Archive for January, 2015

Tim Tears It Apart: Measurement Specialties Inc. 832M1 Accelerometer

So, yesterday the outdoors turned into this.

This much snow in a few hours gets you a travel lockdown...

This much snow in a few hours gets you a travel lockdown…

Not quite the snowpocalypse, but it was enough that a travel ban was in effect, and work was closed. What happens when we’re stuck in the house with gadgets?

All right, I’d like to tell you that’s the reason, but this actually got broken open accidentally at my work a little while back. Sorry for the crummy cellphone-cam pic and not-too-exhaustive picking at the wreckage.

Today’s patient anatomical specimen is a fancy 3-axis piezo accelerometer from Measurement Specialties Inc. This puppy retails for about $150, so this is a ‘sometimes‘ teardown.

The insides of the 832M1 showing two sensor orientations and the in-package charge amplifiers

The insides of the 832M1 showing two sensor orientations and the in-package charge amplifiers

One thing that comes to your attention right away is holy shit, there’s an entire circuit board in there. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t be too surprised by this. It appears that these are full-on piezoelectric sensors (not e.g. piezoresistive), which are a bit dastardly to read from without a charge amplifier inline. On the circuit you can see three identical-ish copies of a small circuit that is almost certainly that, with a small SOT23-5 opamp in each. The part’s total quiescent current consumption is billed at 12uA, so that’s a paltry 4uA per circuit.

Here you also get a gander at the acceleration sensors themselves. Each is ‘glued’ by what appears to be low-temperature solder paste to its own metal pad on the ceramic substrate, with more of the same used to bond together the parts of the sensor itself. These consist mainly of a layer of gray piezoceramic material sandwiched between two chunks of metal. The larger of these acts as a proof mass, compressing or tensioning the piezoceramic layer when the part is moved on the axis normal to it. The metal ‘buns’ double as electrodes. There are (were) three such sensors in different orientations, one per axis, but the middle one broke off and flew across the room when the package was cracked open.

Like most piezoceramics, the sensors inside are affected by thermal changes, and become more sensitive with increasing temperature. The designers appear to account for this and provide some measurement headroom over the nominal value (this bad boy is a 500G accelerometer) so that the full quoted range can be measured even at the maximum specified operating temperature. This means at room temperature, where it’s less sensitive, you can actually measure accelerations of maybe 30-40% higher than the nominal value before the output limits (with appropriate calibration and reduced resolution of course). At very cold temperatures, even quite a bit higher measurements are possible, with the same caveats.

Tim Tears It Apart: Koolpad Qi Wireless Charger (Also: how to silence it without soldering)

Koolpad outer case

Koolpad outer case

My wife goes to bed long before me, so when I go to bed, it behooves me to do so without significant light or racket. After countless nights of fiddling with a 3-sided micro-USB cable in the dark, I bought this neat little USB phone charger. It’s not the cheapest, nor the priciest, but was approximately the size and shape of my phone (less risk of our cat bumping it off a tiny pad during the night and waking us up), and lives up to its promise of cool operation, especially while not charging (meaning it is not constantly guzzling power trying to charge a device that isn’t there).


This charger also came with one untenable drawback: this gadget for charging my phone without any noisy fiddling about, comes with a built-in noisemaker that beeps loudly every time you put a device on it to charge. That’s bad enough for a one-time event, but if the phone is placed or later bumped off-center (i.e. the cat’s been anywhere near the nightstand), it will go on beeping all through the night as the charger detects the phone intermittently. So if the ladies don’t find you handsome

First off, the part you’re probably here for: how to silence that infernal beeping sound once and for all, without soldering. Open the charger (there are 4 small screws hidden beneath the rubber feet), find the 8-pin chip in the lower-left and use your favorite small tool (nippers, X-Acto, etc.) to cut the indicated pin. This pin directly drives the piezo buzzer (tall square part in the bottom-left corner). Of course, you can also cut, desolder or otherwise neutralize either of these parts in its entirety too if you have the time and a soldering iron, but I think cutting the one pin is easier.

Cut this pin to disable that beeping once and for all!

Cut this pin to disable that beeping once and for all!

While we’re in here, let’s have a look at the circuitry. There’s actually rather a lot of it – I was expecting a massively integrated single-chip solution, but there’s a surprising pile of discretes in here, including a total of 12 opamps.

