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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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|
|Digital Pins||20||8 GPIO||65 GPIO|
|PWM Pins||7 PWM||—||8 PWM|
|Network||—||10/100 Ethernet||10/100 Ethernet|
|Video||—||HD via HDMI, Composite||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|
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