I got bored with Bluetooth and decided it just wasn’t going to give me what I wanted in terms of a control network. So I figured I would go back to one of my favorite wireless control devices, Xbee. I love those little blue boards. Since Xbee offers the Digimesh option for it’s devices I upgraded all my modules to the latest firmware and started designing some stuff.

 

Above is the basic Airwire to Xbee breadboard. The ‘translator’ is a PCB that contains an Xbee in one socket and a CC1101 radio modem module in the other. The Airwire modem is mounted to an ‘Xbee blank’ that I cut out on my Probotix Router, this will be a PCB at some point. All of this is controlled by my favorite microcontroller, the Atmega328, the same chip in the Ardunio Pro Mini. I clocked it at 16Mhz and implemented a priority scheduled bare bones RTOS to handle the various control tasks.

What I am doing is intercepting the DCC data streaming from the Airwire Throttle (many thanks to Eric Reuter for his radio init data) and breaking out the DCC messages into individual packets. This lets me filter out the constant barrage of redundant messages and encapsulate them into Xbee message payloads. Only when the data changes is an Xbee packet sent out.

This is the basic network layout. ‘Translators’ intercept the various control packets from handheld controllers, translate those control messages into a standard list of Xbee payloads and ship them off to the destination. Since there really isn’t a ‘master’ or ‘slave’ on a mesh network, these messages can also go to multiple recipients. There are all sorts of possibilities here using a single standard wireless message transport system like Digimesh.

 

Above are the pertinent observations – logic trace and reception of the Xbee packet on the PC via XCTU. Top trace is the DCC from the Airwire Throttle, second is one of the RT clocks, the 10ms one, the bottom is the async data frame to the xbee. There is still much work to be done but the basics are now in place. I can convert all of my various control methods, Airwire, DCM2, Bluetooth, etc into a single, point to multipoint Industrial IoT mesh network. Xbee digimesh is very well document and pretty much an industry standard.

Xbee Digimesh Documentation

 

While I like Bluetooth ok, it’s not really meant to do control sorts of things. I mean, it will do them and all that and the phone I’m using has a decent range but it’s not really happy with multiple nodes. I also don’t like the phone for driving trains. I mean, it’s great for programming decoders, way way better than obscure CVs as shown below:

And if you are doing just general train driving its fine. But for switching or live steam on grades, it’s not so great to run a slider with your thumb. The live steam one was particularly difficult, you have to keep your eyes on the locomotive and also keep track of the slider. I found that to be quite difficult at times – I need a knob I can feel under my thumb. So I decided to start with Airwire since its very popular and they make a nice handheld unit with a knob.

Going with Xbee Digimesh also frees up the phone side of things – I don’t need specific Android Apps anymore, a web app on my $10 raspberry pi zero will do everything I want from any platform, Android, Apple, PC, etc. Anything that can run a web browser will now be able to control things and more importantly, configure decoders and other things with nice descriptions and such. It also lets me implement the entire Rpi setup with Python. Everything is python, I’m using Flask and Apache on the RpiZW. There is a bit of Javascript in the pages but very little is needed, most everything is python. It’s very cool, you can log into the Rpi like any server from your PC to goof with code.

The Rpi Zero W, with the right configuration, can operate as a standalone Wifi Access Point with it’s own dedicated web server. (in this case, flask and python along with a little SVG for the web page interface). Just add the access point wifi to your phone or (his pic) your PC, and you can then display and configure any node on the digimesh network. Very cool. Here is a quick page I made up that does a network query on all Digimesh nodes it can find and displays a small box of info about each.

 

If you have a Raspberry Pi Zero W, I have a 16G disk image you can try out. It sets up the Pi as a standalone Wifi Network with it’s own web server and MySQL database and a few other options. I started on a page for it, not sure if I ever finished but I do know the RpiZW disk image is up there, you can download it and flash a 16G card for your RPIZW if you would like to do some poking about. It doesn’t display the above page but it has some basic handlers you can play with (its all Python)

Raspberry Pi Zero W Disk Image Info

 

Anyhow, this is just the beginning but it gives me a new set of toys to play with if nothing else. I’ll try to put together some sort of open source project for this once I get it working. The airwire modem is like $10, an Xbee is about $17 and the Raspberry Pi Zero W is $10 so this should be a relatively low cost control system.

