Part Two of Phase Dock LIVE featuring Glen Popiel for a wide-ranging conversation on Arduino, interesting projects, what it takes to write technical “how-to” books, and how to protect your projects when you share an electronics lab with two enormous and curious cats.

Glen Popiel is the author of ARRL’s “Arduino for Ham Radio”, “More Arduino for Ham Radio”, and “High Speed Multimedia for Amateur Radio”. By day, he is a Network Engineer and Technology Consultant for Ciber, Inc. and the Mississippi Department of Education, specializing in Open Source technology solutions and has worked in the computer and electronics field for over 40 years.

This is a transcript of Phase Dock LIVE, January 9, 2021 with Chris Lehenbauer and Glen Popiel.

It has been edited for length, clarity and readability.  Occasional time stamps are shown in square brackets [4:52] so you can watch the action and animations as they are described in the video.

We’ve split it into two parts for easier access.

Watch the Video. 

Part Two: Arduino projects, project building tools, and technology trends.

CHRIS: Welcome to all our friends. I’m Chris Lehenbauer, CTO and founder of Phase Dock. This is our third Phase Dock LIVE, so we’re excited to have you here.

If you are new to Phase Dock, we’re a manufacturing start-up here in beautiful Raleigh, North Carolina. We focus on single-board computers like Raspberry Pi and microcontrollers like Arduino, but we do more on the mechanical side and not so much on the electronics. Because our main product is a prototyping platform, we’ve seen lots of fascinating projects from smart, interesting people who are our customers.

We realized that sharing some of those projects would make a great livestream. That’s why we’re here.

Today we plan to take two paths with our conversation:

  • Technology…specifically Arduino and microcontroller [Part 2, this post and video]
  • Writing…because our guest is an author of several books (available on Amazon) and he also reviews products and writes articles. [Part 1]

These sessions are meant to be highly interactive, so please let us know in the chat if you have questions or comments. So, without further ado…

Our guest speaker today is Glen Popiel. Glen is the author of ARRL’s “Arduino for Ham Radio”, “More Arduino for Ham Radio”, and “High Speed Multimedia for Amateur Radio”. He has worked in the computer and electronics field for over 40 years.

Since discovering the Arduino several years ago, Glen has developed a passion for this powerful, inexpensive microcontroller and has given a number of seminars and hamfest forums on the subject of the Arduino and Open Source.

Glen is also a former cat show judge and has exhibited Maine Coon cats all over the country. He now lives in Southaven, MS, where he continues to create fun and exciting new Arduino projects for amateur radio with his two new lab companions, Angel and Shadow [also known as Godzilla and Rodan.] [2:20] Welcome, Glen. You clearly love Arduino. Is there a reason you stayed focused on microcontrollers instead of single-boards, like Raspberry Pi?

GLEN: The Pi is just a tiny, tiny LINUX computer and while I work in LINUX, the Arduino is more suited to me. I like the control aspects…excuse me a minute [he closes the drawer opened by his cat]. I like the control aspects of it and I just haven’t explored that territory enough. There are just so many new Arduino parts coming down the chain. One of the things we talked about in the pre-show the other day was the little Arduino Mini Mega. There’s so much power in this little thing. I’ve got a perfect project for it. There’s no reason to move into something else.

CHRIS: I admit when I first got into this game, I thought Raspberry Pi is where it is. Now I’ve gone almost completely to microcontrollers because I spend most of my doing what you say…trying to control something in the physical world. So I totally get that.

GLEN: And then you’ve got these. This is a 7-inch TFT display for the Arduino. Imagine some of the things you can do with a display that big.large TFT display

There’s still ground that’s never been covered. Why should I move into a LINUX computer that the world’s already been playing in? Quite honestly there are people bigger, badder, and better than me at it.

I’ll stay with Arduino. I don’t think I’ll ever fully run out of ideas or things to do.

CHRIS: Along those lines, look out a few years. What do you see developing? Where do you see microcontroller heading?

GLEN: The Arduino is really moving forward. The FPGA, the field programmable gate array, is where people are starting to look at the cutting edge. And FPGA is programmable hardware. So now you’ve got the hardware and the software in a chip that you can program with. Now you can develop your own hardware applications on a single chip and reprogram it as you need. I see the high end going there.

In addition, Arduino horsepower is going up. The Teensy 4.1 line, they’re up to 600 MHz on that thing. It’s rapidly getting to the horsepower of a Raspberry Pi. Then, of course on the small end, you’ve got the STM-32 which is inexpensive and still has a lot of horsepower.

