Low-cost XPlane Control Panel

This is a little project that I’ve been working on over the last month or so. (I completed it several weeks back, but I’ve been having too much fun with it to write up this blog post) It is a physical control panel for the XPlane flight simulator – i.e. when I move a slider (in the real world), the flaps begin to deploy (in the simulator). I flick another switch, some lights start to flash (in the real world) and in the simulator the landing gear start to rumble their way down into place. What the switches/sliders do is arbitrary – they can be reprogrammed whenever I feel like it.

There are three components: 1) the x-plane simulator 2) the physical box itself, with switches and LEDs wired to inputs/outputs on an Arduino Uno 3) some software running on the PC, which talks to the Arduino (over serial / USB) and to the simulator (sending and receiving UDP packets).

Building the box

The box is made from offcuts of MDF (about 3mm thick), laboriously measured, cut with a saw and drilled with a Dremel. (To cut the slots, I drilled lots of holes in a row and used the Dremel’s circular saw attachment).

The sides of the box were epoxied together (with a little help from some scrap blocks of wood in the corners) so that the back section could be removed, and the gaps filled with ordinary DIY filler. I sanded the whole thing and painted it with a clear primer (to stop the MDF from soaking up the paint and getting a bit soggy) then painted with two coats of a satin black paint (in hindsight, I wish I’d used matt rather than satin as it shows up the imperfections more than I’d like). The labels were printed on my ordinary inkjet printer, white text on a black background & attached with a little spot of glue so that I can rip them off and attach new labels if I reprogram the switches to do something different.

Electronics

The panel has six switches, two linear potentiometers (I accidentally ordered audio ones, which are logarithmic, and had to work around this in the Arduino sketch code to convert to near-linear values), three 5mm red LEDs and three 5mm green LEDs (plus a resistor for each set of LEDs). Inside the box there is an Arduino Uno, a breadboard and quite a few jumper wires.

The USB port of the Arduino sticks out through a square hold in the side of the box. The Arduino is screwed to some chipboard (with some bubblewrap between the PCB and the wood, just to cushion the circuit a little.

The inside is rather messy. With hindsight I would’ve spent longer finding a way to make this a lot tidier and probably not needed the breadboard. In most cases, I ended up snipping a jumper wire in half, soldering one end to a component and pressing the pointy end into the breadboard.

I didn’t use all the ports on the Arduino Uno – if I made a version 2, I could probably have 6 more lights or switches and 4 more sliders, or possibly include a buzzer to serve as stall / warning indicator.

Arduino sketch code

This is the Arduino sketch that is currently running inside the control panel. In a nutshell, in a loop, it checks the state of each switch and writes a string to the serial port (really it’s serial over USB), which looks something like this:

A^ Bv Cv Dv Ev F^ P1022 Q1019

This indicates that switch A is up, B is down, etc. P and Q are the values of the sliders (from 0 to 1023).

The code also reads from the serial port to receive one of the letters U, D, R, F or N to indicate the current state of the landing gear in the simulator (Up, Down, Rising, Falling or No idea!). If the gear is up, the red LEDs go on, if the gear is down, the green LEDs go on. If it’s rising, the red LEDs are flashed, falling = green LEDs are flashed.

const int led_red_pin = 3;
const int led_green_pin = 2;

const int switch_1_pin = 6;
const int switch_2_pin = 5;
const int switch_3_pin = 4;
const int switch_4_pin = 9;
const int switch_5_pin = 8;
const int switch_6_pin = 7;

const int slider_1_pin = A0;
const int slider_2_pin = A1;

int switch_1_state = 0;
int switch_2_state = 0;
int switch_3_state = 0;
int switch_4_state = 0;
int switch_5_state = 0;
int switch_6_state = 0;

int slider_1_state = 0;
int slider_2_state = 0;

int inByte = 0;

const int GEAR_NO_CONNECTION = 0;  // alternate flashing both sets of LEDs
const int GEAR_DOWN = 1; // solid green 'D'
const int GEAR_UP = 2;  // solid red 'U'
const int GEAR_TRANSITIONING_DOWN = 3;  // flash green 'F'
const int GEAR_TRANSITIONING_UP = 4;  // flash red 'R'

int gearState = GEAR_NO_CONNECTION;

unsigned long time;
unsigned long lastReceivedTime;

void setup() {
    pinMode(switch_1_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_2_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_3_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_4_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_5_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);
    pinMode(switch_6_pin, INPUT_PULLUP);

    pinMode(led_red_pin, OUTPUT);
    pinMode(led_green_pin, OUTPUT);    

