Arduino has become a fairly commonplace name in the electronics and “maker” world, but what does it actually mean? Putting aside all the hype in the press, it’s just an easy and neat way to experiment with small electronic IC’s called “microcontrollers”, which have been manufactured since the mid-1970’s!
Here’s a great summary from Wikipedia:
“Microcontrollers are designed for embedded applications, in contrast to the microprocessors used in personal computers or other general purpose applications.
Microcontrollers are used in automatically controlled products and devices, such as automobile engine control systems, implantable medical devices, remote controls, office machines, appliances, power tools, toys and other embedded systems.”
A very simple analogy for a microcontroller would be a common Windows PC desktop “tower” that was compressed into one chip. The CPU, RAM, hard drives and ports are on one chip. This “super” chip permanently holds the user’s program to do a given task, has memory to work with, and has direct connections to real-world devices.
The “PC on a chip” analogy breaks down when you try to compare capabilities. A microcontroller is designed to do a specific task very cheaply, quickly and efficiently. Even modern microcontrollers appear to have utterly trivial memory capacity, where program storage space (analogous to a PC hard disk) is measuring between 8kb to 256kb (kilobytes!), and 32kb is considered quite sufficient. RAM is minuscule, measuring from 0.5kb to 4kb! These numbers hark back to the days of the Apple I and TRS-80, in the late 1970’s!
The beauty of a microcontroller is its ability to directly connect to a myriad of basic, or complex electronic devices, such as buttons, switches, light sensors, temperature sensors, etc. A simple application like an LED light “chaser” circuit, where the lights turn on and off in sequence and randomly change direction would be very complicated to produce with transistors, diodes, etc, but completely trivial with a microcontroller.
From a hobbyist perspective, simple robotics is a very rewarding field to experiment in. Mini sumo and line-following/maze solving robots are great fun, and can be as simple or complex as the designer desires.
With respect to robotics, there is a huge difference between a fully autonomous robot that solves a maze, or tries to push an opponent out of a sumo ring, compared to the typical “Robot Wars” human-operated robots, which are little more that “tough” radio-controlled cars with various weapons attached to them! The microcontroller and sensors give the autonomous robot the ability to react to its environment and make decisions completely without human interaction.
Sound intriguing? Proceed to the tutorial covering setting up the Arduino environment on your PC and running your first program!