Battery Fuel Gauge with Zero Parts and Zero Pins on AVR

Blink LED Cropped

It can be nice to know how much battery power you have. It becomes critically important with LiPo batteries since you can permanently damage them by running the voltage down too low. Typically battery voltage detection requires adding a circuit with extra parts and their associated power requirements. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to do this using nothing but software? Read on for a no parts, no pins, no power solution…

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Inside Neouart – Tricking a serial port into being a signal generator

Last time, we connected a NeoPixel directly to a RaspberryPi. This is certainly fun and useful, but the real motivation behind this project was to explore clever ways to make use of limited hardware resources. NeoPixels need a precisely timed string of bits to be happy. Luckily, every RaspPi comes with built-in hardware for generating strings of precisely timed bits – a serial port!

If all you care about is making pretty colors the easy way, don’t bother reading this article. If you are wondering how it is possible to reliably generate a pulse train with +/-150ns precision on a Raspberry Pi pin without kernel mods or DMA, then read on!

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Give Your Raspberry Pi a NeoPixel

Everyone loves Raspberry Pi and everyone loves NeoPixels, so let’s get a NeoPixel directly under your Raspberry Pi’s control!


The Pi can set the NeoPixel to any RGB color and you can create scripts to update it up to 100 times per second.

For a few cents worth of parts (actually just one part!) and a single IO pin, you can give your Pi…

  • an animated multicolor status light
  • an i-style breathing power indicator
  • an adorable single pixel Ambilight back-light behind your tiny screen
  • a sunrise-synchronized night light

The possibilities are endless! Click on for a demo video and full instructions…

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Save the Earth One Resistor at a Time – External pull-up resistor no longer needed for DS18B20 temp sensor


Using the updated Arduino 1-Wire library code presented here, you can eliminate the need for an external pull-up resistor for typical small networks of DS18B20 temperature sensors.  This should also work with any AVR processor and other types of 1-Wire devices as well. You can download the updated 1-Wire library here…

The mythical “required” external pull-up

From the DS18B20 Data Sheet

From the DS18B20 Data Sheet

If you’ve ever used the ubiquitous (and amazingly useful!)  DS18B20 family of 1-Wire temperature sensors, you’ve almost certainly used a 4.7K ohm pull-up resistor as well. Every one of the seemingly endless Arduino DS18B20  tutorials on the web starts with some version of the line “You will not be able to do anything with this senor until you go out and procure yourself a 4.7K ohm resistor”. AdaFruit is even generous enough to include one of these resistors with every DS18B20-based temperature sensor they sell (be it bare, waterproof, and hi-temp) because they know you are going to need it.

I am here to tell you that everything is about to change. If you were banking on your stockpiles of 4.7K ohm resistors to be the one reliable store of value in these uncertain times, you need to rethink your long-term asset preservation strategy because the decade-long run of stable demand for this part is about to plummet. Yes – it is now possible to connect DS18B20 sensors without any external pull-up resistor at all!

Outrageous claims demand outrageous proof, so let’s start with a brief demo that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is not just a cockamamie theory, but cold hard fact…

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NeoPixels Revealed: Warping time and space to actually see inter-pixel jitter

This is Part 5 in a series. Read Part 1 here.


In the PWM article, we discovered that each NeoPixel has a clock that free-runs at about 500Hrz and each pixel will only update its displayed color at the end of a clock cycle. This means that there should be about 2ms of jitter when updating a pixel, which absolutely limits the maximum refresh rate.

This sounds good in theory, but how can we actually see something that happens over the course of 1-2ms?

My first strategy was to haul out the amazing Nikon 1 J4 which can shoot at an astonishing 1,200 frames per second. It is no Phantom, but at 0.8ms per frame it is just good enough to catch some of the jitter. Here is a video of a string of NeoPixels blinking off and on a couple of times over the course of 0.05 seconds…

The amber indicator LED on the far left lights up immediately after the latching reset pulse is sent, then for the next couple of frames you see the Neopixels individually update at random times according to the phase of their internal PWM clocks. It takes a full 3 frames (9-12) which corresponds to about 2.4ms (3 frames *0.8ms/frame) for all the pixels in this string to update.

While this is really cool and seems to confirm that the pixel jitter really exists in the real world, we are sampling at a rate very close to the rate of the thing we are trying to measure which could mislead us.  If only we could get more temporal resolution. How can we see down to microseconds without spending $20k on a fancy camera?

Hmm… My camera has *lots* of spatial resolution (5232 x 3488!), and we only even really need one of those two spatial dimensions (width) to see our linear string of NeoPixels. If only we could trade the other spatial dimension that we are not using (height) for temporal resolution… but how can we trade space for time?