    // no pinMode required for analog inputs

    Serial.begin(9600);

    time = 0;
}

void loop() {
    if (Serial.available() > 0) {
        inByte = Serial.read();
        delay(20);    

        if( inByte == 'U' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_UP;
        } else
        if( inByte == 'D' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_DOWN;
        } else
        if( inByte == 'R' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_TRANSITIONING_UP;
        } else
        if( inByte == 'F' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_TRANSITIONING_DOWN;
        } else
        if( inByte == 'N' ) {
            gearState = GEAR_NO_CONNECTION;
        }

        lastReceivedTime = millis();
    }

    if( (millis() - lastReceivedTime) > 2000 ) {
        gearState = GEAR_NO_CONNECTION;
    }

    // note: read delays required due to issue with Arduino ADC timing.
    delay(20);
    slider_1_state = logToLin(analogRead(slider_1_pin));
    delay(50);
    slider_2_state = logToLin(analogRead(slider_2_pin));

    switch_1_state = digitalRead(switch_1_pin);
    switch_2_state = digitalRead(switch_2_pin);
    switch_3_state = digitalRead(switch_3_pin);
    switch_4_state = digitalRead(switch_4_pin);
    switch_5_state = digitalRead(switch_5_pin);
    switch_6_state = digitalRead(switch_6_pin);

    write('A', switch_1_state);
    write('B', switch_2_state);
    write('C', switch_3_state);
    write('D', switch_4_state);
    write('E', switch_5_state);
    write('F', switch_6_state);

    Serial.write('P');
    //Serial.println(slider_1_state, DEC);
    Serial.print(slider_1_state, DEC);
    Serial.write(' ');
    Serial.write('Q');
    Serial.print(slider_2_state, DEC);

    // switch_1 is avionics on/off and so is also an on/off switch for all the LEDs
    if( switch_1_state == LOW ) {
        if( gearState == GEAR_UP ) {
            digitalWrite(led_red_pin, HIGH);
            digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
        } else
        if( gearState == GEAR_DOWN ) {
            digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
            digitalWrite(led_green_pin, HIGH);
        } else
        if( gearState == GEAR_TRANSITIONING_UP ) {
            // time since last change..
            unsigned long since = millis() - time;
            if( since > 1000 ) {
                digitalWrite(led_red_pin, HIGH);
                digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
                time = millis();
            } else
            if( since > 500 ) {
                digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
                digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
            }
        } else
        if( gearState == GEAR_TRANSITIONING_DOWN ) {
            // time since last change..
            unsigned long since = millis() - time;
            if( since > 1000 ) {
                digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
                digitalWrite(led_green_pin, HIGH);
                time = millis();
            } else
            if( since > 500 ) {
                digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
                digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
            }
        } else
        if( gearState == GEAR_NO_CONNECTION ) {
            digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
            digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
        }

    } else {
        digitalWrite(led_red_pin, LOW);
        digitalWrite(led_green_pin, LOW);
    }

    Serial.write('\n');  

    delay(150);
}

void write(char c, int state) {
    Serial.write(c);
    if( state == HIGH ) {
        Serial.write('v');
    } else
    if( state == LOW ) {
        Serial.write('^');
    } else {
        Serial.write('x');
    }
    Serial.write(' ');
}

int logToLin(int a) {
    double x = (double) a / 1024.0;
    double y = pow(20.0, x);
    double z = y - 1.0;
    int b = (int)(z * 54.0);
    return b;
}

Note the logToLin function which I needed because I’d accidentally ordered logarithmic scale potentiometers rather than linear ones. The magic numbers you see in that function came from experimentation.

I found the Arduino serial monitor very helpful to watch what the box was sending over the serial port.

PC software

The code to send/receive UDP packets to/from XPlane is written in Java and based on XPDisplay but using the RXTX library for serial port communication. If I’m honest it’s a bit of a shambles at the moment and I’m hoping to rewrite it, so samples are available on request. :-)

Conclusions

All in all, this was an easy project to pick up for an hour, do a little bit, then put down again (which is important when you’ve got young kids). Although it’s definitely amateurish, the end result is better than I hoped for at the beginning, and as this was my first arduino project it was very much a case of discovering the right way to do things as I went along.

The total cost of materials & electronics was about £30 (from RS, Farnell, Oomlout):

  • MDF wood – scraps I had lying around, probably worth no more than £3
  • slide potentiometers – £1 each, so £2 – get linear ones, I got logarithmic (audio) ones
  • knobs for slide potentiometers – £1
  • switches – £1 each, so £6
  • LEDs – about 40p in total
  • Arduino Uno – £15
  • Epoxy glue – £2
  • Labels – nothing, printed on my inkjet printer
  • Paint – £3 for the primer & for the paint, probably used 50p’s worth.

