Hackaday Links: March 13, 2016

Way back in 2014, Heathkit was a mystery. We knew someone was trying to revive the brand, but that was about it. Adafruit pulled out all the stops to solve this mystery and came up with nothing. The only clue to the existence of Heathkit was a random person who found a geocache in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Since then, Heathkit has released an odd AM radio kit and $150 antenna. These offerings only present more mysteries, but at least [Paul] was finally rewarded for finding the Heathkit geocache. Heathkit sent [Paul] the AM radio kit. He says it’s neat and well documented.

[David] is doing his masters thesis on, “The motivation of the maker community”. That means empirical data, and that (usually) means surveymonkey. You can take his survey on the motivations of the maker community here.

America’s best loved companies, Verizon and Makerbot, together at last.

The BeagleBone Black was launched in 2013. The BeagleBone Green – a Seeed joint – showed up last August. The BeagleBone Blue, released just a few months ago, is a collaboration between the UCSD engineering department and TI. Now there’s the BeagleBone Enhanced. Yes, they should have picked another color. Perhaps ecru. The BB Enhanced sports one Gigabyte of RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, two USB ports and two USBs via an expansion header, optional serial NOR Flash for a bootloader, optional six-axis gyro, and optional barometer.

Atmel is changing a few AVRs. There is a new die for the ATMega 44, 88, 168, and the ‘Arduino chip’, the ATMega328. Most of the changes are relatively inconsequential – slightly higher current consumption in power save mode – but one of these changes is going to trip up a lot of people. The Device ID, also known as the source of the avrdude: initialization failed, rc=-1 error, has changed on a lot of chips.

Makeit Labs in Nashua, New Hampshire has a problem. They were awarded $250,000 in tax credits to help them move and renovate. Sounds like a very good problem, right? Not so: they need to sell these tax credits before the end of the month, or they lose them. They’re looking for a few businesses in New Hampshire to buy these tax credits. From [Peter Walsh]: “Under the credit program, a typical business donating $10,000 would save $9,000 on their state and federal taxes! That $10,000 donation would cost them only $1006!” Does that make sense? No, it’s taxes, of course not. If you’re a business in New Hampshire and are looking to reduce your tax burden, this is the solution.

So I mentioned MRRF, right? You should go to MRRF. It’s next weekend.

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.


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.

Atmel Introduces Rad Hard Microcontrollers

The Internet is full of extremely clever people, and most of the time they don’t realize how stupid they actually are. Every time there’s a rocket launch, there’s usually a few cubesats tucked away under a fairing. These cubesats were designed and built by university students around the globe, so whenever a few of these cubesats go up, Internet armchair EEs inevitably cut these students down: “That microcontroller isn’t going to last in space. There’s too much radiation. It’ll be dead in a day,” they say. This argument disregards the fact that iPods work for months aboard the space station, Thinkpads work for years, and the fact that putting commercial-grade microcontrollers in low earth orbit has been done thousands of times before with mountains of data to back up the practice.

For every problem, imagined or not, there’s a solution. Now, finally, Atmel has released a rad tolerant AVR for space applications. It’s the ATmegaS128, the space-grade version of the ‘mega128. This chip is in a 64-lead ceramic package, has all the features you would expect from the ATmega128 and is, like any ‘mega128, Arduino compatible.

Atmel has an oddly large space-rated rad-hard portfolio, with space-grade FPGAs, memories, communications ICs, ASICs, memories, and now microcontrollers in their lineup.

While microcontrollers that aren’t radiation tolerant have gone up in cubesats and larger commercial birds over the years, the commercial-grade stuff is usually reserved for low Earth orbit stuff. For venturing more than a few hundred miles above the Earth, into the range of GPS satellites and to geosynchronous orbit 25,000 miles above, radiation shielding is needed.

Will you ever need a space-grade, rad-hard Arduino? Probably not. This new announcement is rather cool, though, and we can’t wait for the first space grade Arduino clone to show up in the Hackaday tips line.

