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chris

DCC Automation

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Not sure this is a specifically out door theme, but it still seems like the best place on the forum to put it.

After my running session on Sunday, when I'd had 4 trains to play with, I started to think about what shape my DCC control should take. On the advice of a friend I'd plumped for NCE for my DCC system, investing in a PowerCab starter pack. I added a intermediate (slave) cab shortly afterwards as a cost effective way allowing two people to control at once.

These controllers allow me to control both trains and accessories (so far only points). This means I can stand in the shed and control the station area which is 10 metres away. Using a "Macro" feature I can throw several points with just one command, a route can be set, but it still takes three button presses to achieve (eg [Macro] [5] [Enter] ) and I started to wonder if there may be a better way.

I'd read somewhere that NCE did an accessory decoder which also accepted a push button switch so a point could be controlled by both. When I looked into this I came across their "Mini Panel". At a very basic level this can be connected to up to 30 switches and each of these switches can then be programed to just about any DCC function. A switch could throw a point, or set a route. It could sound a horn or switch in the lights. It can even start or stop a train. The switches could be on a "Panel" or they could be out on the railway detecting train movements. It's a very impressive bit of kit for £35!

Having got my head around the mini panel I then looked into the USB interface. I knew that I could add computer control to DCC, but I'd not really thought about how this would be helpful, at least not until I had all my points sorted for DCC control. I was expecting computer control to be expensive but JMRI is open source and free so my interest grew a lot. NCE's USB interface is only £35 so I decided that it was time to give both the Mini Panel and the Computer a spin.

But there did seem to be an issue. From what I could work out, with my PowerCab starter system both the Mini Panel and the USB interface have to be Cab 3, which would mean that they couldn't be used at the same time. I couldn't confirm this so I joined the NCE-DCC group on yahoo and continued my research. I soon came across this

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There is interesting way around the 4 throttle limit... Using the USB and computer throttles in JMRI software you can open several throttles on the computer, exceeding the 4 throttle limit. You would have three hand held and say four on the computer.

This was interesting, but trying to control 4 throttles on one computer screen didn't appeal. It was the next line that got me excited.

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And! they can be wireless iPhone throttles! Isn't technology wonderful?

Hold on a minute :idea:

I can use my iPod Touch as a wireless throttle :?:

This is too good to be true :shock:

But it's true. £35 for the USB interface and £5.99 WiThrottle and I have a wireless controller, in fact I'll have two, cos my iPad will work as well.

My order from Bromsgrove Models has already been dispatched and I'll leave the Mini Panel for now (i've spent that money on decoders for my Voyager). I hope we get some good weather over the weekend, I want play.

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Personally speaking I think I've let technology pass me by these past few years and once you do that it's damned hard to catch up again. I've seen what can be achieved with computer technology and it's influence on model railway operation and it makes you wonder where things can go next. As a non iPod or iPad owner I'm not aware of the possibilities that exist for their particular role in operating a model layout but certainly if you are able to use a hand-held iPod/iPad to issue commands wirelessly then it's clearly going to be a very exciting additional opportunity for you and one that I'm sure will add even greater interest to the running and overall operation of your layout.

Even armed with all the facts you've provided and the way in which you've carefully explained everything, I still feel like it's largely 'over the top of my head' but that's entirely down to my complete ignorance of modern technology and my unwillingness to keep up with the latest advances. I have a bog-standard Nokia mobile phone, bought for me 2 years ago, which was topped-up with an initial £10 credit and I still have £9 remaining credit on it which just shows how often I have used it.

However, don't let my ignorance deter you from documenting how all these pieces fit together and how it all works. I would like to gain a better understanding but I'll have to start at the very beginning if I'm to keep up.

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One of the things I love about Model Railways is the multiple aspects of the hobby. For some it's all about ready to run, others it's scratch building. Some build in a shoe box, we go for the garden. Some people get great pleasure from seeing their trains driving by, others have to run to a timetable. One of the big things for me is Command and Control.

I love remote control, I think computer networks are amazing, wifi blows my mind. I often wonder why as a teenager I choose to do a degree in electronics when I wasn't into computers, but I think it was probably the simple thrill of pushing a button here makes something happen over there.

DCC is completely my thing, clever computing and electronics controlling things that actually move, that gets me excited.

My USB Interface has arrived (excellent service from Bromsgrove Models by the way) and I can't wait to get it all set up and have a go at something I've wanted to do for over 20 years, drive a model train using a computer.

