From The Workbench – Products in Development

Michael and I have this concept called INYAP.  Between our day jobs, personal lives, ISE, and our hobbies, we both have very busy existences and often finding room to mature a project idea into a product is difficult.  It stands for “I Need Yet Another Project,” said with every bit of sarcasm that you’d expect.   It’s the stock response whenever one of us comes up with some interesting project that we want to tackle, but don’t quite know where to fit it in.  It can be roughly translated as “that’s a cool idea, but I’d need to be an insomniac with 27 hour days to actually get it built.”

However, every now and then, something is just compelling enough to make it through the INYAP stage and become a prototype.  If the prototype tests out and seems like something other people might use and can be manufactured at a price point we think they might pay, it might mature into a product.  I wanted to take a moment to share a couple of the new products we have in the pipeline here at ISE.   These are things that have escaped INYAP but you won’t find in the web store just yet.

Reflective IR Sensors

(Note: this effort has since developed into a real product: CKT-IRSENSE)

We already offer two varieties of current-sensing DCC block detectors – the MRB-BD42 and MRB-BD4X – but sometimes you need to sense the presence of a car or locomotive at a specific point on the layout.  For that, nothing beats a reflective IR sensor mounted facing up through the trackwork.  These work by shining an infrared signal, much like a TV remote uses, upwards from below the benchwork.  If it reflects off something nearby, the signal is then picked up by a receiver and the occupancy detector triggers.  By carefully controlling the brightness of the IR light, it’s possible to vary the sensitivity from fractions of an inch up to several inches.  Also, by sending a specific signal out that must be received, it’s possible to make the detectors extremely immune to external interference, such as from room lighting.

I’ve had a couple projects come up now where such a sensor would have been handy, so I started playing with designs for one.  The initial boards we got back about a month ago didn’t work – too much interference was coupling from the transmitter to receiver.  So, we made a few slight modifications (specifically going to a 4-layer PCB, so there are two power planes shielding the transmitter signal from the receiver), sent off for more, and built a few.  There are still a few bugs lurking, but we’re working through those issues.

The detectors are an integral unit that takes 5-12VDC for power and provides both an open collector and 0-5V logic level output.  Sensitivity is controlled via a small 11-turn potentiometer on the back end that can be adjusted with a flathead jeweler’s screwdriver.  There’s a handy red occupancy LED on the back end so you can see when you have it set just right.  The board is roughly 0.26″ wide by 2.5″ long, and so, with the heat shrink, you’ll probably need about a 19/64″ hole.

Have a use for one?  Want to try them out?  We’re looking for a few beta test customers.  Just email us or post a comment on this blog entry, and we’ll pick four winning entries and send you free samples of our new IR sensor when they are ready.  The only thing we ask is that you give us feedback about what does and doesn’t work well, and work with us to iron out the kinks.

Simple Audio Player

Note: this effort has since developed into a real product: CKT-SQUEAL

Note #2: this effort has subsequently turned into a discontinued product…  sorry.  Too little customer interest, and too much of a pain to build.  We may still have some boards and parts – contact us if you’re interested in a custom build.  But see paragraph #1 first.  🙂

Our second “product in progress” is our upcoming audio player.  At this point it’s just a prototype – I literally just ironed out the last missing feature in the firmware a few minutes ago.  The player is designed to take four logic-level inputs and – based on either edge or level triggering – play a corresponding WAV file from a micro SD card.  You can have up to 255 different sounds for each of the four inputs, and it will randomly select one each time it gets triggered.  Or, you can have just one sound on an input, and have it loop continuously as long as the input is active.  It comes with both a line-level output for connecting to powered speakers and a built-in speaker amplifier capable of driving a 4 to 32 ohm speaker.

As an example use, you could combine it with a couple of the IR detectors above to help bring a signaled grade crossing on your layout to life.  The trigger could play a crossing bell WAV file in a loop as long as the IR detectors sensed a train near the crossing, and you could use the same sensors to trigger an additional circuit for animating the lights and gates.

Because it’s based on standard WAV files and a micro SD card, you can easily provide your own sounds.  It’s as easy as converting them to a WAV file – possible with many freeware tools on many platforms – and copying them to the drive.  Configuring randomization and level/edge triggered playback is also done through files on the card.  The other advantage is that if you ever change your layout, it’s extremely easy to reprogram and use for a different application – no more being locked into the same sound for life!

We think sound doesn’t have to be expensive!   The exact price on this isn’t fixed yet because it’s still just a prototype, but we’re confident at this point that we can bring it to market with a retail price around $30.

Here’s the prototype on my bench as I was working through bugs:

We should have the PCBs and stencils any day, and will then build the first real boards.  Watch the blog for the official announcements of both these and other new and exciting products!


  1. I have similar interests to yours in designing and building railroad control and signalling systems.
    At present the project is a CTC system emulating a specific live railroad of about 40 years ago. It used relays etc while I am working with microprocessors. The total design of course is my intellectual property and likely not applicable to a general scheme.
    As part of the project I have designed and prototyped:
    1. A six servo slow motion control for 6 semaphore signals, but could have application for yard turnouts or combinations, no adjustment of throw but set to 90 degrees.
    2. Loco position display for up to 64 layout locations to drive the CTC track display board. That is 64 block occupancy detectors sited round every 2 to 3 meters of track. Sending back to a receiver on the CTC board when the occupancy changes.
    3. Not prototyped yet but designed. A realistic slow and stop for DCC power. The models are ‘O’ gauge and look ridiculous when stopped by cutting off power so I am trying a PIC controlled PWM application of the DCC power to reduce or increase the speed. It may not work yet but I can envisage a system where the train could be slowed of started at will round a layout, using magnetic sensors, to start slowdown , control of the the DCC track power and a photocell to stop at the turnout or station. Much work to do yet though.

    This may be of interest to you, please send a reply email either way,

  2. I like the idea of the continuous looping WAV file. I would like to add the sounds from a grain elevator to the model. In real life, they can be quite noisy places.

    1. Should be easily done with a long enough sample from around a real elevator. You’re right – noisy places with all the trucks going in and out, belts and augers moving, plus the dryers running if the crop’s coming in with a bit too much moisture. If you could record a 5-10 minute sample and edit the ends so they fit together well, it would be easy to repeat without anybody noticing it was really a loop. Plus, the player supports that – if it’s set to level triggered, it’ll keep repeating the sound as long as the proper input is grounded. (I’d put it on a switch so you *can* shut it up when you’re tired of listening to it, though.)

  3. Great idea guys. I need to add sound to my tippler that I built. This product might just be the answer. I can play a WAV file of a wagon being emptied on my tip cycle, and then a different sound on the return cycle. Also the lock and unlock can have sounds. Your 4 channel sound will be perfect. Just one potential issue. I used Tamiya motors which are 3v motors so the entire tippler works off 3v DC. If this can be accommodated then I’m ordering one yesterday.

  4. A friend has suggested that my HO layout could use the interlocking in a box circuitry to govern one troubling diamond. I am interested in where this project is standing at this time. Would it be possible to arrange for repeaters for the approach signals to be located further down the tracks in all directions, for example for an order board at a station with the last passing siding before the diamond?

    1. The IIAB should be introduced to the public in the next month or two. We’re currently testing in some real applications and putting the finishing touches on the documentation.

      As for repeaters, if all you want is a light to show the same indication as that shown by the interlocking signals, that should be doable. If you want different logic associated with them, that would be more involved. In any case, contact us by email and we can discuss the particulars of your situation.

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