Arduino Just Introduced An FPGA Board, Announces Debugging And Better Software

Today ahead of the Bay Area Maker Faire, Arduino has announced a bevy of new boards that bring modern features and modern chips to the Arduino ecosystem.

Most ambitious of these new offerings is a board that combines a fast ARM microcontroller, WiFi, Bluetooth, and an FPGA. All this is wrapped in a package that provides Mini HDMI out and pins for a PCIe-Express slot. They’re calling it the Arduino MKR Vidor 4000.

Bringing an FPGA to the Arduino ecosystem is on the list of the most interesting advances in DIY electronics in recent memory, and there’s a lot to unpack here. FPGA development boards aren’t new. You can find crates of them hidden in the storage closet of any University’s electronics lab. If you want to buy an FPGA dev board, the Terasic DE10 is a good starter bundle, the iCEstick has an Open Source toolchain, and this one has pink soldermask. With the release of the MKR Vidor, the goal for Arduino isn’t just to release a board with an FPGA; the goal is to release a tool that allows anyone to use an FPGA.

The key to democratizing FPGA development is Arduino’s work with the Arduino Create ecosystem. Arduino Create is the company’s online IDE that gives everyone the ability to share projects and upload code with Over-the-Air updates. The MKR Vidor will launch with integration to the Arduino Create ecosystem that includes a visual editor to work with the pre-compiled IP for the FPGA. That’s not to say you can’t just plug your own VHDL into this board and get it working; that’s still possible. But Arduino would like to create a system where anyone can move blocks of IP around with a tool that’s easy for beginners.

A Facelift for the Uno WiFi

First up is the brand new Arduino Uno WiFi. While there have been other boards bearing the name ‘Arduino Uno WiFi’ over the years, a lot has changed in the world of tiny radio modules and 8-bit microcontrollers over the past few years. The new Arduino Uno WiFi is powered by a new 8-bit AVR, the ATMega4809. The ATMega4809 is a new part announced just a few months ago, and is just about what you would expect from the next-generation 8-bit Arduino; it runs at 20MHz, has 48 kB of Flash, 6 kB of SRAM, and it comes in a 48-pin package. The ATMega4809 is taking a few lattices of silicon out of Microchip’s playbook and adds Custom Configurable Logic. The CCL in the new ATMega is a peripheral that is kinda, sorta like a CPLD on chip. If you’ve ever had something that could be more easily done with logic gates than software, the CCL is the tool for the job.

But a new 8-bit microcontroller doesn’t make a WiFi-enabled Arduino. The wireless power behind the new Arduino comes from a custom ESP-32 based module from u-blox. There’s also a tiny crypto chip (Microchip’s ATECC508A) so the Uno WiFi will work with AWS. The Arduino Uno WiFi will be available this June.

But this isn’t the only announcement from the Arduino org today. They’ve been hard at work on some killer features for a while now, and now they’re finally ready for release. What’s the big news? Debuggers. Real debuggers for the Arduino that are easy to use. There are also new boards aimed at Arduino’s IoT strategy.

Continue reading “Arduino Just Introduced An FPGA Board, Announces Debugging And Better Software”

Review: New 3G And Cat-M1 Cellular Hardware From Hologram

In July we reported on the launch of the Hologram developer program that offered a free SIM card and a small amount of monthly cellular data for those who wanted to build connectivity into their prototypes. Today, Hologram has launched some new hardware to go along with that program.

Nova is a cellular modem in a USB thumb drive form factor. It ships in a little box with a PCB that hosts the u-blox cellular module, two different antennas, a plastic enclosure, and a SIM card. The product is aimed at those building connected devices around single-board computers, making it easy to plug Nova in and get connected quickly.

This device that Hologram sent me is a 3G modem. They have something like 1,000 of them available to ship starting today, but what I find really exciting is that there is another flavor of Nova that looks the same but hosts a Cat-M1 version of the u-blox module. This is a Low Power Wide Area Network technology built on the LTE network. We’ve seen 2G and 3G modems available for some time now, but if go that route you’re building a product around a network which has an end-of-life concern.

Cat-M1 will be around for much longer and it is designed to be low power and utilizes a narrower bandwidth for less radio-on time. I asked Hologram for some power comparison estimates between the two technologies:

AVERAGE current consumption comparisons:

Cat-M1: as low as 100 mA while transmitting and never more than 190 mA
Equivalent 3G: as high as 680 mA while transmitting

PEAK current consumption comparisons (these are typically filtered through capacitors so the power supply doesn’t ever witness these values, and they are only momentary):

Cat-M1: Less than 490 mA
Equivalent 3G: As high as 1550 mA

This is an exciting development because we haven’t yet seen LTE radios available for devices — of course there are hotspots but those are certainly not optimized for low power or inclusion in a product. But if you know your ESP8266 WiFi specs you know that those figures above put Cat-M1 on a similar power budget and in the realm of battery-operated devices.

The Cat-M1 Nova can be ordered beginning today, should ship in limited quantities within weeks, with wider availability by the end of the year. If you can’t get one in the first wave, the 3G Nova is a direct stand-in from the software side of things.

I suspect we’ll see a lot of interest in Cat-M1 technology moving forward simply because of the the technology promises lower power and longer support. (I’m trying to avoid using the term IoT… oops, there it is.) For today, let’s take a look at the 3G version of the new hardware and the service that supports it.

Continue reading “Review: New 3G And Cat-M1 Cellular Hardware From Hologram”