One of the least appreciated aspects of our hobby (by those outside it) is the opportunity to expand your knowledge and experience into areas that simply hadn't crossed your mind.
For us controlling trains on your "Model Train Set Railway" soundly fell into that category. With both of us having a rudimentary understanding of electricity (management more so than me; she's the smart one), the wiring and potential issues with signal data and power being pushed through hap-hazzardly fabri-cobbled together birds nest of wire didn't cause much concern. Generating those signals did in the first place did. We're both a little old fashion in many senses, and bought (again back when the board were being made) into a system which seems solid, functional, simple. We bought one of these:
Actually (and this is whole different story), her old loft space did have a quite sizeable Train Set installed and in reality the Prodigy Advance 2 was bought for this with two handheld controllers and a booster pack too.
Now this system worked well enough for us at the time and once the move to consolidate our assets had been negotiated and approved (thanks to a trip in the West Somerset Railway), this controller and its accessories came along too. "Sorted", I thought, "One less thing to worry about".
However, if truth be told, both of us found the use of the system a little cumbersome, and once Lyghtondown had reached the "functional testing" phase (i.e. lets play trains) these little issues seemed to grow. Thinking back, the fiddly nature of the system was far less apparent in her loft because the layout was so much bigger: the time spent driving the trains about was much larger than the time spent setting points, selecting a loco and moving away. With Lyghtondown the journey time from the traverser to the station is best measured in seconds than minutes (even at a realistic pace), and so it now it took much longer to set things up for the next train than it took the train to move. Suddenly we're not "playing trains", we're primarily playing with technology. Not what we wanted.
It was about this time that we felt that joining the local club would be appropriate, we'd been to a couple of their local shows (very good), and thought to show our faces. We got a very warm welcome, and in that frenzied bout of questions during that first evening ("What scale do you model?" "DC or DCC?" etc) a young chap (younger than either of us) called Gary (BlueLightening) said something like "I use and Arduino and some software".
There was some dumb struck awe at that point. Was that even possible?
As I guess everyone here is aware, this is of course eminently possible, and indeed really not that difficult. I think it took a week to order the necessary parts and find the right software to drive it (JMRI), some fiddling to get the DCC++ sketch operating. I'm an old hand at programming and computers but this micro-controller stuff was all new to me. So here is our trail blazing Arduino, now in standby mode as I've accidentally bought a few more :
We took our lead from Mr Heath-Robinson and cobbled this together with a small 15 volt power brick from some defunct piece of kit that had long since made it to recycling and, amazingly, it worked! An old laptop furnished the computer power to run JMRI being installed on top of Linux. Further investigation of options available in JMRI found the "Wifi Server" and suddenly a couple of old smart phone became mobile controllers.
Several things quickly came to notice:
- The Phone interface is cool (to us at the moment) and being wireless is great, but not necessarily faster in use than the Prodigy kit. This, though, is a function of which Application you use to make the connection to JMRI, and so is subject to change and update, unlike the Prodigy kit.
- The speed control though the phones was much smoother and lost some of the "stepiness" that seemed apparent with the Prodigy system.
- You don't have to remember the numbers of things any more
We might have gone over the top a little, but seeing that we were going to stay with the Arduino based solution, it made sense to build something more .. permanent. So we built this:
We built the box under the stand. It features:
- Mains powered (fused at case socket)
- Red 240v LED to indicate supply on
- 15 volt 4 Amp switch mode power supply
- 4 Amp breaker on output of PSU
- Volt and Amp meters giving output of PSU
- Switched supply to Arduino motor shield
- Green 15v LED to indicate supply to the Motor Shield
- Arduino with 4 Amp Motor Shield installed
The analogue meters were surprisingly expensive given that a combined digital one was about half the price. Sign of the times I suppose. The old Compaq laptop (and that name gives away its age) serves this purpose well, and generates its own Wifi network, so we don't have to try and work through the house one (two floors down). The only downside really is that the laptop battery has long since retired from active service, so pulling the power on it will turn it off quite quickly.
As I said at the start .. an opportunity to learn new things.
Having grasped some of the possibilities of the of the Arduino loads of ideas bubbled up. More of those another time.