Author Archives: James A. Langbridge

About James A. Langbridge

Lecturer, engineer, author, geek. I love tech, I love creating tech, and I love writing about tech.

The Internet of Things and energy conservation

Humans are creative, and adaptive. We’ve done it all our lives, and all our existence. We needed more food, and so we created agriculture. We needed to live together, and so we created architecture. We needed to communicate, and so we created hundreds of ways to do just that; Internet, mobile telephone networks, computers. We are so fond of computers that we have them everywhere, often without noticing them. Yes, you might have a bulky desktop computer at home, or maybe even a flashy new laptop, but those are not the only computers. Your mobile telephone is a computer, but technically, so is your microwave, your car, your television set, and even your washing machine.

Our lives have changed greatly. We’ve all seen pictures and even films of medieval castles, and we know how we used to live. Today, our lives are made more comfortable by scores of machines; when was the last time you washed your clothes by hand? The clothes go in the washing machine, then in the dryer, and then in the cupboard. This all comes at a cost; financially, of course, but also in terms of energy.

Energy. The art of creating electrical power and delivering it to our homes and cities. For most people, this is as simple as having overhead power lines here and there, and paying a bill at the end of the month. Unfortunately, it is much more complicated than that. Power stations require scores of people to operate, and something surprising, data. In France, we have “too many” power stations, and most run at low capacity. When it gets hot, those who have air conditioning like to put it on, consuming electricity. Multiply that by a few thousand, and you get an idea of how much energy the power station needs to produce. When it gets cold, people like to heat their homes and businesses, and since everyone has radiators, electrical consumption soars. Imagine the amount of radiators an entire city can contain, and imagine even 50% of them turned on at the same time. Imagine.

Data is needed from other sources, not just from the weather. Imagine the amount of power required to let all the football fans watch the world cup. Our problem is that we can generate electricity, but we cannot store it (at least, not on this kind of scale). When everything gets turned on, the power station must be able to respond. If it can’t, bad things happen; the lights dim, or sometimes everything goes dark. We now know we cannot live without electricity.

SMART Energy Flow

We all know that we need to reduce our energy dependence, even if some of us don’t want to. To make more people aware, some cities turn off all the lights for an hour. It’s called Earth Hour. For one hour, people are encouraged to use as little electricity as possible; turning off the lights, for example. This does have an impact, but it is a double-edged sword. For one hour, the electricity usage drops considerably, while everyone thinks about the planet, and what we will leave behind for our children. At the end of the hour, everything goes back on, and this is where things get tricky. When electrical devices are first turned on, some can generate what is called an energy spike; a large consumption at first, before something more stable. It is visible just after Earth Hour, but it actually happens every day.

Building Appliances and Home Systems using Energy at Optimum Times

Peak hours. In my house, my electric water heater is connected to a peak-hour detection system. At 11:30 PM, my electricity provider starts “off-peak” hours, a time where electricity costs less. It costs less, an incentive to make me use power-hungry devices at a time when other devices are not needed. At this time of night, most businesses are closed, and so there is less demand. It is all about normalizing energy requirements, and to stop peaks during the day. At 7:30 AM, peak hours start, the water heater turns off, businesses start up, and my kettle turns on, the day is about to begin.


Energy is available, that isn’t the problem. Our problem is our use of energy. If only we had a way of using energy when it was available. Imagine, a certain amount of energy available. When I need light, I want my light to be usable immediately. I need a start time; now. However, when I put my clothes in the washing machine generally, I need them to be ready for the next day. I need and “end” time; I need the device to get the work done before a certain time. When will the washing machine start? Well, I don’t actually mind when it starts, and this is where I need help. This is where the IoT can help us, because we really need help.

The IoT will give us millions of connected sensors. This will also supply us with data, lots and lots of it. Why wouldn’t a small device in my house have direct control over my washing machine, or even better, actually be inside my washing machine? It could be programmed to start at a specific time, talking to other devices on the energy grid? Or even in my home; it could tell the water heater to wait until it has finished, and then the water heater gets its chance. The possibilities are endless.

