Join the Maker World with an Easy-to-Use Arduino Starter Kit
There are hundreds of resources dedicated to “makers”; people who want to learn how to build devices to sense and react to the environment around them. For non-engineers and engineers alike, this is proving to be a creative subculture in which everyone can take part to learn and mentor about the world of electronics, control systems, microcomputers, sensors, and actuators. One of the easiest ways to get introduced to this world is with a starter kit from the maker icon, Arduino.
Arduino markets microcontroller boards and related software to the open-source hardware and software community. These electronic circuit boards combine microcontrollers and supporting random access memory (RAM), read only memory (ROM), and integrated circuits (ICs) to form open-source electronics prototyping platforms with all of the components needed to complete a series of well-documented maker projects.
This article provides an introduction to the Arduino Starter Kit based on the author’s (an engineer) personal experience.
The Arduino Starter Kit
The Arduino Starter Kit comes complete with everything needed to get 15 projects up and running (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The Arduino Starter Kit combines an Arduino UNO microcontroller board with a selection of electronic components and a 171 page “Arduino Projects Book” to open the world of interactive electronics to all. (Image source: Arduino)
The starter kit is uses the popular Arduino UNO microcontroller board which is based on Microchip Technology’s ATmega328P microcontroller IC (Figure2).
Figure 2: The Arduino UNO board contains all the elements necessary to support the ATmega328P microcontroller. (Image source: Arduino, annotation by Digi-Key Electronics)
The UNO board has fourteen digital input/output pins, six of which support pulse-width modulation (PWM) to control LED brightness and sound volume. There are six analog inputs backed by a successive approximation analog-to-digital converter (ADC) with 10-bit resolution at a conversion rate of 15 kilo-samples per second (kS/s) at full resolution. There is a built-in clock with its own 16 megahertz (MHz) quartz crystal. A USB port is provided for easy computer connection. Power can be applied from the USB port or can alternatively be supplied via an on-board power jack. The power source is automatically selected.
While the UNO has a bootloader on board for normal programming, it can be bypassed, allowing the microcontroller to be programmed through an in-circuit serial programming (ICSP) header. Finally, the UNO board has a reset button making it easy to return to a default condition if needed.
The ATmega328P processor is a low-power 8-bit microcontroller that uses an enhanced reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture (Figure 3). The RISC architecture uses instructions that are executed in a single clock cycle, resulting in very high execution throughput.
Figure 3: Functional block diagram of the 8-bit ATmega328P microcontroller used in the Arduino UNO. It has a RISC-based architecture with fast single-cycle instruction execution. (Image source: Microchip Technology)
The ATmega328P features on-board memory in the form of non-volatile memory segments including 32 Kbytes of flash program memory, 1 Kbyte of electrically erasable programmable read-only memory (EEPROM), and 2 Kbytes of static random-access memory (SRAM). The ATmega328 on the Arduino UNO comes preprogrammed with a bootloader that allows a user to upload new code to it without requiring the use of an external hardware programmer. The bootloader occupies 500 bytes within the flash program memory. The chip contains multiple serial data interfaces including a universal asynchronous receiver transmitter (UART), a serial peripheral interface (SPI), and a two-wire interface also known as the Inter-Integrated Circuit (I2C) bus.
The Arduino Starter Kit is available in five different languages. It contains the Arduino UNO microcontroller board and all the components needed to make 15 different projects. The user is guided through these projects by a 171-page Arduino Projects Book. The book covers both the hardware and software elements of using the Arduino UNO as the brain for all the projects.
Clear explanation of devices and terminology
One of the problems that beginners often run into when first exploring the world of electronics and programming is their unfamiliarity with the associated devices and terminology. The Arduino Projects Book eliminates this problem by starting out with a guide to the various parts in the kit, which includes 134 electronic components as well as the Arduino UNO board. In this section, each type of component is shown pictorially and its function is described. The section concludes showing the schematic symbol for each part.
