Arduino needs no introduction. Ever since its genesis in 2005, this Open Source electronics prototyping platform has gained immense popularity amidst artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. Started as a small project aimed at developing a device for controlling student-built interactive design projects, Arduino has turned into an electronics hardware move ment of its kind. More than 120,000 Arduino boards had been shipped as of February 2010 alone. In less than a decade, its popularity has broken all bounds. So much so that even powerful prototyping platforms such as BeagleBoard are seen catching up with Arduino.
What makes Ardunio a ‘hit’ amongst design engineers, hobbyists, students and novices in the fieldof electronics? To findout, we probed a few design engineers and companies that provide Arduino boards, projects and shields in India. Here are a few points that emerged from this discussion.
1. A simple platform that offers ease of use
“Arduino is an extremely easy-to-use platform compared to many other proprietary boards. Arduino users are not electronics geeks, they are artists, teachers, school students—you just have to name it. As against other boards, Arduino does not teach you the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ of electronics. No other board currently offers the flexibilityof use on multiple operating systems, great library software, community support and super drivers,” says Saptarshi Chatterjee, headstrategic alliance, Robosoft Systems.
“India has a large number of engineering graduates who are probably not design engineers but into different job roles like business or finance They form a critical mass apart from students who use Arduino to design useful and fun projects without spending years in learning basic electronics. Hence, given the fact that it is a simple platform, Arduino is a great training platform to create better design engineers in India,” adds Chatterjee.
Ajay Jadhao, founder and owner, Revosys, and partner, Analogue Technologies, seconds the thought: “The most important thing in designing is knowing what you want to do. And if you know it, you can start with Arduino. You do not need any knowledge of AtmegaXX8 controllers’ architecture and can start with only the basic knowledge of C, C++ and JAVA. The Arduino integrated development environment (IDE) is as easy as writing a program in these basic languages. And that’s why it is popular amongst software developers and hobbyists too.”
2. An edge over other prototyping platforms
There are many factors that make Ar-duino popular compared to its proprietary and Open Source counterparts.
Wiring—another Open Source platform—is older than Arduino (launched in 2003) and simple too but it did not become popular like Arduino. One of the key reasons is that many Arduino boards (list available on http://arduino.cc/en/Main/Boards) are available with support from the Arduino community. So designers can select the boards as per their needs, whereas choice is less in Wiring.
“Currently, Arduino and BeagleBoard are the two most popular boards in India, though none of these is designed in India,” opines Chatterjee.
BeagleBoard, which is a singleboard computer, is fast and powerful as it comes packed with a DM3730CBP 1GHz processor (commonly used in most smartphones), five USB 2.0 ports 512 MB of memory and on-board ethernet.
“Compared to Arduino, which is available as an 8-bit, 16-bit or 32-bit microcontroller board, BeagleBoard is more advanced. But in a way, this has become its drawback also” says Jadhao. He explains, “It is a bit complex to get started with BeagleBoard. If you need to design any advanced application, Arduino is not the answer. In such situations, working on BeagleBoard will help, as this single-board computer is designed for performing most of the needed applications without adding extra hardware.”
However, with the availability of powerful Arduino solutions, such as the PIC 32-bit Arduino solution of Microchip named chipKit, which according to the company is the firstever Arduino-compatible microcontroller-based Open Source develop-ment platform, even this requirement has been addressed to some extent. PIC32-based chipKit boards enable 80MHz performance, and provide up to 512kB Flash and 128kB RAM. The boards feature connectivity peripherals like Ethernet, controller area network and USB (full-speed host, device and OTG), plus peripherals such as multiple timers, a 16-channel 1MSPS analogue-to-digital converter (ADC), two comparators, multiple I2C, serial peripheral interface, and universal asynchronous receiver/transmitter interface. chipKit platform also features MIPS Technologies’ MIPS32 M4K core.
“Apart from this, various Arduino shields are available (for simple to complex project requirements) to integrate the required functionalities on the Arduino board via external connectors. Besides, since its microcontroller is Open Source, it is easy to clone Arduino as per different requirements, giving designers and hobbyists a lot of flexibilityin determining the components to be used on the platform. It even ensures that the cost of development is within their budgets. But this is not the case with BeagleBoard, which is managed by Texas Instruments and/or its partners,” says Sani Theo, an electronics engineer.
“Another flipside of BeagleBoard is that its documentation and tutorials are not well organised and BeagleBoard community is not as strong as the Arduino community,” observes Jadhao.
However, Ram, technical evangelist and writer, Tenet Technetronics, has another perspective to share in this regard: “While proprietary hardware help in maintaining a contained quality and delivery model, the amount of creativity of these tools is quite low, which unfortunately is the hard fact. A growing inclination towards making designs open is also found in the recent past, wherein companies themselves are coming up with some kind of Open Source hardware to promote the use of their silicon.”
3. Powered by design engineers from around the globe
Open Source as a concept and philosophy is driven by the core principle of putting the power in the hands of the user. Since Arduino too is an open platform, it is being used by a large number of developers and users across the globe, many of whom are design engineers.
“By giving the CAD file in the hands of many design engineers around the world, you simply make your own platform more powerful without directly hiring them. That is the core reason why Arduino is so successful even as a business model,” observes Chatterjee.
“The number of advanced users and developers who are using Arduino is already huge compared to many other platforms, and this number is growing,” he adds.
