Free ARM cores for Xilinx FPGAs

In a surprising move, ARM has made two Cortex-M cores available for FPGA development at no cost.

In the over three decades since [Sophie Wilson] created the first ARM processor design for the Acorn Archimedes home computer, the architecture has been managed commercially such that it has become one of the most widely adopted on the planet. From tiny embedded microcontrollers in domestic appliances to super-powerful 64-bit multi-core behemoths in high-end mobile phones, it’s certain you’ll own quite a few ARM processors even if you don’t realise it. Yet none of those processors will have been made by ARM, instead the Cambridge-based company will have licenced the intellectual property of their cores to another semiconductor company who will manufacture the device around it to their specification. ARM core licences cost telephone-number sums, so unless you are a well-financed semiconductor company, until now you probably need not apply.

You will still have to shell out the dough to get your hands on a core for powerful chips like those smartphone behemoths, but if your tastes are more modest and run only to a Cortex M1 or M3 you might be in luck. For developers on Xilinx FPGAs they have extended the offer of those two processor cores at zero cost through their DesignStart Programme.

It’s free-as-in-beer rather than something that will please open-source enthusiasts, But it’s certainly a fascinating development for experimenters who want to take ARM for a spin on their own gate array. Speculation is swirling that this is a response to RISC-V, but we suspect it may be more of a partial lifting of the skirts to entice newbie developers such as students or postgraduates. If you arrive in the world of work already used to working with ARM IP at the FPGA level then you are more likely to be on their side of the fence when those telephone-number deals come up.

Thanks [Rik] for the tip!

Signal Generator Uses FPGA

Although there are a few exceptions, FPGAs are predominantly digital devices. However, many FPGA applications process analog data, so you often see an FPGA surrounded by analog and digital converters. This is so common that Opal Kelly — a producer of FPGA tools — launched the SYZYGY open standard for interconnecting devices like that. [Armeen] — a summer intern at Opal Kelly — did a very interesting open source FPGA-based signal generator using a Xilinx FPGA, and a SYZYGY-compliant digital to analog converter.

As you might expect, [Armeen] used a lot of Opal Kelly hardware and software in the project. But the Verilog code (available on GitHub) shows a lot of interesting things including some very practical example code for using Xilinx CORDIC IP,  which is a great way to do high-order math using digital logic.

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Tiny FPGA Board Fits in Your Laptop

There are a bunch of FPGA development boards to choose from, but how many will fit inside your laptop? The PicoEVB is a tiny board that connects to a M.2 slot and provides an evaluation platform for the Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA family.The PicoEVB Block Diagram

This minimalist board sports a few LEDs, a PCIe interface, an integrated debugger, on-board EEPROM, and some external connectors for hooking up other bits and pieces. The M.2 connector provides the board with power, USB for debugging, and PCIe for user applications.

A major selling point of this board is the PCIe interface. Most FPGA boards with PCIe will cost over a grand, and will only fit in a large desktop computer. The lower priced options use older FPGAs. The PicoEVB is tiny and retails for $219. Not a bad deal when the FPGA on-board costs nearly $100.

The PicoEVB is also open source. Design files and sample projects can be found on Github.

[Thanks to Adam Hunt for the tip!]

Neural Networks… On a Stick!

They probably weren’t inspired by [Jeff Dunham’s] jalapeno on a stick, but Intel have created the Movidius neural compute stick which is in effect a neural network in a USB stick form factor. They don’t rely on the cloud, they require no fan, and you can get one for well under $100. We were interested in [Jeff Johnson’s] use of these sticks with a Pynq-Z1. He also notes that it is a great way to put neural net power on a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone. He shows us YOLO — an image recognizer — and applies it to an HDMI signal with the processing done on the Movidius. You can see the result in the first video, below.

At first, we thought you might be better off using the Z1’s built-in FPGA to do neural networks. [Jeff] points out that while it is possible, the Z1 has a lower-end device on it, so there isn’t that much FPGA real estate to play with. The stick, then, is a great idea. You can learn more about the device in the second video, below.

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Another New Old Computer on an FPGA

How would you sell a computer to a potential buyer? Fast? Reliable? Great graphics and sound? In 1956, you might point out that it was somewhat smaller than a desk. After all, in those days what people thought of as computers were giant behemoths. Thanks to modern FPGAs, you can now have a replica of a 1956 computer — the LGP-30 — that is significantly smaller than a desk. The LittleGP-30 is the brainchild of [Jürgen Müller].

The original also weighed about 740 pounds, or a shade under 336 kg, so the FPGA version wins on mass, as well. The LGP-30 owed its relative svelte footprint to the fact that it only used 113 tubes and of those, only 24 tubes were in the CPU. This was possible, because, like many early computers, the CPU worked on one bit at a time. While a modern computer will add a word all at once, this computer — even the FPGA version — add each operand one bit at a time.

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Veni, Vidi, ViciLogic Teaches You Digital Logic Interactively

This is about the time of the year you realize you aren’t going to keep all of those new year’s resolutions you made. However, if one of them was to learn VHDL and FPGAs, you might be in luck. Vicilogic has a free course in Fundamentals of Digital Systems. You do have to register, but it didn’t even verify our e-mail address, so it shouldn’t be too onerous to sign up.

Associated with the National University of Ireland Galway, the training is high quality and offers animated demos in your browser of the digital circuitry. You can even control the demos yourself. You’d think the work was occurring in some browser script, but according to the site, the demos are tied to real FPGA boards. You can supposedly look in on them as you use them with a video stream, but we never saw that working so your mileage may vary. If you want a preview of what it looks like, check out the video below. There’s guided exercises and also quizzes where you have to interact with the demos.

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Zork Comes to Custom FPGA CPU (Again)

[Robert Baruch] wanted to tackle a CPU project using an FPGA. One problem you always have is you can either mimic something that has tools and applications or  you can go your own way and just build everything from scratch (which is much harder).

[Robert] took the mimic approach–sort of. He built a CPU with the express idea of running Infocom’s Z-machine virtual machine, which allows it to play Zork. So at least when you are done, you don’t have to explain to your non-tech friends that it only blinks an LED. Check out the video, below, for more details.

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