New Part Day: Tiny, Tiny Bluetooth Chips

The future of tiny electronics is wearables, it seems, with companies coming out with tiny devices that are able to check your pulse, blood pressure, and temperature while relaying this data back to your phone over a Bluetooth connection. Intel has the Curie module, a small System on Chip (SoC) meant for wearables, and the STM32 inside the Fitbit is one of the smallest ARM microcontrollers you’ll ever find. Now there’s a new part available that’s smaller than anything else and has an integrated Bluetooth radio; just what you need when you need an Internet of Motes of Dust.

The Atmel BTLC1000 is a tiny SoC designed for wearables. The internals aren’t exceptional in and of themselves – it’s an ARM Cortex M0 running at 26 MHz. There’s a Bluetooth 4.1 radio inside this chip, and enough I/O, RAM, and ROM to connect to a few sensors and do a few interesting things. What makes this chip so exceptional is its size – a mere 2.262mm by 2.142mm. It’s a chip that can fit along the thickness of some PCBs.

To provide some perspective: the smallest ATtiny, the ‘tiny4/5/9/10 in an SOT23-6 package, is 2.90mm long. The smallest PICs are similarly sized, and both have a tiny amount of RAM and Flash space. The BTLC1000 is surprisingly capable, with 128kB each of RAM and ROM.

The future of wearable devices is smaller, faster and more capable devices, and with a tiny chip that can fit on the head of a pin, this is certainly an interesting chip for applications where performance can be traded for package size. If you’re ready to dive in with this chip the preliminary datasheets are now available.

Mergers and Acquisitions: Dialog Buys Atmel

Dialog Semiconductor has announced their acquisition of Atmel for $4.6 Billion.

In recent years, semiconductor companies have been flush with cash, and this inevitably means consolidation. NXP and Freescale merged in March. In June, Intel bought Altera for $16.7 Billion just a week after Avago bought Broadcom in the largest semiconductor deal ever – $37 Billion.

The deal between Dialog and Atmel is not very big; the combined revenue of both companies should be $2.7 Billion, not even in the top-20 semiconductor companies by revenue. However, Atmel is an extremely big player in the Internet of Things and the nebulous ‘maker’ market. Dialog’s portfolio is complementary to Atmel’s, focusing on mobile platforms such as smartphones, e-readers, and tablets. The future is in the Internet of Things, and Dialog wants to get in on the ground floor.

Dialog’s current portfolio is focused mainly on mobile devices, with Bluetooth wearables-on-a-chip, CODEC chips for smartphones, and power management ICs for every type of portable electronics. Atmel’s portfolio is well-established in automotive, smart energy metering, and the maker movement. While the Arduino may be Atmel’s most visible contribution to the industry, the Arduino itself is just a fraction of Atmel’s sales in this space. Atmel parts can already be found Internet of Things products like the LightBlue Bean (an 8-bit AVR), and the Tessel 2 Internet of Things board (a 32-bit Atmel ARM).

Curiously, neither Dialog nor Atmel have many sensor or MEMS products, and the future of wearables, portable electronics, and the Internet of Things will depend on these sensors. STMicroelectronic produces both the microcontrollers and sensors that are packed into phones. TI is nearly a full-stack hardware company, able to produce everything that will go into a wearable or Internet of Things device, all the way from the power regulator to the microcontroller. Although this may be seen as a shortcoming for Dialog and Atmel, both companies combined are still many times smaller than the likes of Avago/Broadcom or NXP/Freescale there’s plenty of room for more acquisitions to round out their future needs.

As for what changes will come to Dialog and Atmel’s portfolio, don’t expect much. Unlike the NXP and Freescale merger where both companies have a lot products that do pretty much the same thing, the portfolios of Dialog and Atmel build on each other’s strengths. You’ll have your 8-bit AVRs for a few more decades, and with Dialog’s focus on connectivity, we can expect even more tools for building the Internet of Things.