Open-Source Guide for Embedded Systems Developers (EE Tip #114)

What comes to mind when you hear the term “open source”? Hopefully, it means more to you than just a software application running on a PC.

As an embedded systems developer, you should familiarize yourself with the wide range of open-source programs, programming tools, and hardware platforms currently available. In addition to saving yourself the costs of pricey user licenses, you’ll find that open-source community forums helpful, informative, and engaging.

Open-source software offers a number of advantages. The product is independent of a particular manufacturer and there aren’t license costs. Plus, the product is usually high quality because it is often supported by a large active community of users. When a program’s source code is available, you have the chance to fix errors, change its behavior, and even add new features.

The aforementioned advantages should be good enough reasons for any designer of microcontroller applications to work with open-source software. PC tools such as editors, documentation programs, toolchains (for the vast majority of microcontrollers), operating systems, and libraries are widely available with open-source code.

On the hardware side, open-source microcontroller boards are gaining popularity among serious engineers. The circuits, PCBs, and CAD files are available so you can modify them, improve them, and add more features to meet the demands of your applications. It’s an added benefit that open-source hardware is always supported by software code and libraries that enable you to get up and running fairly quickly.

Since we couldn’t include in the space provided all the open-source resources currently available, we simply list several open-source projects that Elektor and Circuit Cellar engineers and editors recommend.

Below we provide the following lists: hardware; libraries and run-time tools; PC tools, and GNU toolchains. By no means are the lists complete. Still, they’re helpful starting points.

Download your Arduino Uno poster

Click image to download a free Arduino Uno poster

Arduino—This popular platform offers a range of simple microcontroller and development boards that you can purchase from several suppliers. The Arduino website has an active forum and the wide range of software examples will ensure that you are up and running in minimum time.

Openmoko—It’s a complete software stack for a smart. The Neo FreeRunner mobile phone is the target hardware platform. Development and debug boards are also available.

GNU Radio & Universal Software Radio Peripheral—The GNU Radio project is a software toolkit to produce a software-defined radio. The open-source hardware for this project is the Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRPBoard), which is based on an FPGA.

KiCAD—One of the best-known suites of CAD programs for hardware production, KiCAD includes tools for generating circuit diagrams and PCBs. You can view 3-D representations of the finished board.

Fab Lab—This interesting project offers 3-D laser cutters, 3-D printers, and other machines for use by the general public. It’s a handy resource for making robot parts and art objects.

uIP/lwIP—Two outstanding network stacks, the first is for 8-bit microcontrollers. lwIP is a development of the first and more suited to medium sized controllers. The uIP licence is not so strict allowing the stack to be used in commercial products.

LUFA (formally MyUSB)—A large library of applications for interfacing (both Host and Device) USB enabled AVR controllers. The demonstration applications allow an AVR controller for example to emulate a keyboard and many other devices (mass storage device, audio I/O etc.)OpenSource2

Crypto-avr-lib—It’s a library of optimized cryptographic routines for the Atmel ATmega controller. Issued under the GPL Version 3 licence. Contact the author for other types of licence.

FreeRTOS—FreeRTOS is a lightweight Real Time kernel which can run on many controller families. It can be used in commercial applications and allows the use of closed-source software.

U-Boot—Universal bootloader with a large range of routines for memory, UART interface, SD card, network and USB etc. Conceived originally as a bootloader but now through comprehensive hardware support can be used as the basis of a C code module.

Embedded Filesystems Library—A useful (FAT) file format, when you are short of memory. The GPL licence includes a clause allowing static linking to the library without public disclosure of your code.

.NET Micro Framework—Now open source this very compact, trimmed down .NET Framework running on diverse ARM platforms. Programmable using the object orientated C variant C#; lots of resources including support for I2C, Ethernet and many more. Helps reduce development time.

Eclipse—This is a good development environment. It has a modular structure which makes it very easy to configure. There are around 1,000 plug-in modules (both open source and commercial) for a range of program languages and target systems.

Kdevelop—Kdevelop is an integrated development environment which should satisfy most power-user needs. Runs in MS Windows, Mac OsX, Linux, Solaris and FreeBSD. Plug-in expandable.

Programmer’s Notepad—A lightweight but efficient editor for writing source code. Allows fast, simple and comfortable program production. Can be expanded with plug-ins.

