Hackaday Links: October 9, 2016

Atari is back! That’s what some dude says. There are no real details in that post, other than ‘Atari is Back!’

The ESP32 is coming, and it’s going to be awesome. Espressif has just released an Arduino core for the ESP32 WiFi chip. The digitalRead, digitalWrite, SPI, Serial, Wire, and WiFi “should” work. If you’re looking for ESP32 hardware, they’re infrequently available and frequently out of stock. Thankfully, stock levels won’t be the Raspberry Pi Zero all over again until someone figures out how to run an NES emulator on the ESP32.

Tiny, cheap ARM boards would make for great home servers if they had SATA or multiple network interfaces. Here’s a Kickstarter for a board with both. It’s based on an ARM A53 with multiple Ethernets, mini PCIe, enough RAM, and SATA. It’s a board for niche use cases, but those uses could be really cool.

You’re not cool or ‘with it’ until you have a PCB ruler. That’s what all the hip kids are doing. For wizards and dark mages out there, a simple PCB ruler isn’t enough. These rare beasts demand RF rulers. There’s some weird stuff on these rulers, like Archemedian spiral antennas and spark gaps. Black magic stuff, here.

Some dude with a camera in the woods did something. Primitive Technology, the best example of experimental archaeology you’ve ever seen, built a spear thrower. You can throw a ball faster with a lacrosse stick than you can with just your hands, and this is the idea behind this device, commonly referred to as an atlatl. You can hunt with an atlatl in some states, but I have yet to see a video of anyone taking down a deer with one of these.

Think we’re done spamming the Hackaday Superconference yet? YOU’RE WRONG. The Hackaday Superconference is the greatest hardware conference of all time until we do this whole thing again next year. Get your tickets, look at the incredible list of speakers, book your flights, and be in Pasadena November 5-6.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Explore M3 ARM Cortex M3 Development Board

Even a cursory glance through a site such as this one will show you how many microcontroller boards there are on the market these days. It seems that every possible market segment has been covered, and then some, so why on earth would anyone want to bring another product into this crowded environment?

This is a question you might wish to ask of the team behind Explore M3, a new ARM Cortex M3 development board. It’s based around an LPC1768 ARM Cortex M3 with 64k of RAM and 512k of Flash running at 100MHz, and with the usual huge array of GPIOs and built-in peripherals.

The board’s designers originally aimed for it to be able to be used either as a bare-metal ARM or with the Arduino and Mbed tools. In the event the response to their enquiries with Mbed led them to abandon that support. They point to their comprehensive set of tutorials as what sets their board apart from its competition, and in turn they deny trying to produce merely another Arduino or Mbed. Their chosen physical format is a compact dual-in-line board for easy breadboarding, not unlike the Arduino Micro or the Teensy.

If you read the logs for the project, you’ll find a couple of videos explaining the project and taking you through a tutorial. They are however a little long to embed in a Hackaday piece, so we’ll leave you to head on over if you are interested.

We’ve covered a lot of microcontroller dev boards here in our time. If you want to see how far we’ve come over the years, take a look at our round up, and its second part, from back in 2011.

Hackaday Prize Entry: A Cheap STM32 Dev Board

Dev boards sporting a powerful ARM microcontroller are the future, despite what a gaggle of Arduino clones from China will tell you. Being the future doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of these boards around, though. The LeafLabs Maple has been around since 2009, and is a fine board if you want all that Processing/Wiring/Arduino goodies in a in an ARM dev board. The Maple has been EOL’d, and that means it’s time for a few new boards that build on what LeafLabs left behind.

This Hackaday Prize entry is for an almost-clone of the Leaflabs Maple Mini. It sports a newer microcontroller, but still has the same bootloader and pinout. The best part? It costs less than four dollars.

The microcontroller inside this Maple Mini clone is the STM32F103, a 32-bit ARM Cortex-M3 running at 72 MHz with 128K of Flash and 20K of SRAM. That’s enough for just about everything you would want to throw at it. It also follows the pinout of the original Maple Mini, and the team also has a version that’s a slight improvement of the original Maple.

The big deal is, of course, the price of the board. It’s four bucks, or about the same price as an Arduino clone from the usual online retailers. Now, finally, there’s a reason for you to wash your hands of the Arduino too.

When You Need a Scope, You Need a Scope

Sometimes there’s just no substitute for the right diagnostic tool. [Ankit] was trying to port some I2C code from an Arduino platform to an ARM chip. When the latter code wasn’t working, he got clever and wrote a small sketch for the Arduino which would echo each byte that came across I2C out to the serial line. The bytes all looked right, yet the OLED still wasn’t working.

Time to bring out the right tool for the job: a logic analyzer or oscilloscope. Once he did that, the problem was obvious (see banner image — Arduino on top, ARM on bottom): he misunderstood what the ARM code was doing and was accidentally sending an I2C stop/start signal between two bytes. With that figured, he was on the right track in no time.