[5:30] It all boils down to the application you are trying to do. But the Arduino IDE being all inclusive, they just add new boards so you’re always playing in the same development environment which makes it easy to transition up and down.

CHRIS: That’s certainly one of the things that has kept me there. There is so much of an ecosystem, particularly for Arduino. And, yes, the other boards will come and use the same IDE but certainly for Arduino there are shields that will do almost anything…you mention you use a lot of TFTs…so that’s a huge selling point to me.

GLEN: I don’t see it changing. There’s something new for Arduino coming out every day. I don’t think you could ever use them all or play with them all.

CHRIS: Tell us about your favorite boards. Maybe some of your favorite tools for project building. What’s on your workbench?

GLEN: Let’s start with some of the tools for development. If you’re going to create Arduino projects, you need a space to work and you need some good platforms to start with.

[7:02] Forgive the shakiness here [he spins the webcam]. There’s the lab. You can see all of the workspace, the parts and everything. That’s what I use to create. But you don’t need all that much space.Original prototyping board

When I started out with the Arduino, I used this [shown]. This was my prototyping board. I had a breadboard, different Arduinos available, a display, a servo. This is what I would use to do my basic prototyping with. Well, that’s wonderful.

And then I was asked to review this really cool product called a Phase Dock [WorkBench].

CHRIS: [Laughing] What a coincidence!

GLEN: It really hit the mark. I got the one with the plastic cover. There’s a reason. [points to the cat] They are into everything. I was working on my second book and there were two chips laying out on the desk. Went to bed. Got up the next day all set to start working and the chips were gone. It took me two weeks to find the chips. That project got skipped because I would have had to wait on new parts.

[8:28] So, this has been a really great help from a prototyping standpoint. Phase Dock prototyping boardWith the other one, if I wanted to try a new board, I had to screw it down and waste all that time. Now with the Clicks and the Slides, I built them up… you can see I built a custom Nano one…and I’ve got an Uno Slide with the IO board slipped on top. I’ve got a TFT display mounted on a Click and then the breadboard area. This is generally enough to give me what I need.

Basically, this is not the finished product. This is what the finished product looks like. [holds up project in acrylic enclosure] I put it in a nice little Plexiglas case. But I take the initial prototype, proof-of-concept, make sure it works, get the fundamental code, and then I build the working product.

CHRIS: That was always our intent, Glen. To give you a good transitional phase, to optimize layout and components, then bring the size down to the actual deployment. That’s a perfect use case.

GLEN: Let me show a little bit better picture of what we are talking about. [9:51 – Glen shows a photo] There’s my original prototyping system. It’s actually the lightening detector project being built on it.

This is actually a project that’s in my next book [shown left].ntenna rotator controller It’s an antenna rotator controller. This is the working prototype all built up on the Phase Dock. You’ve seen my demon child [his cat] walking back and forth here. Those wires are just an invitation to come play.

CHRIS: No kidding. We’ve heard that before: “I have to keep the cats or the kids or something out of my projects.”

GLEN: One other tool that I use is the Dr. Duino Explorer. [10:36] It’s a really good basic prototyping system. You’ve got a little breadboard. You’ve got a prototyping area. It’s got a Nano, an LED, a Bluetooth module, all sorts of things that you can use to prototype and proof-of-concept your project.

CHRIS: We love the Dr. Duino folks. We know Guido. That’s a great community itself.

GLEN: One more thing. Get some good diagnostic tools. This is a $300 digital oscilloscope. If you get into the higher end projects, you’re really going to want something of that nature.

BARBARA: We have a request in the chat. Steve said there might be folks online who are not familiar with Phase Dock. Maybe Chris could go over the product line briefly.

CHRIS: Sure. [11:55] The idea behind the Phase Dock [WorkBench] is a lot like Glen showed us earlier. We were looking for a way to mount different kinds of electronic components quickly and easily. The heart of it is the matrix of holes. Then we have specialized adapters that click into the matrix. Which is why we called them “Clicks.” For the more common boards, we’ve got adapters…this is a Pi Zero [Slide] adapter. These have bosses for screws. Those attach to the top of the Clicks. You can quickly mount electronics and move them easily. When it’s done, you can wire everything up.

This is one of our projects. This is the controller for the acrylic line bender that we use to make the bases. You can see the different things that are mounted on there. Then recently, we added an organizer. A lot of folks were saying they wanted to carry everything around. So we took a really nice, high quality tacklebox and adapted our base to snap onto the tacklebox. Now you can carry it around. There is a cover which you saw when Glen was showing his project. It snaps on these tabs so the whole thing is protected and can actually go into your backpack. That’s the quick overview. Thanks Steve, appreciate you pointing that out.

