Apr 212017
 

There are many options for powering an astromech, from the tried and tested Sealed Lead-Acid, to the latest LiFePO4. This article will look at utilising the very common 18650 cells. These are used in power tools, laptops, even Tesla cars. WARNING, this article will talk about opening old packs, harvesting their cells, soldering cells, spot welding cells, and lots of other things that could be quite dangerous. Lithium cells of any type can heat up or burst into flames if mistreated. Only attempt the things in this article if you are entirely comfortable with any possible outcomes. Do other research, read other articles, the author accepts no responsibility for any injuries or death from the instructions given.

General theory

18650 refers to the size of the cells, 18mm x 65mm. They generally have a capacity between 1500 and 3500mAh. If you see anything saying 4000mAh or above, chances are its a scam, there are a lot of cells branded ultrafire that claim over 6000mAh capacity which is a total lie. Voltage ranges from 4.2v when full, to 3.2v when empty. These cells use Lithium-Ion technology, which is a lot safer than the Lithium Polymer that is used in many radio control devices. The drawbacks are that it has a much lower discharge rate. LiFePO4 are even safer, but are also more expensive. Li-Ion seems to be a middle ground, which is why it is used in so many places.

Generally, these cells are arranged in series/parallel to get the desired voltage and capacity. For example, a 24V battery is made of 6 cells in series. Extra capacity is added by putting more cells in parallel, so that if you use cells with 2500mAh capacity and want a 24V battery with 10Ah capacity, then you will use 4 rows of 6 cells, commonly written as 6s4p. The current drain allowed on a battery is usually 1C, or 1*<capacity>, so in the same example 6s4p battery, you can have a maximum drain current of 10A. Doubling the battery up to be a 6s8p will give you 20Ah and a 20A potential drain. 1C is the safe limit using recycled cells. If you are using brand new cells then you may be able to get a higher current draw by checking the datasheet. For example a NCR18650B can draw 2C and a NCR18650PF can go up to 3C.

Sources

As mentioned above, 18650 cells are used in many places, and can generally be recycled. The best place I have found for second hand cells is from laptops or power tools. These battery packs can be cracked open and the cells removed. It is quite a labour intensive task, but saves a lot of money. You can pick up job lots of second hand cells from eBay, tho this is getting more expensive as more people are harvesting cells this way. You have to force the two halves of the battery case apart, usually with a screwdriver or similar flat sharp object, and then separate the cells from the circuitry and cabling inside. Always wear heavy gloves, and take extra care when using a lot of force. Its easy to slip and damage yourself or the batteries. Also make sure to take care not to use the cells as a fulcrum as this will also damage the cell. Basically, be careful and take your time.

An Opus BT-C3100 charger/tester

The drawback is that each cell is of unknown capacity and life, some cells may even be totally dead. They could already have been through a few thousand cycles. Each cell needs its capacity testing with a charger/tester such as the Opus BT-C3400. Of course, if you can ask friends and family for donations of old laptop batteries, you can save even more money. I managed to get a lot donated for free. Despite the drawbacks and amount of work required, you can end up with a battery for next to nothing that would cost a lot if you bought a ready made one. For example, I built a 24V 25Ah (approx) 6s11p for around £50 of cells, plus a few other bits.

The other option is to buy brand new cells in bulk. Either from Chinese sites such as aliexpress.com, or from other sites closer to home such as eu.nkon.nl. Chinese ones are generally a little cheaper, but you do have a long lead time and the risk they are counterfeit. A typical cell such as the NCR18650B (high capacity/average discharge rate) or NCR18650PF (medium capacity/high discharge rate) can be bought for approx £3 a cell.

As well as the actual cells, there are a couple of other essentials. These are cell spacers, which clip into various configurations to hold the cells in place, and allow air flow around them. You’ll also need nickel strip to connect all the cells together. Both of these items can be bought from aliexpress.com in bulk. If you are buying brand new batteries from NKON, they also sell nickel strips for a decent price when bought in batches of 10m.

Lastly, you’ll need battery connectors and a balance lead. The battery connector can be anything you wish, as long as it will take the current. The balance lead is a connector so you can make sure that all the series cells are at the same voltage. This is important so you don’t let one cell run down lower than the others, which will potentially damage the cell, and maybe the whole battery. You need one for the correct size of battery (eg, a 6s battery will need a 7 wire balance lead) which can be got again from aliexpress.com or ebay.

