Tutorial: Building cool projects with MCUs (Part 1)

I don’t remember exactly when I learned programming, but I played around with computers from an early age. I remember that it was such an amazing thing to be able to make my own programs. I made games and I made websites. And, it was so fun. When I was around 14 years old, I also started playing with electronic circuits. I made simple circuits of blinking lights and such. Also, a lot of fun.

Then at one point, I discovered microcontrollers. Oh, my God. I realized that by using microcontrollers I could combine programming and electronics to build robots, music players and what-not. It was a shockingly cool discovery. Wow!

electronics-project-with-dev-board-and-7-segment-1024x682

But understanding how to use a microcontroller wasn’t straightforward. There were programmers, EEPROM’s, debuggers, integrated development environments and a lot of different types of microcontrollers. It took me a few years before I started building projects using microcontrollers. Not because it took that long to learn it – but because the whole thing felt so overwhelming. And, I didn’t know where to start. But once I committed to just figure it out, it was actually quite fast to get up and running.

In this five-part microcontroller tutorial series, I will take you from knowing nothing – to being able to build and program a microcontroller circuit from home. To make sure we have everybody on board – let’s start from scratch by taking a look at what a microcontroller is.

Like a Tiny Computer

A microcontroller is somewhat like a tiny little computer. And, simiar to a computer, you can hook up things like a display, a motor, buttons and much more to it. Then, you put programs onto it and run them to make it do something.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The things you can use a microcontroller for are endless! Among the countless possibilities include building robots, flying quadcopters, music players, or even smartphones.

Learning how to use microcontrollers opens so many opportunities for building new cool projects. Throughout this microcontroller tutorial, you will learn all you need to know, step-by-step, in order to get started with MCUs.

Getting Started With Microcontrollers

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the microcontroller chip. The chip has several pins, most of them input and output pins. The microcontroller uses these pins to interact with the outside world.

Atmel-microcontroller-pinout

However, a microcontroller doesn’t really do anything without getting any instructions. So to make it do something, you need to write a program and load the program onto the chip. This process is often called programming the microcontroller.

In the program, you use code to read from input pins, and to control output pins. By connecting something, such as a light-emitting diode (LED) to an output pin, you will be able to switch the light on and off from your program. If you connect a push-button to an input pin, you can use code to read the pin and see if the button is pushed or not.

Then, you can create code that turns the light on when the button is pushed, and turns the light off when it is not pushed. Not a very exciting example, I agree, but a very good place to get started. Think of it as the “Hello World” of microcontrollers.

We could easily turn this into a much more interesting application.

Connect a temperature sensor to an input pin instead of the button. And keep the LED on the output. Create a program that reads the temperature and if the temperature is above a certain level, start blinking the light.

Now, attach this to your beer, and a light will start flashing to warn you that your beer is getting warm. Now that’s useful!

Programming a Microcontroller

Okay, so how do we get from having this idea of what to make, into actually creating it? First of all, we have to create a circuit, then we need to program the microcontroller.

Creating the circuit is a matter of creating a schematic with the components we need, then turning this into a circuit board. I’ll show you how to do this later in this tutorial.

When you have your circuit ready, you need to program your microcontroller. I found this a bit confusing in the beginning. There are many ways of doing this, and not all methods work on all microcontrollers.

The steps you need to go through in order to get your program onto the microcontroller can be divided into the following:

1. Create program code
2. Compile the code into machine code
3. Upload the machine code onto your microcontroller

These steps will be different for different types of microcontrollers. When we get to the programming part of this tutorial, I will show you exactly how to do it for the microcontroller we choose.

But choosing a microcontroller can be a very overwhelming task, especially if you are just starting out. In the next part, I’ll show you what is going through my head when I choose a microcontroller – so that you’ll know how to choose one for your next project.

Stay tuned for Parts 2-5 in the coming days…

4 thoughts on “Tutorial: Building cool projects with MCUs (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Tutorial: Building cool projects with MCUs (Part 2) | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  2. Pingback: Tutorial: Building cool projects with MCUs (Part 3) | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  3. Pingback: Tutorial: Building cool projects with MCUs (Part 4) | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  4. Pingback: Tutorial: Building cool projects with MCUs (Part 5) | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

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