Heartbeats and not melting solenoids

One of the most worrying problems with pinball systems is that your software will crash, hang, or fall into some horrible infinite loop that leave a solenoid on long past it’s duty cycle, resulting in a nice melty pile of goo.

So what can we do about it? Well, first we need to identify the cases that are likely to result in a locked coil.

1) A variable hold solenoid (such as a diverter or magnet) is on and the C# controller crashes. The arduino doesn’t monitor these solenoids (as we can hold flippers forever!) so bad things can happen. Luckily only a few of these solenoids aren’t full duty cycle.

What we need to know here is if the C# controller is still alive. To do this the arduino watches for heartbeats in the solenoid line. If the PC misses 10 heartbeats (about one second of non-stop failures) the arduino will shut down all power to the pinball machine and wait for a “Power on” signal before continuing.

2) Something goes horribly wrong in the arduino code, while a solenoid is active. This can happen to any solenoid, momentary or otherwise; so this one is a bit scarier.

The solution is however nearly identical to the previous. The C# controller monitors the heartbeats from the arduino and if it doesn’t see any for a long enough period (about 1 second) it uses serial to force a reset. This is possible due to the mega’s 2 chip design, where the serial montior chip is able to watch for the reset command and pull the reset pin on the main ATMega. This case does not however handle a case where the serial monitor chip fails; though this is hopefully a rare case.

3) A transistor shorts.

It’s possible to solve this with hardware but I took the “Use really big transistors that can take the abuse” route instead. A later design may include the ability to detect the state of all transistors and cut power if one is bad, but that’s a lot of engineering for a fairly rare problem.

The heartbeat system itself is fairly simple. There is a timer on the arduino that sends the e_HEARTBEAT signal every 100 ms. When the C# controller gets this signal, it sends it back. This allows the C# side to know if the arduino is dead (No heartbeats being sent) and the arduino to know the same (How many heartbeats we’ve sent since the last time we got a response), which is hopefully a fairly durable system.

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