Thursday, May 26, 2016

Creating Wireless DMX Uplights

Hello World!
In the past 2 years or so, I have begun setting myself up as a sort of “DJ”, playing music and bringing a light show to parties for friends in the various congregations around town.  One thing that has been a bit of a roadblock was getting some uplights set up.  It seemed obvious that I needed DMX control, so that I can tune the colors to the d├ęcor of the event, and then once the dancing starts I can switch over to the beat controlled color patterns of freestyler.  I already have a nice DMX control setup in the PC I use to run the music.  But running wires takes a lot of setup time, and is not practical on the other side of a large room, or a pavilion.
However, wireless DMX hardware is normally not cheap, and uplights that are factory equipped with wireless hardware are either expensive, or underpowered, or both.  So I kept looking.   And looking…..
At one point I picked up a couple of high powered par LED lights by American DJ, (
Mega Tripar Profile ) and I love the coverage and the smooth color range.  However, I don't love the price!  So with those in mind, I went looking for a cheaper alternative that brings most of the quality along.  After much looking, I found these lights on Amazon.  “GBGS Super Bright 10W x 7 Led RGBW Par Light Dmx512 Led Par Can Stage Lighting For Wedding DJ Event Party Show” 
They are approximately 1/2 the price of the ADJ brand name lights.  They are a little bit brighter.  Their color mixing is as good.  The build quality is only slightly lower, and the one part that is weaker is a part I will soon be discarding.  This is the perfect find!   Now, to take these excellent DMX lights and make them wirelessly controllable.  I ordered one as soon as I could, and went hunting for the other components needed. 
Here is the parts list: 
The Light Fixture 
GBGS Super Bright 10W x 7 Led RGBW Par Light Dmx512 Led Par Can Stage Lighting For Wedding DJ Event Party Show”
The Voltage Regulator   MP1584EN,Honbay® 6 Pack MP1584EN ultra Small DC-DC 3A power Step-Down Adjustable Module Buck Converter 24V To 12v 9V 5V 3V
The Wireless DMX Board  
Wireless DMX512 2.4G Led Stage Light PCB Modules Board Transmitter Receiver
Plus a soldering iron, a hot-glue gun, some electronics wire, some drill bits, a multimeter, and assorted tools.
Optional extras: an old phone charger that outputs 5v, a small plastic box, and a cat sniffing around your workbench and getting in the way.
Before we launch into the gritty detail of the process, I will spoil the ending.  I got one and set it up.  It was so good that I immediately got a second one and made it wireless too, getting them built and tested a week or two before a 25th anniversary party I was scheduled to handle.  I used those two as color-coordinated uplights behind the couple’s table (matching the tablecloths and ribbons that the decorators were putting out) and it was FANTASTIC!  And when we shifted to various kinds of dance music, a click of a mouse brought them into sync with my other lights changing with the beat.  I hope my little write-up here will help somebody else to achieve this, my results have been better than I could have hoped for!  Now as I prepare to write this build guide, I have just ordered two more, along with voltage regulators and transceivers to go with them.

 

More to come after the parts all arrive:  check back in a week or so
Update:  7/24/2016, it took a bit longer than a week.  I actually did the upgrade not long after I wrote the initial post.  And it went great!  However time and repairs on house and car got in the way of blogging…….  So, now I will add in a few descriptions, and all the pictures I took during the process.

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Here is the Light Fixture I started with.  They are the GBGS ones I linked above.  Great Lights!!

The trim ring and the top cover come off with a number of phillips head screws.

 

< UNPLUG THE LIGHT BEFORE YOU BEGIN>

You will have to do power-up tests, so please be careful of live circuits and do not get shocked!

 

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And the cylidrical light diffusers simply lift out.  These can go back in any order, and their orientation is fixed by the shape of the LED on the board.  Simply turn them until they fit down over the LED.

A word of warning here.  These LED’s are REALLY BRIGHT!!!   If you look at them without the diffuser or even just turn it on while pointed at your head you will be seeing after-image for a while.  It hurts.

Unscrew the LED board from the housing and lift it out of the way.  DO NOT disconnect the cabling that connects the board to the circuitry below.