Construction

Once you have enough cells together, and all the other items, time for construction. The general process is:

  1. Sort the batteries into parallel sets with the same total capacity. The idea is to have them well balanced before you even start. You can use a site such as repackr.com to help with that
  2. Clip the cell spacers together in the required layout (eg 6×12 for a 6s12p), then lay the cells out. Each parallel set should be the same orientation (eg, negative to the top), but alternate them as you fill in the series set.

    The start of a 6s12p pack. Can see the parallel sets run down the picture, with the series sets alternating across

     

  3. Once you have all the batteries in place, clip the top of the frame into place

    Here is a small 3s5p pack, ready for the nickel strips

     

  4. Now its time to connect the parallel sets up. Using either a soldering iron, or a spot welder, connect strips along all the parallel sets. These are the ones that are all the same way up. What this does is create the capacity for battery pack. Be careful if soldering, don’t allow too much heat to build up on the cell, do it as quick as possible. You can get spot welders from aliexpress.com for around £200 that will do the job a lot better.

    Here is a 6s11p pack, with all the parallel sets connected up using a spot welder

     

  5. To give the desired voltage, we have to connect the series sets up so that they are -ve to +ve.

    A 6s pack, with nickel strips in place, leaving the main -ve and +ve at opposite sides

    Here is a completed 7s6p pack, with badly soldered connections. The negative it on the last set on the right on the bottom, the positive is first set on the left on the top. Ideally there should be more connections between the parallel set to give the current more room to flow

     

  6. At this point, you can test the voltages of each parallel set, and the total overall voltage of the pack.
  7. Next solder on the the main power connector. Make sure that the wire and connector can handle the expected current.
  8. The balance lead needs to connect between each parallel set, and also the main +ve and -ve terminals. The balance lead will have one wire to designate either the main positive or main negative. ie, if all bar one wire is red, and the last is black, then the black goes to the negative. If they’re all black apart from one red one, the red goes to the positive. There isn’t really a standard for these things as far as I can tell.
  9. Thats the pack all finished. Last step is to wrap it up in something. I use some large gauge heat shrink (from aliexpress.com) and insulating tape to seal it all up. The main reason for this is to stop anything accidentally falling across a couple of terminals, arc welding itself in place, massively discharging the cells, and setting alight. Generally not a good thing to happen.

    A finished battery pack, having a balance charge from an imax B8

Charging/Testing

You will want to thoroughly test the pack, especially if made from used cells. Check the total voltage on the main power connector and make sure it is within the range expected (from 3*<number in series> to 4.2*<number in series>). Then check each individual parallel set using the balance lead. Measure between each adjacent set of pins on the balance connector and you should get a value between 3 and 4.2, depending on the charge left in them after initial testing. Note, if one cell in the parallel set was at 4.2, and the rest at something like 3.7, then the higher charged cell will actually charge the rest of the cells until they are all at equilibrium. First battery pack I made got a little warm as this happened. Ideally, make sure all cells are at the same voltage before construction.

You can also get a device that will give you a full readout, just from plugging the balance connector in. They are only a few pounds from places like ebay. They will let you view the total voltage, each parallel set voltage, and also the max/min/dif between the cells.

For the initial charge you will need to use a decent balance charger, such as an imax B6. These are generally for lipo batteries, used in radio controlled quad copters or planes. The benefit of a charger like this is that it will balance the cells out and has lots of monitoring and protection built in. Follow the instructions in the charger manual closely.

Once charged, leave your pack for a while, even a month, testing the voltages periodically. If you have a dead cell, then it can manifest as one of the parallel sets slowly loosing charge. If this happens, you’ll have to dismantle the battery and retest all the cells in that set to find the bad one and replace it.

If you have the time, you can also do a full discharge test with the charger on the battery to get an accurate reading of its capacity. This will take a long time if you’ve made a big battery, depending on the charger you use. If you aren’t overly bothered about an accurate capacity test, just run the battery in the droid (or whatever other use) and monitor the voltage. Don’t let the voltage go down below 3*<number in series> (eg, a 6s should never be let to dip below 18v). To prolong the life of the battery, don’t even let it go that far. Full charge/discharge cycles are the worst case for wear on them, and will shorten the lifespan. I recommend discharging it to around 40-50%, at least on the first try.