Washing Machine is Connected - SMART HOME

IoT will give us an incredible amount of data, and data that can be used to help up control, and maybe even overcome our need to energy. But wait a minute, doesn’t the IoT itself need energy? It does, but the amount of energy that it will save outweighs the amount of energy it uses, and by a large factor. Take, for example, Atmel’s SAM D21 microcontroller. It uses less than 70µA per MHz, and that is when it is running at full speed. Of course, these devices have advanced power management, and with careful coding, they can last for months on cell batteries. Low power does not mean no power; it has enough flex to get the job done, and more. With built-in USB, ADCs, DACs and enough RAM and ROM for the most complex programs, it gets the job done. It also has the Atmel Event system, a powerful system that lets the microcontroller react to external events without the need to constantly look at inputs.

(Source CES 2014 - Samsung's Vision of the Now and Future of Connected Appliances)

We need a little help in our lives to make simple decisions; when should I turn the heating on? When is the best time to turn on the air conditioner? We think we know, but we don’t. IoT will allow us to know exactly when the cold weather is coming. IoT will know when to turn the lights off. In short, IoT will generate enough data that it will know better than us what to do, and when. What we have seen so far is only the beginning.

Atmel and the Maker Revolution

I was part of the “original” Maker revolution. This was years ago, in the late 1980’s, and I was a latecomer. We used to make our own circuit boards, but slightly different from the ones today.

There was a 386 computer on my desk. My trusty 386 had ISA ports, extension card space, that most of us used as a basis for our designs. The ISA bus was easy to use, and the connector was large, meaning we could use simple, basic, cheap equipment to make our boards. What did we make? Everything! Digital IO, radio, remote control systems, everything. When I was a student, my flat was controlled entirely by one of these cards. Of course, the brain of my invention was the computer itself, it wasn’t easy to create a computer system.

A computer system requires several components. It requires a processor, and there were quite a few on the market at the time. It also requires memory, but two kinds; random access memory, RAM for short, is where variables are stored, and is the memory that a program uses to copy, calculate and modify data. A computer also requires read-only memory, ROM for short, and this is where the program is placed. Even that was tricky. You see, at the time, in order to “flash” a new program, we had to remove the EPROM device (short for Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory) and place it in ultraviolet light for up to 30 minutes. That was only the beginning. In order to flash a new program, you had to put it into a programmer, a device attached to the computer that wrote data into the device. Once that was done (it took a few minutes), then you could put the chip back onto the circuit board, and away you went. If you made a mistake, or if your program didn’t work, then you had to redo everything, which took over half an hour.

All of this was complicated, and required multiple components. The processor was one component. The RAM was another. So was the ROM. Interrupt controllers? Digital IO? PWM? They were all external components too. There was a reason why computers used to be that big. So we simplified things. The processor was the PC, and we just made extension boards. Of course, this made making things like robots difficult, but we had lots of fun.

The ISA bus was slow, and users wanted PCs to become faster and faster. The ISA bus was soon replaced by VLB, short for VESA Local Bus. It added an extension to the ISA bus, allowing for faster memory transfers. We had faster computers, better graphics, and we could still use our boards. However, it also sent a clear message; we were soon to find a new way of doing things. VLB was replaced by PCI, which was replaced by PCI Express. This bus is lightning fast, but requires complex electronics, and very good equipment to make boards with connectors that fine. Our trusty ISA cards soon ended up in the dustbin. We could still use the serial port or the parallel port, but it wasn’t the same. Most of us stopped.

It was depressing. We tried making our own computers, but they were complicated. External components, long flash times, prohibitive prices… One company was listening.