Since newcomers might not be familiar with electronic prototyping boards or breadboards, a section of the manual shows how the included breadboard provides a solderless method of connecting the components. It diagrams the conducting bar patterns on the breadboard and explains how the power buses run. This eliminates a good deal of confusion when first using the kit’s prototyping board.
The general parts description in the Projects Book is followed by an overview of the UNO board layout, which focuses on the board’s connections, indicators, and interactive switches. This section establishes a hardware vocabulary that is used in the succeeding sections.
The next section provides basic instruction on setting up the Arduino software on a Windows, Mac, or Linux operating system. The primary software used is the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE), which can be downloaded from the Arduino website. The IDE is the software environment used to create executable code that can be uploaded to the Arduino UNO board.
Once the IDE software is loaded, the guide goes though the steps of establishing communications between the host computer and the UNO board via a USB connection. Reference links to the Arduino troubleshooting section and the IDE reference section are provided in case any difficulty is encountered. From this point, the user can begin projects.
Each project has detailed instructions on how to select the required components (listed with illustrations specifically for each project as the “ingredients”) and how to interconnect them on the prototyping board. As an example, Project 02 is called the “Spaceship Interface,” which wires a switch and three LEDs to create a “control panel” so that pushing the switch determines which action the LEDs follow. Each project introduction in the manual provides the estimated time to complete the project—in this case 45 minutes. The “ingredients list” for Project 02 includes a push-button switch, three LEDs, three 220 ohm (Ω) resistors, and one 10 kΩ resistor. The circuit is wired on the prototyping breadboard using pre-cut and stripped jumper wires. A page in this section is dedicated to teaching the new user how to read resistor color codes for their future independent projects.
The wired circuit is shown along with the Projects Book illustrations in Figure 4. The Projects Book shows the wiring in both pictorial and schematic formats. Comparing the two images helps the user quickly learn how to interpret the schematic symbols and the component interconnections.
Figure 4: The wiring instructions found in the Projects Book and the actual wiring of the prototype and UNO boards. The instructions appear in both pictorial and schematic form. (Image source: Digi-Key Electronics)
The software side of this project is the final stage of the process. Microcontrollers like the ATmega328P on the Arduino UNO use very low-level programming instructions known as machine code. This code is basically a series of binary numbers that control the internal hardware. No one needs to code in machine language manually. Programming is done in a higher-level language which is translated in several steps into binary commands that the microcontroller understands, greatly simplifying the programming process. The tool for doing this is the Arduino integrated IDE, mentioned earlier.
Project 02 continues with instruction on the software code, which Arduino refers to as "sketches." It goes through every required step in the sketch, explaining what the coded statements will do (Figure 5).
Figure 5: The program or “sketch” for Project 02 shown in the Arduino IDE program editor. (Image source: Digi-Key Electronics)
The user can either enter the code manually or download it from the file pulldown menu (Figure 6).
Figure 6: The sketches for all the projects are available within the Arduino IDE. The user can either select them or enter the code manually if so desired. (Image source: Digi-Key Electronics)
When the code entry is complete, it can be compiled using the Verify/Compile entry under the Sketch pulldown menu in the IDE interface. The compiler will check the code for syntax and other errors. The IDE interface will indicate when compiling is complete and the code is ready to be uploaded to the flash program memory on the UNO board. The upload function is also initiated from the Sketch pulldown menu. Once the UNO board is programmed, its green LED should turn on. Pressing the pushbutton switch will cause the green LED to turn off and the red LEDs to flash alternately.
These simple steps hide a good deal of programming “magic” like assembly, linking, and loading in translating the high-level commands into binary code to run the microcontroller. The newbie will acquire this knowledge with time and experience, but it’s not needed at this point to start having fun.
At this point the Projects Book poses a couple of questions to the user about how the program can be changed, inviting the user to experiment with the sketch. In advancing through the projects, the complexity of the circuits and the programs increase, broadening the user’s experience and knowledge.
With its open-source prototyping platform, variety of electronic components, and easy to use software, the Arduino Starter Kit has all that engineers and non-engineers alike need to get started in the electronics maker world.
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