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Instead, just let it hang over the side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Now, Carefully plug the unit in and probe around for the 24v source.

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You can see the tips of my multimeter probes here.  This will supply the DC voltage to your power converter module.

Once you identify your power source, immediately unplug the light again.  DONT GET SHOCKED!

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I keep a set of electronics wire spools hanging from a shelf above the workbench.  22GA, stranded copper wire.  Nothing special, but really handy.  I used these to power my DC converter.

 

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screw your power leads into the 24V source, and then solder them into the input side of your convertor.  24 volts is the max input that these convertors can take, but most of the fixtures I have done this conversion on are 12v internally.  So we are good. 

 

You will now need to adjust the output of the converter board to be as close to exactly 5.00v as you can get.  Hold the tips of your meter into the outputs and use a small phillips screwdriver to adjust the small screw on the converter board.

It was a neat trick to take this next picture while holding the probes in place…..

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5.11v is probably close enough, I actually got it to 5.03v with some more fiddling.  That adjuster screw (potentiometer) is really touchy!

Next solder the power input leads from your wireless DMX board into those outputs on your converter board.

Find a spot to test fit your DC converter where it is out of the way, and then hot glue it there.  remember to leave enough slack in your DMX power leads to reach.

Then make a hole in the casing for the radio Antenna and mount the fitting.

 

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  At this point, you have 5v to your DMX board, and your antenna connected.  You can TAKE YOUR TOOLS AND FINGERS AWAY FROM THE HIGH VOLTAGE PARTS, and then plug the light in.  You should see the DMX board light up with a steady LED in one of its channel/colors.  Pressing the button on the DMX board changes it to a different channel/color with each press.  IMG_20160605_123522It will both send and receive depending on how you connect it.  If you put in a signal it will begin sending it.  If you don’t, then it will go into ‘receive’ as soon as it picks up a transmitter on its same channel.   In this case you will want to connect the White and Yellow DMX signal leads to the solder points on the back of the DMX-IN jack.  I programmed Freestyler to run the fixture before i started, using a normal DMX cable.  Then I was able to simply touch the signal cable to the solder points until I identified the right connection points.  I will cover the construction of the wireless DMX transmitter unit in a separate blog post.

Once soldered in and tested, remove the power and screw the DMX-IN jack back into its place.  Now you can experiment with the placement of the wireless DMX board inside the casing.  You will need to drill two holes, one for the LED to show thru, and one for the button to be accessed thru.

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My holes are less than perfect, but still they do the job nicely and nobody else will ever notice!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Here is the board, test fitted, working and ready for hot-glue to hold in in place.

 

When its running, and receiving, the DMX board LED will flash green.  I took a whole series of shots trying to get it showing the LED lit, at the same time as the main colors are running.  I never got that pic, but it does flash.  And the lights totally work!

 

 

Here is part of that series of pictures, shot during my final testing before reassembly.  I ran it thru a number of programs and changed the wireless DMX channel.  Its all good!

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And finally we have the finished product.  In the last image you see the antenna is mounted so that when the light sits on the floor on its rubber feet, the antenna is out of the way.  My plan is to use all 4 of these lights as ‘uplights’ on the floor.  I am considering removing the bracket completely, but that bracket does allow it to be tilted.   That bracket on the back of these lights is the only weak part of the design.  It is thinner metal than the “brand name” light from American DJ, and I’m not sure it would do good supporting the hanging weight of the fixture. 

 

Now, go make yourself some wireless DMX lights on a budget! 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Open Live Writer!

For Many years, the best blogging software around has been Microsoft’s Windows Live Writer.  Sadly Microsauce abandoned the software a few years ago.  They seem to have a habit of dropping the ball on things that are really good.  Like Live Mesh!

So, fast forward to 2016, I have installed Windows 10 on my machine and Windows Live Writer only barely installs.  Aaaaaand it cannot talk to Google’s Blogger platform anymore.  So it has become completely useless.

 

 

Yesterday I stumbled upon what looks to be a great solution!  Somebody has taken up developing Live Writer as an open source project.

Open Live Writer

Anyone who has any inclination to write a blog post should take a look.  It is working great so far!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Quadcopter.