Doxygen—An intelligent tool which can automatically generate code documentation (C, C++, Java etc.). The programmer provides tags in the source file; Doxygen generates the comprehensive documentation in PDF or HTML format. It can also extract the code structure from undocumented source files.

WinMerge—A good tool for code comparison and code synchronization. The program can also compare the contents of folders/files and display the results in a visual text format that makes it easy to understand.

Tera Term—A terminal program to access COM ports, supports Telnet communication Protocol. A debugging tool to eavesdrop on serial communications.

Note: Toolchains for GNU projects are available most processor architectures AVR, Coldfire, ARM, MIPS, PowerPC and Intel x86. The GNU-toolchain includes not only compilers for C, C++ and in most cases also Java (GCC = GNU Compiler Collection), but also Linkers, Assemblers and Debuggers together with C libraries (libc = C library). The tools are used from within other-open source projects, like WinAVR, which provides a familiar user interface to speed up program development.

6DoF Robotic Arm

GlobalSpecialties

The R680 Banshi Robotic Arm

The R680 Banshi Robotic Arm is an affordable robot designed for educators and hobbyists. It can help users learn the basics of electronics, mechanics, and programming. The Banshi is controlled by an ATmega64 microcontroller that is programmable via open-source tools in C.

The robot includes many example programs that can be easily downloaded to the robot using the supplied USB interface and the RobotLoader software. You can also use the free open-source WinAVR software to write your own custom programs.

The robot can be controlled with the included keyboard or RACS software. The software can record and play back the Banshi’s movements. You can use I/Os and the flexible I2C bus system to add extra modules that enable the robot to react to its environment.

GlobalSpecialties-kit

The Banshi Robot kit

The Banshi Robot comes unassembled as a kit with included assembly tools. The robot’s additional features include six degrees of freedom (6DoF), a 12-V power supply, an I2C bus, a USB interface, and a complete 72-page manual.

The Banshi Robotic Arm costs $199.

Global Specialties
http://globalspecialties.com

Low-Cost SBCs Could Revolutionize Robotics Education

For my entire life, my mother has been a technology trainer for various educational institutions, so it’s probably no surprise that I ended up as an engineer with a passion for STEM education. When I heard about the Raspberry Pi, a diminutive $25 computer, my thoughts immediately turned to creating low-cost mobile computing labs. These labs could be easily and quickly loaded with a variety of programming environments, walking students through a step-by-step curriculum to teach them about computer hardware and software.

However, my time in the robotics field has made me realize that this endeavor could be so much more than a traditional computer lab. By adding actuators and sensors, these low-cost SBCs could become fully fledged robotic platforms. Leveraging the common I2C protocol, adding chains of these sensors would be incredibly easy. The SBCs could even be paired with microcontrollers to add more functionality and introduce students to embedded design.

rover_webThere are many ways to introduce students to programming robot-computers, but I believe that a web-based interface is ideal. By setting up each computer as a web server, students can easily access the interface for their robot directly though the computer itself, or remotely from any web-enabled device (e.g., a smartphone or tablet). Through a web browser, these devices provide a uniform interface for remote control and even programming robotic platforms.

A server-side language (e.g., Python or PHP) can handle direct serial/I2C communications with actuators and sensors. It can also wrap more complicated robotic concepts into easily accessible functions. For example, the server-side language could handle PID and odometry control for a small rover, then provide the user functions such as “right, “left,“ and “forward“ to move the robot. These functions could be accessed through an AJAX interface directly controlled through a web browser, enabling the robot to perform simple tasks.

This web-based approach is great for an educational environment, as students can systematically pull back programming layers to learn more. Beginning students would be able to string preprogrammed movements together to make the robot perform simple tasks. Each movement could then be dissected into more basic commands, teaching students how to make their own movements by combining, rearranging, and altering these commands.

By adding more complex commands, students can even introduce autonomous behaviors into their robotic platforms. Eventually, students can be given access to the HTML user interfaces and begin to alter and customize the user interface. This small superficial step can give students insight into what they can do, spurring them ahead into the next phase.
Students can start as end users of this robotic framework, but can eventually graduate to become its developers. By mapping different commands to different functions in the server side code, students can begin to understand the links between the web interface and the code that runs it.