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Just realised that I will be able to sit here at my desk, look out the upstairs window and control my layout. Not sure exactly what functionality will be available on via the iPod throttle, but that doesn't matter because I can remotely control my laptop from my desktop computer so even if my laptop is in the shed I'll be able to run it from indoors 8-)

Sorry, I may be geeting a little carried away :oops:

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chris said:

Sorry, I may be geeting a little carried away :oops:

Far from it Chris, it all sounds really exciting and if that's your thing then most definitely go for it. I was into building computers some years ago, loved connecting them together and transferring information between them and so on. That was some time before it was made much easier by all this latest plug and go equipment. But then I became distracted by other things (mainly divorce etc..) and completely lost touch with the whole scene. I've been involved in building/operating websites for 11 years but my methods have never progressed from the basic HTML construction. You just get set in your ways!

I'd like to see what the PC can offer as an alternative or supplementary means of controlling a garden railway. I can get a usb PC connection for the Gaugemaster controller that I use and associated software so perhaps I'll take a look at a later date. Will enjoy seeing how you get on but I may need it explaining fully in order to be able to understand the logic behind it.

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I've just moved my first train using my computer :D

My trusty Northern Rail 153 test car moved about 2 meters and back within the shed :D:D

Also, with the MAcBook in the shed I can now keep you in formed as it happens.

Next iPod Control and then Accessory. Best get back to it.

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Space Bar = Emergency Stop :!:

Good choice, and worth knowing :oops:

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Managed to get the iPod Touch controlling my Voyager (but not my 153?).

One of the handy features of the iPod is that its case is made of metal so you can use it to short the tracks when a 100 odd quids worth of train is motoring towards a 1 metre drop onto paving slabs :oops:

Gonna have to work out where wireless control is appropriate and reliable.

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Congratulations on the first movement under computer control Chris. Bet that felt good!

chris said:

...One of the handy features of the iPod is that its case is made of metal so you can use it to short the tracks when a 100 odd quids worth of train is motoring towards a 1 metre drop onto paving slabs :oops:

As previously mentioned, I'm out of touch with all these iPods etc, but that sounds like a pretty good use for one to me :lol:

chris said:

...Gonna have to work out where wireless control is appropriate and reliable.

From what I've read elsewhere wireless controllers do have their drawbacks outdoors. I'm aware there are problems in bright sunlight but wouldn't have thought that would have been a matter to concern you today being, as you are, just up the road from me.

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All of that remote control sounds pretty exciting, Chris. I look forward to getting there one day! :)

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I thought it was time to describe my current DCC set up, but describing it is hard, so I've knocked up a picture.

587a47fcc8445_Screenshot2011-06-09at16_29_55.png.c75bd4d817a48b56c14bcf2addb8dbad.png

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That's a helpful illustration Chris, makes it so much easier to get a better understanding of how you're operating.

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Thanks Mick,

I'd previously had a couple of goes at writing an explanation, but I couldn't get it concise enough, so gave up. Then I had the idea of the diagram and I knew it would show things clearly.

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Hi all,

Sorry if this sounds a slightly stupid question, but I have seen lots of conflicting information online.

Can JMRI actually "drive" trains?

James :oops:

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Hi James and welcome to the forum, it's good to hear from you.

I don't know anything about computer control so I'll leave it to Chris to respond to your query as the JMRI software forms part of his set-up. Feel free to ask other questions while you're waiting!

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Hi James,

Great to have you on board, it's nice to have someone who will be doing similar things to me with DCC.

JamesRGR said:

Can JMRI actually "drive" trains?

Interesting question.

I'll answer it by explaining how JMRI works in my set up.

The PC in my shed has the JMRI software installed on it. When I'm running trains I use the "PanelPro" application (rather than "decoderPro") to control trains and points. I have entered all my trains (locos, DMUs, in fact everything with a DCC chip in it) in to the "Roster" and all the points have been added to the "Turnouts" table.

To drive a train I open a "Throttle" window. I then select a train from the roster, choose the direction and slide the throttle up to move the train. All the usual function buttons are available for the control of train lights and sounds. To stop a train I slide the throttle back down to zero. I can also use the keyboard with the arrow keys used to control direction and speed while the space bar is a handy emergency stop. If I want to control another train I can pick another loco from the Roster in that Throttle window, or I can open another Throttle window for the second train.

