The Beagle V, a RISC-V-based single board computer from a collaboration between BeagleBoard and Seeed Studios aims to be “The First Affordable RISC-V Computer Designed to Run Linux”. RISC-V is the open-source processor architecture that everyone is interested in because it bypasses proprietary silicon of manufacturers such as Intel or AMD, allowing companies to roll their own silicon processors without licensing fees for the core.
BeagleBoard has long been one of the major players in the Single-Board Computer arena so far dominated by the Raspberry Pi. The board, slightly larger than the company’s previous offerings, features a StarFive dual-core 64-bit RISC-V processor running at a 1.0 GHz clock speed. The spec sheet on their GitHub repo indicates 4 and 8 GB RAM options, built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, and hardware video support for decoding, two camera connectors, one DSI connector for an external display, as well as a full-sized HDMI port. Gigabit Ethernet, four USB-3 ports, an audio jack, and USB-C as the power supply are packed onto the edges of the board. GPIO is routed to a 2×20 pin header.
Seeed Studio pegs the cost of the board at $149 for the 8 GB RAM version, although currently you must apply and be selected to purchase a board in this early stage. It’s unclear if the price will remain unchanged after this first run; the product page notes a coupon code is necessary and the Seeed Studios article indicates this is an introductory price. However, the same article also lists the 4 GB RAM variant at $119. The BeagleBoard page shows a timeline of April 2021 for a “pilot run for community”.
It’s exciting to see RISC-V continue to make inroads. This is a powerful board based around the core, and if successful it will help further prove the viability of open source processing cores in increasingly mainstream products.
A fact universally known among the Hackaday community is that projects are never truly done. You can always spin another board release to fix a silkscreen mistake, get that extra little boost of performance, or finally spend the time to track down that weird transient bug. Or in [ultraembedded’s] case, take a custom FPGA player from 800 x 600 to 1280 x 720. The hardware used is a Digilent Arty A7 and PMOD boards for I2S2, VGA, and MicroSD. We previously covered this project back when it was first getting started.
Getting from 800 x 600 to 1280 x 720 — 31% more pixels — required implementing a higher performance JPEG decoder that can read in the MPJEG frames, pushing out a pixel every 2.1 clock cycles. The improvements also include a few convenience features such as an IR remote. The number of submodules inside the system is just incredible, with most of them being implemented or tweaked by [ultraembedded] himself.
For the FPGA Verilog, there’s the SD/MMC interface, the JPEG decoder, the audio controller, the DVI framebuffer, a peripheral core, and a custom RISC-V CPU. For the firmware loaded off the SD card, it uses a custom RTOS running an MP3 decoder, a FAT32 interface, an IR decoder, and a UI based on LVGL.
Six years on from the emergence of the Espressif ESP8266 we might believe that the focus had shifted to the newer dual-core ESP32. But here comes a twist in the form of the newly-revealed ESP32-C3. It’s a WiFi SoC that despite its ESP32 name contains a RISC-V core in place of the Tensilica core in the ESP32s we know, and uses the ESP8266 pin-out rather than that of its newer sibling. There’s relatively little information about it at the time of writing, but CNX Software have gathered together what there is including a draft datasheet whose English translation is available as a Mega download. As with other ESP32 family members, this one delivers b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) 5, where it differs is the RISC-V 32 Single-core processor with a clock speed of up to 160 MHz. There is 400 kB of SRAM and 384 kB ROM storage space built in.
Why they are releasing the part as an ESP32 rather than giving it a series number of its own remains a mystery, but it’s not hard to see why it makes commercial sense to create it in an ESP8266-compatible footprint. The arrival of competing parts in the cheap wireless SoC space such as the Bouffalo Labs BL602 we mentioned recently is likely to be eating into sales of the six-year-old chip, so an upgrade path to a more capable part with minimal new hardware design requirements could be a powerful incentive for large customers to stay with Espressif.
We’re left to guess on how exactly the rollout will proceed. We expect to see similar developer support to that they now provide for their other chips, and then ESP32-C3 powered versions of existing ESP8266 boards in short order. It’s also to be hoped that a standard RISC-V toolchain could be used instead of the device-specific ones for current Espressif offerings. What we should not expect are open-source replacements for the blobs that drive the on-board peripherals, as the new chip will share the same closed-source IP as its predecessors for them. Perhaps if the PINE64 initiative to reverse engineer blobs for the BL602 bears fruit, we might see a similar effort for this chip.
