CR Control Systems produces marine lanterns for navigation purposes. Their lanterns can be mounted on floating buoys or marine structures, and provide bright LED lights that flash in unique patterns as required by the customer’s application. The lights can be powered by batteries that are charged with solar panels for remote and floating buoy installations. As a small company, they do not have permanent engineering staff, so they came to MSRK Design to provide updates and extensions to their product lines.
Some of the completed and ongoing projects are:
• Develop circuitry and firmware to enable programming of their lanterns via a standard TV remote control, and the ability to retrieve diagnostic information from the installed device.
• Replace an obsolete microcontroller with a more capable device and reduce the cost of the overall design.
• Develop circuitry and firmware to protect the battery from overcharging by the solar panel.
• Replace an obsolete LED driver with a newer device that is less expensive and more capable.
• Develop circuitry and firmware to provide RF synchronization of the flashing pattern between several lanterns.
• Respond to unique customer issues and special installation requirements.
An Ongoing Engineering Arrangement:
With the number of projects that needed to be pursued and a limited budget for engineering, MSRK Design agreed to act as a part-time engineering staff to CR Controls. Instead of quoting and invoicing each project individually, a monthly retainer is paid to MSRK Design. This allows CR Controls to set and change priorities for the projects, and pay a fixed cost per month. MSRK Design can seamlessly move from project to project, and work on several projects simultaneously so that progress is being made on all of them, instead of sequentially. CR Controls gets the benefit of having multiple experienced engineers available as needed, without paying for even one fulltime employee.
IR Remote Control Technology:
The marine lanterns have hundreds of flash pattern codes that need to be programmed on a unit-by-unit basis. The programming may need to be changed while installed, so it is desirable to not open the buoy or attach cables to the unit. Infrared technology is inexpensive and adequate for signaling the lantern, and the lantern itself can respond with flashes of light to complete the communication system.
MSRK Design selected the IR sensor, added the circuitry to the schematic, and specified the pcb layout for the hardware. MSRK Design worked with CR Controls to invent a programming protocol that used a standard TV remote control as the sending unit and the lantern light as the response. Then MSRK Design selected the specific Cypress PSoC controller and developed the firmware to implement the IR Remote Control System.
In addition, MSRK Design added other commands for diagnostic information, such as reading the battery voltage, reporting the flash pattern number, and the flash intensity setting. These features enable the customer to periodically check on the unit’s operation from a nearby boat.
Cost Reduction, Obsolete Component Replacement:
The original design used a PSoC from Cypress to control the lantern. The cost for these parts drop every year for a while, but then begin to rise as other customers change their designs to use newer parts and the overall volume drops. The original design had an external EEPROM to store the information for the hundreds of flash patterns, and an external dip switch to select the desired pattern.
Since the IR Remote Control project enabled a new way to program the flash pattern, we took the opportunity to select a PSoC with a larger internal EEPROM and eliminated both the external EEPROM and the external dip switch. The resulting design was not only more capable, but significantly less expensive than the original.
A similar opportunity for cost reduction occurred with the LED driver. The original component was obsolete and becoming more expensive. Alternatives were explored and a newer part was selected that is both better and less expensive.
Solar Charging Technology:
The LED lanterns used in CR Control System’s buoys are very efficient, yet offer visibility up to 6 miles. The solar panels included in the lanterns need to be large enough to charge the batteries even on cloudy days. But if they are too large they can overcharge the batteries on sunny days, which can damage the batteries. So MSRK Design was retained to develop circuitry that monitors and manages the solar panel and the battery charging process.
RF Synchronization of Lanterns:
If multiple lanterns are deployed in close proximity, it is desirable to synchronize their flash patterns so that at a far distance the flash pattern is distinguishable. The original design used wires between the lanterns to synchronize their flashes; this is difficult to install and limits the distance between lanterns.
MSRK Design was asked to develop an RF synchronization option for the lanterns that could be more easily deployed. Various RF technologies were explored, including GPS, and an architecture for an inexpensive system was developed.
CR Control Systems was able to update its product line without hiring a fulltime engineer. The newer products are substantially better, offer more features, and are less expensive to produce. And CR Control Systems is in a position to continue to respond to market demands by having a trusted group of engineers at its disposal.
According to Bob Seidler, President of CR Control Systems,
“As a small company we can’t afford to retain full time engineering staff for our various needs which include optics, electronics hardware and software and mechanical design. We contract with experts in each field to build long term relationships. When specific projects come up, we use our network of consultants to help us conceptualize, develop and design to completion our products. When we determined we needed electronics hardware and software services, we contacted and evaluated about seven different consulting firms. We found in our conversations and communications that MSRK “got it” when it came to understanding our technical as well as our financial limitations. We were able to break the project down into smaller sections by prioritizing our actual needs and came up with a timing and budget plan that works for us. We couldn’t be more pleased with the communications, the attentiveness, and the expertise of the MSRK staff. Their product support has been impressive. We wish we had found them sooner.”