More Progress on the Android Bluetooth Throttle App. I’ve been working on this for several months as time permits. I’m very close to an initial release of it. Below are screen shots of each of the pages. This is what I call the base level app- I also have several special screens I’ll add later that will allow the configuration of the SoundTraxx and TCS Decoders using plain text selections instead of having to punch in CV numbers. I also have some battery only sorts of screens that I’ll add later on.

–> Download App Here <-

This is the first screen. Use the plus/minus buttons to view which paired device (locomotive) you want to control, the press select. Once selected, the app will remember the last setup you made with it and set all of the buttons, function codes and screen configurations.

These are what I call the ‘main’ screens. They have the most used functions, horn, bell, direction, grade crossing, etc. Each of these icons is programmable, you can set the picture as well as the DCC function code it sends out. (see below)

The above two are ‘generic’ DCC command screens. These are not programmable but you can show or hide them. These send the corresponding DCC function code.

This is the CV programing screen. Use this to set CV address and data for a particular function.

This is the page configuration screen. You can set each of the above pages to display or not here. The ‘Cancel’ button will clear the current configuration and set everything back to defaults. Cancel requires that you press it 5 times in order to clear to prevent hitting the key by mistake.

Tapping the ‘Main Screen’ entry will take you to a screen that allows you to set the icon and function code for each of the buttons. You can also tap the ‘Board Control’ entry to configure that screen as well. See below.

The above are the two screen configurations. Use the plus minus to change the icon picture. Press the icon and the number turns green so you can enter the associated function code for that button.

Blu Phone Sends Bluetooth to control Aristo U25B with Soundtraxx TSU-4400. 2200 mAh Lipo battery, Full range TangBang speaker with passive radiator. Rewired the lights for LEDs. Good speed and power on the U25 at 14.8v.

Since my Python Apps do not work on any Android Version greater than 6, I am working on re-writing them in Android Studio. At first I was not particularly thrilled that I had to re-write everything but now I’m starting to really like Android Studio. I’ve decided to add additional functionality so that I only need one App. The name of the bluetooth device (the locomotive name) will now allow the app to ‘configure itself’ when the locomotive is chosen on the phone. If the locomotive uses a TSU-4400 SoundTraxx decoder, the appropriate screens will come up for that. I am also going to allow the main screen to be programmed, change the icons and what function codes are associated with them.

I already had this locomotive hooked up for the most part, I was driving it with my Xbee Board so I swapped that out with the Bluetooth version. I also replaced a tiny speaker I had in the front with the one in the picture (on the left). Much Much cleaner sound mix. Bells and horns out of the front and the prime mover going to the back speaker with the passive radiator.

Here it is out on the layout, ready for a test run.

Here is a video of some basic testing. It still needs some tweaking on momentum and motor voltages. Please forgive the poor video and sound quality- my nice camera died and this is my backup.

I also ran my latest version of the Generic DCC Phone app. Works quite well now. The QSI is a tad on the finicky side however so I made a very small mod to the firmware in the Bluetooth Widget. Once I back test that on the other decoders I’ll roll it into the firmware release.

You can find all of my Android Train Control Apps on Google Play.

Something different, a gadget for the airplane. This is my incarnation of the Stratux open source ADS-B unit. It uses a Raspberry Pi3 along with a couple of high gain antennas, two radio receivers and a GPS unit to snatch weather and traffic data out of the air. For free! Can’t beat that. I think I spent a little over $100 on it, but I already had the Raspberry Pi3.

I also have an AHRS module plugged into it which should give me a basic Synthetic Vision system. Now I just have to figure out how to mount it ‘semi-permanent’ into the airplane. It has to be removable and used for ‘situational awareness only’ to be legal.