We should all by now be used to microcontrollers with wireless hardware on board, with Espressif or Nordic Labs dominating the hacker scene. There have been several other contenders in this arena over the years that haven’t really caught the attention of our community, usually because of the opacity of their available information.
A new contender should be worth a second look though. The BL602 from Bouffalo Labs is a Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth LE-capable microcontroller with a 32-bit RISC-V derived core. If that doesn’t interest you much, perhaps news that the PINE64 folks are spearheading an effort to reverse engineer it for a fully open-source blob-free wireless implementation might sharpen your attention.
So where can you get your hands on one? Hold your horses, this chip is at an early stage in its gestation. We can see that there are some exciting possibilities in store, but we’re still figuring out the hardware interfaces and other software required to make it work. A community is hard at work reverse engineering it, which leads us back to the PINE64 story we mentioned earlier.
We might see the BL602 gaining an open-source toolchain and internal blobs over the coming months thanks to the efforts of those working on it. Just as the ESP8266 did back in 2014, it’s starting as a black box with a relative scarcity of information. But if this hacking effort pays off, we’ll have a cheap RISC-V Wi-Fi and Bluetooth module with entirely open-source software from the silicon upwards. What a time to be alive!
The RISC-V architecture is inexorably inching from its theoretical origins towards the mainstream, as what could once only be done on an exotic FPGA can now be seen in a few microcontrollers as well as some much more powerful processors. It’s exciting because it offers us the prospect of fully open-source hardware on which to run our open-source operating systems, but it’s more than that. RISC-V isn’t a particular processor core so much as a specification that can be implemented at any of a number of levels, and in its simplest form can even be made real using 74 logic chips. This was the aim of [Robert Baruch]’s LMARV-1 that caused a stir a year or two ago but then went on something of a hiatus. We’re pleased to note that he’s posted a video announcing a recommencement of the project, along with a significant redesign.
We’ve placed the video below the break, and it’s much more than a simple project announcement. Instead, it’s an in-depth explanation of the design decisions and the physical architecture of the processor. It amounts to a primer on processor design, and though it’s a long watch we’d say you won’t be disappointed if your interests lie in that direction.
There was a time when creating a new IC was a very expensive proposition. While it still isn’t pocket change, custom chips are within reach of sophisticated experimenters and groups. As evidence, look at the Moushik CPU from the SHAKTI group. This is the group’s third successful tapeout and is an open source RISC-V system on chip.
The chip uses a 180 nm process and has 103 I/O pins. The CPU runs around 100 MHz and the system includes an SDRAM controller, analog to digital conversion, and the usual peripherals. The roughly 25 square mm die houses almost 650 thousand gates.
This is the same group that built a home-grown chip based on RISC-V in 2018 and is associated with the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. We aren’t clear if everything you’d need to duplicate the design is in the git repository, but since the project is open source, we presume it is.
If you think about it, radios went from highly-specialized equipment to a near-disposable consumer item. So did calculators and computers. Developing with FPGAs is cheaper and easier every year. At this rate it’s not unreasonable to think It won’t be long before creating a custom chip will be as simple as ordering a PCB — something else that used to be a big hairy deal.
Of course, we see FPGA-based RISC-V often enough. While we admire [Sam Zeloof’s] work, we don’t think he’s packing 650k gates into that size. Not yet, anyway.
The TS100 smart soldering iron may have some new competition. Pine — the people best known for Linux-based phones and laptops — though the world needed another smart soldering iron so they announced the Pinecil — Sort of a knock off of the TS100. It looks like a TS100 and uses the same tips. But it does have some important differences.
It used to be a soldering iron was a pretty simple affair. Plug in one end; don’t touch the other end. But, eventually, things got more complicated and you wanted some way to make it hotter or cooler. Then you wanted the exact temperature with a PID controller. However, until recently, you didn’t care how much processing power your soldering iron had. The TS100 changed that. The smart and portable iron was a game-changer and people not only used it for soldering, but also wrote software to make it do other things. One difference is that the device has a RISC-V CPU. Reportedly, it also has better ergonomics and a USB C connector that allows for UART, I2C, SPI, and USB connections. It also has a very friendly price tag of $24.99.