Micropython And C Play Together Better

Python is a versatile, powerful language but sometimes it’s not the best choice, especially if you’re doing work in embedded systems with limited memory. Sometimes you can get away with MicroPython for these cases, but the best language is likely C or assembly. If you’re really stubborn, like [amirgon], and really want C and Python to play well together, you can make use of his new tool which can bring any C library to MicroPython.

As an example of how this tool is used, a “Pure MicroPython” display driver for ILI9341 on the ESP32, which means that everything was implemented in MicroPython. [amirgon] wanted to see how the Python driver would compare to one that’s already been written in C, and use it to showcase MicroPython binding. This tool also automatically converts structs, unions, enums and arrays to Python objects, and provides a means to work with pointers which is something that Python doesn’t handle in the same way that C requires.

[amirgon] hopes that this tool will encourage the adoption of Micropython by removing the obstacle of missing APIs and libraries in MicroPython. Since most libraries for systems like these are written in C, a way to implement them in Python is certainly powerful. We featured one use case for this a while back, but this is a much more generic fix for this coding obstacle.

Image via [Frank Stajano]

 

Debug Superpowers Bring An STM32 Back From The Dead

When a processor has a fault it can leave what looks to be precious little in the way of cause and effect. Debug-by-print-statement works surprisingly well in simple cases, but where in a desktop environment you would drop into a debugger to solve trickier problems this can be an onerous task on an embedded system. [Ross Schlaikjer]’s excellent blog post walks through setting up one of our favorite Open Hardware debug probes and shows us that with the right tooling in place, unexpected faults aren’t quite so impenetrable. Continue reading “Debug Superpowers Bring An STM32 Back From The Dead”

Qt Arrives For Small Computers

There was a time when writing embedded systems meant never having to deal with graphical user interfaces, and spending long hours trying to free up a dozen bytes of ROM to add a feature. Nowadays, an embedded system is likely to have a screen and what would have been a huge amount of memory even for a PC a scant decade ago. Qt has long been a popular choice for building software on desktop platforms, and — while not as popular — has even run on phones for a while. Now there’s Qt for MCUs which is clearly targeting the IoT market that everyone is trying to capture. You can see the glitzy video for the new product, below.

We generally like Qt, and the move recently has been towards an HTML-like markup language called QML instead of directly manipulating widgets. We guess that’s a good thing. However, Qt isn’t just for user interfaces. It provides a wide range of services in a straightforward way

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The Joy Of Properly Designed Embedded Systems

The ages-old dream of home automation has never been nearer to reality. Creating an Internet of Things device or even a building-wide collection of networked embedded devices is “easy” thanks to cheap building blocks like the ESP8266 WiFi-enabled microcontroller. Yet for any sizable project, it really helps to have a plan before getting started. But even more importantly, if your plan is subject to change as you work along, it is important to plan for flexibility. Practically, this is going to mean expansion headers and over-the-air (OTA) firmware upgrades are a must.

I’d like to illustrate this using a project I got involved in a few years ago, called BMaC, which grew in complexity and scope practically every month. This had us scrambling to keep up with the changes, while teaching us valuable lessons about how to save time and money by having an adaptable system architecture.

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Machine Learning On Tiny Platforms Like Raspberry Pi And Arduino

Machine learning is starting to come online in all kinds of arenas lately, and the trend is likely to continue for the forseeable future. What was once only available for operators of supercomputers has found use among anyone with a reasonably powerful desktop computer. The downsizing isn’t stopping there, though, as Microsoft is pushing development of machine learning for embedded systems now.

The Embedded Learning Library (ELL) is a set of tools for allowing Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, and the like to take advantage of machine learning algorithms despite their small size and reduced capability. Microsoft intended this library to be useful for anyone, and has examples available for things like computer vision, audio keyword recognition, and a small handful of other implementations. The library should be expandable to any application where machine learning would be beneficial for a small embedded system, though, so it’s not limited to these example applications.

There is one small speed bump to running a machine learning algorithm on your Raspberry Pi, though. The high processor load tends to cause small SoCs to overheat. But adding a heatsink and fan is something we’ve certainly seen before. Don’t let your lack of a supercomputer keep you from exploring machine learning if you see a benefit to it, and if you need more power than just one Raspberry Pi you can always build a cluster to get your task done just a little bit faster, too.

Thanks to [Baldpower] for the tip!

Know The Load With This Simple Microcontroller CPU Meter

How do you tell how much load is on a CPU? On a desktop or laptop, the OS usually has some kind of gadget to display the basics. On a microcontroller, though, you’ll have to roll your own CPU load meter with a few parts, some code, and a voltmeter.

We like [Dave Marples]’s simple approach to quantifying something as complex as CPU load. His technique relies on the fact that most embedded controllers are just looping endlessly waiting for something to do. By strategically placing commands that latch an output on while the CPU is busy and then turn it off again when idle, a PWM signal with a duty cycle proportional to the CPU load is created. A voltage divider then scales the maximum output to 1.0 volt, and a capacitor smooths out the signal so the load is represented by a value between 0 and 1 volt. How you display the load is your own choice; [Dave] just used a voltmeter, but anything from an LED strip to some kind of audio feedback would work too.

Still just looking for a load meter for your desktop? Take your pick: an LED matrixold-time meters, or even Dekatrons.

Reading Bingo Balls With Microcontrollers

Every once in a while a project comes along with that magical power to consume your time and attention for many months. When you finally complete it, you feel sorry that you don’t have to do anything more.

What is so special about this Bingo ball reader? It may seem like an ordinary OCR project at first glance; a camera captures the image and OCR software recognizes the number. Simple as that. And it works without problems, like every simple gadget should.

But then again, maybe it’s not that simple. Numbers are scattered all over the ball, so they have to be located first, and the best candidate for reading must be selected. Then, numbers are painted onto a sphere rather than a flat surface, sometimes making them deformed to the point where their shape has to be recovered first. Also, the angle of reading is not fixed but somewhere on a 360° scale. And then we have the glare problem to boot, as Bingo balls are so shiny that every light source reflects as a saturated bright spot.

So, is that all of it? Well, almost. The task is supposed to be performed by an embedded microcontroller, with limited speed and memory, yet the recognition process for one ball has to be fast — 500 ms at worst. But that’s just one part of the process. The project includes the pipelined mechanism which accepts the ball, transports it to be scanned by the OCR and then shot by the public broadcast camera before it gets dumped. And finally, if the reading was not reliable enough, the ball has to be subtly rotated so that the numbers would be repositioned for another reading attempt.

Despite these challenges I did manage to build this system. It’s fast and reliable, and I discovered some very interesting tricks along the way. Take a look at the quick demo video below to get a feel for the speed, and what the system “sees”. Then join me after the break to dive into the details of this interesting embedded build.

Continue reading “Reading Bingo Balls With Microcontrollers”