Atmel's ATMEGA328P-PU an AVR 8-bit processor

Atmel’s ATMEGA328P-PU an AVR 8-bit processor

In 1996, Atmel shipped the AVR processor. It was an 8-bit processor, with a twist. It had internal RAM, and internal flash. No more external components. It could be flashed within seconds, and reflashed. You didn’t even need to take it off the breadboard to reflash it. Founded in 1984, Atmel had already made semiconductor devices for the professional market, but was also very close to Makers. They heard our cry for help, and they delivered. The AVR changed everything.


The AVR chip was an 8-bit device (32-bit devices also exist), but the computer we used to control our ISA cards was 32-bit. The thing is, we didn’t need 32-bits, and an 8-bit microcontroller was perfect for our needs. The AVR was small, cheap, reliable, and really, really easy to use. We flooded back, we redesigned our boards, and we made. We made everything. How good were the AVR chips? By 2003, Atmel had shipped 500 million devices.

Fast forward a few years, and here we are today. Makers are everywhere. We are back. We are making more than ever. And with awesome sponsors like Atmel, we are here to stay. 2013 was the year of 100 Maker Faires, and they were full of Arduinos.

New Breed of Maker Movement Engineers Blooming from Garages, Maker Faire, Hackerspaces, and Makerspaces

New Breed of Maker Movement Engineers Blooming from Garages, Maker Faire, Hackerspaces, and Makerspaces

What is on the Arduino? Well, most of them have an AVR. The Arduino Due isn’t an AVR-based device, it is an ARM device, but even that is made by Atmel too, and is just as easy to use. 2014 promises to be even more exciting!

New Breed of Engineers - Some Images from Maker Faire Bay Area, there were over 100 Maker Faires in 2013 budding in cities all across the globe

New Breed of Engineers – Some Images from Maker Faire Bay Area 2014. There were over 100 Maker Faires in 2013 budding in cities all across the globe

Arduino Due

Here’s the Arduino Due – with an Atmel ARM Based Processor

With Atmel as a sponsor, Makers are here to stay. If you haven’t tried to make your own device yet, try it! It doesn’t cost a lot, and you don’t need all the complicated hardware we used to have. You will be up and running in mere minutes, and believe me, it is fun! If you have any questions, go and see Atmel at one of the Maker Faires. If you come by the Maker Faire Rome, come say hello, I’ll be there with Atmel to show you just how much this technology has changed my life, and show you how to start.

IoT set for takeoff…

Nantes, France. I’m here to pick up a friend from the airport. There is a great view of the runway, and I’ve seen his plane land, a beautiful Airbus A320 flying Air France colors. This is a domestic flight, and ten minutes later, he is off the plane and has his luggage.

We talk about his business trip, and how it went. He’s a technical recruiter, and has been working on a project in the south of France. He tells me just some of the details. We clear the terminal and walk towards the parking lot. On the other side of a fence, an A320 is being looked over by a crew of technicians. After a quick refuel, it will be ready to take off and fly to another destination.

– You know, they keep on talking about IoT, but I can’t see any solid examples yet.

I smile. He stops dead in his tracks.

– You have an example?

I do. You just flew it.

He has a blank expression on his face.

Look, it is right over there.

I point to the A320.


Source: Aviation Photos – Airbus A320

– What do you mean IoT? The airplane is IoT?

Well, not exactly. IoT is the Internet of Things, devices that communicate. This plane has an onboard system called ACARS, and it communicates with the ground throughout the flight. Hundreds of parameters are monitored and sent to the ground crews.

Global ACARS Infrastructure

Source: Rockwell Collins – Global ACARS Infrastructure


Source: Aviation Knowledge Wiki – ACARS

– But why?

Modern aircraft are highly reliable, comfortable and silent. All this comes at a price, and a modern aircraft can cost a small fortune. Even worse, an airplane will only make money when it is flying, if it stays on the ground, the company doesn’t make any money at all. In order to maximize revenue, companies need to keep their fleet flying, but not at the cost of safety. On board systems monitor the flight, and inform ground crews of any problems. It monitors critical systems, but it also monitors other systems; if the in-flight coffee machine stops working, it alerts the ground. If there is a malfunction with the toilet, again, the ground will be alerted.