4. A dedicated and well-focused community
“Most design engineers say that Arduino has become popular due to the simplicity of use that the platform offers. But this alone can’t be the reason behind it,” feels Jadhao. He adds, “The Arduino community has maintained and popularised the platform properly.”
• Pinguino (a PIC-based hardware)
• Armduino/Maple (an STM32-based hardware)
• chipKIT (a PIC 32-bit MCU-based Arduino solution from Microchip)
“Arduino forums are an excellent means of communication amongst the community that not only help people but are also a rich source of new ideas and thoughts to build better and more advanced hardware and software for the future,” says Ram.
“In addition, many ‘how to’ guides and project ideas are available in the public domain. The design ideas and users’ experiences are also shared in the community, which makes it easy even for beginners to work on the platform,” informs Jadhao.
“Also, the Arduino community brings in a diverse range of used cases across various levels, and it is amazing to see the community being able to support Arduino consistently with a good level of quality. It is the community that makes Open Source projects successful over time,” adds Ram.
5. Low cost and easy accessibility of the hardware
With ever-increasing affordability that the silicon vendors are adding these days, Arduino is becoming cheaper and more affordable to people. Starting at prices as low as Rs 500 (and even lesser for some boards), Arduino enjoys immense cost advantage over other proprietary and Open Source boards.
“Not just in India, but all around the world Arduino is competitively priced as against proprietary boards. Another factor for its widespread adoption is the vast distribution network that Arduino has set up in India, making the boards’ and shields’ accessibility easy,” says Chatterjee.
“In comparison, PandaBoard and BeagleBoard, which are also Open Source platforms (supported by Texas Instruments), are still not as easily available,” shares Theo.
6. Open hardware and software
Arduino is completely Open Source both in terms of software as well as hardware. Both the hardware development board as well as the IDE are open for people to experiment as well as add/remove features as required.
When we say Arduino hardware is open in nature, it means that the schematics as well as building instructions can be used to build hardware without the need to buy from a particular vendor. Also, features can be added or removed in the existing design as per requirement. One can build the Arduino board by hand or use a local fab/hackerspace. Lots of such options are springing up slowly in India as Ardunio is easy to clone too.
“This has proved to be a significant oon for the evolution of Arduino as a popular platform, as users are free to build varying versions of the hardware based on their needs and budget. For instance, in the case of hardware, users can remove the USB support if it is not required and manage with the serial port interface. An on-board battery unit can also be added if a portable application has to be built. The regulator on board can also be changed to make it compatible with industrial-grade voltages,” says Ram.
“The same is the case with software. You can use the standard Arduino IDE or confgure to use the Eclipse IDE, Wiring IDE or graphical design software such as Scratch to program Arduino, which eliminates the need to write code. There are more projects of this kind in progress that would show up in future,” Ram adds.
7. Arduino licencing policies are flexible and open
Creative commons attribution (CCA), general public licence (GPL) and lesser general public licence (LGPL) mainly support open hardware and allow designers to freely share designs. As regards Arduino, some excerpts from its licensing policy are shared below:
“Embedding an Arduino board inside a commercial product does not require you to disclose or open-source any information about its design. This would give the designer a complete control of the intellectual property that he has created.
“The source code for the Arduino environment is covered by the GPL, which requires any modifcations to be open-sourced under the same license. It does not prevent the sale of derivative software or its inclusion in commercial products.
“Using the Arduino core and libraries for the firmwareof a commercial product does not require you to release the source code for the firmware.The LGPL does, however, require you to make available object filesthat allow for the relinking of the firmwareagainst updated versions of the Arduino core and libraries. Any modificationsto the core and libraries must be released under the LGPL.”
The policy clearly indicates the edge one gets with Arduino compared to other proprietary tools.
Ram explains, “Libraries as well as reference designs are the key things that any design engineer or hobbyist would like to have access to before starting with a design or project. For instance, any talk-of-the-town technology like GPS, GSM or accelerometers has ready-to-use libraries that a design engineer can instantiate with very little effort.”
Libraries and reference designs will make it easy for designers to integrate Arduino into their electronics projects and vendors to clone these and sell variants.
8. Events adding to arduino’s popularity
There have been a lot of activities around the Arduino platform in the last couple of years which have also helped in popularising it. Hacking events and workshops centred on the Arduino platform have become a common sight these days.
“Tenet has organised many events of late to encourage people to pick up Arduino,” says Ram. Yahoo! India also recently conducted a hackfest on the Arduino platform. (You can findmore details at http://arduino.cc/blog/2011/07/25/adk-android-hacks-in-yahoo-open-hack-in-bangalore/)
Can india build another arduino?
Why are some true Open Source boards not coming from India when so much is happening in this space already? To this question, Chatterjee shares an interesting observation, “We don’t see a true Indian Open Source board because as a market we are still too immature to release the core filesin the market. While people in India do build boards, we need to start building great user and developer communities around these. That is the key to the success of a good board with all the traits of Open Source. I hope the best Open Source FPGA board emerges out of India.”
Ram concludes on a positive note: “Given the Open Source trend in India and more number of hacker spaces springing up, I am hopeful that very soon some projects from India will make it into the open hardware space in a big way.” Till that happens, Arduino may well continue to reign!
The author is an executive editor at EFY