Resurgence of the Do It Yourself (DIY) community has driven a range of open hardware platforms, giving aspiring technologists cheap and easy access to embedded development. Outside of hobbyist toys and educational devices, however, "hacker" boards are increasing performance and I/O flexibility, and have become viable options for professional product development.
The “maker” movements of the past few years quickly gained traction in the education and hobbyist markets, as organizations began producing open hardware boards with a “less-is-more” architecture at a price to match. DIY boards like the Arduino, BeagleBoard, and Raspberry Pi provide “known state” programming platforms that allow easy exploring for novice developers, and enough flexibility for advanced hackers to create some pretty remarkable things – which they have.
Now, Kickstarter () projects like Ninja Blocks are shipping Internet of Things (IoT) devices based on the BeagleBone (see this article’s lead-in photo), and startup GEEKROO is developing a Mini-ITX carrier board that will turn the Raspberry Pi into the equivalent of a PC. Outside of the low barrier to market entry presented by these low-cost development platforms, maker boards are being implemented in commercial products because their wide I/O expansion capabilities make them applicable for virtually any application, from robotics and industrial control to automotive and home automation systems. As organizations keep enhancing these board architectures, and more hardware vendors enter the DIY market, the viability of maker platforms for professional product development will continue to increase.
“About five years ago when we launched the original BeagleBoard, what you could do with ARM devices was not as clear,” says Jason Kridner, Cofounder, BeagleBoard.org. “Especially as the superscalar ARM core was just coming out, people did not know much about what it was really capable of doing. The closest things out there were things like the Nokia N800-types of devices, but we were really taking a big jump in performance.
“For the most part, the approach was to put this cool technology into people’s hands and get out of the way,” Kridner continues. “It was really just to try to reach that price point so that folks that wanted to go and play with open source software on these platforms could go and do that. And it was really an industry changer; you can see all the things that have come since then.”
ARM boards ‘make’ their mark
From the beginning, maker board architectures stressed lowest-cost, low-power hardware, with an emphasis on multimedia and graphics. This led the Raspberry Pi Foundation and BeagleBoard.org to adopt ARM architectures for the processing element in their boards, resulting in similar architectures with comparable performance that catered to educational and hobbyist developers. Since then, variants have evolved to increase pin access and optimize performance for a range of development applications.
“All of the DIY ARM boards have broadly the same architecture – a System-on-Chip (SoC), which contains the processing, multimedia, and I/O in a shared-memory configuration, and one or two external chips to provide functionality that is missing from the core SoC,” says Eben Upton, Executive Director, Raspberry Pi Foundation. “There are a number of boards based on a couple of different SoCs that use Cortex-A8 cores at around 1 GHz; these can get ahead of the Raspberry Pi a little on integer and memory workloads, but lag behind on floating-point performance and multimedia, as A8s have a very weak Floating-Point Unit (FPU) (Figure 1).”
“Going from the BeagleBoard to the BeagleBoard-xM, we added some extra memory, performance, and expansion capability,” Kridner says. “But with the BeagleBone, we kind of reset things and tried to say, ‘Let’s get down to the bare bones of what is really needed and desired.’ This was both in terms of more bones access – low-level expansion, A/D conversion, getting a lot more focused on that low-level I/O capability – and less of a focus on being a multimedia engine; the BeagleBone Black just took that progression further.
“For all the people building robots and drones and wanting to do hardware hacking, BeagleBone Black has all that expansion hardware on there (Figure 2),” Kridner adds. “For some of these platforms, if you wanted to do anything real-time, like precision timing for motor control, you would have to go out and buy an Arduino or some other sort of microcontroller system. Here, there are two 32-bit 200 MHz microcontrollers that have direct access to the pins. They are real-time and can let Linux do some of the things that it is great at like networking, high-level language support, GUI development, and the big number crunching, and let the low-latency stuff live on those 200 MHz microcontrollers. You come to it with whatever development baggage you already have; if you want to go into real engineering design and make an end product out of it, there is no barrier to doing that.”
x86 for professional-grade performance
As the DIY market continues filling out with developers of varying skill levels and intentions, the need for different classes of development boards has also emerged. Recently, x86-based maker boards have been released, offering increased compute power and high-speed I/O interfaces. Though slightly more expensive than their ARM-based predecessors, they target more serious development and are capable of scaling into traditional embedded applications.
“The Raspberry Pi and Beagle family have done a lot to bring new people into the world of embedded development, and that is a wonderful thing,” says Scott Garman, Technical Evangelist, Intel Open Source Technology Center. “As the embedded community grows and people seek out new projects to pursue, they are inevitably going to run into limitations on one platform or another. Just about every embedded board in the marketplace has something unique to offer, and the MinnowBoard will be a compelling choice for many applications, particularly those that require high I/O throughput.”
MinnowBoard is an Intel Atom-based platform equipped with interfaces like SATA, Gigabit Ethernet, and PCI Express, and is suited for applications such as Network Attached Storage (NAS) and network security, Garman says (Figure 3). “Professional embedded developers working on commercial products will like the fact that the MinnowBoard is open hardware, and can be customized without having to sign any Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs),” he adds.
GizmoSphere has also entered the maker market with x86 process technology, including an AMD Embedded G-Series APU capable of 52.8 GFLOPS at under 10 W on their Gizmo board. Part of the Gizmo Explorer Kit, the package “was designed to be flexible so that designers can customize the system according to their specific development goals,” says Kerry Brown, Vice President and Chief Operations Officer, Sage Electronic Engineering.
“Gizmo was created to provide a flexible, multipurpose development board to serve the unique needs of embedded developers,” Brown says. “There [is] a wide range of interfaces on the Gizmo board, including PCIe, I2C, USB, and GPIO … to enable each developer’s unique design goals (Figure 4). The companion Explorer board provides a sea of holes for prototyping and debugging. The kit can be used by hobbyist developers who want to tinker at home on the weekends, or by entrepreneurs and small businesses developing their next product.”
From kindergarten to Kickstarter
Millions of maker boards have shipped to date, mostly as an extension of a thriving young DIY community. However, as open hardware platforms continue to surface as alternatives for commercial product development, it is possible that a generation of embedded engineers is being brought up by maker.
“I describe the target of the Beagle as kindergarten to Kickstarter,” Kridner says. “The next billion-dollar idea may not be from someone whose primary job function is writing firmware and Linux drivers and is an electrical engineer or computer science major, but they may be inspired by what they can do with technology. And we want to give them the tools to go out and avoid any barriers – to take their idea, rapidly prototype it, go to Kickstarter, and make their first million.”
E-cast: BeagleBone Black – BeagleBoard.org’s $45 1GHz Linux computer http://opsy.st/BeagleBoneBlackEcast