All it takes is tripod with a tiltable head and a quick wrist! Here is the setup…

time warp setup


If we point the camera at the pixels and then quickly scan the camera’s field of view across the pixels, we will record their time transitions as changes along the y-axis of our photo! Here was my very first attempt at dimensional arbitrage…

First try at time warp photo

I think this image is pretty freaking beautiful! It very clearly shows the LED jitter with a resolution on the order of sub-milliseconds. It even captures the fact that I was only actually blinking the leftmost 42 pixels – the rest just happened to be 50% white and blinking at the PWM frequency of about 400hz. To the naked eye, this string just looks like a slightly dimmed white line, but with this time warp technique we can see into the secret high-speed world. I can hear the Scalosians buzzing!

This trick is nothing new. It is the same thing going on with the now trendy light painting displays and I’ve even been doing it since the 90’s. But it is still an amazing way to turn a $100 camera into a $20K high speed recorder – as long as you don’t mind loosing a dimension.

After some practice to get my tripod-tilting fast and steady and also turning out the lights in the room, I was able to get this close up shot…


The amber indicator LED on the left is on for just 125 nanoseconds (2 CPU cycles at 16Mhz). It marks the end of the latching reset pulse that tells the NeoPixels to update their displays. You can very clearly see the displays each update when their PWM cycles finish. Keep in mind that the camera was tilting from down to up, so time runs from top to bottom. If you look really closely, you can even see the very brief 120us off period that happens between PWM cycles of the pixels that are on for more than one cycle. Try clicking on the photo to zoom. It looks like the necking of a string of hot dogs. See? Just by counting, we can see that some of the pixels are on for 1 PWM cycle, while others are on for 2, and a couple that hit it just right are even on for 3 cycles- all depending on what phase their PWM cycle happened to be in when the latch pulse arrived.

Ok, enough shop talk. Let’s now look at a pretty NeoPixel time warp picture!…



This photo shows the string cycling though full brightness red, green, blue, and white. To the naked eye this also just looks like a solid white bar – but if you happen to shift your gaze quickly you can just catch the colors out of the corner of your eye as they paint across your retina. It is a neat effect because the colors disappear again as soon as you look at them.



Q: How fast can you go?
A: The limits on time resolution include

  1. The vertical resolution of the camera,
  2. How much light hits the image recorder,
  3. How fast you can tilt the camera.

My camera has 5000+ pixels in the Y axis and the NeoPixels are really bright, so the limiting factor for me is how fast I can tilt. I’ve gotten much higher resolution by putting the camera far away from the pixels and zooming in. This increases the effective speed. If you wanted to go even faster, you could use a spinning mirror instead.

Q: How long was the strip powered up for before you did the test? I bet the pixels started of all in sync, but drifted over time.
A; I actually thought this too, and so did a test about 1-2 second after repowering the string. The results are the same. I should have guessed this because in the first image, you can see that even in the short instant of the exposure the drift between pixels is noticeable otherwise the dot pattern on the right would be smooth.

Temperature Logging to a Google Spreadsheet with an Arduino Yun

UPDATE 8/7/2104:

It appears that Google occasionally will randomly and silently drop the authorization for an Apps Script web app. If you notice that your spreadsheet has stopped updating and you know that your logger is still working, then you probably need to log into your spreadsheet from a web browser, go into the scripts editor, and manually execute any function in the script. This will cause a popup that will reauthorize the script and everything will then start working again.

I think this is the last straw. I can not recommend using Google for logging (or any other non-trivial application) any more. This stuff is just too flaky. Sorry.

If you are like me, you often find yourself in a situation where you need to log multiple channels of temperature data. From testing nano-insulating paint to debugging an overheating geothermal well, most of us will have need of accurate and frequent temperature logs at some point in our short and brutish lives.

Here is a recipe to make a reliable, cheap, and easy cloud-based, multi-channel temperature logger using an Arduino Yun and DS18B20 temperature sensors. I chose the Yun because everyone loves Arduinos and this one can connect to the internets. I choose the DS18B20 sensors because they are awesome and cheap and accurate and you can hook up lots of them to a single pair of wires.

We will be using a Google Spreadsheet to store our logged temperature data for a wide array of reasons detailed in my previous previous article.