After the first discharge, check the balance of the cells again. Ideally there should be little difference between them in a fully functional battery pack. If there is significant difference (IMHO, 0.1v between the highest and lowest voltage) then you may have a bad cell somewhere. Do another balanced charge and discharge cycle and see if the same cell has troubles. If it does, rip it apart and try again.

If the battery remains balanced, then you can actually use a none balance charger (cheaper, and usually higher current for rapid charging) for most charge cycles, tho make sure it is balanced occasionally and no harm in doing a slow balanced charge once in a while.

Conclusion/Notes

Using 18650 cells gives you great flexibility in not only the size (voltage and Ah), but also the shape. This example has shown creating standard blocks, but with some creativity you can make a battery that follows a certain shape (ie, follows the outer curve of an R2 unit’s interior). If you want to make use of recycled cells, then this is a very cheap option to get some very high capacity batteries built. Even buying brand new cells will still save you a lot of money.

For example, I’m currently building a 6s12p pack using NCR18650B cells. I’m getting these for approx £3 a cell. That makes the total cost of cells £216, which gets me a 24V/40Ah capacity battery in a fairly small form factor that can give out nearly 80A (my droid barely pulls 10A at full speed!). I doubt I could fit enough SLA batteries in my droid to get that, and a similar capacity of LiFePO4 would set me back about £800. Even taking into account the cost of a spot welder (which can be used many times of course) its double the price.

One thing I haven’t covered in this article is a BMS. This is a Battery Management System, which monitors the battery, makes sure nothing is going wrong with it, and will cut off the output when the battery gets too low. I’m still researching these myself, and will possibly mess with them on my next pack. IMHO, if you are keeping an eye on the battery voltage during use and doing periodic balance tests and charges, then a BMS is not necessary.

Also note that capacity of the cells will drop over time, depending on number of cycles, how deeply they were charged/discharged, and how rapidly they were discharged. Take care of the battery, and it will last longer, drain it constantly at high current and it will be dead within a few hundred cycles.

 

Apr 102016
 

Ok, so remote means just a few meters away, either in the house or in the car. Somewhere warm anyway.

So, as mentioned in my previous post, I’d done a lot of research, and one of the things I came across was this video:

This is what I want to be able to do. I’ll never have the room for an actual observatory like this one, but I could at least automate a lot of the work. That’ll scratch at least two, maybe three, of my geek itches. Of course, everything has to be Linux based, and also as cheap as possible. With that, I decided on at least the following to start with:

  • AstroEQ – Definitely needed goto support on my EQ5 mount to start with.Fully made systems can be bought (minus steppers and mounting hardware), but I already had most of the parts laying around the place so decided to make it myself using an Arduino Mega
  • Indilib – This, running on a raspberry pi acts as a remote control server for anything that I wanted to add. All devices had to be supported, or easy enough for me to add with my limited programming skills.
  • Guide Scope – These are used to ‘lock’ onto a star and make sure that the telescope mount follows it precisely. Long exposures of up to even 30 minutes can then be achieved without too much difficulty. Initial plans are to try and use the Raspberry Pi camera (will try both standard and NoIR) versions.
  • Focuser – Last essential part for remote control is the ability to focus the telescope. This will use the DSLR attached and a stepper motor coupled to the focus knob. There are a couple of arduino based projects that emulate the MoonLite protocol, which is supported by indilib.

Once I’m happy with this lot (and I *will* blog my progress) and have some of my other projects finished (*cough* R2), then I want to take a look at a couple of other add ons such as:

  • Filter wheels – I can use kstars to take many photos with different filters in place, and also with a black filter I can automatically take dark frames for stacking images. (Dark frames are used to remove noise in the picture that is generated by the DSLR)
  • Auto lens cap – A simple servo driver to cover the telescope main lens. Not really necessary, but figured it would be a nice project.

I should be able to do all of this fairly easily. I already have most of the components necessary, and the software running on my workbench. One of the big issues I’ll need to work on is just how to mount it all to the scope and stop the cables getting tangled!

My next blog should be on building and configuring the AstroEQ.

Apr 052016
 

Hi, my name is Darren and I’m a serial hobbiest.

