Wireless Model Railroad Control With an iPhone – iPod Touch

Posted by on Dec 20, 2014 in Miscellaneous, Tips DCC Components, Tips DCC Systems, Tony's Tips |

Mike Greenwood introduces this new emerging DCC technology.

iphone-control-touchcabEventually, this emerging technology may be more cost effective than purchasing wireless components from the DCC manufacturers!

Are you looking for wireless control options for your DCC equipped model railroad? Why not consider using an iPhone or iPod Touch to control your railroad.

Enter the iPhone! When Apple revolutionized the cell phone market with their smartphone, I don’t think they had any idea just how flexible their device would become. Following that with an iPod version that has all the power of the phone without the phone itself, and you have two very capable options for model railroaders who want to control their layouts with DCC wirelessly. Well you might not want to buy a smart phone now but industry analysts are predicting major cost reductions as the technology heats up and price wars ensue.

What do You Need to Get started?

  • First, you need to have a DCC system that has PC interface options.
  • In most cases now, a computer running Windows, Mac OSX, or LINUX operating system. But the PC will not be necessary if your DCC system’s interface has Ethernet capability like the Lenz “USB/Ethernet” Interface. It is likely that other DCC manufactures will develop Ethernet interfaces to be competitive
  • The JMRI model railroad programming and control freeware.
  • A local wireless network (WiFi) and router.
  • And an iPhone, iPod Touch (any generation).

Explanation of the Components.

We start with the DCC system connected to a computer. To accomplish this, we are using the Lenz “LI-USB” interface module. This module connects to the Digital Plus system through the “Express-Net” network on the DCC system and to the computer via the “USB” port. Other DCC manufacturers provide similar connectivity.

Next, you install the JMRI software on the computer. What is JMRI? It stands for “Java Model Railroad Interface” it is an open source program for model railroad hobbyists. JMRI is a suite of tools designed to help the model railroader program and control their model railroads via a computer. The two most popular tools are “DecoderPro” for programming DCC decoders, and “PanelPro” for controlling layouts. This software is provided free of charge on the JMRI website.

The computer you are running the JMRI program on needs to be connected to a local area network for the iPhone/iPod Touch to communicate with it. This is accomplished with a network router that has wireless capability.

Once you have these components connected and working properly, you will use an iPhone or iPod Touch to function as a wireless controller. Any generation iPhone or iPod Touch will work, and you DO NOT need to have an active phone contract. The iPhone/iPod Touch will connect through your local area network using “WiFi”, not the phone companies “Cell” network.

The final piece of the puzzle is the “App” that runs on the iPhone/iPod Touch. Currently there are two applications available, “WiThrottle” and “TouchCab” to perform this function depending on the type of DCC system you are using. Both of these applications can be downloaded from the iTunes store and both applications offer a “lite” version that can be downloaded for free.

“WiThrottle” interfaces with just about every DCC system on the market today through the JMRI software interface, but does require that the JMRI software be running on a computer connected to your local area network. The computer acts as a communication server.

“TouchCab” interfaces directly with the interface module for your DCC system, like the new Lenz USB and Ethernet adaptor #23151. What this means is you no longer need to have a computer or the JMRI software running to communicate with your layout. All that’s required is your DCC system, the DCC interface module, wireless router and an iPhone/iPod Touch.

Putting it All Together

While it is not the intent of this document to provide detailed instructions for controlling every type of DCC system with an iPhone/iPod Touch, we did want to provide some resource information to help you decide if this type of control is right for you. Basic knowledge of computers and wireless networking is required to be successful.

You will need to start by researching what your DCC system is capable of. Does the manufacturer make a computer interface module? Is that module compatible with the JMRI software?

JMRI (link) provides very detailed instructions for the download and installation of their software. They also provide detailed instructions on how to install and configure the iPhone/iPod Touch applications.

“WiThrottle” (link)  is an easy-to-use application that allows the iPhone and iPod touch to be used as a wireless controller with the popular JMRI software.

“TouchCab” (link) is an application that turns your iPhone or iPod Touch into a handheld controller for your model railroad. With TouchCab you can connect directly to your DCC system without the need of a computer or the JMRI software.

Summary

Controlling your layout with an iPhone/iPod touch will become an economic way to add wireless flexibility to your layout. A first generation iPod Touch can be purchased on eBay for about $100.00 and most of us already have a computer and wireless network in our homes. If you belong to a club, using an iPhone/iPod Touch provides a way to have wireless control without having to purchase a controller that is compatible with the clubs DCC system, a real plus if your DCC system is not the same as your local clubs. And finally, if your DCC system does not offer a wireless option, all is not lost, you can be wireless too!