What is a LaunchPad? I'm not talking about some cheesy "action" accessory made by Lionel in the sixties. What I am talking about is a microcontroller development board from Texas Instruments that has the potential for scores of uses on a model railroad. The Texas Instruments MSP430 Launch Pad (MSP-EXP430G)
is, essentially, a computer system on a single chip, including some
hardware that ordinarily would be external to and would have to be
connected to a conventional microcomputer. Today's microcontrollers are essentially
as fast or faster than the '486 generation of microcomputers. Whether
you know it or not microcontrollers are embedded into many of the
systems model railroaders use today. They are in each DCC decoder, in
the command station and handhelds. Accessory decoders and the products
from Tam Valley Depot are built around them as well.
unique about the Launch Pad is that you can buy one from TI for $4.30 -
that's not a misprint. For less than $5 you get a development board,
two target microcontrollers and some accessories. This makes the TI
board much cheaper that similar products from the competing
microcontroller lines and it's cheap enough that the Launch Pad can be
incorporated right into your projects.
What can you do
with one? Among other things, microcontrollers can directly light LEDs
therefore they can be used for all manner of things like crossing
flashers, traffic light sequencers and signaling systems. In addition
to illuminating the lights, the microcontroller can incorporate the
logic to determine which lights to turn on. You can program one to
sequence the lights inside of a building or factory to imply activity
inside. The logic for a bi-directional, three color signaling system is
created using a surprisingly few lines of code. In addition, with a few
external components the same microcontroller can also detect the
presence of the trains.
Turnout control using either
stall motor (Tortoise) machines or servos is possible. There are
accessory boards available for the Launch Pad that enable it to store
and playback sounds, opening the possibility to add sound sequences to
your scenes. Because the Launch Pad has a USB port on board that
is accessible from the target microcontroller, the potential exists for
tying many Launch Pads together into a network so that they can be
controlled from a central location, or tied into a system like JMRI.
microcontroller has to be programmed to function. The programming
language (C or assembler) and environment is available free from TI. If
you cannot program, don't despair I'll address that shortly.
Because these can be programmed, you can customize one for whatever
functions you need. Need B&O four-color signalling with all six
marker indications (about 37 different signal aspects including
flashing)? You can program that complex signal system into one of these
- and in many cases you can do it without additional hardware.
what if you cannot program? Well you could learn. I hadn't programmed
anything in almost 25 years before I took to programming the Launch
Pad; and I had a couple of projects up and running in two days -
including the time it took me to learn the "C" programming language. I
will be trying to cajole some of my buddies at Model Rail Radio to
create some tutorials on how to learn and program in C.
those of you who don't want to program, but want to give this
technology a try anyway, I'll be putting up the programs created by me
and others. so that we can share and use the code created by all.
You'll be able to grab the code, compile it using a simple process and
load into your own LaunchPad. In this way I hope to
foster a community where we can share applications for the TI Lanuch
Pad for model railroad use.
is not intended to be a blog just for geeks; although I hope that a lot
of geeks will be making contributions. But I want to keep this blog
simple and understandable for the non-technical, because our common
objective is more enjoyment form model railroading.