We just ran an epic post on troubleshooting I2C, and we’ll absolutely attest to the utility of having a scope or logic analyzer on hand when debugging communications. If you suspect that the bits aren’t going where they’re supposed to, there’s one way to find out. It’s conceivable that [Ankit] could have dug his way through the AVR’s hardware I2C peripheral documentation and managed to find the status codes that would have also given him the same insight, but it’s often the case that putting a scope on it is the quick and easy way out.

The Perfect Storm: Open ARM + FPGA Board

Playing around with FPGAs used to be a daunting prospect. You had to fork out a hundred bucks or so for a development kit, sign the Devil’s bargain to get your hands on a toolchain, and only then can you start learning. In the last few years, a number of forces have converged to bring the FPGA experience within the reach of even the cheapest and most principled open-source hacker.

[Ken Boak] and [Alan Wood] put together a no-nonsense FPGA board with the goal of getting the price under $30. They basically took a Lattice iCE40HX4K, an STMF103 ARM Cortex-M3 microcontroller, some SRAM, and put it all together on a single board.

The Lattice part is a natural choice because the IceStorm project created a full open-source toolchain for it. (Watch [Clifford Wolf]’s presentation). The ARM chip is there to load the bitstream into the FPGA on boot up, and also brings USB connectivity, ADC pins, and other peripherals into the mix. There’s enough RAM on board to get a lot done, and between the ARM and FPGA, there’s more GPIO pins than we can count.

Modeling an open processor core? Sure. High-speed digital signal capture? Why not. It even connects to a Raspberry Pi, so you could use the whole affair as a high-speed peripheral. With so much flexibility, there’s very little that you couldn’t do with this thing. The trick is going to be taming the beast. And that’s where you come in.

New Part Day: ST’s 32-Bit 3D Printer Controller

There are a few 32-bit ARM-based 3D printer controller boards out there such as the Smoothieboard, the Azteeg X5 mini, [Traumflug]’s Gen5 electronics, whatever board is in the Monoprice MP Mini Select, and several others I will be criticized for not mentioning. All of these ARM boards provide smoother acceleration, better control, and ultimately better prints from whatever 3D printer they’re controlling. Now, out of the blue, there’s a new board. It’s an evaluation board from ST — much like those famous Discovery boards — that sells itself as a plug and play solution for 3D printers.

The heart of this board is an STM32F401 — not the king of the STM32 line or the fastest ARM microcontroller, but anything faster or more capable will add considerably more to the BOM for this board. This controller board features six of ST’s L6474 motor drivers with enough current for some beefy NEMA 23 stepper motors , a multi-zone heated bed, and connections for a WiFi module and external LCD and keypad. You can buy this board right now for $118. This board isn’t a game changer, but it is evidence the game has been changed.

As with all 3D printer controller boards, there are a few aspects that will leave users wanting more. This is a board meant for 12V heaters (except for the bed, which has a 24V, 20A output), and the stepper drivers can only go up to 16 microsteps. That said, there’s not much else to complain about. This offering comes with a 32-bit firmware called Marlin4ST. From a quick perusal, it looks like the familiar configuration.h is still there, and still does what it’s supposed to do.

This ST Discovery board is extremely capable, available now, and relatively cheap, but that’s not really the big story here. What this board represents is a reference design and working firmware for a 32-bit ARM-based printer controller. That’s the future, and with this board the future might come a little sooner.

Thanks [jagerboots] for sending this one in.

SoftBank Bought ARM

$32 billion USD doesn’t buy as much as it used to. Unless you convert it into British Pounds, battered by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and make an offer for ARM Holdings. In that case, it will buy you our favorite fabless chip-design company.

The company putting up 32 Really Big Ones is Japan’s SoftBank, a diversified technology conglomerate. SoftBank is most visible as a mobile phone operator in Japan, but their business strategy lately has been latching on to emerging technology and making very good investments. (With the notable exception of purchasing the US’s Sprint Telecom, which they say is turning around.) Recently, they’ve focused on wireless and IoT. And now, they’re going to buy ARM.

We suspect that this won’t mean much for ARM in the long term. SoftBank isn’t a semiconductor firm, they just want a piece of the action. With the Japanese economy relatively stagnant, a strong Yen and a weak Pound, ARM became a bargain. (SoftBank said in a press release that the Brexit didn’t affect their decision, and that they would have bought ARM anyway. Still, you can’t blame them for waiting until after the vote, and the fallout, to make the purchase.) It certainly won’t hurt SoftBank’s robotics, IoT, or AI strategies to have a leading processor design firm in their stable, but we predict business as usual for those of us way downstream in the ARM ecosystem.

Thanks [Jaromir] for the tip!