Nantes, France. An engineering school, in the early evening. A few students are talking amongst themselves, but everyone is looking at the screen, waiting. Arduino Presentation. This meeting is organized by the Nantes GDG, the Google Developer Group. While this isn’t a Google product, it does catch people’s interest. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to do things with your Android smartphone!
The presentation starts. The room goes quiet as the speaker presents himself, and gives a very brief overview of the product; an Arduino-based system. Most of the audience has heard of Arduino, but very few have seen an Arduino board, and even few have had the time to try out their own program. The speaker gives a quick presentation on who he is, and why he uses Arduino. Simplicity, ease of use, uncomplicated… All synonyms for the simple fact that Arduinos are designed to be easy to use. The same words are repeated time and time again during the presentation.
Demo time. The Arduino is hooked to a breadboard, and three LEDs are connected through output lines. In just a few lines of code, the LEDs are programmed to slowly brighten to full strength, and then turn off, before repeating. The hardware layout is simple, and the software is just as simple. The second demonstration takes the same basic layout, but adds an ultrasonic transceiver. With just a few code changes, the Arduino is programed to turn on the LEDs depending on the distance from the sensor. Moving his hand 30 centimeters, the first LED lights up. Ten centimeters later, the second LED turns on. Finally, at ten centimeters from the sensor, the last LED turns on.
“And there you go! For any students here with an old car that doesn’t have parking sensors, you have just made one!” Complete silence. You can almost feel thirty people imagining what can be done.
The speaker has just nailed it. The questions begin. Just how easy is it to create a system like this? Very. This example was done in about 10 minutes, using an Arduino and a shield. OK, but does that mean that I have to have an Arduino board, and the shield? That takes up a lot of space. Is there any way of making this smaller? Yes, there is. The processor on the Arduino board is an Atmel ATmega, one of the most well known processors for electronics hobbyist and makers. Putting it onto a breadboard requires… well, nothing. There are no external components, no second chip, no external peripheral. Plug in the power, and you are good to go. An example schematic shows just how easy it is. The myth of complicate electronics has been busted, and the few who weren’t quite convinced are now thinking of projects.
Final demonstration. The speaker adds a Bluetooth shield, and a few lines of code. Just a few minutes later, the Arduino responds to an Android phone; turning LEDs on and off depending on the buttons the end user presses on his smart phone. People in the back row are practically standing up to get a closer look. Now the ideas are flooding in. Yes, you can use the ATmega to control a motor. Yes, with a bit of electronics, you can get the ATmega to turn on and off devices plugged into the mains. An alarm clock that turns on a coffee machine? Yes. The back rows are already talking about ideas; a web-cam that can be oriented by a computer. A home automation system that will turn out the lights when everyone leaves the flat.
There is a myth. Or, more precisely, there was. Small evaluation boards are sold with numerous electronic components soldered onto the board, and this has a tendency to frighten people, especially junior tinkerers. With Arduino, there is little need for any external component to make the processor work, and indeed, a processor can be placed onto a breadboard and hooked up to a power supply in seconds, requiring no extra components. Then the famous question: What happens if my program goes wrong? What happens if I can’t start the processor? Well, the ATmega has another trick up its sleeve. The ATmega chips sold for Arduino systems arrive with a special bootloader, meaning that if ever the processor can’t start a program, it patiently waits for a new one to be flashed. It takes a lot of effort to break one of these.
By using the power and simplicity of an Atmel ATmega MCU, the students behind me continue to think up new and interesting ideas, no longer worried about the electronics required to create a board, or even the possibility of rendering the processor unusable. With the ATmega, their only limitation is their imagination, and from what I can hear, that isn’t a limitation at all. In six months, there will be another presentation. Only this time, the speaker will be listening, and the students will present ideas and projects. That’s an event I don’t want to miss out on!
Written by James A. Langbridge