OK train people, I haven’t written much about model trains recently, but this Kickstarter project is very interesting. Basically, this small board which would be added into the model locomotive would enable you to control your trains via a Bluetooth device such as an Apple or Android phone.
As much as other hobbies have advanced over the years, model trains have gotten a bit stuck. Or maybe we should say “derailed”? Anyway, the trains are still, for the most part, controlled via power and signals over the track. This is often called driving the track instead of driving the train. While DCC helps with that, it still relies on the track for the power and the computer signal to reach the train. The goal everyone would like to get to would be for the track to be support only, as they are in real life, with power and controls coming from the locomotive itself.
I was browsing the web looking for examples of NTrak modules, the standard for small N scale modular model railroads, when I came across the website of the Piedmont ‘N Southern club out of upstate South Carolina. While there is a lot of good NTrak information there, what got me really interested in their site was the detailing of their setup. They have some pretty extensive documentation with pictures of the DCC equipment they use including Digitrax, JMRI, and yes, even JMRI running on a Raspberry PI.
To quote the website, they use the “RaspberryPi as an access point and JMRI computer. To simplify the use of JMRI and WiThrottle, we have a tiny RaspberryPi computer which runs JMRI, and also acts as a WiFi access point. So our members can simply turn on main power, and the RPi will startup and load JMRI. Within 2 minutes, members can connect and start running trains from their devices. The RPi has no screen or keyboard, so it can stay nicely out of the way in the electronics box.”
Interesting stuff, and I definitely need to go see it all in operation some time soon.
So after following a few pointers, I came across the Michael Blank’s SimpleDCC site. The cool thing about this is that he is using an Arduino as a DCC control unit without something like the SPROG as in interface. He is have the Arduino itself send out the DCC signal alone with a booster to power the trains. I need to study both his interface and the programming some more, a lot more, but it really does hold out the hope that I can either use just the Raspberry Pi with an Arduino, or even just the Pi all by itself, to be a complete JMRI/DCC controller.
Guess what I really need to do too is dig some more into the JRMI code and the Linux installation. I don’t know whether it would be easer and faster to use the Arduino hooked up to the Raspberry Pi to do the translation to DCC, or whether I should have the Pi do that also. Another consideration that starts to come in is the speed of that entire process. But then again, that is what experimenting is there to find out.
My mind is turning in odd ways – thinking of using something like this connected to a Rasperry Pi (cheap small Linux computer) running JMRI and wireless. That could then be controlled remotely using VNC and also support iPhone type based throttles. I already have the Raspberry Pi that I got from Element 14 and all the other components I believe – except one. I am missing a way to convert the computer signals to DCC. There are products on the market to do that, such as the SPROG or more appropriately for me, the SPROG Nano, or I could even use an interface to my Digtrax Zephyr system, but that seems like cheating.
Plus, I want this to be as small and compact as possible. What I would really like is to be able to bundle everything together in a small box not much bigger than an entire normal DC or DCC powerpack. About twice to three times the size of the Raspberry Pi alone. So maybe 3″ x 2″ x 6″ or so? Guess that wouldn’t include the power supply I am going to have to run to it. It will need power to power up the Raspberry Pi, the USB interface, and of course the actual boost of power for the trains themselves – looking to hit about 2.5 amps.
I am going to diagram this, and my proposed case, and post it soon. [ed: and here it is!]
Yes, I was thinking about all this last night when I should have been sleeping.
Not that I have any involvement with the development at all, but just wanted to make sure that folks know there have been big strides in updating JMRI – the free, open source computer interface to DCC for model trains.
First of all, the manual for version 2.14.1, which was the most recent version before yesterday, has been completed. You can find that newly completed manual at the JMRI site.
Secondly, the folks doing all the hard work have announced that the new version, JMRI version 3.0, is ready for primetime and has been released. You can read the release note, see what has changed, and access the downloadable code on the Release Notes for JMRI 3.0 page on the website.