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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has almost 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the design … More »

Arduino Workshop: Getting Started With Microcontrollers

 
July 16th, 2013 by Jeff Rowe

Being a mechanical design kind of guy, I’ve had to pick up a lot of electrical/electronics information on my own over the years since I graduated from college. I came through the mechanical design education system with a “classical” curriculum — statics, dynamics, materials, thermodynamics, and maybe one basic AC/DC circuits course.

Today, a lot has changed. Mechanical engineering curricula at many colleges and universities seem to be divided roughly and equally between mechanics, electronics, and software.

As I said earlier, my educational background has made it necessary to learn more about electrons and code, in addition to atoms from my traditional background. Over the years I’ve worked with programmable logic controllers (PLCs), but wanted to get down to a more basic level of understanding, so I started thinking microcontrollers, but where to start?

As it turns out, there are several microcontrollers on the market for beginners like me, but the one that really intrigued me was the Arduino, an open-source, single-board microcontroller. The single board designed around an 8-bit Atmel AVR microcontroller, though a new model has been designed around a 32-bit Atmel ARM. The software consists of a standard programming language compiler and a boot loader that executes on the microcontroller.

Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. I needed the hardware and software to get started, but I also needed a good educational resource. While there are tons of Arduino resources, I’m a good book learner, so that’s the route I took.

I’ve checked out several Arduino “primers,” and found the best one for my purposes to be Arduino Workshop: A Hands-On Introduction with 65 Projects by John Boxall. This well-written book is a comprehensive tutorial that will have even rank beginners (like me) quickly building devices that are actually functional.

The book digs into basic electronics and the Arduino’s sensors, motors, displays, and software. You learn about these hard and soft components hands-on by using them to build projects that include:
• A digital thermometer that displays temperature changes on an LCD
• A GPS logger that records travel data for display on Google Maps
• A tester that checks the voltage of batteries
• A keypad-controlled lock that requires a secret code to open
• An electronic version of the classic six-sided die

As the book progresses, the projects build on the basics, and by the end of the book you’ll be able to make relatively sophisticated projects, such as a motorized remote-control tank.

Each project is broken down into easily understandable units:
• A statement of what the completed project is supposed to do
• An algorithm that outlines the steps for solving the project “problem”
• The hardware required to build the project
• A schematic for building the circuit
• A sketch of the software code for making the project go.

By the time you build some of the 65 of the projects, you’ll be ready to build your own—and that’s the fundamental idea behind the Arduino open-source philosophy.

I’ve got a long way to go in microcontrollers and electronics, but feel I’ve gotten a solid start with Arduino Workshop. You have to start somewhere and this is an excellent place to start on the road to understanding microcontrollers. Go ahead, challenge yourself, learn something new!

Arduino Workshop is available for $29.95 in bookstores, from http://www.oreilly.com/nostarch, or directly from No Starch Press (http://www.nostarch.com, orders@nostarch.com, 1-800-420-7240).

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