GLEN: What I’d like to do right now is run through a couple of the projects so people can see what you can build and the areas where I like to go.

[14:29] This is that Mini Mega board that I showed earlier. You can see all of the IO pins. I’ll show you a project that it’s going to be perfect for here in a minute. It’s only like $9.00, thereabouts.

One of the things that the Arduino really seems to be perfect for is rotator controllers. [14:55] Antenna rotator controllerHams…we’re big on our antenna rotators. But we want them computer controlled. We don’t want to sit there and hold the button down and watch the dial to see where it turns…we want to automate this. This is a modification of a stand-alone controller for the existing MFJ Enterprises AR-40 rotator. That’s the actual finished product. [15:30] You can see the little TFT display and switches and buttons.

You can also interface it to your PC. Now you’ve got this map. You can literally click on the map and it will automatically rotate your antenna to that position. You just point and double-click, done! You’re only talking about $20-30.

Here’s our lighting sensor. [16:02} This is blown up. It’s really the size of a postage stamp. It knows that lightening has a frequency and a signature. A digital signature right around 500 KHz. Which is why you always hear it on your AM radio. And it has a specific pattern. This chip has a digital signal processor inside that can determine if what it hears is a lightening strike, static or just generated noise. It’s smart enough to know that. That’s a $25 module.

Lightening detector projectHere’s another version of the lightening detector. [shown left] We’ve been out doing field events in the middle of thunderstorms. We didn’t intend it, but that’s how it happened. We used this to keep us and everything safe. Whenever this saw lightening in the area, we stayed away from anything connected.

CHRIS: As someone who has been struck by lightening, I can attest to the value of that.

GLEN: I do not want to go there!

CHRIS: Seriously, our lightening detection consists of hearing the storm, and running down two flights of stairs to unplug the vertical machine center and the laser before it’s too late. I think your approach is better!

GLEN: It’d be good it you could automatically disconnect everything through a contact. And twenty minutes later when the storm is gone, it brings everything back. That was the philosophy.

GLEN: [17:34 new project photo] This is taking an Arduino Uno into one of the most common ham radio rotators, the Hy-Gain. You can see we’ve got it mounted in there with an interface board on top. This is a $20 conversion to give you the computer control. This is a different modification to that same controller. Back in the ‘60s or early ‘70s you had the Mercury Cougar with the flashing tail lights. This is the equivalent of that. [shown below] Hy-gain antenna rotator

Whenever the antenna is turning, it’s using a circular LED so you can see which direction your antenna is turning.

We tweaked things a little bit more [new photo], and now it will tell you what direction the antenna is pointing, so instead of having to look at that meter and convert that in your head to what direction the antenna is pointing now you can just look at the dial. That’s a $10 project. [18:48]

GLEN: A lot of these programs you saw require a computer attached. Well, this is one of those “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”moments, which was “What if I had a keypad where I could just punch in the bearing that I wanted to use and tell it to go? [19:11 new project]Bearings display

So, I found a little keypad. Now you can directly enter the bearing that you want and it will automatically go to that position. You don’t need a computer or anything. It’s completely stand-alone. Again, a $20 mod.

[19:30 new project] Remember we were talking about that JT65 radio? This is actually a morse code radio for 7 MHz band. Hams call it 40 meters. This is built inside a baseball trophy case that I got from Hobby Lobby. This is the TFT display.

CHRIS: Boy, you think that 1.8 isn’t very big, but you can put out a lot of information in a small space.

GLEN: Look at that. There’s your frequency. Your RIT, receiver incremental tuning. Tuning step. Range. Battery voltage, because you’re going to be operating portable. It’s got a built in morse code keyer, set for 15 words per minute in this case.

CHRIS: I’ve got to start using the TFT displays. I’ve been using the 1602s. I like them because they’ve got buttons. But you have to struggle really hard to communicate everything. This is so much better.

GLEN: Wait ‘til you see it when you throw some colors on it.

[20:45 board photo] This is one of my latest and greatest. This is a radio teletype reader which you can hook up to your radio and it will translate a radio teletype signal. There’s the completed unit. [shown] radio teletype reader And there’s the actual output. It will decode on-the-air radio teletype in a simple little Arduino module.

That’s the construction of it. This is the USB CW keyboard I talked about earlier. So now you type and it will send the morse code for you.

[21:30 new project] Most of your modern radios have an interface where you can connect and pull menu information from the radio and communicate to and from. This is an interface where you can talk to Yaesu radios and it will pull the current frequencies and modes and display them for you. You can set modes and everything.