– Why?

Imagine an international flight. Halfway over the Atlantic, one of the ovens stops working. Of course, the flight crew will have a problem getting all the food ready for the passengers, but it can still be done. It is a nuisance, but it doesn’t force the airplane to make an emergency landing. Imagine arriving at Paris, and telling the ground crew that there is a problem. They only have an hour to find a replacement, and get it installed. That probably won’t happen, so the plane will take off with a defective oven, which will be replaced at a later date. Now, imagine that the airline’s center is notified as soon as there is a problem. The flight is scheduled to land in 6 hours, to the airline notifies the ground crew at the destination that there is a defective component, they have a few hours to find replacement parts, and when the airplane touches down, they will already be there, waiting, prepared to replace everything necessary.

– That seems like a lot of effort to change an oven.

Maybe. The oven isn’t the best example, I’ll grant you that. Think about this, then. The engines. Aircraft engines are an incredible feat of engineering, and are some of the most reliable mechanical systems ever built, but they are still mechanical, and things can go wrong. Engines do fail from time to time, even if it is extremely rare. Luckily, an A320 can perform very well with a single engine, but it still requires action. An emergency landing at another airport, having to take the engine off the wing, inspect it, find the fault, and then replace the components, before putting the engine back on. This can take a very long time, and can be horrendously expensive. What if the engine itself could communicate with the ground team?

– They can do that?

Some of them can, yes. Engines are monitored, and hundreds of parameters are analyzed. The engine in your car doesn’t fail without a reason, and simply taking your car to the garage from time to time saves costly repairs. Jet engines are even more advanced. Failures rarely “just happen”; they can often be predicted by looking at variables; oil pressure, temperature, vibration, etc. Instead of waiting for a failure to occur, they can be prevented with close monitoring, changing elements as required. It saves on cost by replacing small parts before big parts fail. It saves cost by replacing elements quickly, putting the aircraft back into service as soon as possible. That is one of the reasons for IoT; cost saving. Being aware of all the parameters means the best choice can be made. Airlines know when to change components, thermostats know when to turn the heat on, greenhouses know when to open the windows.

– I never knew that panes could do that;

One of the things that makes IoT so good is the fact that it isn’t visible. There is no point in adding a screen to a thermostat to display “Calculating ideal temperature”, or “contacting server”. We expect things like that with the programs that we have had on our computers, but that is about to end. People want simple devices that work, and IoT is all about that. Just walking through the airport, you probably didn’t notice the wireless equipment used to broadcast Wi-Fi and to power the wireless telephones used by the airport staff.

Imagine walking through a beautiful garden, completely unaware that there are hundreds of sensors, monitoring soil humidity, temperature, plant growth and other parameters that sets off the sprinkler system only when needed. The world has limited resources, we are painfully aware of that, and this is the technology that could save us. It will make calculations far better than man could, and create data far more precise than we can imagine. All of this can be powered by a solar panel, making it even more eco-friendly.

He remains silent as we walk to the parking lot. Behind us, passengers are getting ready to board their plane, unaware that their trip is made easier and cheaper with IoT. The plane will soon be ready to depart, a trip monitored by processors and microcontrollers like Atmel’s SAM D21.

Please explain to Grandma: What’s the SAM D20 Xplained Dev Board?

My side of the family is very small. I have two parents and a sister, and it stops just about there. My girlfriend’s family, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. A large family means regular family events, and after close to ten years, I still haven’t met everyone. This is just one of those occasions, where I smile, and pretend not to be terrified.

