Padé Delay is Okay Today

Jason Sachs March 1, 20164 comments

This article is going to be somewhat different in that I’m not really writing it for the typical embedded systems engineer. Rather it’s kind of a specialized topic, so don’t be surprised if you get bored and move on to something else. That’s fine by me.

Anyway, let’s just jump ahead to the punchline. Here’s a numerical simulation of a step response to a \( p=126, q=130 \) Padé approximation of a time delay:

Impressed? Maybe you should be. This...


Margin Call: Fermi Problems, Highway Horrors, Black Swans, and Why You Should Worry About When You Should Worry

Jason Sachs December 6, 20152 comments

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.” — Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002

Today’s topic is engineering margin.

XKCD had a what-if column involving Fermi...


Ten Little Algorithms, Part 5: Quadratic Extremum Interpolation and Chandrupatla's Method

Jason Sachs November 11, 20154 comments

Other articles in this series:

Today we will be drifting back into the topic of numerical methods, and look at an algorithm that takes in a series of discretely-sampled data points, and estimates the maximum value of...


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...


Trust, but Verify: Examining the Output of an Embedded Compiler

Jason Sachs September 27, 2015

I work with motor control firmware on the Microchip dsPIC33 series of microcontrollers. The vast majority of that firmware is written in C, with only a few percent in assembly. And I got to thinking recently: I programmed in C and C++ on an Intel PC from roughly 1991 to 2009. But I don’t remember ever working with x86 assembly code. Not once. Not even reading it. Which seems odd. I do that all the time with embedded firmware. And I think you should too. Before I say why, here are...


How to Read a Power MOSFET Datasheet

Jason Sachs September 15, 201512 comments

One of my pet peeves is when my fellow engineers misinterpret component datasheets. This happened a few times recently in separate instances, all involving power MOSFETs. So it’s time for me to get on my soapbox. Listen up!

I was going to post an article on how to read component datasheets in general. But MOSFETs are a good place to start, and are a little more specific. I’m not the first person to write something about how to read datasheets; here are some other good...


Lessons Learned from Embedded Code Reviews (Including Some Surprises)

Jason Sachs August 16, 20151 comment

My software team recently finished a round of code reviews for some of our motor controller code. I learned a lot from the experience, most notably why you would want to have code reviews in the first place.

My background is originally from the medical device industry. In the United States, software in medical devices gets a lot of scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration, and for good reason; it’s a place for complexity to hide latent bugs. (Can you say “


Ten Little Algorithms, Part 4: Topological Sort

Jason Sachs July 5, 20151 comment

Other articles in this series:

Today we’re going to take a break from my usual focus on signal processing or numerical algorithms, and focus on...


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...


Important Programming Concepts (Even on Embedded Systems) Part VI : Abstraction

Jason Sachs June 16, 20153 comments

Earlier articles:

We have come to the last part of the Important Programming Concepts series, on abstraction. I thought I might also talk about why there isn’t a Part VII, but decided it would distract from this article — so if you want to know the reason, along with what’s next,


Oscilloscope Dreams

Jason Sachs January 14, 20125 comments

My coworkers and I recently needed a new oscilloscope. I thought I would share some of the features I look for when purchasing one.

When I was in college in the early 1990's, our oscilloscopes looked like this:

Now the cathode ray tubes have almost all been replaced by digital storage scopes with color LCD screens, and they look like these:

Oscilloscopes are basically just fancy expensive boxes for graphing voltage vs. time. They span a wide range of features and prices:...


The CRC Wild Goose Chase: PPP Does What?!?!?!

Jason Sachs October 23, 20142 comments

I got a bad feeling yesterday when I had to include reference information about a 16-bit CRC in a serial protocol document I was writing. And I knew it wasn’t going to end well.

The last time I looked into CRC algorithms was about five years ago. And the time before that… sometime back in 2004 or 2005? It seems like it comes up periodically, like the seventeen-year locust or sunspots or El Niño,...


Lost Secrets of the H-Bridge, Part I: Ripple Current in Inductive Loads

Jason Sachs July 8, 2013

So you think you know about H-bridges? They're something I mentioned in my last post about signal processing with Python.

Here we have a typical H-bridge with an inductive load. (Mmmmm ahhh! It's good to draw by hand every once in a while!) There are four power switches: QAH and QAL connecting node A to the DC link, and QBH and QBL connecting node B to the DC link. The load is connected between nodes A and B, and here is represented by an inductive load in series with something else. We...


10 More (Obscure) Circuit Components You Should Know

Jason Sachs February 5, 20121 comment

The interest in my previous article on obscure but useful electronics parts, "10 Circuit Components You Should Know" was encouraging enough that I thought I would write a followup. So here are another 10:

1. "Ideal Diode" controllers

Load-sharing circuits use diodes tied together at their cathode terminal to take the most positive voltage among the sources and connect it to a load. Works great: you have a DC/DC power supply, a battery, and a solar cell, and it will use whichever output is...


10 Items of Test Equipment You Should Know

Jason Sachs June 22, 20142 comments

When life gets rough and a circuit board is letting you down, it’s time to turn to test equipment. The obvious ones are multimeters and oscilloscopes and power supplies. But you know about those already, right?

Here are some you may not have heard of:

Non-contact current sensors. Oscilloscope probes measure voltage. When you need to measure current, you need a different approach. Especially at high voltages, where maintaining galvanic isolation is important for safety. The usual...

Signal Processing Contest in Python (PREVIEW): The Worst Encoder in the World

Jason Sachs September 7, 20136 comments

When I posted an article on estimating velocity from a position encoder, I got a number of responses. A few of them were of the form "Well, it's an interesting article, but at slow speeds why can't you just take the time between the encoder edges, and then...." My point was that there are lots of people out there which take this approach, and don't take into account that the time between encoder edges varies due to manufacturing errors in the encoder. For some reason this is a hard concept...


First-Order Systems: The Happy Family

Jason Sachs May 3, 20141 comment
Все счастли́вые се́мьи похо́жи друг на дру́га, ка́ждая несчастли́вая семья́ несчастли́ва по-сво́ему.

— Лев Николаевич Толстой, Анна Каренина

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— Lev Nicholaevich Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I was going to write an article about second-order systems, but then realized that it would be...


Important Programming Concepts (Even on Embedded Systems) Part III: Volatility

Jason Sachs October 10, 2014

1vol·a·tile adjective \ˈvä-lə-təl, especially British -ˌtī(-ə)l\ : likely to change in a very sudden or extreme way : having or showing extreme or sudden changes of emotion : likely to become dangerous or out of control

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Other articles in this series:


Real-time clocks: Does anybody really know what time it is?

Jason Sachs May 29, 20118 comments

We recently started writing software to make use of a real-time clock IC, and found to our chagrin that the chip was missing a rather useful function, namely elapsed time in seconds since the standard epoch (January 1, 1970, midnight UTC).Let me back up a second.A real-time clock/calendar (RTC) is a micropower chip that has an oscillator on it that keeps counting time, independent of main system power. Usually this is done with a lithium battery that can power the RTC for years, so that even...


The Least Interesting Circuit in the World

Jason Sachs October 7, 20181 comment

It does nothing, most of the time.

It cannot compute pi. It won’t oscillate. It doesn’t light up.

Often it makes other circuits stop working.

It is… the least interesting circuit in the world.

What is it?

About 25 years ago, I took a digital computer architecture course, and we were each given use of an ugly briefcase containing a bunch of solderless breadboards and a power supply and switches and LEDs — and a bunch of