I’m really enjoying my widget PCB design. Simple, cheap, easy bake oven for SOIC, program in C, add an Xbee for wireless real-time control, how cool is that? Here I have one hooked up to a parallax IR motion sensor. With a bit of C code it controls the servo based on the input from the motion sensor. Think railroad crossing signals- that crossing arm that comes dowm and blocks the traffic, right?

Anyhow, great fun and a good project to post over to controlwidgets.com

I’m looking at a $9 retail for board and components. Software will be free and open source. Of course 🙂


This is the prototype control widget. I originally called them ‘train widgets’ but that is a bit limiting as they should be able to control pretty much any surface vehicle. I wouldn’t use them for flying devices however as the range is only about 300 feet- fine for earthbound machines but a bit too limited for anything that flies.

Nevertheless, since my primary purpose is controlling G scale model trains, this will do nicely. As you can see from the photo, these are very simple devices. An Xbee series 1 and an Atmel Attiny 1634 micro controller. I also have a suite of software modules written to control or monitor each of the functions mentioned in the diagram, plus do all the Xbee network message passing.

Each widget can control servos, motor controllers, discrete outputs (lights etc), a sound card with 8 channels of up to 1000 sounds, an RFID reader (for position sensing) and a configurable set of I/O pins for inputs (speedometer, current sensor, etc) or SSI/SPI to expand the I/O.

The Xbee allows bi-directional radio communications using the 802.15.4 protocol, so any node can communicate with any other node in real time. One Xbee in a hand-held configuration can control multiple locomotives, turnouts and animatronics, while a computer can also control and/or monitor the same (or other) locomotives or devices.

Anyhow, I’m working on a whole series of designs based on this, I have ordered the first set of PCBs, they should be here in a couple of weeks. After that I’ll be designing PCBs for the handheld, working on the sound card (I have a new one, see this link for more info) and expanding the software modules.

As we enter 2014, I thought I would post up a recap of what I’m working on. Primarily I’m developing a wireless method for controlling moving vehicles. In my particular case, this is Garden Scale (G) model train locomotives. However the principles and widgets I’m designing could be used to drive almost anything via real time wireless up to a distance of about 300 ft (100 meters).

The key difference between my method and say standard FHSS (or similar) 2.4Ghz Radio Control is that I am oriented toward a computer driven network, in my case, 802.15.4 as implemented with the Xbee Series 1 modules.

Why a computer network? Well, for one, it gives me fine control over the exact data I’m passing back and forth. Second, it’s bi-directional. The network is oriented as a single to many so any device can talk to any other device. Each Xbee module has a unique 16 bit ‘node address’. You just form a message, add the address of the node you want it to go to and send. The network takes care of getting it there.

This is quite powerful. You can be sending control data to your locomotive and then, as it passes over an RFID tag, it could send that position data back to the computer (or your hand-held, or another device, etc) in real time. Additionally, other data such as speed, current draw, etc could be returned from the locomotive as well. Just because this is a computer type network, it isn’t slow. I’m getting data packet transmission times in the 7ms range which is quite fast. (For reference, your average servo scan time is 20ms)

Anyhow this level of potential automation is, by electronic design standards, fairly simple. I have an Xbee and an Attiny 1634 Microcontroller as the main components of my ‘Train Widget’ and that’s pretty much it. Basically about $22 worth of electronics as the ‘brain’ of all of my devices.


This is a picture of the basic train widget. Xbee does the communications, the Attiny handles the processing and drives the servos and motor controller. It also sequences the mp3 players (2 stereo channels) so you can play sounds via commands sent over the network or by throttle control positions. The two cards are just to the left of the speaker which I’m driving with a generic LM386 amplifier chip and some caps from Radio Shack.


Above is a shot of the front end showing the coupler connected to a micro servo, the ‘back’ coupler servo sitting beside it and the RFID reader in the upper left. I have all of this working including the transmission of the RFID data to the hand-held.


This is a picture of my stand alone ‘simple’ hand held throttle prototype. I also have all of this working, however only at a basic level of controlling one locomotive at a time, I don’t have any multiple unit code in there yet. I’m also thinking of going with a graphic display instead of this ASCII only one and also designing a ‘cradle’ or appliance of some sort so I can use my tablet as a user interface instead of a LCD. (See the post below this one)


Finally, this is a pic of my uncoupler device. One of these per car with the locomotive in charge of each one. The handheld would allow you to address the locomotive and then each car individually to uncouple anywhere. Each of these consist of one Attiny Microcontroller and a small 2.4Ghz transceiver. The locomotive has the ‘master’ transceiver and can talk to each car in the train that has a ‘slave’. The Attiny then controls the servo motor to move the coupler. This is clocking in at about $2 for the Attiny and $8 for the transceiver. Add $4 for a servo. Not super cheap but not too bad. $18 per car? I guess. Hmm, need batteries too…


Spent most of the Holiday weekend finishing up the soldering on my various train widgets.

On the left is the Pololu 18v7 7 amp DC motor controller. This is a commercial board. It works great in my Aristo RS3 and allows bi-directional control without a reversing switch. It’s very configurable. You can run it bi-directional or single direction and it has configuration items for acceleration and braking although I have not tried those yet.