Koolpad innards showing charging coil and PCB

Koolpad innards showing charging coil and PCB

Koolpad PCB

Koolpad PCB

The main IC, U5 in the center, is an “ASIC for QI Wireless Charger” manufactured by GeneralPlus. At the time of this writing, their site is rather less than forthcoming with specs or datasheets. This is driving a set of 4 MOSFETs (Q1 ~ Q4) via a pair of TI TPS28225 FET drivers (U1, U4) to drive the ludicrously thick charging coil. The coil itself is mounted to a large ferrite disk resembling a fender washer, which in turn is adhered to a piece of adhesive-backed foam – probably to dampen any audible vibrations as the coil moves in response to nearby magnetic or ferrous objects as it is driven (such as components in the device being charged). The parallel stack of large ceramic caps (C12, C14, C15, C18), along with the coil thickness itself, gives a hint as to the kinds of peak currents being blasted through it.

For fans of Nikola Tesla, this planar coil arrangement should look oddly familiar. Qi inductive charging, like most contemporary twists / rehashes / repatentings of this idea, extend it by using modern cheap-as-chips microcontrollers to allow the charger and chargee to talk amongst themselves. This allows them to collude to tune their antennas for maximimum transfer efficiency, negotiate charging rate, perform authentication (maybe you don’t want freeloaders powering up near your charger) or etc. In the case of Qi, the communication is unidirectional – chargee to charger – and used to signal the charger to increase or decrease its transmit power as needed. This provides effective voltage regulation at the receiving end and can instruct the charger to more-or-less shut down when charging is complete. Communication is achieved via backscatter modulation, similar to an RFID tag.

The chips to the left and right of the Qi ASIC, U2 and U3, are LM324 quad opamps. Without formally reverse-engineering the circuit, my gut says these opamps circuits, surrounded with RC discretes like groupies at a One Direction concert, are likely active filters, probably involved in sensing the backscatter modulated signal and overall power impact of the chargee, if any. Again, this is just educated guessing without actually tracing out the circuitry (which would involve more time than I care to spend).

The chip at the bottom right, U6, is an LM358 dual opamp, with what is probably a LM431-compatible voltage reference (U8) a bit to its left, acting directly as a 2.5V reference (cathode and reference pin tied together). At least one pin of the LM358 is visibly supplying the power to the charge-indicator LED, so it’s a reasonable guess this circuit is there to control both LEDs in response to the voltage loading produced by a device during charge. Finally, U7 near the bottom-left, noted earlier as driving that irritating-ass beepy speaker, is a 555 timer that provides the actual oscillation to drive the charge-indication beep in response to a momentary signal from elsewhere (it disappears underneath the ASIC). Q5 is most likely acting as a power switch for U7, keeping it disabled (unpowered) between beeps.

One final note completely unrelated to any teardown of the device itself: it comes with a troll USB cable. That is to say, while it looks like a regular USB cable, and may easily get mixed in with the rest of your stash, it’s actually missing the data wires entirely and only provides power. While this is not unreasonable considering it’s just a charger, beware not to let this cable get mixed in with ‘real’ ones unless you’re pulling a prank on someone. Otherwise it’ll come back to bite you some months later when you grab the nearest cable, plug it into a gadget and it’s mysteriously stopped working.

Tim Tears It Apart: Cheap Solar Pump

GY Solar water pump package

GY Solar water pump package

So, I picked up a pair of these cheapo solar pump on fleabay for about 6 or 8 bucks a pop, to filter water for the fish in my old-lady-swallowed-a-fly lotus pot. They actually work pretty well, apart from one very occasionally getting stuck and needing a spin by hand to get going. But it’s winter, the fish have met Davy Jones (natural causes) and my “plastic twinwall and a big water tank will keep my greenhouse above freezing in a New England winter” hypothesis turned out to be way not true, so they’re just sitting around my basement for the interminable non-growing season. Winter boredom plus unused gadgets sitting around equals…

Package contents. Note the cable was not severed out of the box; that was my doing!

Package contents. Note the cable was not severed out of the box; that was my doing!

The mechanical end of the pump

The mechanical end of the pump

Inside the pump end. There's nothing more to see without destroying it.

Inside the pump end. There’s nothing more to see without destroying it.

There’s not much to see on the pump end itself. A slotted cover blocks large particulates from getting into the works, followed by a plastic baffle and a centrifugal impeller, which flings the water at the outlet port. The impeller “shaft” is a magnet and doubles as the rotor for the electric motor, allowing the coils to be in the non-rotating housing (stator). Under bright sun, this arrangement can generate a head of a few inches or a decent amount of flow, not bad for a cheap pump running from a little solar panel.

Potting compound over pump power entry side

Potting compound over pump power entry side

Lifting the cover on the other end reveals where the electronics must be, a cavity completely filled in with potting compound. I declined trying to get through this mess and look at the circuitry on the pump itself. Guessing wildly though, this should probably look very similar to the circuit that drives a DC computer fan, with a small Hall effect sensor detecting the passing of the magnetic poles on the rotor and flipflopping power to the stator coils as needed to push/pull it in the desired direction.

