available in BitScope DSO, this should have worked).

img_20161231_114937

I thought my easiest next step would be to put together an analog sweepable oscillator on the breadboard. But then, while falling asleep, I had a Eureka moment: the laptop I’m using for the DSO display has a soundcard! I’m running Ubuntu on the lappie, and the Audacity audio recording/processing tool has the facility for generating swept-frequency signals. So I attached jumper leads to a mini jack plug and stuck that in the headphone socket, bingo!

By generating a 1 second sweep, 20Hz-200Hz, in Audacity and loop-playing it, I got a reasonably respectable view of the filter response in the freq domain display of the DSO.

img_20170104_115751

Next up I just need to tweak the resistor values to focus the notch bang on 50Hz. Putting pots in parallel with the current values will allow me to find these values. However, silly me, I don’t have a multimeter to check the pot values. I did see one in a hardware shop for AUS$11 the other day, and given that’s about the price of a pint of beer here, I guess I have no excuses.

Seeing the Signals (& BitScope BS10, first impressions)

tl;dr

The BitScope BS10 and associated software makes a useable but basic scope, but its real potential is probably in its other facilities: simple data acquisition across various platforms (including Raspberry Pi) and the ability to monitor logic levels alongside analog signals.

img_20170105_100440

Trying to do any signal-oriented electronics without an oscilloscope is like trying to drive blindfolded. OK, it is possible to develop audio systems with just a multimeter and an amplifier, but you are literally missing a sense. I did have an old analogue, CRT scope years ago, but gave it away when I moved to Italy. I’ve only done a tiny bit of electronics dev since then (simple guitar effects) and have got away with ears, just.
But my latest project will involve a lot of unknown signals, there’s no way I can make progress without a scope.
Standard scopes nowadays are Digital Storage Oscilloscopes (DSOs). The storage side is sweet, it’s possible to save snapshots of traces and often capture the raw data contained in them. But with Digital comes a caveat. Analog scopes tend to give a fairly true representation of the signal, in the given context (bandwidth, levels etc). Anything spurious, such as over-level clipping is immediately visible. Digital scopes rely on analog to digital conversion (A/D), which introduces factors such as the sample rate, filtering and resolution. Out-of -range signals presented here can produce misleading displays.

Requirements

Most of what I want to look at is in the audio frequency range, which is well covered by pretty much any scope worth its salt. For example, my old analog one went up to a 1MHz timebase, comfortably encompassing the nominal 20Hz-20kHz of audio. But because I’m going to be looking at circuits that may pick up radio frequency signals, a higher bandwidth could be useful. Being able to go down to DC will be useful too, for lower frequency signals and detecting unwanted offsets etc.
The signal levels I’m interested in are relatively low voltage, so there are no special requirements here (at circuit input some signals will be very low amplitude, but as the target systems will need to amplify these anyway, this shouldn’t be an issue).
For convenience, I want at least two simultaneous traces to be available – most circuits I’m likely to be looking at will feature an input and output.
Additional it will be pretty essential to examine signals in the frequency domain.
Finally, the scope has to be affordable.

Options

Benchtop DSO

This is the most obvious solution. These are available starting at around $500 – not a trivial amount, but definitely worth considering for such a vital piece of kit.

Computer Soundcard

Right at the low budget end is the use of a computer sound card and appropriate software. Remembering now, I realise I fibbed about developing guitar effects without a scope, I did actually use a soundcard and various (free) VST plugins to look at the signals.
But this approach is quite limited, and, well, clunky. It isn’t really viable to make accurate measurements, there’s no range changing switches built in, bandwidth and resolution can be overly limited (e.g. few sound cards go down to DC).

BitScope

This is an A/D converter which attaches to a USB port and has dedicated DSO software. The BS10 has excellent specs on paper, though they are dependent on host computer performance. The software will run on MS Windows or Linux and notably a Raspberry Pi. An Android version appears to be in the pipeline. Physically the BS10 is a small box which comes with a bunch of clip leads. It has two analog inputs, an analog output and and 8 logic inputs. A variety of applications were downloadable from the site, the key one being BitScope DSO. Once I’d realised this had to be run with sudo (to give access to /dev/ttyUSB0) it worked a treat.
The controls in the application aren’t entirely intuitive, after a couple of days getting used to them I’m still unsure e.g. how to adjust offset. For equipment like this, I’m afraid an on-screen user interface will never be as convenient as hardware knobs you can twiddle.
The DSO application also offers a frequency domain display (for one or both channels) as well as a basic signal generator. The freq display is very nice to have, though control of parameters is rather limited. For example, an arbitrary zoom would have been good, as would a variety of smoothing/averaging options.
Similarly the built-in signal generator is nice to have, but even more limited. It offers a range of fixed frequencies, producing a sine or square wave. This is OK for quick checks, but that’s about it.

Fortunately there’s a fairly trivial way of providing a versatile sig gen in the same setup at virtually zero cost. Whatever the host machine for the BitScope, chances are it has a soundcard. Hook a couple of jumpers leads to a jack plug, pop it in the headphone out socket, fire up Audacity and bingo!

img_20170104_115751
So as a substitute for a benchtop DSO, the BS10 is adequate but not outstanding. Call it 7/10. Given the price compared to dedicated hardware this seems reasonable.
However, chances are anyone working with analog signals in this day and age are likely to have digital aspects to their circuits. I haven’t tried this yet but from the docs the 8 channel logic monitor capability of the BS10 looks like it should be very useful in future.
For my current project, while I need the DSO facilities for circuit development, the BS10 should offer a very good foothold into another part. Again though I haven’t yet tried this, it also appears to be a very versatile data acquision system for recording signals. This can be done from within the DSO app or programmatically (with hooks from Python, I believe). The latter part I’m rather looking forward to, a hackable signal capture unit is very nice to have. I don’t yet know how sophisticated I need this side of my project to be, but the BS10 certainly is an option. Alternately I may develop with this interface, then flip to the cheaper BitScope Micro for production.
All in all then, the BitScope BS10 scratches a lot of itches.