To the right of that is my ‘helper r/c’ design. This board reads r/c channels and converts the servo pulses to flip a relay (for reverse) and turn on up to three MOSFETs (for lights) using standard R/C airplane sorts of radios (one channel per). I noticed some people who use cheaper airplane ESCs are dedicating a servo to flipping a toggle switch onboard the locomotive, this eliminates that. (Personally, I like having a reverse switch so I configure my Pololu that way anyhow). This is a very inexpensive board based on the ATTiny84 micro-controller.

Not shown is an R/C sound board, it allows you to play any mp3 sound, triggered by a channel on the radio. Stick all the way to the left, play sound 1, all the way to the right, trigger sound 2, in the middle, silence. So horns, bells, or music even if you are so inclined. I’m thinking 1-4 channels of sound depending but I have not finalized that yet.

Next on the left, below the motor controller is my Xbee widget. This is going to be the basis of all of my new wireless designs. I can re-use the basice design and populate the board with different s/w only, no need to change the h/w to have several different ‘widgets’.

Depending on the s/w, I’ll be able to control servos, DC motor controllers, MOSFETS (on/off power switches) and drive my 4 channel mp3 sound card. I’d also like to provide the option of DCC outputs to feed various decoders but that s/w hasn’t been developed yet.

It will also provide serial inputs for things like RFID readers, speed and distance counters, current sensors and other things like that. Note that this doesn’t have to be a locomotive unit, this node could go anywhere to control turnouts or animatronics, etc.

With another set of firmware, it will act as a hand-held controller. A rather large prototype of that is in the center of the picture. (This should fit down into a nice sized handheld unit once it’s put on a PCB)

Yet another incarnation of s/w will produce a widget that will interface to your computer, allowing control of any other widget.

The radio for the wireless is the Xbee series 1. These are low cost radio nodes, come ALREADY FCC certified and have a range of 300ft. They also provide a set of firmware called digimesh that turns your network of nodes into a self-healing mesh network. VERY COOL. The proctocol is also open source so no more proprietary radio communications! Love that.


This is the client node. Three servo outputs, five mosfet outputs, serial out for sound card (up to 4 channels), serial in for RFID reader. Two inputs left over for speed sensor and/or current sensor. If I can come up with the proper code, I can drive DCC out of one of the Mosfets. There is some open source DCC code floating around but I wasn’t impressed with what I saw so that will probably have to be developed from scratch if I decide to.


Here is everything I’ve been playing with for the past few months in preparation for the RS3 battery conversion project. The hacked up R/C transmitter is in the back, note the pocket for my android tablet. The two buttons will be for sounds, the toggle switch is the reversing switch for the power relay.

The 3D print fellow is in front of that, I have a sitting version of him to replace the out of scale cartoon figure in the cab. The soundcard/relay/mosfet board is to the left and the pololu 18v7 motor controller is on the right in front of the switch harness. The power relay is wired and working off the intercepted servo signal of channel two.

The smoke generator is the black box at the far right, I think it needs its own hack. Sync’d to the motor control would be cool? I’m not sure about this one, not even sure it’s worth it to put it into the model at all. Obviously I need some testing on that first.

The Pololu USB AVR programmer/ttl serialport/sloscope widget is at the front with the red clip connected to the back. This is my ‘scope’ probe. An amazing board for the price! I tell you what, I am absolutely sold on the AVR series of chips and this programmer. The ATTiny84 does not have a serial port, yet I found a nice software uart for free at AVR freaks. I can hook one pin of the micro up to the serial input on the Pololu and that combined with an LED on one of the port pins gives me a decent set of debugging tools. Super cheap too, ATtiny84s are like $3 in singles, way less in qty.

Anyhow, the sound algorithms need to be fleshed out, the mounting of the boards is not right yet and I need to put together a solid battery pack. But I’m getting there 🙂

UPDATE: October 28, 2013

I’ve released all of the wixel and html5 code for this project, you can find details here: HERE

FINALLY, the power returns and I have a chance to test my breakouts! First test is great. I have the Raspberry Pi driving the master Wixel via USB. This slave Wixel, soldered into my breakout board, sits on the other side of my shop. A 5v wall wart provides the power. This is a nice mix of micro servos, minis and three standards. Works great!

In case you have not followed all my posts, what I have here is a master wixel plugged into the Raspberry Pi. Using the built in packet addressing mode of the TI processor (check out the Data Sheet), it sends servo commands to each slave in a round robin sort of protocol. Each slave can control up to 6 servos and return 3 analog inputs to the master.

I’m getting a really good update rate of about 4ms per slave. Once started, it just keeps running, the Raspberry Pi, via the USB to the master, just has to write a servo value into a table and on the next turn for that slave, it’s updated. This frees the Pi from any work at all in maintaining the network, it’s all auto-magic.


Here are some more pics of the widget.


I’ve decided that standing it up at 90 degrees like in other pics is not worth it. Much easier just to solder it in like this:


Here is a LINK to a previous post about the breakout boards. And ANOTHER that has some s/w details. Note, I have NOT released the internal code apps for the Wixels yet, I’m not sure if I will or not, depends on the results of my next project.