Raspberry Pi serving HTML5 to the Kindle Touch

The web browser on Amazon’s Kindle Touch is capable of rendering HTML5 content and executing Javascript, which has given me the idea of using it as an external display for the flight simulator that I often play with. Tonight I installed apache on my Raspberry Pi and created a file in /var/www/test.html containing some basic html5 canvas code:

<html>
<head>
<script type="text/javascript">
function drawShape(){
  // get the canvas element using the DOM
  var canvas = document.getElementById('mycanvas');
  // Make sure we don't execute when canvas isn't supported
  if (canvas.getContext){
    // use getContext to use the canvas for drawing
    var ctx = canvas.getContext('2d');

    // Filled triangle
    ctx.beginPath();
    ctx.moveTo(25,25);
    ctx.lineTo(105,25);
    ctx.lineTo(25,105);
    ctx.fill();

    // Stroked triangle
    ctx.beginPath();
    ctx.moveTo(125,125);
    ctx.lineTo(125,45);
    ctx.lineTo(45,125);
    ctx.closePath();
    ctx.stroke();

    ctx.beginPath();
    ctx.arc(150,120,42,0,2 * Math.PI);
    ctx.closePath();
    ctx.stroke();

    // border canvas area
    ctx.beginPath();
    ctx.moveTo(0,0);
    ctx.lineTo(0,canvas.height);
    ctx.lineTo(canvas.width,canvas.height);
    ctx.lineTo(canvas.width,0);
    ctx.closePath();
    ctx.stroke();

    ctx.font = "3em Arial";
    ctx.lineWidth=2;
    ctx.strokeStyle="gray";
    ctx.strokeText("Hello Kindle", 100,300);
    ctx.strokeText("from the", 120,400);
    ctx.strokeText("Raspberry Pi", 100,500);

    var imageObj = new Image();
    imageObj.onload = function() {
        ctx.drawImage(imageObj, 350, 10);
    };
    imageObj.src = "http://techaxcess.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Raspberry-Pi.png

  } else {
    alert('You need Safari or Firefox 1.5+ to see this demo.');
  }
}
</script>
</head>
<body onload="drawShape();">
   <canvas id="mycanvas" width="560" height="580"></canvas>
</body>
</html>

I pointed the Kindle’s web browser at the IP address of the RPi & the page loaded nicely in the browser. Here is a screenshot:

Font sizes on the Kindle seem to differ slightly from those rendered by Firefox, but I can probably work around that.

RPi CPU load and temperature logging to Cosm

Here is a 15-minute recipe to get your Raspberry Pi logging data to Cosm.com, who provide a RESTful API to query the data and produce customized charts.

I use two scripts that cron runs every 5 minutes, one to log data to a CSV file, and another to upload the data to cosm, then delete the CSV file. That way, if my internet connection goes down for a while, the logged data is not lost. I have a copy of these scripts in a separate directory for each variable (‘datastream’) that I monitor, which makes it easier to manage.

CPU load

First, create an account on Cosm.com (it’s free & quick).

Now set up a new feed (a feed is a collection of datastreams; each datastream is a series of timestamped data points, aka a ‘time series’)

  • “+ Device/Feed”
  • What type of device/feed do you want to add?: Choose ‘Something Else’
  • Step 1 – Data: Choose ‘No, I will push data to Cosm’
  • Step 2 – Title: think of a relevant name for your feed, e.g. “MyDesktopPi”
  • Step 3 – Tags: give it any relevant tags that might help you find it in future (this is only really useful for public feeds)
  • Step 4 – Create. Make a note of the feed ID, we’ll use this later.

Once you’ve created a feed, you can add datastreams to it. A datastream represents a value that your Pi will monitor over time, like temperature or CPU load (or internet connectivity, washing machine activity, presence of your mobile phone on your LAN, etc..)

  • “+ Datastream”
  • ID: This doesn’t need to be numeric – you can enter something like ‘Pi_CPU_Load’. Make a note of this datastream ID too.
  • Tags: e.g. ‘pi cpu load’
  • Units: ‘Capacity’ – this is free text
  • Symbol: leave blank

At this point, your feed is public, i.e. anyone can view the current data. This may be fine, but if you want to change it, scroll down to the ‘Feed Status’ section at the bottom of the page.

Now, at the bottom of the screen click the green ‘Save Changes’ button. (this is an area of the cosm UI that needs work, IMHO, as you expect to find this button near the data that you’re editing..)

You can get back to the edit feed / add datastream page at any time by clicking the little cog icon on the right hand side of the feed name and choosing ‘edit’.

Now that we’ve defined our feed and datastream, we need to give our script permission to upload data to our Cosm datastream. This is done by generating an API key.