There are a few people walking around the room, but the three mains congregation points are in front of the huge fireplace where apparently someone has attempted to put in a small tree, and just push it in as the end burns away. The table is full of food, and quite a few people are nibbling on delicious snacks. Then there is apparently a line of grandmothers at the back of the room. I hear my name spoken from this part of the room, and I turn around to see five grandmothers looking at me, as well as one or two unknown members of the family. I think I’m supposed to say something.

Excuse me?

– I said that you had just written a book.

Yes, indeed.

– What is it about? Asks one of the grandmothers. They all look at me.

We’ve all been there, a family reunion, where you suddenly become the center of attention. I am subjected to a two hundred kilowatt neon blue stare, the sort of look you get when you are asked the famous family questions; When are you going to get a haircut? When are you going to get a job? And when are you going to come over and see the neighbors because they have this fantastic son/daughter who is single and has just had this promotion at work! I think I’m losing weight just being subjected to this look. Here we go. It is a technical book—about ARM processors.

– Oh, that’s nice!

That one phrase says it all. I start counting under my breath. Two… Three…

– And, um, what exactly is an ARM processor?

I start to explain that it is a type of processor, the “brains” if you will of modern machines. A few weeks ago, I was asked to explain the IoT to someone, and that person is here, practically jumping up and down in excitement.

– Show them the Internet thingy!

Very quietly, from the privacy of my own head, I sigh. Internet of Things, not the “Internet Thingy”. Please excuse me while I go and fetch it. I also take the opportunity to drink an ice-cold glass of water.

Atmel's SAM D20  Xplained Development Board

Atmel’s SAM D20 Xplained Development Board

On returning, I show them the board, an Atmel SAM D20 evaluation board that I used for my book. I explain that the SAM D20 is based on an ARM processor, using Atmel’s technology, and that the entire board is used as a prototyping device, capable of hundreds of applications, depending on your imagination. I also point out the SAM D20 itself; this little black thing here, the size of a thumbnail that is the processor…

– That isn’t a processor.

I come from a very technology-phobic family. My mother spent weeks looking for a microwave with a single button because she doesn’t want to have to enter any information at all, not even the amount of seconds. My father’s grasp of computers is fairly limited; when asked how much RAM he has, his answer is “Enough, I suppose”. It’s the same for every single component. He uses them because he doesn’t have a choice. He still has a telex machine in his office. It’s almost a miracle I got into technology in the first place. With such a family, I’m used to translating, and I had already prepared myself for just about any question possible on my book, but I wasn’t expecting this. Excuse me?

– I said that isn’t a processor.

Umm… If you really want to be complicated, I suppose you could argue that it is a microcontroller, since it is based on the Cortex-M0+, but I don’t think that is what she means. What do you mean?

– I changed the processor on my computer a few weeks ago, and a processor is much larger.

The grandmother line has just shifted looks, and is once again analyzing m every move. My opponent is getting more approving nods than I am.

Well, yes, indeed, the processor on your computer is bigger, and if that is what you are looking for, it is better, faster, and just about everything you could imagine. The only problem is… bigger does not mean better. I’ve been in contact with Atmel for some time now, and I’ve been using their products for even longer. I know that they have an impressive range of processor families, and in each family is an even bigger list of members. There is a processor for just about every need. First things first, I need to sort out the Grandmother look.

Okay, so the processor on your computer is larger, indeed. The only thing is, you don’t use it for the same thing, do you?

– You mean that what you have in your hand isn’t powerful?

No, that isn’t what I mean. It is powerful enough. It all depends on what you need. The SAM D20 is an excellent microcontroller, and at 48MHz, it is more than powerful enough for most applications. That gives me an idea…

What kind of car do you drive?

– A medium range, why?

What, you don’t have a sports car? Why not? They are better!

– But I don’t need a sports car!

