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3 Tips for Repurposing Development Boards for Testing

Saleae, Inc. Saleae LogicPro16SE.jpg
The Saleae LogicPro16SE.
If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with by repurposing the development board you already have.

Unfortunately, my embedded software development co-pilot (an original Saleae Logic probe that I’ve had for a decade) bit the dust the other night. I was working late and accidentally connected one of the channels to a 12-volt signal when the analyzer was designed for 5V with 10V overvoltage protection. (Yes, that means another article on how to protect your test equipment is coming soon).

With work still to be done and 24 – 48 hours before I would receive my new analyzer, I had to improvise to keep my debug session going which led me to repurpose a MicroPython original Pyboard for the task. Let’s look at a few tips for repurposing development boards for test equipment.

Tip #1 – Use a Development Board that Supports Python

Nearly any development board can be used to acquire data. Onboard microcontrollers have useful peripheral interfaces such as analog to digital converters, GPIO, and a wide range of communication peripherals. This can lend itself well to customizing a test setup that might not be available in off-the-shelf test equipment. An important factor though is that if a development board is leveraged for use as test equipment, it should be easy to program.

I personally find that leveraging Python makes writing test scripts much easier so selecting a development board that supports MicroPython or Circuit Python is highly recommended. These development boards already have the low-level hardware supported so it’s easy to get something up and running in less than 10 minutes.

Tip #2 – Use Python print Statements to Transfer Data

There are certainly different techniques that can be used to transfer data between the development board and a PC to acquire data. When I had to leverage my makeshift logic analyzer, I wrote a super simple routine that used the development board's USB connection to transfer print statements back to the PC. I was simply trying to measure that timing was correct on one output channel over an extended period of time. For this, I was able to simply record the current system time and then calculate the difference between them. The routine looks something like the following:

while True:

            NewState = pin_x2.value()

            if NewState != State:

                        State = NewState

                        myTime = time.tick_ms()

                        print(myTime)

                        pyb.LED(LED_GREEN).toggle()

On a single channel, the code is just looking for the logic on the pin to change and then it records the time. The reader can see the use of the print statement and that for visual confirmation and LED is toggled. There is a ton though that can be used with this technique across multiple channels without much effort at all.

Tip #3 – Capture Data in a Terminal

It is common practice to actually record the incoming data somewhere and the most natural place is to use a terminal. Using Linux or a Mac terminal, it’s easy to open the communication port and just redirect the incoming contents to a file for processing later. However, on Windows there isn’t really a terminal that is built in that can do this. However, there are several options available to developers.

First, developers can use the capture feature in a tool like Realterm. This terminal software will redirect the incoming data on a port to a file. Second, developers could write a simple Python script that reads incoming data using PySerial and then writes the data to a file. This could be executed directly from the command line and if needed or customized for the data. A Python script approach does allow for cross-platform use but if a developer is in a hurry, just using Realterm is less work and provides good results.

Conclusions

Development boards can serve a second purpose to developers that allows them to repurpose the board for use as test equipment. This can provide additional flexibility for testing an embedded system and allows the data that is received to be customized so it is easier to process. While nothing can really replace my favorite analyzer (which is now on my bench and taking its rightful place), I still employ development boards for custom measurement capabilities that otherwise I may not be able to find inexpensive, off-the-shelf software or even not at all. This can come in particularly handy when there is some custom test that needs to be performed or when the data is needed in a specific format.

Jacob Beningo is an embedded software consultant who currently works with clients in more than a dozen countries to dramatically transform their businesses by improving product quality, cost and time to market. He has published more than 200 articles on embedded software development techniques, is a sought-after speaker and technical trainer, and holds three degrees which include a Master of Engineering from the University of Michigan. Feel free to contact him at jacob@beningo.com, at his website www.beningo.com, and sign-up for his monthly Embedded Bytes Newsletter.

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