Something strange is happening in the world of openness: projects are celebrating anniversaries. And not just any anniversary, but ones that remind us that free software and associated open projects have been around for decades now – more than three decades in the case of GNU, and over two decades for Linux. Open hardware is a more recent endeavour, but even that is starting to become venerable. Last Saturday marked the tenth anniversary of perhaps the most important open hardware project of all: Arduino. Here are the basic facts:
Arduino is a tool for making computers that can sense and control more of the physical world than your desktop computer. It’s an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple microcontroller board, and a development environment for writing software for the board.
Arduino can be used to develop interactive objects, taking inputs from a variety of switches or sensors, and controlling a variety of lights, motors, and other physical outputs. Arduino projects can be stand-alone, or they can communicate with software running on your computer (e.g. Flash, Processing, MaxMSP.) The boards can be assembled by hand or purchased preassembled; the open-source IDE can be downloaded for free.
The Arduino programming language is an implementation of Wiring, a similar physical computing platform, which is based on the Processing multimedia programming environment.
And here’s why readers of this column might care:
There are many other microcontrollers and microcontroller platforms available for physical computing. Parallax Basic Stamp, Netmedia’s BX-24, Phidgets, MIT’s Handyboard, and many others offer similar functionality. All of these tools take the messy details of microcontroller programming and wrap it up in an easy-to-use package. Arduino also simplifies the process of working with microcontrollers, but it offers some advantage for teachers, students, and interested amateurs over other systems:Inexpensive – Arduino boards are relatively inexpensive compared to other microcontroller platforms. The least expensive version of the Arduino module can be assembled by hand, and even the pre-assembled Arduino modules cost less than $50 Cross-platform – The Arduino software runs on Windows, Macintosh OSX, and Linux operating systems. Most microcontroller systems are limited to Windows. Simple, clear programming environment – The Arduino programming environment is easy-to-use for beginners, yet flexible enough for advanced users to take advantage of as well. For teachers, it’s conveniently based on the Processing programming environment, so students learning to program in that environment will be familiar with the look and feel of Arduino Open source and extensible software – The Arduino software is published as open source tools, available for extension by experienced programmers. The language can be expanded through C++ libraries, and people wanting to understand the technical details can make the leap from Arduino to the AVR C programming language on which it’s based. Similarly, you can add AVR-C code directly into your Arduino programs if you want to. Open source and extensible hardware – The Arduino is based on Atmel’s ATMEGA8 and ATMEGA168 microcontrollers. The plans for the modules are published under a Creative Commons license, so experienced circuit designers can make their own version of the module, extending it and improving it. Even relatively inexperienced users can build the breadboard version of the module in order to understand how it works and save money.
As that emphasises, not only does Arduino support GNU/Linux, unlike most comparable microcontroller systems, it is open to the core: its software is open source, and the designs for its hardware are published under a CC licence. The other great thing about Arduino is that, like open source software, it lowers the barriers to entry for people wanting to learn and explore control systems. Thanks to that fact, over the last ten years it has spawned not just a vast and growing ecosystem based around its platform, but an entire generation of open hardware hackers. Long may it continue to do so.