Getting into Arduino - Better late than Never


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I’ve always had an interest in making stuff which interfaces with the world, but in the days before microcontrollers, and without a solid electronics background, making stuff was hard. Much too hard. Flashing an LED with a 555 timer is reasonably straightforward- but anything more and you need a LOT of breadboard space, and a lot more time than I could spare.

Then along came the microcontroller. I can’t remember whether I discovered PIC or AVR first, but whenever a new development board was being given away for free or nearly free, I’d be on it. Writing little test programs wasn’t overly difficult. Setting up the development environment however, was. Often, between long droughts of development, my PC would have been rebuilt, and I’d lost all that setup time and effort. As far as the programming went, I have always enjoyed low level coding (starting with hand written Z80 machine code on a Sinclair ZX81). But enjoyment wasn’t the only goal - a finished project matters. And hour upon hour could be spent at too a low a level to feel like progress was being made.

I heard about Arduino, discovered it was AVR based and had a bootloader - which didn’t seems a compelling reason to go with it, since AVRISP programming worked fine. The boards were also far too big, and too expensive compared to the $1 (£1 to me) chips I was used to buying. I was perhaps also swayed by a slight preference towards PICs over AVRs. The Arduino marketing didn’t help me either. I read it as “Helping whimsical arty types create pointless trinkets with overpriced, overspecified boards so they don’t have to learn the hard way”. I liked the hard way. So I wrote Arduino off as a toy.

How wrong I was.

I recently resurrected my childhood love of slot car racing (Scalextric) by building up a reasonable collection of Scalextric Digital track and cars. I explored the PC based Race management Systems which add a whole new dimension. My ‘maker’ mentality was reawakened at the thought of interfacing with all this digital information flying round the track and doing useful things with it, like a leader board or F1 style start lights (my current project combines these into an ‘onmi gantry’ - more later). Each of the three PC based Race Management applications supported Arduino in one way or the other. So I put aside old prejudices and ordered a couple of cheap, Chinese clones of the Arduino Pro Mini and FTDI programmer. No bigger than a DIL chip, the Pro Mini appealed to my barebones mentality. After a couple of days reading around the subject, waiting for the slow boat from China to arrive, I bought an Uno. The price was more reasonable than I’d remembered - and all the tutorials referred to them, so I decided, for once, to make things as easy as humanly possible so I could concentrate on getting my project finished. The fact that the Uno can be used to burn the bootloader onto bare Atmel chip was another compelling reason to have an Uno.

I’m now a week into Arduino programming, and I can say I’ve done more in a week than I would have done in months with a bare AVR/PIC. Having the bootloader does make a big difference. When you can’t get a line of code to work… change - upload - test - repeat. Valuable seconds saved dozens of times in a programming session add up to a more pleasurable experience. The fact that I can go to a brand new PC, download the IDE, load up my files from Dropbox and carry on coding from where I left off is also useful. But the real appeal of Arduino is the libraries and other support material. The various hardware shields don’t interest me too much, but the libraries developed to support them are amazing. To think, I used to to have to read chip datasheets to write code. Now I download the library and I’m good to go. LCD screens, LED matrices, NeoPixels, Serial communication, I2C sensors - all have superb libraries which mean that getting a project finished is now a real possibility.

Finally, if anyone thinks, as I did, that cheap ARM cored boards spell the death of the 8 bit microcontroller - they are wrong. There are many projects where even an 8MHz processor is technically overkill. My next project is adding realistic looking running lights to an RC Helicopter. It seems ridiculous that such processing power is being used for such a trivial task. But doing it from discreet components would be a huge undertaking without an Electrical Engineering background. The finished project would be so big and heavy that the heli wouldn’t be able to lift off! Being able to adjust the timing of the flashing lights with a line of code is awesome compared to swapping out resistors and capacitors. An Arduino Pro Mini does the job nicely for a couple of bucks, and grams. You wouldn’t want to use the size and expense of a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone for those kind of tasks!

So, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m a bit pleased with the Arduino. Rather than feeling like I may have missed the boat, I believe it’s a good time to start out. The platform is mature, the community solid, the glitches ironed out and libraries already written. So if there are any hardware tinkerers out there who, like me, are stubbornly refusing to take a look at Arduino - Jump on the bandwagon, the ride is surprisingly smooth.