Exactly. There is a lot of choice, and you decided to go with a model that suits your needs; budget, comfort, utility. If you wanted better, you could have gone with a sports car. You might even have decided to buy a lorry, I mean, the engine is more powerful. It is the same thing with processors. You have a high-end processor in your computer, but do you really want a $500 processor on your wrist, using up so much power that you need a 5-pound battery on your back just to tell the time? The SAM D20 is ultra low powered, you could keep it on your wrist for weeks, maybe even months without a recharge, and it has more than enough power to display the time, and also some bonus features like a thermometer, UV sensor, heart beat monitor, and to record your physical activity and upload that onto your flashy fast computer. It doesn’t heat up as much, and won’t burn your wrist. Plus, it costs a fraction of the price.


I get a majority of approving nods. The granny stare now shifts back to the other person.

– Yes, but processors are getting faster, so why buy something that is slow?

It isn’t slow, not even close. It runs at 48MHz. Let me remind you that your first computer probably ran at 4MHz, and you were happy with that. Processors aren’t only based on their speed in megahertz, and ARM processors are exceptionally fast per megahertz compared to some other design. Also, Atmel added in even more intelligence, making this a very fast and efficient system. Atmel’s Event System makes this ideal for automation, allowing peripherals to react to external events without slowing down processing.

Now, I only have one more person to convince.

– So why would I need one?

Not only do you need one, but you already have several processors like this. Your microwave has one, your car has several to control braking, the radio, the on-board computer and even the different sensors. The world is full of tiny processors, helping us live our lives. And this tiny processor on the SAM D20 Xplained Pro board is one of hundreds of designs from Atmel. My book talks about just some of those designs, and also talks about the SAM D20 Xplained Pro, Atmel’s IDP (Integration Development Platform), and how easy it is to get a project up and running. Five approval nods. I won this one.

– I see what you mean. By the way, when are you going to marry your girlfriend?

Red alert! Five approval nods. I lost this one. Time to go!

Inside the SAMA5D3 Xplained Development Board

It arrived. The postman came and said there was a parcel for me, and I signed for it. I knew what it was, it was covered in Atmel tape, with a beautiful Atmel logo on the side. A while ago, a friend from Atmel asked me if I would like to write something on the SAMA5D3 evaluation board. Of course I said yes, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it!

I’ve been using Atmel components for some time now, and I’ve also got some other Atmel evaluation boards at home. I used the SAM D20 Xplained Pro boards as an example for my book, both because of their professional design and ease of use, so I know the brand fairly well. I was already impressed with the SAM D20s, so I was expecting something good from Atmel. I wasn’t disappointed.

A few minutes later, a smaller box was on my desk. The SAMA5D3 Xplained. Opening it up revealed the card. It is bigger than what I had previously, but at the tame time, so is the configuration. The SAMA5D3 is Atmel’s conception of the Cortex-A5. Running at 536MHz, it provides excellent processor power for a very low power usage. This isn’t a simple microcontroller, it has everything needed to run a complete operating system. It opens up a whole new world; powerful applications with extensive graphics, advanced control and monitoring application were heavy calculations are needed… I can see one of these in my car controlling the entertainment system, but also the car’s vital systems. I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first.

The board. It is beautiful. That isn’t a criterion for choosing systems, I will admit that, but this is also all about first impressions. The board looks great, and it feels extremely professional. Has anyone here had one of those evaluation boards where you are extra careful because you get the feeling that it will fall apart? You won’t have that feeling with Atmel’s SAMA5D3 Xplained board. I wouldn’t have any issues handling it in a lab, or even placing it inside an industrial system. It looks and feels solid, the exact quality you expect from Atmel. The next time I train people in the art of bootloaders, I’ll be using this board.

First, a talk about the processor itself. As I said, it is a Cortex-A5 device, but Atmel rarely makes “basic” processors. They prefer to create rich designs, with enhanced I/O and communication, and the SAMA5D3 goes even further than that. I’ve worked on a lot of industrial designs, and we have often been limited by the communication peripherals. One particular design forced us to change some peripherals from UART to SPI simply because there weren’t enough ports. No, it wasn’t an Atmel design.

