The humble Arduino embedded development platform marked it’s 15th year of existence recently. Ever since the original RS-232 serial port-based Arduino became a reality, the companies behind the platform have made steady progress in improving the capabilities with each new generations of boards. The board and the associated C-based programming language (originally called Wiring) were initially created for art and design students to help reduce the complexity in adding interactive features to art installations. However, 2018 may very well be remembered as the year Arduino graduated from college and went to pro.
For a majority of Arduino’s existence, the boards have typically leveraged 8-bit AVR architectures for their simplicity and tolerances that made them very friendly to makers and others with limited technical experience. During that time, the world has increasingly become connected and digital. Smartphones, the Internet of Things (IoT), drones, smart devices, wearables, digital twins, autonomous vehicles are far my prevalent today than they were in 2003. Many of the products require increasingly more computational horsepower to provide capabilities that are increasingly in demand by consumers. Despite a short-lived divide in the Arduino ecosystem, newer generations of Arduino boards began to move beyond the AVR architecture in favor of ARM-based and Atheros/AVR hybrid solutions to meet the needs of more complex applications. Different form factors such as the Arduino Nano emerged to do help bridge the gap between development and production needs. The LilyPad format emerged to help support the burgeoning wearables community by making an embedded board that could be directly applied to clothing and wired together utilizing conductive thread.
Flash forward to 2018 and any pretense that Arduino intends to remain a maker-only focused platform was swiftly dropped. First was the release of the MKR WAN 1300 which is powered by SAMD21 Cortex-M0+ 32-bit ARM microcontroller. In addition, into being released in a convenient DIP package format, the MKR WAN 1300 also sports LoRa-based communications hardware. LoRa, short for Long Range, operates in the sub-gigahertz license free spectrum is seen as a potential solution for the low power, long range needs of IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) applications.
Next up in the breadboard-friendly MKR line is the MKR Wi-Fi 1010. The board consists of three major components including a SAMD21 Cortex-M0+ 32-bit ARM microcontroller, U-BLOX ESP32 NINA-W10 Series low power 2.4GHz IEEE 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, and ECC508 CryptoAuthentication. Arduino quite frankly states that the MKR Wi-Fi 1010 “aims to speed up and simplify the prototyping of WI-FI based IoT applications thanks to the flexibility of the ESP32 module and its low power consumption.” And still it will leverage the rather simple Arduino integrated development environment (IDE). In other words, professional grade hardware with maker friendly firmware development tools.
Continuing with MKR line is the MKR NB 1500. The 1500 leverages two other Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) radio technologies known as Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and LTE Cat M1. Both implementations are designed to work within the LTE cellular network spectrum while promising improved indoor wireless coverage, IoT-friendly data transfer speeds (necessary for frequent firmware updates that ensure capability and security), long battery life, and the ability to support many concurrently connected devices. LTE Cat M1 is also ideal for mobile applications such as autonomous vehicles as it handles tower-to-tower hands offs similarly to how smartphones can jump from tower-to-tower while moving.
The last board in the MKR is perhaps the most revolutionary. The MKR Vidor 4000 is the first
Arduino board based on Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) hardware. The Vidor will contain the same SAMD21 Cortex-M0+ 32-bit ARM chip and the U-BLOX ESP32 Wi-Fi/BLE chip as other boards in the MKR line. It will also uniquely feature an Intel Cyclone 10 FPGA. Also on board will be a Microchip ATECC508A cryptographic co-processer that will provide hardware-based security which will be invaluable to securing IoT applications. According to the spec sheets the Vidor will also contain “8 Mbyte SDRAM, 2 Mbyte QSPI Flash (1MB for user applications), Micro HDMI connector, and a MIPI camera connector”. Users will be able to program the FPGA directly using Verilog or VHDL and their standard Altera/Intel toolchains. To make things a bit simpler for newcomers to the world of FPGAs, Arduino intends to eventually release a new development environment to allow users to program the Vidor using a visual block language similar to the one used by MIT’s Android App Inventor. In the interim, Arduino libraries will be provided to let user configure the FPGA via code ran from the microcontroller that will be able to connect any of the 25 I/O pins to any hardware device they desire such as digital-to-analog converters (DACs), pulse width modulation hardware, quadrature encoders, and I2C or UART communications hardware to name a few.
Arduino is also releasing many MKR-compatible shields as well to given developers and engineers even great capability. The shields include a CAN bus interfacing with automobiles and a shield to interface with the industrial RS485 protocol used in many industrial systems such as programmable logic controllers (PLC). Both shields are intended help turn legacy systems into IoT-connected devices with minimal effort and expense.
For years engineer have debated the effectiveness of utilizing Arduino is production grade devices. In the intervening 15 years many competitors have emerged to address this question. It seems now that Arduino the company is answering that challenge by giving makers and engineers access to highly functional, simple to develop embedded systems at extremely affordable prices. The MKR embedded platform lineup of 2018 may very well prove to be the much needed upgrade to end the debate and usher in a new era for the Arduino platform. One that is no longer confined to just the maker and DIY hobbyist community.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the owner of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and technology consultancy located in Southern Maryland. He produces the Gears of Resistance podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.