But one thing at a time. I’ve tried it with my two BLU phones and also my ASUS 7 inch tablet. So far so good. Works really well. Just plugged all the parts together, flashed the SD card with the free software and it comes up and runs. I’m trying out a couple of Android Apps that will work with it- they overlay the weather and traffic data on a current FAA sectional moving map plus let you do other cool stuff like plot out your file plan, get airport info and such. Neat.

Got all the parts and pieces together (well almost) and did some testing outside on the layout. I was very impressed with the range, I have a new $50 BLU Studio phone and I’m getting a good 100ft. So far I have not seen any of the problems mentioned by other users of the TCS Wow 5amp. I did talk to tech support at TCS and they indicated that there had been some hardware changes to the 5amp since it was first released. He didn’t go into what they were and was not clear if the firmware changed or not. Mine is pretty new, I got it from RP about a month ago. He said there was no way to read the s/w version so I don’t know exactly what rev of firmware is in there. That is obviously on purpose for whatever reason.

But so far, I really like this decoder. Crisp sounds and I like the brake feature. Very cool that it ‘coasts’ when you shut down the throttle.

First Power up of the TCS decoder and the Bluetooth Enabled Control Widget

This is the first power on test of the decoder. I have not changed anything in the firmware or Android App from what I had with the Economi Decoder. I am using the 28/128 speed step which is the default in both decoders – so the extended packet format of DCC. The throttle, Bell and Horn all work out of the box, no configuration was done to the decoder before I tried this.

Because the TCS has some additional features and requirements, I will probably have to change the firmware and app side a little from the Economi implementation. It also has some sort of ‘mode’ to switch between the lights and sound functions so I will have to figure that out. That is the nice thing about a custom app, I can tailor it to each decoder.

I also will be controlling a few extra things with this particular installation – I’ve got a temperature sensor mounted on the heatsink of the DCC amp. I also had a current sensor in there but it proved to be defective so I had to remove it for now. I’ve got two fans wired to function outputs on the decoder so I can turn those on and off. Two servos will be used to control the couplers as well. These will be implemented in the widget layer, they won’t be controlled by DCC so I can tailor that profile as well. Just yanking the couplers open doesn’t work very well, you need a smooth motion.

One other option will require a PCB mod. I want to be able to ‘name’ each BT module so it shows up in the phone as a locomotive number and description. The docs say I can use up to 20 characters for this. However it requires that you power up the device with a pin held low, then let it go high so it enters ‘AT’ mode. This will require either a special app or an extension to the one I have to set this plus a jumper on the PCB. I can work around this for now but I will add it to the PCB layout along with a couple of other spacing fixes for the next pass.

Overview

Temperature Sensor

Front Speaker and LEDs

Fan 1

Servo and Coupler

Wheel Counter and Main Speaker

I think I’ve finally gotten to a beta release point on my Phone App and Widget Firmware. The firmware is universal but the phone app is customized for the Soundtraxx Economi DCC decoder. This app lets you control and program a battery powered locomotive via wireless DCC on your Android phone.. Above are the four screens. Some of the controls, the couplers in particular, are not implemented quite yet, or are implemented but untested. Everything else works. The coupler buttons are intended to control servos to actuate the couplers ala switching moves.

Below is a (rather long) video of the app driving the decoder on my little test setup. The blue readout is a current meter. Not pulling much here.

I have a new locomotive, a USAT GP9, that I will be putting a TCS WOW decoder into. That will get it’s own phone app, although it should look very similar to this one. I’m finding the various decoders, while all adhering to the DCC spec, are a little different in certain areas, particularly the CV programming. Also, one thing I didn’t consider is getting data FROM the decoder. I have the circuit and s/w design for that but it’s not implemented yet. That’s next.

At some point I may try to merge the various incarnations of the phone app into one, but for now I’ll be doing one for each. I plan to support the three decoders I currently have, the QSI, the Economi and the TCS Wow.

Here is a demo of the phone app. It doesn’t actually do anything, just lets you change screens and move the throttle slider etc. But I’d be interested in feedback from other train folks – Drop me an email: martan@cstone.net

Below is a diagram of how it all fits together