The SAMA5D3 has 7 UART ports, making me wish we had this MPU on that particular project. Of course, if you prefer SPI, then you have 6 SPI ports. Other serial communication devices haven’t been forgotten either, this device has 3 I2C controllers, 2 CAN ports, and one of the many reasons why I can see this particular processor used in automobile applications, it also has 4 LIN ports. If you thought that all of those ports reduces the amount of I/O, you would be mistaken; the SAMA5D3 still has 160 I/O ports, all with interrupts.


Atmel’s ARM Based Cortex A5 SAMA5D3 Xplained Development Board

Enough of the processor, now the board itself. It comes with three USB connectors; two host and one device. There is a 10-pin JTAG connector, an SSD slot and a header for a micro-SD slot. And those connectors around the board? They are for Arduino shields, and are R3 compatible. The only Arduino shield that I have readily available is an Ethernet shield, but I won’t need that; the SAMA5D3 Xplained Pro has two Ethernet connectors, one 10/100 and one 10/100/1000. Both have a PHY and connector.

Slightly harder to see are the internals. Atmel’s SAMA5D3 has 256MBytes of NAND flash, and 256MBytes of DDR-II memory. When I said that this board could run an entire operating system, I wasn’t joking. This has enough power to run just about any OS; Linux and Android both work exceptionally well on this design, and the board can support just about any application, both from a software point of view and hardware. I’ve already talked about the impressive amount of serial communication ports, but I haven’t talked about the 12, 12-bit ADC channels, the LCD and camera interface, the resistive touch-screen interface, and the embedded crypto-engine. This is only about first impressions, and the word that comes to mind is “Wow”. Just, wow.

Windows Compact 7 started on Atmel SAMA5D3

Left: Windows Compact 7 started on Atmel SAMA5D3
Right:  SAMA5D3 Xplained kit has connectors for Arduino Shields and dual Ethernet ports

Usually, when buying a board, people asked “What can I use it for?”. Today, that question seems to be “What can’t I do with this?”, and to be honest, I can’t answer that right now.

I can see this device powering IoT, wearable devices, automotive designs and industrial equipment.

Of course, devices cost money, and the more complicated they are, the more they cost. Add to that the exceptional build quality, and you might expect this evaluation board to be prohibitively expensive, but it isn’t. The board itself is available for under 70€.

A friend at Atmel asked me to write something on this board. Well, that’s what I’m doing. No, really. I have a full Linux distribution on an SD card. I’ve connected it to my home network through an Ethernet cable and I’m connected via SSH. The board itself is sitting on my lap, powered by a 9V battery. He wanted me to write an article on the board? That’s what I’m doing; I’m writing this review on the board, through SSH. I’ve been playing about with Atmel’s SAMA5D3 Xplained for a few days now, and I love it. Decades ago, I dreamed of having a small-factor computer, and that is when I got into the original Maker scene; we created home electronics, and controlled them from desktop computers. This board, sitting on my lap, is more powerful than that machine by an order of magnitude. The evaluation board itself has impressive potential, but that only reflects a fraction of what the processor itself can do. I’ll be having a lot of fun with this.

How I explained the IoT to my parents

The industry has certainly gone through a lot of buzzwords, with some chronically overused or even distorted. However, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a buzzword with real impact, something that isn’t about to change. What exactly is the IoT? Members of the industry all know, and most are planning to either create or in some way help the IoT. Explaining the IoT to an engineer is simple enough, but explaining it to my parents was quite tricky.

Caen, France, one cold evening. A brief TV news article talks about a small company developing a new IoT project. Suddenly, I hear the question.

– James, what exactly is IoT?

I’m the residential geek of the family. I’ve blogged, I’ve written a book on embedded systems, and I’ve worked on dozens of embedded projects. I therefore am known as the PC repairer and iPad application installer, as well as the official family translator of “technical” to English or French. I clear my throat. IoT is short for the Internet of Things. Imagine lots of devices connected to the Internet, all of them together.

