Easy Sim Panel Tutorial

Do you ever get frustrated about having to remember the key commands to all of your favorite sims? Especially things like engine startups and turning on lights and flaps, which you only do once or twice per sortie?

Here is a quick tutorial on creating a simple, inexpensive USB panel, for use with any simulator. It can allow you to put all of these little tasks on switches with labels, so that you don’t need to remember them.

The panel we will be building is based on the Ultimarc A-PAC USB controller, which is relatively cheap (US$43+ship) and easy to use. You will not need any electronics knowledge! This board has screw-in terminals rather than requiring ribbon cables and solder. You do still need to solder wires on the switches, but I’ve included a soldering tutorial video link below.
The A-PAC can handle up to 28 buttons/switches. The on/off switch signals are converted to momentary keypresses in software, as you will see end of this tutorial.

The Ultimarc A-PAC page

A-PAC USB controller board

here is are some alternative boards:
LONO2 ($65, 4 Joysticks, 14 buttons each or 56 buttons)
Xin Mo ($25, 2 Joysticks with 8 buttons each or 22 buttons)
Please let me know if you are aware of any other controller boards that use USB and show up as game controllers in Windows

Tools needed:

  • a drill
  • pliers (preferably needlenose)
  • soldering iron or soldering gun
  • a small spool of solder
  • wire cutters/strippers
  • 2 or more small clamps
  • a screwdriver
  • hammer and small nail or a “center punch”
  • (optional) a plexiglass knife, if your plexiglass is large

Materials needed (where to buy):

  • some SPST(single-pole, single-throw) and/or momentary switches (radio shack, electronics store, etc)
  • a sheet of Lexan or Acrylic, a.k.a plexiglass (home depot or other home store)
  • a 1/4 inch drill bit (preferably a “glass bit”, or “step bit”)
  • some cable (preferably 24 gauge telephone wire, with 4 or more wires inside)
  • some black hookup wire
  • a plastic or metal container

You should start by envisioning how your panel will look, and play with some possible layouts.

lexan sheet with some switches

Leave the protective sheet of coating on the plexiglass, as it can help make it more resistant to cracking. You can also add masking tape to strengthen the plexiglass further. (as you can see in the pictures, I didn’t do this and there are some cracks around some of the holes)

Tape a piece of paper onto your plexiglass and mark out where you want the holes. You can use a ruler or a square to make sure you line up your holes. Clamp down the plexiglass somwhere, in a way that one of the holes is exposed for drilling.
Then use a finishing nail and hammer or a center-punch to make a starting notch for drilling each hole.
Now we start drilling. You don’t have to push very hard on the drill — just let the bit do the work.

drilling holes in lexan

You can now do a test to see how the switches look, when mounted. They just screw on with a thread and nut on the back.
mounted switches in lexan panel

Here is how we wire up the switches.

You can see here that our telephone cable has multiple wires inside. This helps to minimize the rats-nest that can occur when using individual wires. We use a “common ground” here, which means that only one wire in the first cable will be used for a ground (preferably a black wire). Then we use small black hookup-wires to link each switch together. Each switch will have 2 metal terminals. When we are done wiring, one terminal will have a black wire, and the other terminal will have a colored wire from the cable that leads to the A-PAC.

basic wiring of switches

You can see here how the wires just push in to the terminals, and you just need a screwdriver to (lightly) tighten them down. You can see that the ground (black) wire is in the bottom terminal. You can see on the board that the bottom terminal on each side is marked GND (see the first image for better detail). Then work your way up from there, putting a single colored wire into each terminal. It doesn’t even really matter which order you put the wires in, because our software will tell us which switch/button is pressed when we do our mapping.

We now have the basic panel done, but we need something to mount it on. In electronics speak, they call this an enclosure or project box. Use your imagination. You can even use a plastic silverware tray or tupperware container. Some electronics stores have project boxes available for purchase. A brainstorm lead me to gut the insides out of an old CD-ROM drive that was no-longer working.
gutting a broken CD-ROM

Since our sheet of lexan was larger than the CD-ROM drive, I cut down the size of the lexan with a plexiglass knife (be careful with these!!)
Then we can add some black paint to give it a glossy look.
For mounting the lexan on the CD-ROM enclosure, I had to go and buy a very small drill-bit for the mounting screws.
I placed a piece of cardboard underneath the USB controller card, between it and the metal case, to avoid any shorting because of metal on metal.

cut panel on enclosure

Now it is time to do the soldering.

Here is a good soldering video tutorial from the user ‘coldrestart’ on youtube:

And finally…(*drumroll*)… the finished product!!
You can see a beige colored cable running out of the bottom of the case. This is the 6-foot USB cable that comes with the A-PAC. Just plug it into your PC!

Now you will want to put labels on each switch, so you know what purpose it will serve in the simulator. You might consider using plastic transparencies with labels on top, so you can have swappable templates for each simulator that you use.

The last step is using software to map the switches and buttons into keystrokes. When you plug in the A-PAC’s USB cable, it will show up as a pair of game controllers in Windows, under Control Panel->Game Controllers.
I’m using a program called SVMapper to convert the on and off toggle switches into momentary keypresses.
(thanks to Sokol1 on SIMHQ for letting me know about this utility)

SVMapper software

You can get that utility program here:
SVMapper download

For more complicated mapping, I recommend using the free AutoHotKey scripting language:

Thanks to GrizzlyT, Kimchoc1 and others for their encouragement!

Other Related Links
a slightly more complex panel tutorial

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