I’ve been working on this Xbee DCC thing for quite some time now and have finally finished it off. Or more like, I’ve finally gotten to the point where I think I could ‘release’ the code and the hardware. I have created a version 2.0 release branch for the code and have most of the hardware in a PCB state so it’s getting pretty mature. And more importantly, it works pretty darn good now!

The basic problem I’m trying to solve is how to control my trains, both electric and live steam, with one network. This network would also control pretty much everything else- turnouts, lights in buildings, signals, whatever. Everything on the network- trains, towns, turnouts, signals, would be capable of talking to everyone else, in real time. This would then allow you to tap into the network with a standard interface to leverage whatever application you want on top of it.

This is the reason I went with the Xbee. Unlike simple R/C or even Bluetooth, the Xbee (and I am speaking specifically about the Series 1 Xbee, NOT the Pro Zigbee) is a low level point to multi-point network. It runs at 250Kbps and has a range outside of about 100 meters or 300 feet. Every node on the network has a 16 bit address and can talk or respond to any other node.

One thing that took quite a bit of time to develop and test was the DCC output. The widget generates 128 step DCC throttle messages and DCC Function Messages F0-F12. It’s a bit basic, you have to program your DCC decoder with an external DCC unit and (for now anyhow) you only get those specific DCC transaction but as you can see from the video, that gives you lights, sounds and throttle.

I also completely redesigned the Master side code as well. It’s now far more generic in terms of messages. So I designed a new hand-held controller for it to reside in:


Hand Held Controller 2.0


Here is a basic diagram of what is going on in the U25B in the video. These are the components and control and power flows. Red is power, orange is logic, blue is DCC. Also, it’s not on the diagram, but the economi is controlling the lights and the Widget is driving 2 servos to automate each coupler. The ‘other I/O’ is also hooked up, a current sensor monitors the amps flowing to the trucks and there is also a photo detector that gives a pulse on every wheel revolution (for speed and distance). (The software is not currently looking at these however)


Basic Control Diagram


All of the components in the client are now on PCBs, no more proto or perf boards:


Nano Widget



Micro Widget



DCC Output



8Amp DPDT Relay






A couple of pictures of my latest iteration of wireless DCC and train control. This one has been refactored a couple of times and I now have a nice compact executable that takes throttle and function commands from any controller (in this case, my new hand held design) and converts them to both servo pulses (for the motor controller) and DCC output commands to control the lights and sounds. The speaker is a 2 inch full range with a passive radiator, sounds nice and full. The lights are all surface mount LEDs driven by CL2Ns. I also have servos on the couplers, they are tied to the F6 and F7 functions on the handheld.

Here are the basic components that go into the locomotive:


Everything is now driven by a simple command structure- throttle commands and function commands. The throttle controls the servo 0 spot, I’m using a 20A ESC to drive the motors in the U25B. The throttle commands are also used to drive the DCC decoder for the engine sounds. Since this is an HO Economi decoder, it doesn’t have the current output directly. But it does have great sound and I also drive the lights with it.

Why Xbee everyone asks? Because this is true networking. Everyone is on the same network and can speak or be spoken too. True point to multipoint. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for automation, signals, detection blocks and computer control. Something Bluetooth cant’ do. It’s also ‘industrial strength’ in that Digi has been making Xbee modules for many years now. They are FCC approved out of the box and


This is the base design for my new hand-held controller. Along with a new case and display, I’m going to refactor the software to provide a cleaner interface into the clients (locomotives). Right now my ‘phase A’ handheld knows a little too much about the clients, I want a more disconnected sort of protocol. Anyhow, I’ve gotten everything to fit but the graphic interface required some new hardware so that has not been tested (other than a basic smoke test). I’ll need to write the code for that and then port parts of the old handheld code into it. The keyboard, knob and Xbee interface should not have to change much, I just need a calibration step on the kbd and store that into eeprom. I’m going to have a usb interface into this so I can write a tool on the PC to setup the function keys and display.



