BBC’s micro:bit Gets Python

The BBC has developed a computer to be used by thousands of students across the UK. While not very powerful in terms of hardware, it comes with an interpreted language that will get students writing their own code and will launch the careers of an entire generation of web developers. This is, of course, the BBC Micro, a computer introduced in 1981, but is still deeply revered by millions of former students.

Microcontrollers are everywhere now, and the BBC is looking to replicate their success with the micro:bit. Unlike the BBC Micro, this isn’t a proper computer with a keyboard and a monitor. Instead, it’s a microcontroller development platform based on an ARM chip. Now, the micro:bit is getting Python, the BASIC of today, and will assuredly be even more useful in UK classrooms.

The initial development for Python on the micro:bit started down the road of using Microsoft’s TouchDevelop as a browser-based IDE that would send C++ code to an mBed cloud compilation service. A hex file would be generated, this would be downloaded to the local file system, and finally the student would simply drag the hex file over to the micro:bit since it appeared on the desktop as a USB storage device. This was a terrible idea, because MicroPython exists. The current way of running Python on the micro:bit is as simple as plugging it in to a USB port, opening a terminal, and writing some code. It’s the closest you’re ever going to get to a computer with BASIC in ROM, and it’s the best device for millions of 11-year-olds to learn how to code.

Thanks [dassheep] for the tip.

Flying High with Zynq

[Aerotenna] recently announced the first successful flight of an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) powered by a Xilinx Zynq processor running ArduPilot. The Zynq is a dual ARM processor with an onboard FPGA that can offload the processor or provide custom I/O devices. They plan to release their code to their OcPoC (Octagonal Pilot on a Chip) project, an open source initiative that partners with Dronecode, an open source UAV platform.

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FRDM-K22F ARM Board doesn’t have an SD Card Socket? Not so Fast!

The Freescale Freedom development boards come in several different flavors and at several different price points. It is pretty clear that Freescale counts up pennies to hit their desired target price. For example, the costlier boards with bigger processors (like the K64F which costs about $35) has sockets to fit an Arduino shield or other external connections. Many of the cheaper boards (like the KL25Z for $13) just has PCB holes. If you want to add sockets, that’s on you.

The $30 K22F board has the sockets, but it also omits a few components that are on the PCB. [Erich Styger] noted that there was a micro SD card socket footprint on the board and wondered if he could add an SD card to the board by just soldering on the socket. The answer: yes!

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ARMing a Breadboard — Everyone Should Program an ARM

I’m always a little surprised that we don’t see more ARM-based projects. Of course, we do see some, but the volume isn’t what I’d expect given that low-level ARM chips are cheap, capable, low power, and readily available. Having a 32-bit processor with lots of memory running at 40 or 50 MIPS is a game changer compared to, say, a traditional Arduino (and, yes, the Arduino Due and Zero are ARM-based, so you can still stay with Arduino, if that’s what you want).

A few things might inhibit an Arduino, AVR, or PIC user from making the leap. For one thing, most ARM chips use 3.3V I/O instead of the traditional 5V levels (there are exceptions, like the Kinetis E). There was a time when the toolchain was difficult to set up, although this is largely not a problem anymore. But perhaps the largest hurdle is that most of the chips are surface mount devices.

Of course, builders today are getting pretty used to surface mount devices and you can also get evaluation boards pretty cheaply, too. But in some situations–for example, in classrooms–it is very attractive to have a chip that is directly mountable on a common breadboard. Even if you don’t mind using a development board, you may want to use the IC directly in a final version of a project and some people still prefer working with through hole components.

The 28 Pin Solution

One solution that addresses most, if not all, of these concerns is the LPC1114FN28 processor. Unlike most other ARM processors, this one comes in a 28 pin DIP package and works great on a breadboard. It does require 3.3V, but it is 5V tolerant on digital inputs (and, of course, a 3.3V output is usually fine for driving a 5V input). The chip will work with mbed or other ARM tools and after prototyping, you can always move to a surface mount device for production, if you like. Even if you are buying just one, you should be able to find the device for under $6.

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ARMs and FPGAs Make for Interesting Dev Boards

Tiny Linux computers are everywhere, and between BeagleBones, Raspberry and Banana Pis, and a hundred other boards out there, there are enough choices to go around. There is an extremely interesting ARM chip from Xilinx that hasn’t seen much uptake in the field of tiny credit-card sized computers: the Zynq. It’s an ARM Cortex-A9 coupled with an FPGA. It’s great for building peripherals that wouldn’t normally be included on a microcontroller. With Zynq, you just instantiate the custom bits in the FPGA, then interface them with a custom Linux driver. Thanks to CrowdSupply, there’s now a board out there that brings this intriguing chip to a proper development platform. It’s called the Snickerdoodle, and if you’ve ever wanted to see the capabilities of an FPGA tightly coupled to a fast processor, this is the board to watch.

The core of the Snickerdoodle is a Xilinx Zynq that features either a 667 MHz ARM Cortex A9 and a 430k gate FPGA (in the low-end configuration) or an 866 A9 and 1.3M gate FPGA. This gives the Snickerdoodle up to 179 I/O ports – far more than any other tiny Linux board out there.

Fully loaded, the Snickerdoodle comes with 2.4 and 5GHz WiFi, Bluetooth, 1GB of RAM, and an ARM Cortex A9 that should far surpass the BeagleBone and Raspberry Pi 2 in capabilities. This comes at a price, though: the top-shelf Snickerdoodle has a base price of about $150.

Still, the power of a fast ARM and a big FPGA is a big draw and we’re expecting a few more of these Zynq boards in the future. There are even a few projects using the Zynq on hackaday.io, including one that puts the Zynq in a Raspberry Pi-compatible footprint. That’s exceedingly cool, and we can’t wait to see what people will build with a small, fast ARM board coupled to an FPGA.

ARM Programming on Mars

Before you overreact to the title, keep in mind the latest version of Eclipse is code named “Mars.” It is always a bit of a challenge to set up a generic ARM tool chain. If you don’t mind sticking to one vendor, shelling out a lot of money, or using Web-based tools, then you might not have this problem. But getting all the tools together can be annoying, at best.

[Erich Styger] works with students and knows they often stumble on just this step so he’s provided clear documentation for getting Eclipse, the ARM gcc compiler, and a full set of tools installed. He focuses on Windows and the Kinetis platform, but the steps are virtually the same regardless. Just get the right tools for your operating system and skip the Kinetis-specific parts if you don’t need them.

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