RPI UART and Maplins N00GA or AM03127 LED Display

I have a tri-colour LED matrix sign from Maplins (a bit like this one) that has an 80×7 two-colour LED display (red and green, and when both are on, a kind of orange).  This has a serial port connection so I wanted to hook this up to my Raspberry Pi.  The original sign is supposed to come with a USB to DB9 Serial and then DB9 Serial to RJ11 set of leads to allow you to connect the sign to a PC, but mine doesn’t have these.

Now there are some excellent resources out there for programming these signs, see:

But what I wanted to do was drive this from the on-board GPIO UART from the Raspberry Pi, and I couldn’t find an obvious description of what was required to make this happen.

After much reading, searching and a bit of experimentation, eventually I managed to assemble all the bits and work through the joys of the many standard RS232 pin-outs for DB9 connectors and the non-standard RS232 pin-outs for RJ11 connectors and come up with the following.

First, to get to any kind of standard RS232 port from the GPIO UART a level shifter is required to go from the 3.3/5v RPi I/O to the +-12v required for RS232 serial ports.  Thankfully these are trivial to find based on the MAX3232 chip, so I got one that includes a built-in DB9 port and 4 pin connections for VCC, RXD, TXD, GND.


For some reason, these all seem to come with a female DB9 port, so I guess they are designed to link to a PC as if the jumper wires and MAX3232 breakout board make the equivalent of a null modem cable between the Pi and the PC.

So, then I needed to decipher the pin-outs for the RJ socket on the display.  The manual for the LED sign shows the socket view as  follows:


I had an old RJ11 to RJ11 telephone cable, so I ripped the plug off one end and set about working out which wires go where.  The combination that worked for me was linking TXD on the display to TXD on the DB9 socket, RXD to RXD and GND to GND.  I think that sort of follows the diagram in the manual, but the cable colours of my telephone lead didn’t match that at all.

So, the resulting combination of pins to connectors to wires to sockets is as follows:

RPI GPIO MAX3232 DB9(F) Phone Lead RJ11 Plug AM03127 RJ11 Skt
6 GND 4 GND 5 GND Black 1 Black 4 GND (Red)
8 TXD 3 TXD 3 TXD Green 3 Green 2 TXD (Black)
10 RXD 2 RXD 2 RXD Red 2 Red 3 RXD (Green)

So once you realise that everything connects to the same labelled pin, you should be fine.

Unfortunately it is not possible to test this with a simple terminal program such as minicom, as the time between key presses is too much for the protocol to be followed (I guess if you had it line buffered it might work, but I didn’t look into this), but it is possible to “cat” some commands to the display to see if it is all working ok.

Also, you need to have disabled the RPi console, which by default will be attached to the serial port.  There are good instructions for that here.

Example – to set the ID and dim the display, create two text files with the following in them:



The first sets the ID of the display to 01 (the display ID can be anything from 01 to FF, 00 means broadcast to all connected displays).  The second command sets the display to its dimmest setting.  The 04 is a checksum value and will depend on the command given.

To use, simply cat these files to the serial port:

   cat id.cmd > /dev/ttyAMA0
   cat dim.cmd > /dev/ttyAMA0

Of course, you will never see the returned acknowledgement or results, but whatever text was on the display should now be dimmed.  Ideally, use the remote control to reset the display first (FUNCT -> Setup -> Clear All -> Enter)

If this doesn’t work, you’ll need to get debugging and checking cables, etc.  One tool that is great for driving the sign programmatically is the sample python code mentioned above.  I had to install the python-serial library before using it, but then it worked very well.

   sudo apt-get install python-serial
   python -p /dev/AMA0 -v --message Hello

The only slight quirk, is that the sample code doesn’t appear to call the sync_set_sign_id() function, so if you are not sure what ID your sign is (the default should be 01) you might need to set it using the cat method above or hack a call to the function into the code.  Having an incorrect ID may generate a “timeout” error when using the script in verbose mode (i.e. with -v as shown above).

If you want to experiment with your own commands, then you’ll have to implement something to calculate the checksums.  The following simple Perl script will take a command message for the display and output the text you’ll need for the complete command, including the checksum value.


my $str = $ARGV[0];
my @ch = split (//, $str);
my $chk =0 ;
foreach my $c (@ch)
    $chk ^= ord ($c);

printf "<ID01>$str%02X<E>\n", $chk;

So, for example, a Hello World message will be:

  <ID01><L1><PA><FE><MA><WB><FE>hello world55<E>

I now plan to get to work on the technical manual and decipher some of the more sophisticated commands, especially those that let me get graphics sent to the display.  All this was possible thanks to those who have already worked out how to drive this thing.  All I needed was the details of how to connect it physically to my  RPi GPIO.  Which I now have.

Standard disclaimer – this worked for me, YMMV, I won’t be held responsible for you pumping 12v or worse into your RPi GPIO if something goes wrong! 🙂


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