Back of solar panel. There is a strange lump on the back.

Back of solar panel. There is a strange lump on the back.

'Kickstarter' PCB back side

‘Kickstarter’ PCB back side

'Kickstarter' PCB component side

‘Kickstarter’ PCB component side

The interesting part is a random lump on the back of the solar panel. Pop it open and, sure enough, it contains some active circuitry. This consists of a large (4700uF) electrolytic capacitor and undervoltage lockout circuit. This circuit cuts power to the pump until the capacitor charges to several volts, giving it an initial high-current kickstart to overcome static friction. This works about like you’d expect, as a voltage comparator with a fairly large hysteresis band (on at 6V, off at 2V, for example). Interestingly though, there’s no discrete comparator in sight. Instead, there’s an ATTINY13 microcontroller. The ATTINY does have a builtin comparator though, and the chip’s only purpose in this circuit seems to be as a wrapper around this peripheral. It’s entirely possible that from Chinese sources, this chip was actually cheaper than a standalone comparator and voltage reference. Another likely possibility is it was competitive or cheaper than low-power comparators, and the use of a microcontroller allows better efficiency by sampling the voltage at a very low duty cycle. For reference, the ATTINY13 runs about 53 cents @ 4000pcs from a US distributor. That’s pretty cheap, but not quite as cheap as the cheapest discrete with internal voltage reference at <=100uA quiescent current, which currently comes in at ~36 cents @ 3000pcs. Noting the single-sided PCB, another possibility is that the ATTINY and other silicon were chosen for their pinouts, allowing for single-sided routing and thus cost savings on the PCB itself. Anyway, onto the circuit. R3 and D1 are an intriguing side-effect of using a general-purpose microcontroller as a comparator, as the absolute maximum Vcc permitted on this part is ~5.5V. D1 is a Zener diode, which along with the 47-ohm resistor, clamps the voltage seen by the uC to a safe level. This seems like it would leak a lot of current above 5.5V - and it does - but under normal operation, the pump motor should drag the voltage down below that when operating. R1 and R2 form the voltage divider for the comparator, which is no doubt using an on-chip voltage reference for its negative "pin". Pin 5 of the micro is the comparator output, which feeds the gate of an n-channel enhancement-mode MOSFET, U2, through R5, with a weak 100k pulldown (R4). With this circuit, the pump makes periodic startup attempts in weak sunlight until there's enough sun to sustain continuous operation, with no stalling if the power comes up very slowly (e.g. sunrise).

Notes To Myself: Cheap Feedlines for Cheap Boards

Goal: Produce reasonable impedance-matched (usually 50-ohms) RF feedlines for hobby-grade radio PCBs. Rather than get a PhD in RF engineering for a one-off project, use an online calculator and some rules of thumb to get a “good enough” first prototype.

Problem: Most RF boards and stripline calculators assume or drive toward 4-layer boards. In hobby quantities, 4-layer boards are much more expensive and have longer leadtimes. If using EAGLE, can no longer use the free/noncommercial or Lite editions (they only allow 2 layers).

The main driver of feedline impedance is its geometry and dielectric “distance” from the groundplane. The aforementioned stripline/microstrip/etc. calculators often assume there is nothing on the top (feedline) layer in its vicinity, there is just a groundplane on another PCB layer beneath it, and all proximity to the groundplane is through the FR-4 between the layers. For bog-standard 2-layer boards, that’s ~.062″ of material, which yields unacceptably wide traces (>100 mils) that cannot be cleanly terminated to most antennas or connectors, let alone a surface-mount IC pad.

Solution: Forget plain microstrip stuff, look up a “coplanar waveguide with ground” calculator instead. This takes into account a groundplane on the same layer, surrounding the feedline, in addition to a groundplane on a lower layer. Now the clearance between the feedline and coplanar goundplane can be tweaked to get a sane trace width for various copper weights, board thicknesses or other factors less easily in your direct control.

More notes:
FR=4 relative dialectric constant: 4.2 (in reality, it can vary quite a bit, and there are about a million material variants called “FR-4” and used interchangeably by board houses, but if you can’t be a chooser, this is probably as good an approximation as you get.)
“1oz” copper: 1.37 mils thickness (multiply-divide for other copper weights).
An example calculator is here:

Debugging a shorted PCB the lazy way

I recently assembled a set of prototype boards for a particular project at my day job, and ran a math- and memory-intensive test loop to test them out. Two of the boards ran the code fine, but one crashed consistently in a bizarre way that suggested corruption or otherwise unreliability of the RAM contents.

