Isolated Sigma-Delta Modulators, Rah Rah Rah!

Jason Sachs April 25, 2013

I recently faced a little "asterisk" problem, which looks like it can be solved with some interesting ICs. 

I needed to plan out some test instrumentation to capture voltage and current information over a short period of time. Nothing too fancy, 10 or 20kHz sampling rate, about a half-dozen channels sampled simultaneously or near simultaneously, for maybe 5 or 10 seconds.

Here's the "asterisk": Oh, by the way, because the system in question was tied to the AC mains, I needed some...


Oscilloscope review: Hameg HMO2024

Jason Sachs March 28, 20133 comments

Last year I wrote about some of the key characteristics of oscilloscopes that are important to me for working with embedded microcontrollers. In that blog entry I rated the Agilent MSOX3024A 4-channel 16-digital-input oscilloscope highly.

Since then I have moved to a different career, and I am again on the lookout for an oscilloscope. I still consider the Agilent MSOX3024A the best choice for a...


How to Estimate Encoder Velocity Without Making Stupid Mistakes: Part I

Jason Sachs December 27, 201230 comments

Here's a common problem: you have a quadrature encoder to measure the angular position of a motor, and you want to know both the position and the velocity. How do you do it? Some people do it poorly -- this article is how not to be one of them.

Well, first we need to get position. Quadrature encoders are incremental encoders, meaning they can only measure relative changes in position. They produce a pair of pulse trains, commonly called A and B, that look like...


Chebyshev Approximation and How It Can Help You Save Money, Win Friends, and Influence People

Jason Sachs September 30, 201220 comments

Well... maybe that's a stretch. I don't think I can recommend anything to help you win friends. Not my forte.

But I am going to try to convince you why you should know about Chebyshev approximation, which is a technique for figuring out how you can come as close as possible to computing the result of a mathematical function, with a minimal amount of design effort and CPU power. Let's explore two use cases:

  • Amy has a low-power 8-bit microcontroller and needs to compute \( \sqrt{x} \)...

Thoughts on Starting a New Career

Jason Sachs July 22, 20127 comments

I recently completed a 16-year stint at an engineering company. I started there fresh out of college in June 1996. This June I just started a new career as an applications engineer in the area of motor drives at Microchip Technology in Chandler, Arizona. The experience I had in switching jobs was a very enlightening one for me, and has given me an opportunity to reflect on my career. I want to share some of that reflection with you.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this and other blogs...


10 Software Tools You Should Know

Jason Sachs May 20, 201215 comments

Unless you're designing small analog electronic circuits, it's pretty hard these days to get things done in embedded systems design without the help of computers. I thought I'd share a list of software tools that help me get my job done. Most of these are free or inexpensive. Most of them are also for working with software. If you never have to design, read, or edit any software, then you're one of a few people that won't benefit from reading this. 

Disclaimer: the "best" software...


Have You Ever Seen an Ideal Op-Amp?

Jason Sachs April 30, 2012

Somewhere, along with unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster, lies a small colony of ideal op-amps. Op-amp is short for operational amplifier, and we start our education on them by learning about these mythical beasts, which have the following properties:

  • Infinite gain
  • Infinite input impedance
  • Zero output impedance

And on top of it all, they will do whatever it takes to change their output in order to make their two inputs equal.

But they don't exist. Real op-amps have...


Hot Fun in the Silicon: Thermal Testing with Power Semiconductors

Jason Sachs April 20, 2012

Here's a trick that is useful the next time you do thermal testing with your MOSFETs or IGBTs.

Thermal testing?!

Yes, that's right. It's important to make sure your power transistors don't overheat. In the datasheet, you will find some information that you can use to estimate how hot the junction inside the IC will get.

Let's look at an example. Here's a page from the IRF7739 DirectFET datasheet. I like this datasheet because it has almost all the thermal stuff on one page,...


How to Build a Fixed-Point PI Controller That Just Works: Part II

Jason Sachs March 24, 20122 comments

In Part I we talked about some of the issues around discrete-time proportional-integral (PI) controllers:

  • various forms and whether to use the canonical form for z-transforms (don't do it!)
  • order of operation in the integral term: whether to scale and then integrate (my recommendation), or integrate and then scale.
  • saturation and anti-windup

In this part we'll talk about the issues surrounding fixed-point implementations of PI controllers. First let's recap the conceptual structure...


How to Build a Fixed-Point PI Controller That Just Works: Part I

Jason Sachs February 26, 20127 comments

This two-part article explains five tips to make a fixed-point PI controller work well. I am not going to talk about loop tuning -- there are hundreds of articles and books about that; any control-systems course will go over loop tuning enough to help you understand the fundamentals. There will always be some differences for each system you have to control, but the goals are the same: drive the average error to zero, keep the system stable, and maximize performance (keep overshoot and delay...


