Learning FPGA Design with nMigen
Like many of us, I’ve been stuck indoors without much to do for the past month or so. Unfortunately, I’m also in the process of moving, so I don’t know anyone in the local area and most of my ‘maker’ equipment is in storage. But there’s not much point in sulking for N months straight, so I’ve been looking at this as an opportunity to learn about designing and implementing FPGA circuits.
I tried getting into Verilog a little while ago, but that didn’t go too well. I did manage to write a simple
WS2812B “NeoPixel” driver, but it was clunky and I got bored soon after. In my defense, Verilog and VHDL are not exactly user-friendly or easy to learn. They can do amazing things in the hands of people who know how to use them, but they also have a steep learning curve.
Luckily for us novices, open-source FPGA development tools have advanced in leaps and bounds over the past few years. The
nextpnr projects have provided free and (mostly) vendor-agnostic tools to build designs for real hardware. And a handful of high-level code generators have also emerged to do the heavy lifting of generating Verilog or VHDL code from more user-friendly languages. Examples of those include the SpinalHDL Scala libraries, and the nMigen Python libraries which I’ll be talking about in this post.
I’ve been using nMigen to write a simple
RISC-V microcontroller over the past couple of months, mostly as a learning exercise. But I also like the idea of using an open-source MCU for smaller projects where I would currently use something like an
MSP430. And most importantly, I really want some dedicated peripherals for driving cheap addressable “NeoPixel” LEDs; I’m tired of needing to mis-use a SPI peripheral or write carefully-timed assembly code which cannot run while interrupts are active.
But that will have to wait for a follow-up post; for now, I’m going to talk about some simpler tasks to introduce nMigen. In this post, we will learn how to read “program data” from the SPI Flash chip on an
iCE40 FPGA board, and how to use that data to light up the on-board LEDs in programmable patterns.
The target hardware will be an
iCE40UP5K-SG48 chip, but nMigen is cross-platform so it should be easy to adapt this code for other FPGAs. If you want to follow along, you can find a 48-pin
iCE40UP5K on an $8-20 “Upduino” board or a $50 Lattice evaluation board. If you get an “Upduino”, be careful not to mis-configure the SPI Flash pins; theoretically, you could effectively brick the board if you made it impossible to communicate with the Flash chip. The Lattice evaluation board has jumpers which you could unplug to recover if that happens, but I don’t think that the code presented here should cause those sorts of problems. I haven’t managed to brick anything yet, knock on wood…
Be aware that the Upduino v1 board is cheaper because it does not include the FT2232 USB/SPI chip which the toolchain expects to communicate with, so if you decide to use that option, you’ll need to know how to manually write a binary file to SPI Flash in lieu of the
iceprog commands listed later in this post.
Simple USB / Serial Communication with the CP2102N
Several years ago, a company called Future Technology Devices International (FTDI) sold what may have been the most popular USB / Serial converter on the market at the time, called the FT232R. But this post is not about the
FT232R, because that chip is now known for its sordid history. Year after year, FTDI enjoyed their successful chip’s market position – some would say that they rested too long on their laurels without innovating or reducing prices. Eventually, small microcontrollers advanced to the point where it was possible to program a cheap MCU to identify itself as an
FT232R chip and do the same work, so a number of manufacturers with questionable ethics did just that. FTDI took issue with the blatant counterfeiting, but they were unable to resolve their dispute through the legal system to their satisfaction, possibly because most of the counterfeiters were overseas and difficult to definitively trace down. Eventually, they had the bright idea of publishing a driver update which caused the counterfeit chips to stop working when they were plugged into a machine with the newest drivers.
FTDI may have technically been within their rights to do that, but it turned out to be a mistake as far as the market was concerned – as a business case study, this shows why you should not target your customers in retaliation for the actions of a 3rd party. Not many of FTDI’s customers were aware that they had counterfeit chips in their supply lines – many companies don’t even do their own purchasing of individual components – so companies around the world started to get unexpected angry calls from customers whose toy/media device/etc mysteriously stopped working after being plugged into a Windows machine. You might say that this (and the ensuing returns) left a bad taste in their mouths, so while FTDI has since recanted, a large vacuum opened up in the USB / Serial converter market almost overnight.
Okay, that might be a bit of a dramatized and biased take, but I don’t like it when companies abuse their market positions. Chips like the
CH330 were already entering the low end of the market with ultra-affordable and easy-to-assemble solutions, but I haven’t seen them much outside of Chinese boards, possibly due to a lack of multilingual documentation or availability from Western distributors. So at least in the US, the most popular successor to the
FT232R seems to have been Silicon Labs’
It’s nice to have a cheap-and-cheerful way to put a USB plug which speaks UART onto your microcontroller boards, so in this post, I’ll review how to make a simple USB / UART converter using the
CP2102N. The chip comes in 20-, 24-, and 28-pin variants – I’ll use the 24-pin one because it’s smaller than the 28-pin one and the 20-pin one looks like it has some weird corner pads that might be hard to solder. We’ll end up with a simple, small board that you can plug into a USB port to talk UART:
It’s worth noting that you can buy minimal CP2102N boards from AliExpress or TaoBao for about $1, but where’s the fun in that?
Mounting Solar Panels to a Car
As someone who likes both electronics and the outdoors, sometimes I get anxiety about a lack of electricity. It would be nice to go camping somewhere away from it all, and still be able to charge things and run some lights, a display, maybe a small cooler. I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes at that, but I’ve also been wanting to play with adding aftermarket indicators to old cars, like backup sensors or blind spot warnings, and it’d be nice to run them off a separate battery to avoid the possibility of accidentally draining the car’s battery overnight.
Since low-power solar panels are fairly cheap these days, I figured that it might be worth buying a few to mount to my car’s roof. And since my car is technically a pickup, it was very easy to put the battery in the bed and run the wiring through the canopy’s front window:
If you have a different kind of car, I’d imagine that you could just as easily put the battery in your trunk, but you might need to drill a hole for the wires if you don’t want to leave one of your windows cracked open.
I guess that a lot of this guide won’t apply exactly to your situation, because you’ll have different dimensions to work with, different limitations, and probably different solar panels. But I hope that laying out each step that I took and what worked for me might be helpful – your basic approach could probably look very similar.
And before we go any further, please keep your expectations in check. These panels can only produce up to 100W in direct sunlight, which is nowhere near enough power for something like an electric vehicle. So read on if this sounds interesting, but the car still runs on gas. We’re not saving the world here.