Wednesday, March 5, 2014

BoosterPacks Galore

Over the last several months I've been collecting BoosterPacks for the LaunchPad and thinking up neat projects that can be constructed with them.  I must confess that I have had "plug-in" envy when I compared the available plug in boards for the Arduino versus those available for the LaunchPad.  Plug-in boards for the Arduino (called "shields") number, literally, into the hundreds; if not the thousands.  The number of BoosterPacks available are much smaller but, after doing some research, not nearly as few as I had originally thought.  In addition those that are available for the LaunchPad are really neat and powerful.

Many of the BoosterPacks, particularly those built by TI, are very powerful microcontroller products in their own right; sometimes more powerful than the MSP430 LaunchPad itself.  A case in point is the C5000 Audio Capacitive Touch BoosterPack.  This BoosterPack allows a LaunchPad to record and play back audio files in MP3 format.  In addition the BoosterPack has a capacitive "click wheel" type input device.  This BoosterPack is intended to allow the LaunchPad to become an MP3 player.  

C5000 Audio Capacitive Touch BoosterPack attached to a MSP430 LaunchPad

The C5000 Audio Capacitive Touch BoosterPack has a C5000 series Digital Signal Processor (DSP) on board. This procesor is far more powerful than the MSP430 processor on the LaunchPad.

What use would an audio recorder be to a model railroad? Well my first thought, and the reason that I bought one of these, is to build an automated train defect detector.  A prototype train defect detector uses sensors to scan each train as it passes and detect hotboxes, dragging equipment, etc.  After the last car has passed, the detector announces it's findings to the train crew via radio - either "no defects" or it annunciates the defect and the axle number where the defect occurred.   Here's a link to sound files of actual train detectors in operation:

As I envision this project, the LaunchPad would optically count the axles then, using a random number generator, determine if there was a defect and decide, again using a random number generator, which axle was at fault.  Then the LaunchPad would trigger the appropriate sound files on the BoosterPack to announce the defect or the "no defects". 

Since I model an era when there were no automated defect detectors, this project is not at the top of my list of things to do.  If you have an urge to tackle this one, drop me a line and I'll let you know how I think it can be done.

Another use for an audio player is an intelligent background sound generator - triggering sounds in response to complex events and routing those sounds to particular places on the layout.  Sort of a more flexible and programmable Dream Player.  At $35 for this BoosterPack it is the same price as the stand-alone sound modules for model railroads but with much more potential.

A trio of BoosterPacks are very exciting.  The CC110L RF BoosterPack operates in the 902-928 MHz band and allows LaunchPads to communicate with one another wirelessly. These are perfect for use with the LaunchPads used as signal controllers and can prevent having to string more wires under the layout.               These BoosterPacks apparently have extensive packet handling on-board for low rate data communication - just what's needed for a signal system. I bought a pair of these but I have yet to dig into them.  I'm thinking that a publish/subscribe architecture as well as  a method for TDMA or collision detection will have to be worked out (Sorry for the foregoing sentence, it's just my inner geek getting out).  At less than $20 for two RF BoosterPacks, they are not expensive either.

CC110L Boosterpacks

Another wireless product by TI/Anaren is the CC2530 AIR Module BoosterPack.  These BoosterPacks implement a wireless protocol similar to Wi-Fi called ZigBee.  ZigBee is capable of moving large amounts of data including audio and video.  They are probably overkill for most model railroad applications, and they are more expensive at 3 BoosterPacks for about $130.  

CC2530 AIR Module BoosterPack

The final wireless BoosterPack is the CC3000 Simple Link BoosterPack.  This module interfaces with a LaunchPad and implements the Wi-Fi Ethernet protocol, including an on board TCP/IP stack (sorry, the geek got loose again).  Probably more capability than the average model railroad project needs, the CC3000 or especially the CC2530 BoosterPack above, may be good candidates for taking NMRAnet wireless.

CC3000 Simple Link BoosterPack

A BoosterPack that I haven't bought, but which you may find attractive, is the Fuel Tank BoosterPack from Newark (Farnell in the UK)/Element14.  As it's name implies, this is a battery pack for all LaunchPads.  It has an on-board charging circuit and a lithium-ion battery.  The Fuel Tank plugs into the LaunchPad and can communicate battery condition to the LaunchPad.  It makes hand-held projects possible.  At $26.99 I find it a little pricey inasmuch as at last Christmastime one of the big PC retailers hereabouts had USB rechargeable battery packs of similar capacity for $10; and USB battery packs run LaunchPads just fine.  If I had a hand-held project I could probably live with the inconvenience of pulling the battery pack to recharge it externally and forgo the battery data being available to the LaunchPad.

Fuel Tank BoosterPack

There are display BoosterPacks for the MSP430 LauchPad. One of which is KTBCD430-D1 Bi-Stable Cholesteric Display BoosterPack.  This 128x64 pixel display uses a serial bus (SPI) to communicate with the LaunchPad and has on-board character generation. I have not bought this BoosterPack, but looking over the documentation I see male pins on the back of the display and I do not understand how this will interface with the male pins on the LaunchPad. 

KTBCD430-D1 Display BoosterPack

Displays are useful on model railroads for handheld throttles, fast clocks and many others.

The Educational BoosterPack also has a display, in this case a 2 line x 16 character display along with a suite of other devices which may not be too useful for a model railroad.

Educational BoosterPack

A BoosterPack that I have bought because of its potential uses in model railroading (but I have not had the time to dig into its guts yet) is the DLP-7970ABP RFID BoosterPack from DLP Design.  Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is slowly finding its way into model railroading as a means of tracking cars and locomotives on the layout.  Especially for operators of large model railroads with hundreds of cars and the storage yards to hold them, RFID hooked to a computer system has the potential for locating a car in real time.  RFID tags are put into each piece of rolling stock and then tracked as they pass by receivers, such as this, at various locations on the layout.

DLP Design DLP-7970ABP BoosterPack

Designing a viable RFID system for model railroads is still a ways off, but the LaunchPad will be ready.

Now that I have all of these neat BoosterPacks, I still have to find the time to begin using them!

This begins to scratch the surface of available BoosterPacks.  I've only listed here some of the BoosterPacks available from the major electronics suppliers that are applicable to model railroading.There are many other BoosterPacks that are less useful for model railroads.  They can be found on the websites of the major electronics distributors; at Newark/Element 14 (scroll down the page); at Mouser and DigiKey search on "BoosterPack" as well as the alternate spelling "Booster Pack".

TI's master list of BoosterPacks (very outdated) can be found here. A forum discussing BoosterPacks can be found here.

I have not included in this survey any of the products from the hobbyist market making BoosterPacks.  That will be for another post.

One final note.  Several of the BoosterPacks mentioned here emit or use RF energy.  All of these BoosterPacks are certified and available for sale and unlicensed use in the USA.  If you live outside of the US, you will have to determine if you can purchase and/or use these items in your jurisdiction.


  1. looking to power an n scale factory with servo conveyor belt, welding & sounds and servo elevator- recommendations for launchpad modules?

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