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Arduino crosses over from hobbyists to professionals

16 May 2016  | Jacob Beningo

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The Arduino has been quite popular among electronics enthusiasts and hobbyists, but that is not the case for professional embedded systems developers. This may be due to the simple on-going noting that the platform, essentially is, well...simple.

I must admit that for the longest time I also viewed the Arduino as so simple it was nearly useless for professional developers. But I have changed my mind.

I've found that on a number of occasions over the last few years, rapid prototyping using Arduinos and Arduino shields has proven invaluable in moving a project forward. Despite, or perhaps because of, its abstracted simplicity, the Arduino has been key in turning an abstract idea into a defined product. For that reason, let's take a closer at the Arduino and how professional developers can benefit from it.

The Arduino hardware platform

One of the most powerful aspects of the Arduino for professional developers is the hardware ecosystem that supports it. Every Arduino board and derivative has a standard hardware interface that allows custom designed electronics to be stacked on top of the processor board to flesh out the prototype of an embedded system. The custom electronic boards, known as shields as probably most developers are aware, can literally have any type of electronics on-board such as motor drivers, sensors, actuators, LEDs or whatever the application needs may be. The popularity of Arduino among hobbyists has greatly benefited embedded system professionals because the result has been a variety of Arduino shields for nearly every application imaginable available off the shelf.

One of my personal favourite shields is the Sparkfun weather shield. This shield provides a collection of analogue and digital sensors that are perfect for teaching embedded systems courses. But if you have a different requirement, a quick search on nearly any electronic vendors' website will reveal dozens of commercially available and stocked Arduino shields of all kinds. Arduino shields are typically inexpensive, costing less than $50 depending on the collection of sensors and electronics on-board.

Sparkfun Weather Shield

Figure 1: Sparkfun Weather Shield

Professional developers can also leverage the Arduino hardware platform to interface with commercial devices of interest. Using available shields for CAN, SPI, RS-485, Ethernet and other equipment interfaces, it's possible to perform rapid prototyping activities for proof-of-concepts or one-off customer demos. For a few hundred dollars, a developer can easily assemble a complete hardware representation of the proposed embedded system and write some "dirty code" to make it functional.

The Arduino hardware interface has changed slightly over the years with the latest revision being based on the UNO R3 pinout. The standard interface consists of six analogue inputs, fourteen digital input, outputs, a dedicated I2C channel and then miscellaneous power rails and references.

The Arduino shield interface is designed for low cost, low pin count MCUs, which can potentially be an issue for professional embedded systems developers needing more. MCU companies have tried to resolve this issue by creating development boards for their more powerful processors while following the footprint for an Arduino shield. They then expanded the headers for additional functionality. By expanding their headers in the same way, developers can build their own custom shields for these enhanced development boards that use the extra functionality. Yet they can still also purchase off-the-shelf Arduino shields that remain compatible with the development board. The NXP FRDM-26Z and FRDM-64F are prime examples of how MCU companies are using the Arduino shield interface and then expanding on those capabilities.

The Arduino software platform

The Arduino is more than hardware; it's a complete hardware and software prototyping system. Its software development environment and libraries leave much to be desired from a professional developer's point of view, but it is still useful to get a basic understanding of how Arduino handles software development.

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