      Some time ago, my job required the use of a “drone” to do some visual survey work.  Research for that project led us to the DJI Phantom FC40.   That project went off without a hitch, and the FC40 stayed with me as I gradually paid the company back for the purchase.  This thing was a great platform for aerial photo and video!

Here is is in its original configuration.  One photo is a stock pic from DJI’s website, and the other is from a night flight I did here at home.13H-DJI-Phantom-RTF-58G-With-FC40-2

original-fc40-night-flight_17238965534_oI ran the FC40 thru many recharges, picked up a second battery pack, and did some very cool flights into cloud cover.  When the FC40 disappeared from view, I had a reasonable certainty that its GPS system would be able to bring it back home.

From the beginning I viewed the FC40 as really fancy training wheels, knowing as soon as I flew it the first time that I was hooked.  More RC flight definitely lies in my future!

 

Here is a video tour of our yard from March 2015.  Pay no attention to the people in the driveway.

      

Notice tho, that I speak of the FC40 in the past tense….   That is not an accident.  In April of 2015, I had done some repair work on the FC40.  After some hard landings the legs were cracked, as was the body shell where the legs attached.  So I got new legs for it, a new body shell (which I painted red), and rebuilt it.     While I was at the rebuild, I also added a 2-axis gimbal so that my videos would stabilize and I would be able to tilt the camera down.

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   This image was taken as I rebuilt it, just a few days before the final tragic crash.  Note the gimbal hanging under it, and the altimeter mounted out front on a carbon-fiber and balsa outrigger.  This pic shows the red casing still open, as there was still some wiring to do.

 

   On doomsday, as I took it out for its first test flight since the rebuild, I had a stock battery in the compartment and the camera mounted to the gimbal for testing.  It was not filming however.  I wish it had been, I might have more of an idea what happened.

The FC40 lifted off from the ground, and hovered at about head height for a few minutes as I carefully tested the controls in each direction and worked the camera gimbal up and down a few times.   Seeming to have everything under control, I eased it into forward flight.  This is where everything went wrong.

The quadcopter suddenly went into full climb and took of to the south.  As soon as I saw what was happening, I pulled the mode switch out of GPS mode and back into “ATTI” (attitude control with no GPS).  This done I was able to turn it and begin bringing it down.  However, once it was turned to face back toward home it kept on coming full speed.  When it hit the side of the house, it appeared to be up on its side, as if it was trying to accelerate for everything it had.  The noise was horrendous, and I will probably never forget the sad slide to the ground.  Given the behavior, I had either a terrible GPS malfunction or the ‘Center of Gravity’ was way wrong.  Either way, I only had control over climb, roll, and yaw, but not pitch.  And climb control was not responding either right at the end.

    The wreck sat on a shelf for a couple weeks, while I just looked at it and debated with myself how to rebuild it.  Fast forward a month……

Meet the Phoenix.  Rising from the ashes of the smashed FC40, using the motors, props, camera, and batteries of the FC40.  And all the lessons learned…..

 

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   This new quadcopter has a much more advanced flight computer, a telemetry radio that talks back to my tablet,  and a Sonar module that gives it more accurate altitude readings than the onboard barometer.  The mast sticking up near the back is the GPS antenna and compass.

  The telemetry system is a USB module that can also plug into a computer, and it is with that that I do calibrations and programming of the flight controller.  When running on the tablet, it overlays the aircraft position on a google map, and displays a dashboard of flight data to the right.  The smaller screen (my phone) recieves the image from the FC40 camera, just as it did before.

 

   Still to come on this newly reborn quadcopter:   A 2-axis gimbal ( I still want stabilized video), and maybe a GoPro camera instead of the DJI unit.  

    The Sonar is still in test mode, and I am waiting on a software patch (for the flight computer) to come out before I do more than careful test flights in the driveway.  So far, it has flown once and had zero problems.  Once I get comfortable with it in this form, I may upgrade the motors and props to larger models that can lift more battery.  More battery = longer flights.  The frame I chose can take up to 12” blades, which should lift more than the current 9” set.

 

P.S.  Please don’t call them “Drones”!  That word scares people, and makes the media foam at the mouth.  Call these the more accurate term “Quadcopters”.   Anyone who is involved in the hobby could go on at length why the quadcopters are very different from the “drones” that the military uses. 

