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!

RISC-V CPU Gets A Peripheral

One of the ways people use FPGAs is to have part of the FPGA fabric hold a CPU. That makes sense because CPUs are good at some jobs that are hard to do with an FPGA, and vice versa. Now that the RISC-V architecture is available it makes sense that it can be used as an FPGA-based CPU. [Clifford Wolf] created PicoSOC — a RISC-V CPU made to work as a SOC or System on Chip with a Lattice 8K evaluation board. [Mattvenn] ported that over to a TinyFPGA board that also contains a Lattice FPGA and shows an example of interfacing it with a WS2812 intelligent LED peripheral. You can see a video about the project, below.

True to the open source nature of the RISC-V, the project uses the open source Icestorm toolchain which we’ve talked about many times before. [Matt] thoughtfully provided the firmware precompiled so you don’t have to install gcc for the RISC-V unless you want to write you own software. Which, of course, you will.

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New Part Day: A $6 Linux Computer You Might Be Able To Write Code For

The latest news from the world of cheap electronics is a single board computer running Linux. It costs six dollars, and you can buy it right now. You might even be able to compile code for it, too.

The C-Sky Linux development board is listed on Taobao as an ‘OrangePi NanoPi Raspberry Pi Linux Development Board” and despite some flagrant misappropriation of trademarks, this is indeed a computer running Linux, available for seven American dollars.

This board is based on a NationalChip GX6605S SoC, a unique chip with an ISA that isn’t ARM, x86, RISC-V, MIPS, or anything else that would be considered normal. The chip itself was designed for set-top boxes, but there are a surprising number of build tools that include buildroot, GCC and support for qemu. The company behind this chip is maintaining a kernel, and support for this chip has been added to the mainline kernel. Yes, unlike many other single board computers out there, you might actually be able to compile something for this chip.

The features for this board include 64 MB of DDR2 RAM, HDMI out (with a 1280 x 720 framebuffer, upscaled to 1080p, most likely), and a CPU running at just about 600 MHz. There are a few buttons connected to the GPIO pins, two USB host ports, a USB-TTL port for a serial console, and a few more pins for additional GPIOs. There does not appear to be any networking, and we have no idea what the onboard storage is.

If you want a challenge to get something compiled, this is the chip for you.

Easy FPGA CPU with MAX1000

Ok, we’ll admit it. We like FPGAs because it reminds us of wiring up a 100-in-1 kit when we were kids. But the truth is, many projects are just as well off to have a CPU. But there’s a real sweet spot when you have a CPU and an FPGA together. Intel (or Altera, if you prefer) has the NIOS II CPU core, but that’s hard to configure, right? Maybe not, thanks to a project by [jefflieu] over on GitHub. He’s assembled some basic definitions and libraries to easily — relatively speaking — use NIOS II on the MAX1000 as well as a few other boards. The MAX1000 is a pretty nice board for about $30, so this is a very inexpensive way to get into “System on Chip” (SOC) development.

[jeff] goes into more detail in a blog post, but the idea is pretty simple. We tried it, and it works very well, although we found a few things hard to follow so read on to see how we managed.

The idea behind SoC development is you define your CPU configuration and then your hardware devices. Then you write software to talk to those custom hardware devices and — of course — write your actual application code. So you don’t just write a program, you also define the CPU the program will run on and the hardware that it will talk to.

There are several ready-to-go I/O devices included in the project, but the real fun will be writing your own. The Intel tools have the C compiler and everything else you need. You could also do everything from scratch, but these tools make it much easier to get started.

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A $1, Linux-Capable, Hand-Solderable Processor

Over on the EEVblog, someone noticed an interesting chip that’s been apparently flying under our radar for a while. This is an ARM processor capable of running Linux. It’s hand-solderable in a TQFP package, has a built-in Mali GPU, support for a touch panel, and has support for 512MB of DDR3. If you do it right, this will get you into the territory of a BeagleBone or a Raspberry Pi Zero, on a board that’s whatever form factor you can imagine. Here’s the best part: you can get this part for $1 USD in large-ish quantities. A cursory glance at the usual online retailers tells me you can get this part in quantity one for under $3. This is interesting, to say the least.

