Programming with Rust

Do hardware hackers need a new programming language? Your first answer might be no, but hold off a bit until you hear about a new language called Rust before you decide for sure.

We all know real hackers use assembly language to program CPUs directly, right? Well, most of us don’t do as much assembly language as we used to do. Languages like C can generate tight, predictable code and are easier to manage.

Although some people use more abstract languages in some embedded systems, it is no secret that for real-time systems, device driver development, and other similar tasks, you want a language that doesn’t obscure underlying details or generate code that’s difficult to reason about (like, for example, garbage collection). It is possible to use special techniques (like the Real-Time Java Specification) to help languages, but in the general case a lean language is still what most programmers reach for when you have to program bare metal.

Even C++, which is very popular, obscures some details if you use things like virtual functions (a controversial subject) although it is workable. It is attractive to get the benefit of modern programming tools even if it does conceal some of the underlying code more than straight C.

About Rust

That’s where Rust comes in. I could describe what Rust attempts to achieve, but it is probably easier to just quote the first part of the Rust documentation:

Rust is a systems programming language focused on three goals: safety, speed, and concurrency. It maintains these goals without having a garbage collector, making it a useful language for a number of use cases other languages aren’t good at: embedding in other languages, programs with specific space and time requirements, and writing low-level code, like device drivers and operating systems. It improves on current languages targeting this space by having a number of compile-time safety checks that produce no runtime overhead, while eliminating all data races. Rust also aims to achieve ‘zero-cost abstractions’ even though some of these abstractions feel like those of a high-level language. Even then, Rust still allows precise control like a low-level language would.

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A Tiny Servo Motor Controller

If you’re building a moving thing with a microcontroller, you’ll probably want to throw a servo controller in the mix. Driving a servo or two with a microcontroller takes away valuable cycles that just babysit the servo, making sure all the PWM signals are in sync. The thing is, most servo controllers are a massive overkill, and you don’t need that much to control a few servos over a UART. The proof of this is an attiny13 servo controller over on

[arief] developed his tiny servo controller around one of the tiniest microcontrollers – the ATtiny13. This chip has just 1kB of Flash and 64 Bytes of RAM, but that’s enough to keep a few servos going and listen in to a UART for commands to drive the servo.

The construction of this servo controller board is simple enough – just a single sided board, microcontroller, and a few headers, caps, and resistors. Commands are sent to the ATtiny through a half duplex UART we covered before, with servos responding to simple serial commands.

If you’re building a robot army, this is the board to make. You’re going to need a high-powered controller to take over the world, but there’s no need to bog down that controller by babysitting a few servos.