Since the other two identical boards worked, a hardware/assembly defect was the likely explanation. These boards feature a 100-pin TQFP CPU and 48-pin SRAM with 0.5mm lead pitch, all hand-soldered of course, but a good visual inspection turned up no obvious defects.

The first thing I tried was a quick-n-dirty RAM test loop that wrote the entire RAM with an address-specific known value and immediately read it back (in this case, it was just the 32-bit RAM address itself), but this (overly simplistic, it turns out) check didn’t report any failures. However, I did notice the current reading on my bench supply occasionally spiking from 0.01A to 0.04A. This board uses a low-power ARM micro specifically chosen for efficiency, and should rarely draw more than about 15mA at full tilt, so this was a red flag.

With this in mind, the next thing I did was get a higher-resolution look at what was going on with the current. The CPU vendor provides a sweet energy profiling tool for use with its pre-baked development kits, which also double as programmer and debugger for the kit and external boards. The feature works by sampling input current to the development kit via a sense resistor at high speed, and optionally coupling it to the running program’s instruction counter via the debugger to estimate energy usage for each function in your program. By uploading a dummy program to the kit that just puts it into a deep sleep, and tying the external board into its VMCU/GND pins, it can be used with any external target board that draws up to 50mA or so.

Running the memory test again with the profiler active, I got the following:

Current trace

Current trace as reported by EnergyAware Profiler

Again, the kit can supply a max of 50mA or so, and this graph shows a repeating cycle which spends half the time somewhere a bit northward of this. Sure enough, probing the supply voltage with a scope, the voltage drops a bit whenever the overcurrent occurs. A memory test loop should draw a fairly constant current; it shouldn’t vary with time or data or address as this appears to be doing. So it’s a safe bet that one of the address or data pins to the external RAM is shorted. But where?

I could begin probing address and data lines to find the ones that toggled at the same rate as the dip on the voltage rail, but on a wild hare (or hair) picked up our new secret weapon (not the Handyman’s Secret Weapon), an IR thermal camera.

Just after power-on with the RAM test running, I saw this:

IR thermal view of the CPU when powered and running the external RAM test

IR thermal view of the CPU when powered and running the external RAM test

The part immediately to the left of the crosshair is the CPU. It wasn’t detectably warm to the touch, but here it’s easy enough to see where the die itself sits inside the chip package. There is also an apparent ‘hotspot’ roughly centered along the lefthand edge of the die. The I/O pins just next to this hotspot are address lines tied to the RAM. While it isn’t *always* the case due to the vagaries of chip layout, the GPIO pin drivers are almost always situated at the edges of the die, right next to the pins they drive. This is about as close to a smoking gun as you can get without the actual smoke. While it’s hard to see exactly which pin or pins this hotspot corresponds to, it does narrow the search quite a bit! For reference, here is how it looks unpowered.

IR thermal view of the CPU when unpowered.

IR thermal view of the CPU when unpowered.

Scoping a handful of adjacent pins, the issue becomes clear.

Probing near the hotspot seen on IR.

Probing near the hotspot seen on IR.

Suspicious 'digital' address line voltages near the hotspot.

Suspicious ‘digital’ address line voltages near the hotspot.

Two adjacent address lines to the memory, immediately next to the hotspot, show this decidedly non-quite-digital-looking waveform on them (bottom trace), lining up pretty well with the voltage droop (top trace). This points to not one shorted pin (to GND or etc.), but two adjacent pins shorted together, their on-chip drivers fighting one another to produce these intermediate voltages and consuming excess current in the process. A quick beep-test confirms the short.

It turned out to be a hair-thin solder bridge between two adjacent pins on the SRAM, pictured below. Do you see it?

Take my word for it, there's a solder bridge in this photo.

Take my word for it, there’s a solder bridge in this photo.

Yeah, neither did I at first. It was more visible only at a very specific angle…

Visible short

The short is just visible at this angle

Note the other apparent “stuff” crossing pins in this angle wasn’t solder, but remnants of a cotton swab used to clean flux from around the pins.

Mapping the I/O drivers and other stuff

Just for fun, I purposely shorted all the GPIOs available on headers to ground and ran a loop that briefly flipped each one high. Here is the result! Note that not all GPIOs on this board were available on a header (many go to the RAM chip), and they are not necessarily pinned out in a logical numeric order. I haven’t specifically tested it yet, but the same method should be usable to unintrusively map out the location of on-chip modules (core/ALU, voltage regulators, AES engines, etc.) that can be exercised individually.

<pipedream>The day when thermal imaging gets good enough we can use IR attacks instead of power analysis to figure out what a chip is doing (encryption keys, etc.) without decapping it…</pipedream>