Kyle Granat

Kyle Granat, who wrote this essay for Circuit Cellar,  is a hardware engineer at Trossen Robotics, headquarted in Downers Grove, IL. Kyle graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Computer Engineering. Kyle, who lives in Valparaiso, IN, specializes in embedded system design and is dedicated to STEM education.

Students will delve deeper into the server-side code, eventually directly controlling actuators and sensors. Once students begin to understand the electronics at a much more basic level, they will be able to improve this robotic infrastructure by adding more features and languages. While the Raspberry Pi is one of today’s more popular SBCs, a variety of SBCs (e.g., the BeagleBone and the pcDuino) lend themselves nicely to building educational robotic platforms. As the cost of these platforms decreases, it becomes even more feasible for advanced students to recreate the experience on many platforms.

We’re already seeing web-based interfaces (e.g., ArduinoPi and WebIOPi) lay down the beginnings of a web-based framework to interact with hardware on SBCs. As these frameworks evolve, and as the costs of hardware drops even further, I’m confident we’ll see educational robotic platforms built by the open-source community.

CC281: Overcome Fear of Ethernet on an FPGA

As its name suggests, the appeal of an FPGA is that it is fully programmable. Instead of writing software, you design hardware blocks to quickly do what’s required of a digital design. This also enables you to reprogram an FPGA product in the field to fix problems “on the fly.”

But what if “you” are an individual electronics DIYer rather than an industrial designer? DIYers can find FPGAs daunting.

Issue281The December issue of Circuit Cellar issue should offer reassurance, at least on the topic of “UDP Streaming on an FPGA.” That’s the focus of Steffen Mauch’s article for our Programmable Logic issue (p. 20).

Ethernet on an FPGA has several applications. For example, it can be used to stream measured signals to a computer for analysis or to connect a camera (via Camera Link) to an FPGA to transmit images to a computer.

Nonetheless, Mauch says, “most novices who start to develop FPGA solutions are afraid to use Ethernet or DDR-SDRAM on their boards because they fear the resulting complexity.” Also, DIYers don’t have the necessary IP core licenses, which are costly and often carry restrictions.

Mauch’s UDP monitor project avoids such costs and restrictions by using a free implementation of an Ethernet-streaming device based on a Xilinx Spartan-6 LX FPGA. His article explains how to use OpenCores’s open-source tri-mode MAC implementation and stream UDP packets with VHDL over Ethernet.

Mauch is not the only writer offering insights into FPGAs. For more advanced FPGA enthusiasts, columnist Colin O’Flynn discusses hardware co-simulation (HCS), which enables the software simulation of a design to be offloaded to an FPGA. This approach significantly shortens the time needed for adequate simulation of a new product and ensures that a design is actually working in hardware (p. 52).

This Circuit Cellar issue offers a number of interesting topics in addition to programmable logic. For example, you’ll find a comprehensive overview of the latest in memory technologies, advice on choosing a flash file system for your embedded Linux system, a comparison of amplifier classes, and much more.

Mary Wilson
editor@circuitcellar.com

Processing, Wiring, and Arduino (EE Tip 101)

Processing is a language and an open-source programming environment for programming images, animations, and interactions. The project, an initiative from Ben Fry and Casey Reas, is based on ideas developed by the Aesthetics and Computation Group of the MIT Media Lab. Processing was created in order to teach the fundamentals of programming in a visual context and to serve as a sketchbook or professional software production tool. Processing runs under GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. Several books have already been written on Processing.

Source: Clemens Valens, “Microcontrollers for Dummes,” 080931-I, Elektor, 2/2009.

Source: Clemens Valens, “Microcontrollers for Dummes,” 080931-I, Elektor, 2/2009.

Just like Arduino, Wiring is a programming environment with microcontroller board for exploring electronic arts, teaching programming, and quick prototyping. Wiring, programmed in Processing, is an initiative by Hernando Barragán and was designed at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII) in Italy.

Arduino is a fast, open-source electronic prototyping platform. Arduino is aimed at DIYers, electronics enthusiasts, and anyone interested in creating objects or interactive environments. Created by Massimo Banzi, Gianluca Martino, David Cuartielles, and David Mellis, Arduino uses a programming language based on Processing. Arduino may be regarded as a simplification of Wiring.

For more information, refer to Clemens Valens’s article, “Microcontrollers for Dummies,” 080931-I, Elektor, 2/2009.