Review – Starman Electric Databridge Wireless I/O Modules
[30/09/2010 - Updated with radio licensing information at end of article]
Today we are going to have a look at some new wireless data modules that have just arrived on the market. They are the Databridge Wireless I/O modules from Starman Electric. Although there are many types of wireless modules out there, such as the discount 315 MHz units that are somewhat unreliable (well for me); and the great XBee series (as we used in Moving Forward with Arduino – Chapter Fourteen) – these Starman modules take it to the next level. How?
The concept of a databridge is a delightfully simple one. The two modules take the place of a wire. Digital, analogue, UART, even PC serial. No firmware settings to adjust, just plug them in and they work!
First of all, there are two physical types of unit, either DIP mount or SMD. The units below are the DIP version, 1mW output power:
The graph paper is 5mm square, and the module measures 53.85mm by 25.91mm. The DIP packaging (above) is meant for experimenters and prototypes, you can order SMD versions for production runs. There are also two power-output versions, 1mW with a theoretical range of 1km, and a 100 mW with a range of 4km. The higher power modules require the use of an external antenna. They require 3.3 volts DC, with a peak current draw of 37mA for the 1mW, and 120mA for the 100mW. For demonstration purposes I am using a Texas Instruments LP2950 to provide 3.3 volts DC at up to 100 mA.
Although the specification sheet is quite long (and you can download it from here) there are a few features that really stand out, including:
- Automatic connection – a pair of modules will ‘lock’ onto each other without any extra work by the user;
- A very high sampling rate of 200 samples per second with a latency of five millisconds;
- Spread-spectrum radio operation – the modules will skip frequencies themselves for reliable connections;
- You can have sixteen unique pairs working in the same area without cross-interference;
- You can have two analogue channels and multiple digital channels simultaneously.
But enough talking, time to put them to the test. I will recreate some examples found in the Getting Started manual available for download here.
As I only have one pair of modules, and somehow I think my neighbours won’t be using any at this point in time, there is no need to set the pair’s unique network ID. However you do need to specify the master and slave in the module relationship (no switches…), which is done with pin 4 – to Vcc for master, and pin 4 to GND for slave. Now on with the show!
The first example of interest is number two in the guide – the wireless digital and analogue I/O bridge. To me this seems like an interesting wireless “repeater” to some Arduino analogue and digital outputs. Here is my test schematic used for the demonstrations in this review:
… and my usual messy breadboards:
Well this is a temporary test! The slave module board is running from a 9V PP3 battery so I can take it for a walk.
Anyhow, the setup is – four digital out lines from the TwentyTen Arduino-compatible board, which are either high or low (+5v or GND). These are connected to pins ‘digital signal’ 1~4 on the master Databridge. Furthermore, TwentyTen analogue pin 1 went to the Databridge ‘analog signal’ pin 1. At the slave side of things, there are four LEDs with current limiting resistors connected to pins ‘digital signal’ 1~4; and two wires each from ‘analog signal’ 1 would be connected to a voltmeter. The digital output pins on slave modules default to ‘high’ unless driven otherwise.
Finally, there is also an LED and current limiting resistor coming from pin 32 of each unit – the ‘link’ pin. The link pin is a lifesaver. Here is a great feature – when the pair of units are within range of each other and matched as a pair, link goes high (3.3V). Out of range? It goes low (0V). Therefore you can test the range on these modules just by powering them up on a breadboard each, with the LEDs on pin 32, and go for a walk with a unit. When the LED is off – you’re out of range. And when you come back into range, the modules reconnect automatically.
Back to the test. First I just created a loop which turned the digital pins on and off, and the matching LEDs on the slave unit blinked on and off as expected. No extra code, no trying to create wacky functions to multiplex/demultiplex signals – this just works. The modules are like an invisible bunch of wires between two points. Never has anything wireless worked so easily for me.
Here is a quick video clip, first notice the lonely LEDs on each breadboard – the are the link LEDs. When I power cycle the master or slave, notice how quickly they reconnect. Please note that the slave unit retains the state of the digital outputs if connection is lost. So if a pin is high while connected – if the module loses radio contact, the pin will stay high.
The theoretical maximum working range is quoted as 1km for these 1mW modules. My indoor test allowed a distance of 11 metres, with three concrete walls of a thickness of ~110mm in between. Unfortunately living in my area I could not find a flat, open area large enough to test the maximum open-air range – however considering the indoor ‘concrete wall’ test and my experience with other wireless equipment of this power output, it would be accurate in an outdoor, line-of-sight application. As always, conduct your own real-life tests before making any project commitments and so on.
And as always, I was curious about the current draw of the units while in use. The master module with the link LED on measured 53 milliamps, with the slave at the boundary of the radio range:
The current use only dropped around 2 or 3 milliamps when the slave was next to the master. The slave module used 59 milliamps with the link LED on:
Therefore taking the LED current draw into consideration, the power usage of these modules is quite low considering the level of communication between them and the high sampling rate.
The next test was to see how the analogue data lines performed. According to example four in the Getting Started guide, the modules will reproduce an input of between 0 and 2.4 volts DC. So I have placed an 11k ohm resistor in series with a 10k ohm potentiometer with analog input 1, and measured the resulting output from the slave. Notice how I still have the digital data lines in use while using the analogue line. Here is a short clip of this in action:
Amazing – a multitasking wireless module. Note that you could always use an op-amp to boost the output voltage back to the 0~5V DC range, an example of this is on page nine of the Getting Started guide.
Those above were but two from the many possibilities available when using these units:
- wireless serial data links
- remote on/off control of six items
- robotics remote control
- microcontroller I/O wireless extension…
Frankly – if you need to wirelessly connect more than one data line simultaneously, you have an excellent solution with the Databridge modules.
Update! – Radio licensing information:
These modules operate in the 2.4 GHz ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) band. For those in the USA, the Databridge is an FCC-approved “class B” device, and is only for use by OEM integrators (see page 16 of the datasheet.pdf). Starman Electric also state that the Databridge is certified for Canada and the EU (ETSI).
For those here in Australia, these units are operated under the conditions of the Radiocommunications (Low Interference Potential Devices) Class Licence 2000, and I feel are classed as “spread spectrum unit” under the preceding license.
Please conduct your own research with regards to radio transmitter licensing in your area. Furthermore, please read the tronixstuff “boring stuff” here.
But enough about that, where you can get them?
Australian customers can purchase these modules from our local distributor - Interworld Electronics; North Americans and the rest of the world directly via Starman Electric.
Remember, if you have any questions about these modules please contact Starman Electric via their website.
Otherwise, have fun, stay safe, be good to each other – and make something!
[Note - these wireless modules were loan units received from Starman Electric for review purposes]