BasicThrottleWindow.png

A Throttle can be customised for a particular train (colour scheme, pictures) and then saved. This can then be saved as, for example, "Voyager Throttle" and rather than using generic throttles for any train you can have them specific for each of your trains. I've played with this feature, but not to the point of saving a Throttle for each train.

To control a train wirelessly I use the WiThrottle App which runs on an iPhone, an iPod Touch or an iPad. There are two versions of the WiThrottle, I have purchased the fully featured version for £5.99 which I run on both my iPod Touch and iPad, friends have installed the free version on their iPhone when they have come for a running session.

Before I can use the WiThrottle app I need to switch on the WiThottle feature in JMRI. Once done, a small window appears on the PC Screen which lists which iPods etc are connected to the system. With JMRI ready to play I can run the WiThrottle app and wirelessly connect up.

Once in WiThrottle I can choose a train by typing in its DCC number, or picking it from the "Recents" list. With the train "Set" I switch to the Throttle view and control the train using direction buttons and a speed slider. The screen also includes function buttons and a STOP button. It is possible to have two train throttles on the WiThrottle screen at the same time, but I find this rather confusing and things have had a tendency to wrong when I tried to use it.

So I can drive a train using JMRI and using WiThrottle. But going back to James' question, "Can JMRI actually "drive" trains?" Well if by drive you mean, on it's own, without any human interaction, can JMRI control my railway? the answer is no. I don't have any train detection on my layout so the computer cannot tell where the trains are and thus it would be driving blind. If I had train detection, could it do it? I don't know, I've not looked deep enough into that side of things.

The Throttle only controls the speed and direction of a train, where the train goes is controlled by the points and that is where JMRI become really useful. I'll write about how I use that soon.

chris

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It's a year since I wrote "I'll write about that soon." So better late than never.

Walking alongside a train controlling it with my iPod is cool, then changing the points on the same device is even cooler and the bonus is that its a lot simpler to change a point using an iPod than it is with my NCE PowerCab.

My PowerCab takes 4 or 5 button presses to change a point, which isn't ideal when you are in hurry, or you need to change 3 in quick succession. The system does have macros which can be programmed to set a route, this helps a lot, but there's room for improvement. With my computer system I have more control with a much simpler system.

All of the points (turnouts) are programmed into the system and listed in a table. With the table on screen all I have to do is click on a points Thrown/Closed button to switch the point. The table is neat, but not intuitive. A better way is to create a panel to control things.

A panel mimics a modern signal box, a graphical track layout is drawn on the screen. There is an Icon for each of the points, this displays which way the point is set. To change the point I click on its icon. To set a route I pass my mouse along the line I want the train to pass and click on any point that isn't set the right way.

To throw a point using my iPod (iPhone/iPad) I change to the turnouts view with a swipe of a finger and I'm presented with the list of points. The points are colour coded red or green depending on their thrown/closed state and to change one I tap on it. Very simple.

IMG_0011.PNG.963cb3f42857d3819da221f2eaa4b72c.PNG

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Controlling the points is one thing. But what you really want is route setting.

My NCE PowerCab has a macro function. A macro can be programmed perform several commands and their main use is route setting. Macro 1 could be set to change all the points so a train can depart from Colwick Platform 3. The only problem is remembering what each of the macros is assigned to do.

With my computer hooked up I don't have to worry about macros, I can set up as many routes as like, give them meaningful names, and all I have to do is click on that name in the list to set all the points in that route. "Colwick Plat 3 Dpt"—Click.

All the routes are listed in a table on my computer screen.

The routes are also available on my iPod. I can stand next to Colwick station with my 158 DMU sat in Platform 3. I call up the 158 on the iPod, tap the route Colwick Plat 3 Dpt, watch the points change, set the trains direction to Fwd and slide the throttle up. Once the train is clear I tap on Colwick Reset, to get ready for the next arrival, then set the route for arrival at Amblethorpe station or through the shed.

Getting this far has taken some time. I've been slow to get motors on points outside and route setting isn't so good if you still have to wander around to finish the job. But I'm basically there now and it's great to be able to hit a button and know that all the points are set correctly, all I have to worry about now is that there isn't already a train sat on the up main in the shed.

IMG_0013.PNG.b198bf81072a44253a879810b0548118.PNG

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In an earlier post I mentioned how I can use a panel to control points. Today I made some improvements to my panel by adding a background image with text and platforms shown. It now looks like this.

cr1.jpg

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