 

P.P.S.   For some entertaining reading on RC technology, check out the website for the flight controller I am using.   https://pixhawk.org/modules/pixhawk

Friday, January 30, 2015

“The Committee of the Whole” or “Parallel Processing in My Head”


I heard an interesting statement the other day.  In a discussion about marketing, the internet, and the changes happening over the last few years the concept came up of what really makes ‘ME’ an individual.  Marketing companies think they know who we are, and how to sell us things.  And certainly they can predict, on average, how people will react to this message or that.  But can they really target an individual, predict his tastes, his reactions to a given subject or situation?
The commentator stated, and I agree, that they cannot.  That it is impossible for anyone not riding around in your head to know what is really going on.
He used the phrase “The committee of the whole” to describe his perception of his own individuality.  His concept of himself was a hundred different ‘people’ in his head, each one specializing in a certain set of experiences.  He describes his sanity as the ability of all those ‘people’ to reach a consensus.  I found that it really resonated with my own concept of ‘ME’.  In my head are hundred of variable components of myself, superimposed over one another in a sequence based on the circumstances of the moment.  The resulting cacophony is viewed by the outside world as ‘Jason’.  Our brains function as pattern recognition machines, and each pattern adds to the mix up. 
Consider the factors that might add to a situation:  1:How you feel today,  2:Your relationship with your mom, 3:The weather, 4:How you feel about some family event that is going on, 5:The room is noisy, 6: Some weird smell drifted past just now, 7:Your wife just gave you the raised eyebrows of doom, 8:The music from what you watched on TV last night.  All these factors add up to a really simplistic view of the current situation, but it is enough to make my point.
We might be able to make some broad, general predictions of our own or others behavior.  But there is no way we can read somebody’s mind or heart and really tell what they are thinking.  We, as sentient individuals, are so radically different from one another that it amazes me we are able to agree on what the color ‘red’ is.  Each one of us has constructed our thought patterns from scratch, with no frame of reference except the instinctive sequential pattern recognition system that our creator wired into our brains.  That’s it….   Every other part of our thought patterns are derived from the environment and teachings that surrounded us from the moment our brain became active.  Who teaches somebody to make comparisons?  Who teaches somebody to be creative?  So many things we take for granted.  And yet we have agreed on the set of protocols that we call language, social interaction, etc. and it works!  We can live and work together with relatively little confusion.  That is amazing!
Stop for a moment and consider what trains of thought are running in your head right now.  Not the primary “read this strange article on this dude’s blog” process, but all the lower priority processes running in the background.  For example, in my head at any given time are my personal internal soundtrack  (star wars music, or Orf’s Carmina Burana, DaftPunk, etc.); a working model of the customers Cisco router that I just had to work on; the installation process for the computer parts I will likely have to install on my next service call; some material discussed at a congregation meeting last night; a way to modify my quadcopter to make it fly better; the road I will have to take in a few minutes to meet my boss and pick up the part to install on that next service call; why my spellchecker cant handle the word ‘quadcopter’; the slight ringing in my left ear from an ear infection; a joke my wife told me this morning; and currently moved to the front is the pile of ideas that are becoming this blog post.  All this stuff seems to be simultaneously running in parallel.
Sometimes we joke about ‘'’the voices in our heads’, and yet with all this stuff going on its all in my own voice.  Or at least those parts of it that have words.  Lots of things I think about in the abstract are more like 3d models with lots of moving parts.  But each 3d model, voice, or point of view is always clearly my own.
Yesterday when I first began considering all this the mashup of thoughts was completely different, and I wondered “with all this stuff buzzing round in my head, how can I ever concentrate on anything, solve any problems?”  I don’t have a clue…  Does every person in the world have this circus going on in their heads?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Suspension Bridge!


