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Musings on Machine Learning…

Learning Electronics with Arduino

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Introduction

I’ve worked with the Raspberry Pi quite a bit, written books about it and blogged fairly extensively about it. However, many people consider the Pi overkill. After all it runs full versions of Linux and usually requires a keyboard, mouse, monitor and Internet connection. Even at $35, many people consider it too expensive for their projects.

Parallel to the Raspberry Pi, there is the Arduino project which is an open source software and hardware project for microcontrollers. The Raspberry Pi includes a full ARM 64-bit processor with up to 4Gig of RAM. The Arduino is based on various microcontrollers that are often 8-bit and only have 32Kb of RAM. These microcontrollers don’t run a full operating system, they just contain enough code to start your program, whether burned on their flash memory or downloaded via serial port from a PC.

There are a great many Arduino compatible boards that can perform all sorts of functions. A typical Arduino has a set of external pins similar to the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO ports. The big advantage of the Arduino is that they are low cost, simple to program and low power.

In this article, I’ll look at the official Arduino Starter Kit.

Package Contents

The package contains an Arduino Uno microcontroller board, a breadboard and a large assortment of discrete electronic components. It contains a project book with 15 projects you can build out of all these components.

The Arduino Uno contains the Amtel ATmega328p microcontroller and 32kb of memory. These are flexible low cost processors that are used in many embedded applications.

Programming the Arduino

You can program the Arduino with any compiler that generates the correct machine code to run on the processor you’ve chosen (or even program it in Assembly Language). However most people use the Arduino IDE. This IDE is based on Sketch and Processing. You write your programs in a limited version of C (with a few extensions). The IDE then knows how to compile and download it to a great many Arduino boards so you can test out your program.

There are libraries to provide support for common functions like controlling a servo motor or controlling a LED character display. There is a Capacitive sensor library to measure a circuit’s capacitance. There are hundreds of sensors you can wire up to your Arduino and there are libraries available for most of these, making the programming to read or control them easy.

You can debug your program by sending strings back to the PC via a serial port which you can monitor in the IDE. You can also flash a couple of LEDs.

People might point out the C is really old and shouldn’t be used due to its use of pointers and such. However C is still the best language for low level programming like this. It is also used for nearly all systems programming. Linux is entirely written in C. Learning C is both useful in itself as well as acting as a jump start to newer languages, mostly based on C such as Java or C#.

Learning Electronics

I first became interested in electronics when I took Electricity 9 in junior high school. We learned the basics of soldering and I built a Radio Shack transistor radio from a kit. With this course I could fix some basic wiring issues around the house and occasionally fix appliances, and perhaps fix a TV by replacing a tube. The difficulty when I was younger was that it was a lot of work to build anything, since the whole thing needed to be built from discrete components and equipment was expensive.

Today things are much easier. You can build a lot of simple circuits attached to the Arduino where a lot of the work is done in software on the microcontroller. Things are much cheaper today. You can purchase a complete Arduino starter kit for under $100 and test equipment is far less expensive. You can pick up a good digital multimeter for under $20 and there are even good oscilloscopes for around $300. There are many simple integrated circuits like optocouplers and H-bridges to further simplify your circuites.

The Arduino is low power, so you can’t electrocute yourself. It has short detection, so if your circuit contains a short circuit, the Arduino shuts down. This all allows you to safely play with electronic components without any risk to yourself or the Arduino.

The starter kit projects include several techniques to connect the Arduino up to external devices safely. For instance controlling a DC motor with either a transistor used as a switch or via an H-bridge. Then how to interface to another device using an optocoupler to keep both devices completely electrically separate.

Summary

Arduino provides a great platform to both learn electronics and to learn programming. The IDE is simple to use and helps with learning. Building circuits attached to an Arduino is a safe place to experiment and learn without risking damaging expensive components or equipment. I found working through the 15 labs in the Arduino Projects Book that accompanied the starter kit quite enjoyable and I learned quite a few new things.

 

3 Responses

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  1. […] Last time, we started to explore Arduino programming. I noted that the Arduino IDE and language is largely based on Processing. In this article we’ll look at the Processing language and environment. Processing was designed to be a simple language to allow people in the Graphical Arts world to learn programming. Hence the language is oriented around drawing and animation. […]

  2. […] you are familiar with Arduino and how you program these, then this is exactly how you program the Pico. Which means you need […]

  3. […] this article we’ll look at the Arduino support and a simple fractal program to see what is involved. Below is a picture of the Wio Terminal […]


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