Friday, April 25, 2008

A great microcontroller board for model railroaders

I wrote earlier about the myriad uses for microcontrollers on model railroad layouts, and at that time recommended the pricey but easy to use BASIC Stamp by Parallax. It's a great learning system for those who are new to microcontrollers. However, for those who are a bit more comfortable with basic electronics and simple programming, I'd recommend taking a look at the Arduino, in particular their Diecimila board which costs about US$35.

Unlike the BASIC Stamp, which runs interpreted BASIC on the board, the Arduino uses a compiled language called Wiring which is very close to C/C++, so code runs much faster; the software and development environment are freely downloadable. In addition, there is 14K of flash memory on the board for your program, 14 digital I/O pins, 6 separate analog input pins, and serial communication. There's also an on-board USB jack for easy connection to a PC; the board gets its power from the USB jack, a battery, or an external power supply.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Especially for model newbies: test and clean your track

I was recently reminded about the importance of good, clean track. I pulled out an old micro layout, one of the first I built, just to run some trains back and forth ... oops. They just kept stalling, if they ran at all. So I pulled out the trusty Bright Boy and cleaned the track thoroughly. Now they ran OK except for one spot on the layout where there was a small problem with two track ends meeting. I had this problem when I built the layout, and had filed the track down to sort-of-fix the problem at the time, but had conveniently forgotten about this since that time ... I guess cognitive dissonance took over.

Newbies note, don't make my mistake: it is vitally important that you thoroughly test trains on your track before you start scenery. The time to fix problems, or to rip out sections and start over, is before glue and dirt and foam and paint are cemented down over everything. If the trains don't run optimally at this stage, adding scenery can only make it worse.