The Flying Plank RR is operational!
Most of the track is down, and in its final positions.  I still have some wiring do to, and some fine tuning on the track.  However, I can run a long train thru the whole layout without any drailments or odd behavior.
And (insert drum roll here) the suspension bridge is open for traffic!  It is made from roughly 600 Lego bricks, two blinking red leds, and several yards of 80 pound braided fishing line.  The cables (fishing line) actually support the weight of passing trains.  Before I tensioned the cables, a train would cause enough sag in the bridge deck to loosen the electrical contact with the track at one end.  Now, there is no movement on the deck at all.  The cables run underneath the layout, and are tied together below.  That way I can adjust the tension later on, or as the cables stretch out over time.  The cables on one end of the bridge go into the ground far too close to the tower, so I will be moving that back soon.  The blinking LED tower lights are powered by the track power circuit, so anytime the track is on, so are those lights.  As I wire up the lights in buildings, I will be adding a second circuit on a switch so that interior lights can be turned on and off.
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Now I move on to touch up paint, then trees and turf and some silly things I have in mind.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Flying Plank Updates:

Not much to say on this railroad update.  Lots of painting, carving foam, and making a gigantic mess in the garage!  However, the end result is looking pretty good.  Once I do some touch up, I can finally lay track for the last time, and run trains on it again.  Also the lego bridge is built and load tested!  With every locomotive I currently own sitting on it, it did not sag at all.  Once I released the tension on the cables, the bridge span sags a bit under its own weight, but it is stable enough until it gets permanently mounted and tensioned.  The marker lights on top of the bridge towers are installed as well, although not visible without their clear lego covers.
On with the pictures!

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Flying Plank RR gains a bit of color

    After much toil, sweat, and backing up to fix mistakes, the new layout is beginning to show progress.
This weekend I painted 1/4 of the area, including Mt Boulder.  The mountain is designed to lift off the layout easily in case of a derailment in the tunnels.  This seemed the most straightforward approach, and was kinda fun to build up.  The basic structure of everything is pink Foamular board from Home Depot, and cans of ‘Great Stuff’ expanding foam.  The spray foam was applied very carefully, and sometimes I used plastic sheets to cover everything I didn’t want to get foam on…
The middle layer is simply lightweight spackle compound you buy by the tub at any hardware store.  After that I used a coat of white latex primer and the spray cans of grey primer, rust primer, black primer, and a couple of different browns from a camouflage line of paints

Obviously, there is touchup remaining on this section, and some adjusting of track positions, but its good to see some progress after much tinkering.  I will have to restrain myself from applying grass, shrubs, and trees until the whole layout has been painted. 
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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro–The Best Headphones I Have Ever Used.

 

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   A few months ago, I was given an opportunity to rescue some headphones that had been used as part of an audio display at a big box electronics store.  I was surprised to find a pair of Sennheiser’s in the box.  They were a bit dusty, and the cord was a tangled mess, but I knew they at least deserved a chance.   The offer on the table was to pick one of the sets of headphones in the box, and let the others go on so somebody else could have a pair as well.  I immediately untangled the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and gave them a shot.

    To be fair, I have never owned a pair of headphones in this performance class.  So I had no idea what to expect.  Simply put, I was blown away.  The sound is crisp and detailed, while still having plenty of bass.    The sound isolation from the environment is near complete.  These are not noise cancelling, yet they insulate to the sides of your head to an extent that you may not need noise cancelling technology anyway.

     They do require more power than the el-cheapo cans I have used before, and anyone looking at going to this type of headphones should also consider grabbing a small headphone amp to go with it.  I am currently watching the market to find such an amplifier that I can afford.  A point of caution about this,  closed in earphones are more likely to cause hearing damage when cranked way up because all the energy from the driver is pointed right down your ear.  If you power something like this with too much juice, or crank the volume all the time, then expect to invest in hearing aids in the near future.  Instead, you should view the isolation from outside sound as an opportunity to enjoy the fine detail in your music without the need for eardrum shattering volume.  Adding more power should not be done simply to get the noise levels up, but should be done to improve the quality of the signal being rendered.