Implementation Complexity, Part II: Catastrophe, Dear Liza, and the M Word

Jason Sachs June 16, 2013

In my last post, I talked about the Tower of Babel as a warning against implementation complexity, and I mentioned a number of issues that can occur at the time of design or construction of a project.

The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563 (from Wikipedia)

Success and throwing it over the wall

OK, so let's say that the right people get together into a well-functioning team, and build our Tower of Babel, whether it's the Empire State Building, or the electrical grid, or...


Oh Robot My Robot

Jason Sachs June 26, 2015

Oh Robot! My Robot! You’ve broken off your nose! Your head is spinning round and round, your eye no longer glows, Each program after program tapped your golden memory, You used to have 12K, now there is none that I can see,  Under smoldering antennae,   Over long forgotten feet,    My sister used your last part:      The chip she tried to eat.

Oh Robot, My Robot, the remote controls—they call, The call—for...


Racing to Sleep

Jason Sachs December 30, 2019

Today we’re going to talk about low-power design.

Suppose I’m an electrical engineer working with wildlife biologists who are gathering field data on the Saskatchewan ringed-neck mountain goat. My team has designed a device called the BigBrotherBear 2000 (BBB2000) with a trip cable and a motor and a camera and a temperature sensor and a hot-wire anemometer and a real-time clock and an SD card and a battery and a LoRa transceiver. The idea is something like...


Linear Regression with Evenly-Spaced Abscissae

Jason Sachs May 1, 20181 comment

What a boring title. I wish I could come up with something snazzier. One word I learned today is studentization, which is just the normalization of errors in a curve-fitting exercise by the sample standard deviation (e.g. point \( x_i \) is \( 0.3\hat{\sigma} \) from the best-fit linear curve, so \( \frac{x_i - \hat{x}_i}{\hat{\sigma}} = 0.3 \)) — Studentize me! would have been nice, but I couldn’t work it into the topic for today. Oh well.

I needed a little break from...


The Dilemma of Unwritten Requirements

Jason Sachs October 25, 20151 comment

You will probably hear the word “requirements” at least 793 times in your engineering career, mostly in the context of how important it is, in any project, to agree upon clear requirements before committing to (and hastily proceeding towards) a deadline. Some of those times you may actually follow that advice. Other times it’s just talk, like how you should “wear sunscreen when spending time outdoors” and “eat a diet low in saturated fats and...


Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part VIII: Matrix Methods and State Recovery

Jason Sachs November 21, 2017

Last time we looked at a dsPIC implementation of LFSR updates. Now we’re going to go back to basics and look at some matrix methods, which is the third approach to represent LFSRs that I mentioned in Part I. And we’re going to explore the problem of converting from LFSR output to LFSR state.

Matrices: Beloved Historical Dregs

Elwyn Berlekamp’s 1966 paper Non-Binary BCH Encoding covers some work on


Efficiency Through the Looking-Glass

Jason Sachs December 8, 20134 comments

If you've ever designed or purchased a power supply, chances are you have had to work with efficiency calculations. I can remember in my beginning electronic circuits course in college, in the last lecture when the professor was talking about switching power converters, and saying how all of a sudden you could take a linear regulator that was 40% efficient and turn it into a switching regulator that was 80% efficient. I think that was the nail in the coffin for any plans I had to pursue a...


Hot Fun in the Silicon: Thermal Testing with Power Semiconductors

Jason Sachs April 20, 2012

Here's a trick that is useful the next time you do thermal testing with your MOSFETs or IGBTs.

Thermal testing?!

Yes, that's right. It's important to make sure your power transistors don't overheat. In the datasheet, you will find some information that you can use to estimate how hot the junction inside the IC will get.

Let's look at an example. Here's a page from the IRF7739 DirectFET datasheet. I like this datasheet because it has almost all the thermal stuff on one page,...


Scorchers, Part 1: Tools and Burn Rate

Jason Sachs April 12, 20167 comments

This is a short article about one aspect of purchasing, for engineers.

I had an engineering manager once — I’ll leave his real name out of it, but let’s call him Barney — who had a catchy response to the question “Can I buy XYZ?”, where XYZ was some piece of test equipment, like an oscilloscope or multimeter. Barney said, “Get what you need, need what you get.” We used purchase orders, which when I started in 1996 were these quaint forms on...


Linear Feedback Shift Registers for the Uninitiated, Part V: Difficult Discrete Logarithms and Pollard's Kangaroo Method

Jason Sachs October 1, 2017

Last time we talked about discrete logarithms which are easy when the group in question has an order which is a smooth number, namely the product of small prime factors. Just as a reminder, the goal here is to find \( k \) if you are given some finite multiplicative group (or a finite field, since it has a multiplicative group) with elements \( y \) and \( g \), and you know you can express \( y = g^k \) for some unknown integer \( k \). The value \( k \) is the discrete logarithm of \( y \)...