In addition to my own control system using Xbees, I also play around with standard radio control. I have one of the Hobby King systems shown above, I think it was like $25 for the TX and RX pair. In the second picture I’ve taken the TX out of the shell and replaced the joy sticks with pots. I’ve mounted it on a board so I can get to it’s innards.

Anyhow, what I’ve done is leverage my R/C signal software and my DCC generation software into one widget. I continuously sample the servo pulse coming out of the R/C RX and then translate that into DCC messages. In this case, throttle messages, although they could be anything.


It all fits into an 8 pin Attiny85, then feeds into my other new widget, the DCC output board.


With this board, one side goes to the battery connection, the other is the output. You can see the small R/C type connector which carries the signal from the Attiny to the board. The DCC output of this board then directly feeds the sound decoder.



Finally, here is a video showing it in action. You can hear the notches of the sound decoder increase as the output pot is twisted and the servo pulse width increases-


Above is the basic install I do on all my locomotives. The green RX box can be a regular R/C RX or it can be my Xbee Control Board. Same basic wiring.


Above is the GE Locomotive ‘Trip Optimizer’ Software. You can see a nice video about it here -> GE Locomotive Trip Optimizer

And here is a really cool video of GE intermodal at work, with the Trip Optimizer of course.

I’ve borrowed some of the graphic layout ideas from this to make the GUI for my phone app- Not quite sure what I want yet but I like this minimalistic implementation.


Again, the idea here is that the phone sits in the cradle (see below) and communicates with the Xbee master in the cradle via bluetooth. The Xbee master reads the knob and the buttons and syncs up with the phone app to keep the display refreshed. The Xbee master controls the Xbee client in the locomotive and also can query the locomotive for speed (via a wheel encoder) and current draw (via a pololu current sensor). There are also hooks available for an RFID reader (I use a somewhat pricey one from Sparkfun – $33) for position information.


Latest incarnation of the Phone Throttle Contraption. The phone communicates with the Xbee Controller via bluetooth, a custom app runs on the phone. This is based on previous experiments with an android tablet, you can read about that here- Android, Bluetooth and Xbee

I’m trying to emulate a generic sort of DCC throttle ‘feel’ with this. I have all of the base code written and tested, it’s just a matter of pulling all the parts together. Slowly I’m getting everything working.


Yet another project in the works. This one is intended to leverage my DCC circuit boards into a interrupt driven DCC I/O system for the Arduino Pro Mini. I actually have all of the software done and tested for both the input and output of DCC signals on my Attiny1634 board but I’ve never actually used a real ‘Arduino’. I’ve always built my own boards so this is a learning experience. I’m probably not going to make it compatible with the larger ‘Arduino’ universe, I’ll just optimize it for the Pro Mini. Anyhow, this project is actually number two on the list, the refurbish of my U25B locomotive is first so I can polish off the main widget code base.


I picked up a cheap Aristocraft U25B in Chessie paint the other day and have been taking it apart so I can rebuild it. The idea is to get from the toy like unit I have into at least a semi-scaled sort of model. The photo above is the closest prototype image I’ve found to what is depicted with this Aristocraft rendition. So I’m stripping it down to the base parts with the idea to install my control system, batteries and sound. And of course, a bit of paint and detail work- it is a bit cheezy with the cast color parts. Yuck. So anyhow, I’m getting there. Below is an image of the original model. More in a later post.



Yes, I know this is a little weird but I want a knob AND a nice user interface (ala smartphone) to run my trains so I am working on this design. The Knob and underlying circuitry communicate directly with the 802.15.4 network. The phone is just there for the user interface and graphics. Bluetooth is used to communicate between knob/wireless controller and the phone. A custom app runs on the phone. I have the infrastructure working for this, its just a matter of smushing all the components into this small space and refactoring the software a bit. Both the case and the face plate for this were cut on my Probotix X90 3D router.