  • In the top-right of the cosm web page, click the ‘Keys’ icon.
  • Click the ‘+ Key’ icon, give the key a label (ID), e.g. ‘MyDesktopPi_UploadScriptKey’, and choose feed restrictions:’Use any feed (including my private feeds)’ and access privileges:’all’, then click ‘create’.
  • Make a note of the long alphanumeric API key string, as we’ll use that in a moment.

The last thing to do is to create the scripts on the Pi that will upload data to cosm.

Log in as ‘pi’.

cd ~
mkdir cosm
cd cosm
mkdir load
cd load

Install CURL
sudo apt-get install curl

Using your favourite text editor, create the file ‘log.sh’:
#!/bin/bash
####################################################
# Please customize these values appropriately:
LOCATION=/home/pi/cosm/load
#VALUE=$( uptime | awk -v FS="[, ]" '{print $18}' )
# alternatively:
VALUE=$( cat /proc/loadavg | awk {'print $2'} )
####################################################
TIME=`/bin/date -u +%FT%XZ`
if [[ "$VALUE" == "" ]]
then
VALUE=0
fi
echo "$TIME,$VALUE" >> $LOCATION/cosm.csv
exit 0

.. and save it. The line cat /proc/loadavg | awk {'print $2'} simply takes the second number from the /proc/loadavg file, which represents the 5-minute-average of the CPU load.

Create a file called ‘upload-cosm.sh’:
#!/bin/bash
####################################################
# Please customize these values appropriately:
LOCATION=/home/pi/cosm/load
API_KEY='your-long-alphanumeric-api-key-here'
FEED_ID='your-feed-id-here'
DATASTREAM_ID='your-datastream-id-here'
####################################################
COSM_URL=http://api.cosm.com/v2/feeds/$FEED_ID/datastreams/$DATASTREAM_ID/datapoints.csv
sleep 2 # gives any data logging scheduled at the same time a chance to run
echo $COSM_URL
curl -v --request POST --header "X-ApiKey: $API_KEY" --data-binary @$LOCATION/cosm.csv $COSM_URL
if [ $? -eq 0 ]
then
rm $LOCATION/cosm.csv
#echo "Would delete file now."
fi
#echo "Done"

.. and save that too. Exit the text editor, and make all the .sh scripts executeable with:
chmod u+x *.sh

(I’ll assume that you’ve changed LOCATION, API_KEY, FEED_ID and DATASTREAM_ID appropriately for your system)

The log.sh script will append to a file called cosm.csv every time it is run. You can try it now if you like:
./log.sh

To schedule these scripts to run, we edit ‘crontab’, a file that tells cron which scripts to run, and when. My favourite editor is called ‘joe’, yours might be ‘vi’, ‘emacs’ or another. The first line makes sure that crontab will use your editor to edit the crontab file:

EDITOR=joe
crontab -e

Append these lines to the end of your crontab file (leaving a blank line at the end):

*/5 * * * * /home/pi/cosm/load/log.sh
*/5 * * * * /home/pi/cosm/load/upload-cosm.sh

*/5 means ‘run every 5 minutes’. See this reference for more details.

Save the crontab file and exit your editor. Now you can either wait for five minutes, or simply run the upload script with:
./upload-cosm.sh

With luck, you should now be able to reload your Cosm.com page and see the data uploaded to your datastream as a chart.

CPU temperature

Simply copy the ~/cosm/load directory:
cp -R ~/cosm/load ~/cosm/temperature
cd ~/cosm/temperature

Edit the log.sh script, and replace:

LOCATION=/home/pi/cosm/temperature
# VALUE is in degrees celcius
VALUE=$( cat /sys/class/thermal/thermal_zone0/temp | awk -v FS=" " '{print $1/1000""}' )

This takes the 1st value from /sys/class/thermal/thermal_zone0/temp (in fact there is only one number), and divides it by 1000 to get degrees C (the raw value is in thousandths of a degree).

Edit the upload-cosm.sh script with your temperature datastream ID (update the LOCATION too), and add to crontab:

* * * * * /home/pi/cosm/temperature/log.sh
*/5 * * * * /home/pi/cosm/temperature/upload-cosm.sh

(I’ve chosen to record the temperature every minute, but upload the values every 5 minutes)

Note the daily variation, even though this is monitoring CPU temperature! I guess the Pi is in a south-facing room which warms up during the day, but I didn’t expect to see this so clearly. The dropouts/spikes that you see in the data are caused by occasional erroneous values returned by the temperature sensor.

If you find this useful, please post a comment indicating the type of data that you’re monitoring (and maybe the line of script that captures the data?).

Thanks for reading!

Dansette