– What, like PCs?

No, not PCs. That’s classic, we’ve been there, we’ve done that. No, I’m talking about much smaller things. Things like, like… Well, take your thermostat over there! Imagine if it was connected to Internet. A roar of laughter. I wait patiently for them to figure out that I wasn’t laughing.

– Why would anybody want to have their thermostat connected to Internet?

Well, why wouldn’t they? I mean, look, the thermostat is set to 8, that’s pretty high. It is cold outside, and right now, France is experiencing some rather significant temperature variations, or at least for us. It was minus 3 Celsius a few days ago, now it is about 12. If your thermostat was connected to Internet, it would actually know if it was going to be hot or not. If it is a sunny day, there isn’t any point heating up that much. If, on the other hand, meterologists predict a cold spell, the thermostat might be able to adjust the heating, saving you energy.

– Well, that’s great, but why not just have a central heating computer?

Well, you could, and indeed some houses do have that, but why not put that intelligence directly into the thermostat, instead of having a separate computer? Why not let it make the decisions?

– But you can’t put a computer inside a thermostat! It would be huge!

I was expecting this. I had Atmel’s SAM D20 evaluation board with me, which is based on ARM’s Cortex-M0+. I show them the card, telling them that this card has all the power necessary to control a thermostat, and much, much more.

– That’s tiny!

Actually, it isn’t. This is pretty large. It is an evaluation board, designed to offer easy access to input and output pins, meaning that the board itself is larger than what you would find in a finished product. See that tiny little black thing in the middle? That’s Atmel’s SAM D20 microcontroller itself, about the size of a fingernail. This is what gives the board its intelligence. It is more powerful than your first computer and can run for years on a single battery.

– Well, I still don’t see why my thermostat should have access to Internet…

Put it this way. It can adjust the heating depending on the outside temperature, but the MCU is capable of much more. Imagine that you are on holiday, the device detects that you aren’t there, and it only keeps the house minimally heated. When it detects that you are coming back, it starts to heat again.

– How can it detect that we are coming back?

Well, it might look at your calendar, or detect that your car is coming back home.

– Well, how can it detect that the car is coming back home?

Because your car is connected to Internet too. Look, imagine, everything is connected. Everything. Your car. Your coffee machine. Your TV. Your alarm clock. Your morning meeting is delayed by 30 minutes, your alarm clock wakes you up 30 minutes later, the coffee machine knows to make your coffee later on, your car can start automatically to heat up at the right time. Everything becomes intelligent, and everything can talk to anything. I don’t know what will happen, I only know how. Just look at this board, the SAM D20 has it all! And when your thermostat suddenly needs to get some data from another sensor somewhere? It just updates itself! We are no longer limited by the technical side, these devices will be designed to be future-proof. We are only limited by our imagination, and we are getting very, very good at imagining the future.

– That is going to cost me a fortune in electricity!

No it isn’t, quite the opposite. By adding more electronics, you use less electricity, because your devices only consume precisely what they need.

– Wait a minute, is that actually possible?

Not only is it possible, but it has actually been done. We are only at the beginning of a digital revolution… Remember how Internet revolutionized the way you lived and worked? Well, you are about to live that all over again.

I leave them with that, and looking at their expression, I realize the short discussion is more than enough to get them thinking. I’ve barely scratched the surface. They might be thinking about the billions of devices creating data for the world to use, or possibly the sort of data their thermostat would solicit. Who would have thought a thermostat would want to talk to a car? That is only one example, and I can’t list them all, I can’t even think of them all. Who knows what the future will hold? IoT opens up an almost infinite amount of possibilities, and we will no longer create devices that only have one use, and can’t be changed. Rather, we will design devices capable of adapting to new inventions and a new way of living.

The Google-Arduino link (GDG Nantes)

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