SOLID Learning Electronics – Microcontroller Options

Workshop Microcontroller Options

After extensive discussions, debates and demonstrations for educators and workshop participants, parents and interested hobbyists, selection of the standard for microcontrollers to be used in SOLID Learning designs is the Arduino platform we have used for several years together with Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone microcomputer platforms for special purposes.

Arduinos

Support and availability were the primary determining factors for this selection, with the Arduino’s massive community of users and developers and its almost universal availability Internationally and domestically (even at local Radio Shack stores for last-minute additions) making it more attractive than other microcontroller alternatives like the LEGO RXT/NXT Mindstorms, PIC, TI MSP, Kovan, LPCXpresso, and Parallax Propeller boards.

DIY Arduino

In addition to Arduino’s support base and availability, its flexibility in numerous form-factors and ability to create another Arduino using the Atmel microprocessor chip itself make this an excellent inexpensive educational tool (building a new Arduino costs as little as $6 USD).

Arduino Shields

The variety of available add-ons (called “Shields”) is also a factor in the Arduino’s favor, as well as the multitude of devices and sensors that have been ported to the Arduino with libraries constructed as open-source downloadable packages for easy inclusion in lessons covering programming, embedded controllers, robotics, and various other purposes from agricultural automation to weather monitoring and social media tracking.

BSA Computers Merit Badge

For Microcomputer-specific functions, we will continue to use the Raspberry Pi in workshops on high-performance computing, multi-screen view walls, and web development as its Linux operating system and USB expansion capabilities make this $35 USD single board computer an excellent option for student and educator development. Raspberry Pi add-ons (called “Plates”) are also being developed, while there are adapters to allow some Arduino Shields to be used with the RasPi.

RaspberryPi

The Raspberry Pi’s on-board HDMI video and CD card storage provide an excellent resource, with sufficient flexibility that some teachers are creating student check-out “laptops” for under $100 each. STEMulate Learning workshops for BSA and Girl Scout computer Merit Badges are currently being extended using only open source options running atop a Raspberry Pi, with the participants planning to release their designs for others to use in their own programs.

BeagleBoneBlack

When hardware requirements exceed the limited GPIO of the Raspberry Pi, but greater computing power is needed beyond the Arduino’s capacity, the BeagleBone will be employed. I am currently working with the BeagleBone Black to adapt several robotics workshops to use this $45 USD Linux-based board as an alternative to Arduinos.

OpenROV

Our Summer workshops will build submersible robots (ROVs) based on the MIT SeaPerch and OpenROV designs, which will use BeagleBones, because a number of specialized add-ons (called “Capes”) have already been developed to support robot and ROV design requirements.

A comparison of the three selections is included below. The Arduino (either Duo or Leonardo, discussion is still ongoing) will be the go-to for battery-based designs that do not need a full Linux computer. The BeagleBone will be used when hardware requirements exceed the minimal Raspberry Pi GPIO interface.

Arduino Raspberry Pi BeagleBone
Board Arduino Leonardo Raspberry Pi, Model B BeagleBone Black
Price $25 USD $35 USD $45 USD
Processor 16MHz Atmel 700MHz ARM 1GHz ARM
RAM 2.5KB, 32KB Flash 256MB, SD card 512MB DDR3, 2GB eMMC, microSD   card
Analog Pins 12 7
Digital Pins 20 8 GPIO 65 GPIO
PWM Pins 7 PWM 8 PWM
TWI/I2C 2 1 2
Expansion Shields Plates Capes
Network 10/100 Ethernet 10/100 Ethernet
Video HD via HDMI, Composite HDMI
Audio HDMI, Stereo HDMI
Platform Arduino IDE Rasbian (Debian), Pidora   (Fedora), Arch Linux, RISC Android, Ubuntu, Angstrom Linux,   Cloud9
Programming Processing (C variant) Any language supported by a   compatible Linux distribution. Any language   supported by a compatible Linux distribution.
Power 40mA per I/O pin @7-12V 700mA @5V 210-460mA @5V
Source Open Proprietary Open

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