Well maybe not that bad, most of my hobbies are pretty much related (electronics, computers, science), and a lot are things I’ve been interested in since I was a kid. Most recently, I’ve invested in a fairly decent telescope and mount to do some visual astronomy, but more for astrophotography. I want to take pretty pictures of things very far away! So after a lot of reading of various blogs and websites (Star Gazers Lounge forum is fantastic), and watching numerous youtube videos, I got a tripod for my camera and a couple of cheap lenses off eBay. That is all that is needed and you can get some half decent shots.

My astrophotography album

But it wasn’t enough. So I dove back into the forums and did even more research, and learnt a few important things.

  • Telescope – Numerous different types, mainly split into reflectors, refractors, and catadioptric. All have their benefits and downsides, but for doing astrophotography the telescope isn’t the most important item surprisingly.
  • Mount – This, for astrophotography, is the most important thing to get right.You need to have a solid mount for doing anything more than a few seconds exposure, and one with tracking in Right Ascension at least, to track the stars. And it really needs to be an equatorial mount to avoid rotation of the starfield as it rotates.
  • Eyepieces – You need eye pieces to view through a telescope, and the shorter the focal length, the greater the magnification. These are generally only used for visual astronomy, as cameras bypass the need.
  • Camera – Most DSLR cameras block out a large part of the infra red by design, but you can get them modified to remove this filter and get much more vibrant images. Its not a necessity, but definitely a nice to have.

Whilst learning all this, I had a thought in my head about some form of computer control (Linux based, of course) and actually stumbled upon a few projects to help with this. The first was AstroEQ which was an opensource ‘Goto’ system (select a star, and the telescope will automatically move to center on it) designed around an arduino. That was a perfect start for me, and I was pretty sure I could get it working from Linux. Thats when I discovered indilib!

Indilib is an open source system for controlling all sorts of astronomical instrumentation, not just goto mounts, but also things like auto focusers, digital camera, filter wheels, and other custom devices you may want. Even better, all this can be run from a Raspberry Pi as the control server and a laptop using the actual astronomy software. This would mean I could set it all up, and retreat to somewhere a little warmer to actually do my observations and photography. I’m sure this is against the amateur astronomers code or something, but damn it gets cold out there.

Along with indilib, there is kstars. This is a planetarium program written for the K Desktop Environment, and with EKOS plugin can control any indilib hardware. Not only that, it can schedule work and sequences, and help you plan your observations.

I’m going to (try to) write more blog posts chronicling my progress on getting all this set up, and some HowTo posts on using indilib on a raspberry pi, with kstars, and any custom hardware I make.

Mar 262016
 

It seems that xmas and new year is when all the part runs start. At least that is what it feels like to me, for all the parts I want.There has been a sudden rush in ordering things for R2 which means I nearly have everything I need to get him put together and mobile. The one part I’m still missing is the outer ankles, which I am hoping will be on a run soon. The last few cosmetic pieces I need are due soon too, such as utility arms and LDP. Progress whilst waiting for these parts has not been too bad, but I do keep coming across problems to work around. I guess that is the fun part tho.

On the electronics front, I managed to (I think) blow up my amplifier. I still need to hook it all up again and test it. I’ve a feeling that the switch I’ve got for main power isn’t rated high enough for the current that is going through. I’ve also decided to change the layout of everything, and install an actual touch screen inside R2 for the Raspberry Pi. This will give me the ability to control certain aspects of the software, and also at a pinch I can plug a usb keyboard and mouse in to do onsite programming whilst away at a convention or such like. I’m also currently waiting a Raspberry Pi v3 which will give R2’s brain a bit of a boost. Overall design hasn’t changed much, it’ll still all be controlled via i2c, but will also have wifi and 3g internet connectivity, turning R2 into a wireless hotspot! I will have to see how much the aluminium body affects the signal, but can always put an external antenna somewhere.

IMG_0298_CR2_embeddedI have more or less got the legs finished, and have done a test fit! Must say, they are looking rather good. All the parts slot nicely together and are pretty solid. Of course, I still have the problem of a lot of the screws and bolts being imperial (We’re part of the rebel alliance, don’t want any of that imperial rubbish!) rather than metric, so getting hold of replacements can be tough. This is more of a problem seeing as I’ve had some of these parts for quite a while and not only been moved around the office in the old house, but have moved to the new house and gone in and out of the garage, so some of the fastenings have been misplaced along the way.