[21:48] We talked about this. Everybody gets one of these keyboards with their starter kits and ask “What do I do with this thing?” I’ll show you when I stop sharing. Yaesu uses this as a keypad and they sell theirs for $100. This is an Arduino version that you can build for $15. It’s practical as well.

[22:22] This was the Yaesu keyboard that we talked about. And this was their $100 keypad. The Arduino is going to save money.

We were also talking earlier about the project I’m going to do with the Mini Mega…this is a commercial beacon monitor. Ham radios have beacon stations around the world. This is time synchronized. It will turn on an LED when you should hear a unit on the radio. But to do that you need a radio. I’m thinking, ”Wait a minute, let’s automate this.” Put the Mini Mega to listen for you. And now it will turn the LED on if it hears that particular beacon station. Now you can take one glance and see who is on the air worldwide. That’s why I need the Mini Mega, because this guy’s got about 18 LEDs.

BARBARA: Question from listeners. Where are you getting those nice plastic cases that you are building final projects in?

GLEN: They are from Solarbotics.com. If you’ve got the ability to laser-cut, there are all sorts of versions on Thingiverse that you can pull down. I buy these direct from Solarbotics for about $12 a case.

CHRIS: When you need special cut-outs on the sides, how do you do that?custom decals

GLEN: [laughs] By hand. Hobby Lobby is my friend. I go through there and find all sorts of crazy things. For example, the decals that you see on this [24:20], the backing is gray tissue paper to mask the circular LED that’s in there. This [shown] is actually model decal paper which you can buy at Hobby Lobby and you can inkjet print your own decals.

As far as cutouts and stuff, I drill. I bought a wood-burning Exacto blade kit. You can cut this Plexiglas if you’re really careful and gentle with a file. A lot of manual work to that part of it. It’s acrylic, about 1/8th of an inch thick.

GLEN: Real quick, we’ll go here. [new project 25:21] On of the things that ham radio folks are getting into these days are what they call pico balloons. Pico balloon launchThese are solar powered, Arduino powered, telemetry units with high frequency antenna. They’ve got a miniature transmitter on there, a GPS and everything. They launch these things with a hydrogen balloon. There’s no licensing or anything needed for a payload under 10 pounds. You can launch these and track them, and watch them go around the world. Where they are at any given moment. You can predict the path; there are sites that help with path prediction.

CHRIS: We used to build tissue paper balloons in the fifth grade. They were hot air balloons. We would fire them up over a stove pipe with some newspaper in it. They’d go a few hundred feet in the air and a few hundred yards down range. If I had only known… This is amazing.

GLEN: Absolutely. I have to tell you about my tissue paper balloon. [26:55] I also had one of those chemistry kits which you probably could have killed yourself with. Making hydrogen was one of my favorite things. I had a tissue balloon and I filled it with hydrogen. Wasn’t thinking…

CHRIS: What could possibly go wrong?

GLEN: Then, of course, you use hot air to add lift. How do you get hot air? With an open flame. Open flame. Tissue paper. Hydrogen.

CHRIS: Where have we seen this movie before on a much larger scale?

GLEN: [laughing] Needless to say…epic failure!

[27:44] But anyway…some of the crazy things that other people are doing with the Arduino. How many of us grew up with the Altair 8800? [shown]Altair 8800 computer

That’s way back. The first computer. 1975. Look what this one has on the back. It’s got an Arduino.

This is a working emulator for the Altair 8800 and it’s powered by an Arduino Due.

[28:17] Those of us who grew up in that same era had the Digital Equipment computers. The PDP11/70 for example. Well, guess what? This one is powered by a Raspberry Pi. I actually have both of those here, waiting to be built.

You talk about what can you do with the Arduino? I always say, “You’re only limited by your imagination. How crazy are you? What can you think of?”

CHRIS: We can’t thank you enough for joining us today. It was just so much fun. You were so well prepared it made my job completely easy. All I had to do was to sit back and get out of the way. Thank you for that!

GLEN: I enjoyed doing it, so thank you Chris. This has been fun and I hope everybody watching has had fun.

CHRIS: Our next Phase Dock LIVE session is February 13 with Walker Archer, who has built TARA… a robot based on an electric wheelchair base. He’s done some amazing things with it. If you’re interested in robotics, or fabrication, or anything along those lines please join us.

Again, Glen, thank you so much for joining us today.

GLEN: Real quick…that’s book four! [30:04] It’s already started. And the editor [Rodan the cat] is already set to go too. Thank you so much.

CHRIS: Thank you Glen! Thank you everybody, keep making! Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next month.

Links to Glen’s books:

We will post Glen’s new Arduino Projects book once it becomes available this year.