ULP Wireless Update

Arduino readies for the IoT

CEO Federico Musto, leads Arduino S.r.l’s foray into the IoT

The world’s most successful open-source ecosystem has embraced native wireless connectivity

The thriving Maker community owes a big debt to Hernando Barragán.

 

In 2004, the Colombian created an electronics development platform called “Wiring” for his Master’s thesis while studying at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII) in Italy. His goal was to create low-cost, simple tools for non-engineers to develop digital projects. The Wiring platform comprised a PCB using an Atmel ATmega128 microcontroller and an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) to ease programming.

 

To reduce platform cost, Gianluca Martino led the design of a new platform based on a cheaper Atmel microcontroller, the Atmega8. Massimo Banzi, together with David Mallis (another IDII student) and David Cuartielles, ‘forked’ the Wiring project software and added support for the new board. They christened their board and their software fork “Arduino” (named after a bar in Ivrea which in turn was named after Arduin of Ivrea, who was King of Italy from 1002 to 1014).

 

Arduino hardware and software were ‘open source’, available via a public license (“open source”, as defined by the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), is “hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design”).

 

In the ensuing decade, Arduino has forged a sustainable ecosystem beloved of the maker and developer community. That ecosystem comprises a range of single board computers (SBC – now based on processors from several major vendors in addition to Atmel), expansion boards, software libraries, an easy-to- use IDE (which encourages the use of license-free design tools), and a worldwide development community dedicated to sharing information, software, and technical solutions.

 

Makers are a growing global grouping of spare-time designers, hobbyists, and amateur engineers who use their spare time to construct fun, often useful, and occasionally commercial, devices from electronics, mechanical components, and plastic packaging.

 

One U.S. maker association estimates that around 75 percent of its members base the electronics for their projects on Arduino and other open- source hardware platforms, while most of the others build their own SBCs from schematics detailing Arduino hardware. Actual numbers are hard to find, but anecdotal evidence from organized gatherings such as “Maker Faires” across the world seem to confirm this estimate. That makes for a lot of Arduinos in the wild, approaching one million according to recent calculations.

 

Lowering the shields

It hasn’t taken long for the maker community to latch on to commercial manufacturers’ use of wireless connectivity to make their products ‘smart’. ‘Dumb’ objects working in isolation become a whole lot more useful when equipped with a wireless connection to communicate with other devices, sensors, computing platforms such as smart phones and PCs, and ultimately data center services and analytics processing in the Cloud.

 

Anticipating demand for extensions to its base board to endow Arduino SBCs with greater functionality, Arduino cleverly incorporated standard connectors which enabled the use of expansion boards (or “shields”) to add specific functionality. For example, an Ethernet shield allowed an Arduino board to connect to the Internet via an RJ45 connector and a few simple software instructions. Later, shields incorporating Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity allowed Arduino users to connect to other devices or the Internet without needing a cable.

 

But the pervasiveness of wireless connectivity and the promise of the Internet of things (IoT)—an extension of the Internet to even the most mundane objects via a bidirectional RF link—convinced the Arduino organization to make RF technology a fundamental part of an Arduino base board.

 

“Many developers know Arduino through the Arduino Uno - our original and best-selling product. We decided it was time for a natural evolution of the Uno—a decade after its introduction—embracing ‘native’ wireless connectivity,” explains Federico Musto, CEO and President of Arduino S.r.l. (Arduino S.r.l was formed from the manufacturing firm called Smart Projects, an Italian factory that’s assembled Arduino products since 2005.)

 

“Developers familiar with the Uno wanted an Arduino that enabled them to design IoT applications without the need for shields,” says Musto. “To meet that demand it was clear to us that such a new product had be equipped with Bluetooth low energy because the technology offers advantages such as low power consumption and interoperability with consumer electronics.”

 

The demand from developers resulted in the Arduino Primo, launched with fanfare at a major maker gathering in San Francisco during May. With the Primo, developers and makers no longer need to add shields to wirelessly link to other devices. The board incorporates Bluetooth low energy––ensuring seamless connectivity with smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers equipped with Bluetooth 4.0 (and later) technology as well as a rapidly growing family of Bluetooth low energy sensors. In addition, the Primo platform also includes a Wi-Fi module to easily link it with existing Wi-Fi networks, and for when greater bandwidth than can be provided by the Bluetooth technology is needed (at the cost of higher power consumption).

 

Bluetooth low energy connectivity is provided courtesy of Nordic’s nRF52832 System- on-Chip (SoC) which also endows the board with Near Field Communication (NFC), a nifty, user-friendly “Touch-to- Pair” mechanism for quickly associating Bluetooth low energy devices.

 

Better yet, the nRF52832 SoC’s embedded ARM Cortex M4F processor has plenty in reserve to run the non-Bluetooth low energy functionality of the Arduino Primo. (“The nRF52832 is the heart of the Primo,” says Musto.) The SBC houses another processor, an STMicroelectronics device, that looks after the Arduino IDE programming and debugging while the ARM M4F does all the other computational heavy lifting.

 

Apart from the hardware, the Arduino ecosystem’s other strength is its ease of programming via the IDE which allows the inexperienced to get started quickly. While the Primo retains that advantage, if makers want to get really adventurous they can leverage the SBC’s full capabilities by turning to development tools such as Nordic’s nRF52 or nRF5 IoT Software Development Kits (SDK). These SDKs enable more experienced engineers to explore the nRF52832 SoC’s full functionality which includes the capability to support even enterprise-level IoT applications.

 

Targeting the IoT

According to Musto, the Primo is one of the organization’s first attempts to enable users to build projects that take advantage of the fledgling IoT. The Primo’s Bluetooth low energy technology can communicate with sensors (or other Primos) and then relay information to the Internet via a ‘gateway’ such as a smartphone or desktop computer, or a newer model IoT hub/gateway that includes both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity.

 

The organization has produced a ‘stripped-down’ Arduino Primo called the Primo Core. The Primo Core is an elegantly- designed circular SBC in a 40mm diameter form factor, again based on Nordic’s nRF52832 SoC, targeted at wearable or sensor applications. the SBC is specifically designed to operate as a wireless sensor interfacing with the Primo. An Arduino developer could, for example, set up a home temperature and humidity monitoring system based on Primo Core sensors with one or two Primos collating the information in order to download the data to a smartphone or Iot hub/ gateway.

 

Moreover, IoT applications running on Primo or Primo core can already take advantage of IPv6—the latest Internet Protocol—to communicate directly with other connected objects and Cloud-based computing resources via cheap, simple relays or ‘bridges’ that can forward packets to the Internet proper. (Security remains a challenge but is being addressed by Internet engineering groups.)

 

“IPv6 capability is another important reason why we selected the Nordic Bluetooth low energy chip,” says Musto. “Today, the Primo’s nRF52832 chip is already capable of communicating with the Primo Core using IPv6 over Bluetooth low energy. Tomorrow, that technology will enable the Primo to directly connect with the IoT without an extra gateway. That’s an exciting prospect for the maker community and is sure to further enhance the Arduino ecosystem in the future.