I also decided to get one of the nice new hydro formed domes that are available. I was never too keen on the existing one that I had, and the new domes come with the mounting ring to fasten it to the body which meant one less thing I had to fabricate. A lot of the tutorials on the forums are geared around these domes too. Not only did I get a new dome, but I figured whilst I was doing that, I’d also upgrade all the things to go in the dome. This meant getting the ultimate hinges, aluminium holoprojectors, aluminium logic surrounds, aluminium eye, and even the fancy PSI holders. All this together gives me a pretty much top of the range dome for R2. It also means I can do a quick and dirty rebuild of the old dome at some point and create a different astromech.

IMG_0304_CR2_embedded IMG_0309_CR2_embedded IMG_0489_CR2_embedded
Which brings me more or less up to date. The dome is nearly finished, I just need to put a few final touches to it and tidy up the cabling inside. I even got the dome servos all hooked up and took a short video. I need to replace the arms on the servos with something a bit longer to get a bit more throw on them, but overall I’m pretty pleased.

Next step is to get to work on the body. I’ve got some of the ultimate hinges and have some installed already. Just need to fit the servos to them. I also need to trim down my data panel to fit it into the breadpan, but that shouldn’t be too much trouble. The one part I’m having issues with is the charge bay breadpan, it just doesn’t want to fit in properly. I may have to resort to some pretty hefty modifications on it.

 

 

I’ve given myself a deadline of June to get him mobile, but that depends on when part runs happen. Fingers crossed the outer ankle run starts soon.

Dec 042015
 

11934535_10156061505195316_3190924556943319116_oIts been a long time since an update, but we moved house at the start of the year and things have been hectic. At least, thats my excuse and I’m sticking to it! I have been making progress with R2 in the last couple of months, doing a lot of work on his brain for starters, and painting various parts.

Code wise, there has been a couple of fairly drastic rewrites since my last update. The interface is a REST API, which sends commands to various modules as before. I’ve added a scripting module now, so that scripts or loops can be initiated such as random sounds, or a dance routine. The servo module had to have a major rewrite too as I discovered that I could only control one servo at once and had to wait for that to finish before another command could be sent. That wasn’t much good! I’ve also written the first of the actual controller interfaces (not counting a simple web one for testing), R2 can now be controlled from a PS3 controller. Button combos are read in from a csv file to trigger certain effects or scripts. Lastly, R2 now has a voice, and can play any mp3 stored in a directory, including selecting random ones from a list of types. Next step is to get either the Pi or the A la mode Arduino to control the speed controllers. I don’t want to run them off the Adafruit i2c servo controller for safety, I’d rather drive them directly and have some form of watchdog to make sure R2 doesn’t go on a rampage. All the code is still available on GitHub under my user, dpoulson

The PDU also needed a rethink, not least of all because of the amount of current it needed. The setup now has feeds directly to the speed controllers, with relays on the output from them to the motors so I can break the circuit if needs be. These relays will automatically turn off if the battery is disconnected so that any pushing of R2 will not feedback into the speed controllers and fry them. The relays will also be controlled from GPIO pins on the Raspberry Pi so I can disconnect them via an API call. I’ll also have an input for a kill switch that will have to be permanently on if any of the motors are to be powered, possibly using a transmitter in a replica droid caller or hilt of a light saber. I’ve a base idea for the new relay controls:

Powerswitch The relays I’ve found are Omron G4A-1EA, which have the benefit of the switched load being on spade connectors on the top, rather than through PCB traces, which when I did the calculations would need to be massive to support the potential current running through them. This allows me to make a simple PCB with the controller circuit, and hook the 24V battery up to it to power the coils. If the battery is removed, the coils turn off and the circuits are broken. No fried speed controllers.

The 24V connection will probably go through the fuse box I’ve installed, with a hefty fuse. The makers of the speed controllers don’t actually recommend a fuse but I’ve seen a few comments saying a 60+A fuse can’t be a bad idea, just in case!

The battery will connect directly to the center contacts of a DPDT switch, with the fuse box on one side, and the charger connection on the other. This will allow charging the batteries without taking them out of the droid. Not sure if this is best practice or not, needs more research. Currently they are just a pair of 12V SLA batteries that I had, connected in series to give the full 24V.

I’m hoping to get some time either this weekend or next, to hook up the motors, speed controllers, and battery, to test them out and get an idea of potential current draw. They’ll be controlled with a standard RC transmitter/receiver for now. If I can get the legs onto R2 he may even be drivable by xmas.

Fingers crossed!