Particle Electron – The Solution To Cellular Things

Just over a year ago, Particle (formerly Spark), makers of the very popular Core and Particle Photon WiFi development kits, released the first juicy tidbits for a very interesting piece of hardware. It was the Electron, a cheap, all-in-one cellular development kit with an even more interesting data plan. Particle would offer their own cellular service, allowing their tiny board to send or receive 1 Megabyte for $3.00 a month, without any contracts.

Thousands of people found this an interesting proposition and the Electron crowdfunding campaign took off like a rocket. Now, after a year of development and manufacturing, these tiny cellular boards are finally shipping out to backers and today the Electron officially launches.

Particle was kind enough to provide Hackaday with an Electron kit for a review. The short version of this review is the Electron is a great development platform, but Particle pulled off a small revolution in cellular communications and the Internet of Things

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Rube Goldberg PC/Console Game Hack

There’s no holy war holier than establishing whether PC games are superior to console games (they are). But even so, there’s no denying that there are some good console titles out there. What if you’d still like to play them using a mouse and keyboard? If you’re [Agent86], you’d build up the most ridiculous chain of fun electronics to get the job done.

Now there is an overpriced off-the-shelf solution for this problem, and a pre-existing open-source project that’ll get the same job done for only a few bucks in parts. But there’s nothing like the fun in solving a problem your own way, with your own tangle of wires, darn it all! The details of the build span four (4!) pages in [Agent86]’s blog, so settle down with a warm cup of coffee.

Here’s the summary: an Xbox 360 controller is taken apart and turned into an Xbox controller. The buttons and joysticks are put under computer control via a Teensy microcontroller. GPIOs press the controller’s buttons, and digipots replace the analog sticks. Software on the Teensy drives the digipots and presses the buttons, interpreting a custom protocol sent over USB from the computer, which also gets some custom software to send the signals.

So if you’re keeping score: a button press on a keyboard is converted to USB, sent to a PC, converted to a custom serial protocol, sent to a Teensy which emulates a human for a controller that then coverts the signals back into the Xbox’s USB protocol. Pshwew!

Along the way, there’s learning at every stage, which is really the point of an exercise like this. And [Agent86] says that it mostly works, with some glitches in the mouse-to-joystick mapping. But if you’re interested in any part of this crazy chain, you’ve now got a model for each of them.


Bye-bye ATmega328P, Hello 328PB!

We never have enough peripherals on a microcontroller. Whether it’s hardware-driven PWM channels, ADCs, or serial communication peripherals, we always end up wanting just one more of these but don’t really need so many of those. Atmel’s new version of the popular ATmega328 series, the ATmega328PB, seems to have heard our pleas.

We don’t have a chip in hand, but the datasheet tantalizes. Here’s a quick rundown of the new features:

  • Two more 16-bit timer/counters. This is a big deal when you’re writing code that’s not backed up by an operating system and relies on the hardware for jitter-free timing.
  • Two of each USART, SPI, and I2C serial instead of one of each. Good when you use I2C devices that have limited address spaces, or when you need to push the bits out really fast over SPI.
  • Ten PWM channels instead of six. This (along with the extra 16-bit timers) is good news for anyone who uses PWM — from driving servos to making music.
  • Onboard capacitive sensing hardware: Peripheral Touch Controller. This is entirely new to the ATmega328PB chip, and looks like it’ll be interesting for running capacitive sense buttons without additional ICs. It relies on Atmel’s QTouch software library, though, so it looks like it’s not a free-standing peripheral as much as an internal multiplexer with maybe some hardware-level filtering. We’ll have to look into this in detail when we get our hands on one of the chips.

So what does this mean for you? A quick search of the usual suspects shows the chips in stock and shipping right now, and there’s an inexpensive dev kit available as well. If you write your own code in C, taking advantage of the new features should be a snap. Arduino folks will have to wait until the chips (and code support) work their way into the ecosystem.

Thanks [Peter van der Walt] for the tip!

Microchip To Acquire Atmel for $3.56 Billion

Just last week, there was considerable speculation that Microchip would buy Atmel. The deal wasn’t done, and there was precedent that this deal wouldn’t happen – earlier this year, Dialog made an approach at Atmel. Now, though, the deal is done: Microchip will acquire Atmel for $3.56 Billion.

There are three main companies out there making microcontrollers that are neither ancient 8051 clones or ARM devices: TI’s MSP430 series, Microchip and Atmel. Microchip has the very, very popular PIC series microcontrollers, which can be found in everything. Atmel’s portfolio includes the AVR line of microcontrollers, which are also found in everything. From phones to computers to toasters, there’s a very high probablitiy you’re going to find something produced by either Atmel or Microchip somewhere within 15 feet of your person right now.

For the hobbyist electronic enthusiast, this has led to the closest thing we have to a holy war. Atmel chips were a little easier (and cheaper) to program, but were a little more expensive. Microchip’s chips have a very long history and proportionally more proper engineers who are advocates. PIC isn’t Arduino, though, a community that has built a large and widely used code base around the AVR family.

Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel follows several mergers and acquisitions in recent months: NXP and Freescale, Intel and Altera, Avago and Broadcom, and On Semiconductor and Fairchild. The semiconductor industry has cash and wants to spend it. What this means for the Atmel product line is left to be seen. The most popular micros probably won’t be discontinued, but if you’re using unpopular Atmel micros such as the ATtiny10 you might want to grab a reel or two before they’re EOL’d.


A Shareable Wireless Biometric Flash Drive

Wireless storage and biometric authentication are both solved problems. But as [Nathan] and [Zhi] have noticed, there is no single storage solution that incorporates both. For their final project in [Bruce Land]’s ECE 4760, they sought to combine the two ideas under a tight budget while adding as many extras as they could afford, like an OLED and induction coil charging.

final_product_600Their solution can be used by up to 20 different people who each get a slice of an SD card in the storage unit There are two physical pieces, a base station and the wireless storage unit itself. The base station connects to the host PC over USB and contains an Arduino for serial pass-through and an nRF24L01+ module for communicating with the storage side. The storage drive’s components are crammed inside a clear plastic box. This not only looks cool, it negates the need for cutting out ports to mount the fingerprint sensor and the OLED. The sensor reads the user’s credentials through the box, and the authentication status is displayed on an OLED. Files are transferred to and from the SD card over a second nRF24L01+ through the requisite PIC32.

Fingerprint authorization gives the unit some physical security, but [Nathan] and [Zhi] would like to add an encryption scheme. Due to budget limitations and time constraints, the data transfer isn’t very fast (840 bytes/sec), but this isn’t really the nRF modules’ fault—most of the transmission protocol was implemented in software and they simply ran out of debugging time. There is also no filesystem architecture. In spite of these drawbacks, [Nathan] and [Zhi] created a working proof of concept for wireless biometric storage that they are happy with. Take a tour after the break.
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Microchip’s Proposal To Acquire Atmel

A proposal from Microchip to acquire Atmel has been deemed a ‘superior proposal’ by Atmel’s board of directors (PDF). This is the first step in the acquisition of a merger between Microchip and Atmel, both leading semiconductor companies that have had a tremendous impact in the electronics industry.

Microchip is a leading manufacturer of microcontrollers, most famously the PIC series of micros that can be found in any and every type of electronic device. Atmel, likewise, also has a large portfolio of microcontrollers and memory devices that are found in every type of electronic device. Engineers, hackers, and electronic hobbyists are frequently sided with Microchip’s PIC line or Atmel’s AVR line of microcontrollers. It’s the closest thing we have to a holy war in electronics.

Last September, Dialog acquired announced plans to acquire Atmel for $4.6 Billion. Today’s news of a possible acquisition of Atmel by Microchip follows even larger mergers such as NXP and Freescale, Intel and Altera, Avago and Broadcom, On Semiconductor and Fairchild, and TI and Maxim. The semiconductor industry has cash on hand and costs to cut, these mergers and acquisitions are the natural order of things.

While the deal is not done, the money is on the table, and Atmel’s board is apparently interested.

Introducing the BeagleBone Blue

The BeagleBone is a board that doesn’t get a lot of attention in a world of $5 Raspberry Pis, $8 single board computers based on router chipsets, and a dizzying array of Kickstarter projects promising Android and Linux on tiny credit card-sized single board computers. That doesn’t mean the BeagleBone still isn’t evolving, as evidenced by the recent announcement of the BeagleBone Blue.

The BeagleBone Blue is the latest board in the BeagleBone family, introduced last week at CES. The Blue is the result of a collaboration between UCSD Engineering and TI, and with that comes a BeagleBone built for one specific purpose: robotics and autonomous vehicles. With a suite of sensors very useful for robotics and a supported software stack ideal for robots and drones, the BeagleBone Blue is the perfect board for all kinds of robots.

On board the BeagleBone Blue is a 2 cell LiPo charger with cell balancing and a 6-16 V charger input. The board also comes with eight 6V servo outputs, four DC motor outputs and inputs for four quadrature encoders. Sensors include a nine axis IMU and barometer. Unlike all previous BeagleBones, the BeagleBone Blue also comes with wireless networking: 802.11bgn, Bluetooth 4.0 and BLE. USB 2.0 client and host ports are also included.

Like all of the recent BeagleBoards, including the recently released BeagleBone Green, the Blue uses the same AM3358 1 GHz ARM Cortex 8 CPU, features 512 MB of DDR3 RAM, 4GB of on board Flash, and features the main selling point of the BeagleBoard, two 32-bit programmable real-time units (PRUs) running at 200 MHz. The PRUs are what give the BeagleBone the ability to blink pins and control peripherals faster than any other single board Linux computer, and are extremely useful in robotics, the Blue’s target use.

Right now, the BeagleBone Blue isn’t available, although we do know you’ll be able to buy one this summer. Information on pricing and availability – as well as a few demos – will come in February.