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Project Goals and Motivation and Background

A project log for Boson Frame Grabber

Simple FPGA based PCB to capture thermal images from a FLIR Boson camera on to a microSD.

greg davillgreg davill 09/09/2018 at 03:440 Comments

At my day job a few years ago I designed a reasonable small product that attaches to the back of a FLIR Tau2 thermal camera core. The product takes the digital video stream from the camera and saves this information to an SD card, it also included an ethernet 100MB/s interface. Since the Tau2 is a small camera, so the electronics in this product is made up of a "stack" of boards.


The Tau2 outputs a 14bit video stream of it's 640x512 pixel array. This stream needs to handle upto 60Hz on some product variants, so it features a 27MHz pixel clock. In order to ensure a frame from the camera was successfully captured I designed in enough memory to fully buffer a frame (> 640kb). It's design was based around an ARM M7 microcontroller. Utilizing external DDR memory and it's included 14bit Digital Camera Module Interface (DCMI).

At the time I knew this was the perfect application for an FPGA, but having no hands on experience with them I decided it was too risky at the time.

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Fast forward to Jan 2018. Our local FLIR rep had loaned us a FLIR Boson 320. The FLIR Boson is a tiny Thermal Camera core. Available in two variants: 320 and 640. These have an image size of 320x256, 640x512 respectively. When I say small, the footprint of the module is 21x21mm!!

FLIR made a nice choice with the interfaces, the Boson supports a USB UVC mode, which enable it stream digital video over USB natively. It also has a 16bit digital video bus, and Analog output. FLIR sells the USB module as "Back" for the camera. Which connects to it's 80pin interface connector.

As a bit of a challenge I decided to teach myself FPGAs with a hands on project. The goal, a small FPGA board that could capture frames from the 16bit camera interface and save these to an SD card. I'd only had experience with FPGAs in a class at university, that certainly gave me a solid understanding of fundamentals, but I'd never actually built an entire project with an FPGA before, how hard could it be?

My first idea was to create a hybrid, FPGA/MCU device. The FPGA would be responsible for capturing the fast asynchronous data from the camera storing it external RAM. Then a standard micro-controller could read this data and save it to an SD card. I called this attempt the "Boson Breakout".

Unfortunately this board never really worked, the firmware remains unfinished. The concept SHOULD work, but there are too many bits and pieces. I also got the footprint wrong on the RAM. ouch.

Parallel to "Boson Breakout", I had been researching project icestorm. An open source tool chain for Lattice FPGAs. I unfortunately had used a non-supported Lattice FPGA on my Boson Breakout. Which looking through the offerings of FPGA packages I found the perfect part! The Lattice iCE40HX8K in a 8x8mm package! Combined with a 8Mbit HyperRAM 6x8mm, I might be able to fit everything BEHIND the Boson camera....

After a late night inside KiCad I had this design. A project was afoot!

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