Quick Start

  1. Get a Yun and plug it into power and the internet. I use the Ethernet port because it is easy, but it should work fine if you connect over Wifi.
  2. Connect a DS18B20 sensor (or lots of them!). The middle pinis data and goes to to pin11 on the Yun and the other two pins (power and ground) can go to any of the pins labeled “GND” on the Arduino. (You don’t even need a pull-up resistor for just a couple of sensors!)
  3. Install the Dallas Temp Library and 1-Wire library into your Arduino IDE if you don’t already have them.
  4. Load up the SimpleTempLoggerYun code into your Yun using the Arduino IDE.
  5. Check the example sheet here and you should see your data show up a few seconds after the Yun boots!
  6. When you are ready, go ahead and make your own exclusive logging spreadsheet and then copy/paste the URL into the SimpleTempLoggerYun code (near the top where it says GOOGLE_URL) and download that new code into your Yun.
  7. If you are happy and plan on using you new logger for a while, you will need to fix this OpenWRT bug on your Yun.

Done! Now make some cool live graphs and share them with your friends.


There are some very nice things about using DS18B20 sensors.

  • They are very cheap. I got 10 waterproof sensors with wire harnesses for $2 each including postage. How is that possible? Loose parts are as cheap as $1.50.
  • They only take 2 wires to connect – that’s only a single digital pin.
  • You can hook them up in pretty much any configuration you need.
  • They are amazingly responsive. I can tell within 5 seconds when someone opens the door to my roof because of the detected temperature change.

Each sensor has a data line, a power line, and a ground line. All you care about is knowing which one is data – you will connect the other two together anyway.

Here is what the loose part looks like….


The middle pin is the data. I used to think that soldering wire directly to the pins was the fastest and easiest way to get these connected…


…but after doing a lot of them this way, I finally figured out that is is *much* easier to use a board….


AdaFruit is nice enough to send me free boards every time I order something, so I cut these boards up into little pieces to make DS18B20 carriers. It seems like more work, but it is so much easier in the end.

Note that in the first photo and I using crappy Radio Shack speaker cable, but in the second I am using a single pair of a CAT5 cable here. Another example of live and learn. Speaker wire works if you only have a couple sensors or a couple meters of cable, but CAT5 works with dozens of sensors and dozens of meters of cable. Here is an experiment that used a string of 12 sensors connected to about 20 meters of CAT5 wire and it worked great….


Here is what the waterproof packaging looks like…


At first I was worried that the extra metal on the end would raise the thermal mass and slow down the response to temperature changes, but these turned out to still be plenty fast and can easily register the heat of you touching one with a finger in 1 second.

The water proof ones are very handy because they already attached wire. On the ones I get from Amazon, the data pin is the white wire. On the AdaFruit version, the data wire is yellow.

I typically solder a bunch of them to a board fragment in a star configuration like this…


I recently saw this terminal block on Amazon that could make hookup solder-free.

I’ve also learned that you really should connect the power pin to ground if are going to use only two wires (parasite power mode). They will work if you leave the power pin dangling, but not as reliably probably because the unconnected power pin picks up noise.  For me, this manifested itself in occasional readings of 185C, which indicates that the sensor reset between the time you told it to take a sample and when you tried to read that sample over the bus. If you are getting 185C readings, maybe check that your power pins are solidly grounded.

Note that the wire used on the waterproof sensors is not twisted pair and so you will be limited in how much wire and how many sensors you can hook up before it starts getting flaky. I’ve found that I can reliably use about 2 waterproof sensors without a pull-up resistor, and about 6 with one- especially if the wires from the sensor are connected right near the board so there are not extra runs.


Problems along the Way

It should not be hard to hook up a Yun as a Cloud data logger – that’s what it is built for, right?

But it was hard. Too hard.

Problem #1: Yun looses internet connection after working for 12 hours.

Looking at the logs, curl is failing with “Failed to connect: network unreachable” message. Netstat -r shows the default gateway is just gone.

This turns out to be an outright bug in the scripts on the Yun that make it delete the default gateway anytime it does a DHCP refresh, which happens for most networks every 12 or 24 hours.

You can read about the bug here and how to fix it here (thanks Mitu!)…

Moral: Fix that script on any Yun you plan to leave connected to the internet.

Problem #2:  Logger works perfectly on my desk while I am watching it, but fails after I leave.

I can sit there and watch it all day and it keeps on chugging perfectly.

Alas, anytime I leave it alone for more than about 30 minutes, it starts dumping garbage data into the spreadsheet. In an attempt to catch the glitch in the act, I went for a walk but kept watching the spreadsheet for garbage data. As soon as I saw the first bad row, I rushed back to my desk and watched for the next line of garbage data to go out- but the next line was fine. No matter what I did the data was good if I was sitting there watching it and would turn bad about 30 minutes after I left. It felt like a prank, but there was a simple explanation…

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