The chip in question, the Allwinner A13, is a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor. While it’s not much, it is a chip that can run Linux in a hand-solderable package. There is no HDMI support, you’ll need to add some more chips (that are probably in a BGA package), but, hey, it’s only a dollar.

If you’d like to prototype with this chip, the best options right now are a few boards from Olimex, and a System on Module from the same company. That SoM is an interesting bit of kit, allowing anyone to connect a power supply, load an SD card, and get this chip doing something.

Currently, there aren’t really any good solutions for a cheap Linux system you can build at home, with hand-solderable chips. Yes, you could put Linux on an ATMega, but that’s the worst PC ever. A better option is the Octavo OSD335x SoC, better known as ‘the BeagleBone on a Chip’. This is a BGA chip, but the layout isn’t too bad, and it can be assembled using a $12 toaster oven. The problem with this chip is the price; at quantity 1000, it’s a $25 chip. At quantity one, it’s a $40 chip. NXP’s i.MX6 chips have great software support, but they’re $30 chips, and you’ll need some DDR to make it do something useful, and that doesn’t even touch the fiddlyness of a 600-ball package

While the Allwinner A13 beats all the other options on price and solderability, it should be noted that like all of these random Linux-capable SoCs, the software is a mess. There is a reason those ‘Raspberry Pi killers’ haven’t yet killed the Raspberry Pi, and it’s because the Allwinner chips don’t have documentation and let’s repeat that for emphasis: the software is a mess.

Still, if you’re looking for a cheap chip you can solder at home, this one seems to be the only game in town. We’re really looking forward to seeing what you make with it!

SiFive Introduces RISC-V Linux-Capable Multicore Processor

Slowly but surely, RISC-V, the Open Source architecture for everything from microcontrollers to server CPUs is making inroads in the community. Now SiFive, the major company behind putting RISC-V chips into actual silicon, is releasing a chip that’s even more powerful. At FOSDEM this weekend, SiFive announced the release of a Linux-capable Single Board Computer built around the RISC-V ISA. It’s called the HiFive Unleashed, and it’s the first piece of silicon capable or running Linux on a RISC-V core.

SiFive’s HiFive Unleashed

The HiFive Unleashed is built around the Freedom U540 SOC, a quad-core processor built on a 28nm process. The chip itself boasts four U54 RV64GC cores with an additional E51 RV64IMAC management core. This chip has support for 64-bit DDR4 with ECC and a single Gigabit Ethernet port. Those specs are just the chip though, and you’ll really need a complete system for a single board computer. This is the HiFive Unleashed, a board sporting the Freedom U540, 8GB of DDR4 with ECC, 32MB of Quad SPI Flash, Gigabit Ethernet, and a microSD card slot for storage. If you don’t mind being slightly inaccurate while describing this to a technological youngling, you could say this is comparable to a Raspberry Pi but with a completely Open Source architecture.

News of this caliber can’t come without some disappointment though, and in this case it’s that the HiFive Unleashed will ship this summer and cost $999. Yes, compared to a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone that is an extremely high price, but it has to be borne in mind that this is a custom chip and low-volume silicon on a 28nm process. Until a router or phone manufacturer picks up a RISC-V chip for some commodity equipment, this architecture will be expensive.

This announcement of a full Single Board Computer comes just months after the announcement of the SOC itself. Already, GCC support works, Linux stuff is going upstream, and the entire Open Source community seems reasonably enthusiastic about RISC-V. It’ll be great to see where this goes in the coming years, and when we can get Linux-capable RISC-V chips for less than a kilobuck.

SiFive Announces RISC-V SoC

At the Linley Processor Conference today, SiFive, the semiconductor company building chips around the Open RISC-V instruction set has announced the availability of a quadcore processor that runs Linux. We’ve seen RISC-V implementations before, and SiFive has already released silicon-based on the RISC-V ISA. These implementations are rather small, though, and this is the first implementation designed for more than simple embedded devices.

This announcement introduces the SiFive U54-MC Coreplex, a true System on Chip that includes four 64-bit CPUs running at 1.5 GHz. This SoC is built with TSMC’s 28 nm process, and fits on a die about 30 mm². Availability will be on a development board sometime in early 2018, and if our expectations match the reality of SiFive’s previous offerings, you’ll be able to buy this Open SoC as a BGA package some months after that.

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