If you’re an electronics hobbyist, it’s almost certain you know about the Arduino Uno (pictured above) – quite possibly the most popular hobbyist platform for smart electronics. What do I mean by “smart electronics”? Well, it’s a combination of digital and/or analog electronics AND a computer “chip” (microprocessor or microcontroller) that serves as the “brain”. This means that the circuit’s operation is controlled by a computer program (or “sketch”, as a program is called in the Arduino platform). For example, I can build a circuit using the Arduino Uno to blink an LED (Light Emitting Diode) at a rate of about once a second.
Big deal, right? “I can do this with a 555 IC and a couple of resistors and capacitors!” you say. Indeed, the Arduino Uno is overkill for such a function. But what if we want to blink the LED once a second only when ambient light is above a certain level, and below that level also turn on another light for a predetermined amount of time but only when a person is in the room? And maybe before this time period lapses you want to dim the light and flash it three times to let the person(s) in the room know that the light is about to be extinguished? Sure, we can do this with additional circuitry added to a simple 555 LED flasher, but our circuit would be considerably more complex. And if we want to be able to make changes quickly to how quickly the LED blinks, or perhaps we want to vary the length of time the light is on or the point at which the light dims, we may need to add even more complexity to our circuit. This is where smart electronics platforms are so valuable. We can easily make changes to our program (or sketch, or whatever the platform’s code is called), and we can also add multiple sensors, lights, motor controls, etc. to smart electronics without changing the electronics at the core of our project (these smart electronic cores are frequently referred to as “embedded controllers”, because the brain – usually a microcontroller or other multi-function programmable device – is embedded into the electronics).
Of course, the added ease with which we can expand upon smart electronics comes with a cost (doesn’t everything?): because smart electronic devices have a computer brain, we have to be able to write programs and somehow get our programs loaded into the brain. For the most part, this means we also have to get accustomed to software running on our laptop or desktop computers (or even tablets or smartphones) – frequently in the form of a software “suite” or IDE (Integrated Development Environment). Some of these software tools are rather simple to use, but others have a pretty steep learning curve. We’ll look much more deeply into these tools and many other aspects of electronics in later articles.
Finally, electronics is much easier to learn if you do some hands-on experimentation. Get yourself an Arduino (or clone, or some other such board that tickles your fancy) and start playing, er, learning!