  The earcups are slightly angled and frankly, gigantic.  That is one of the best parts of the design.  They completely surround my ears, and hold in the sound quite well.  I can listen to whatever I want, and my wife seated at her computer next to mine cannot hear a thing.  They are circumaural, closed back headphones, and the cord (attached to the left ear) measures at 56” lying on my table.  The 380’s are not heavy, and only slightly bulky when wearing them.  Sitting at the computer, riding my bicycle, or outside working in the garage, I have not yet found an environment unsuited for these headphones.  I have been told I look silly, with big cans on my head.  I don’t care!  The sound quality is plenty to make up for any perception of silliness……

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These headphones also fold down fairly small, and Sennheiser sells a nice little flat zipper case you could store them in.  I have found that simply folding the earcups up against the headband allows them to sit in the corner of my desk and be totally out of the way.

The Final word is simply “Excellent”.  These headphones are a bit pricey, listed on Amazon for $135.00 as I write this review.  However, the next time I am looking to buy headphones, this is my starting point.  I never would have expected to own headphones worth more than $50 or $60, but now I understand.  I still do not believe that I would ever agree that headphones could be worth thousands, but with the HD 380 Pro at it’s price range, Sennheiser has made a believer.  And if the pair I got sound so good, and came to me as a used display model, how much better is a new set?

     That box of headphones rescued from the store display had two pair of Sony and one set of “Beats by Dr. Dre” cans.  I did give each of them a brief listen, but there was no contest.  If you are looking for headphones, these should be on your short list.  Near the top of that list.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Flying Plank RR Rises from the Ashes……

 
  Some time ago, I noticed that the wooden structure under my hanging train set was beginning to buckle under the load.  Once it became apparent that the condition was getting worse, then it was time to plan its replacement.  The previous design used 3/8 plywood on 2 2x4 studs.  The landscaping was made of a collection of whatever materials I had on hand, mostly blocks of wood and wadded up newspaper.  Add in some chickenwire, and a thick layer of plaster cloth and you get a lot of weight very quickly.  This heavy, patchwork construction was more than those 2 2x4’s could handle, and I was very nervous about walking under when it was retracted to the ceiling.  And the thought of parking under it to work on the car made me have bad dreams!  Looking around at thelayout from below materials available to me, and reading the blog posts and experiences of many other modelers, I quickly came to the conclusion that it would be best to use steel studs and foam boards.  Design took a little while, eventually leading me to use Google’s SketchUp tool to make a rough mockup.  The 3D models here turned out to be fairly close to what got built.  Its dimensions are 5’ x 8’, a little larger than the wooden layout from before.  This one will also eventually have side panels to provide a nice even trim/border.  That should look very nice when complete.


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    The differences from the final product are mainly the diagonal cross brace which was not needed, and the cable lift points that were moved outside the frame body on a couple long of pieces of angle metal.  I did find that putting forth the effort to make this model in the SketchUp tool really made me think about structure and load bearing and such.  I am not an engineer by any means, but I think this system will work out pretty good.  Once the basic steel structure was built, and the two layers of 1” foam board were glued onto it, I could still easily pick the whole structure up and hold it with one hand while moving my sawhorses around with the other.
    In the following pictures, you will note two types of foam in use.  The white foam ramps are Woodland Scenics 4% grade kits.  And the pink foam boards are 1” Foamular brand insulation from Home Depot.  So far the Foamular material is pretty easy to work with.  I have been shaping it with a small keyhole saw, and a “cheese grater” rasp of the type that is used by sheetrock finishers.  It should accept paint easily, and being able to carve and work the textures with simple hand tools makes this an art project as much as it is an engineering project.
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The track plan is pretty simple, 4 loops in a gigantic oval.  Most of the interesting bits of the track plan on this layout involve elevation changes.  The climb up the hills to the small town near the red trestle bridge, and (not visible yet) the elevated train station on the opposite side of the layout from the existing overhead station.   The other feature that will not be visible until well into the project is a suspension bridge!  Actually a “cable stayed bridge”, it will span 2.5 to 3 feet from the end of the ascent across the valley to the hilltop town.  Under that long span at ground level will be a small industrial yard and some container freight handling equipment.  The current plan is to build the bridge from a single piece of flextrack, and use balsa to build the bridge deck around it.  The weight of the bridge, as well as the weight of engines and rolling stock crossing it will actually be held by the cables, just like the real thing!  Very cool if it works, and still fairly nifty if it fails and I have to go back to the drawing board….


More pics later, as progress is made.