Arduino By Gordon McComb
Twenty years ago, I began work on my ultimate home robot. Its brain was
an Intel 80286-based PC motherboard, running at a whopping 8 MHz. The
robot used a floppy disc drive to load the operating system and programs,
and custom prototype boards for external interfacing.
The beast needed a hefty battery for power, and with the battery alone weighing some 15 pounds, I needed a sturdy frame to keep everything together. Constructed of aluminum, the robot measured 18
inches square by almost three feet high, and required heavy
duty and expensive gear motors — all this just to meander
down the hallway and scare the &@%! out of my cat.
Five years and over $1,500 later, I put “Maximillian” to
rest, pulling its parts to use in other projects. Robot
electronics were shrinking, and that meant robots
themselves were getting smaller. Innovations like the BASIC
Stamp made it much easier to experiment with low cost,
self-contained microcontrollers — perhaps the ideal robotic
brain. Microcontrollers are now so commonplace that you
have your pick of hundreds of makes and models; from the
super simple, to the confoundedly complex. Somewhere in
the middle is the Arduino — a small and affordable
microcontroller development board that’s fast becoming
something of a superstar.
Why the Popularity?
Sure, the Arduino is a capable little critter able to
56 SERVO 11.2010
handle the most common things microcontrollers can do.
And let’s not forget that some of its fame has to do with
price: the standard Arduino costs about $30, assembled
and tested. Even less if you want to build it from a kit.
Then there’s its free programming software. Using a
standard USB cable, it lets you easily connect the Arduino
to your computer — Windows, Mac, or Linux — and begin
working in minutes. The programming editor is simple to
use and comes with several dozen examples to get you
What’s really made the Arduino a darling of geeks the
world over is this: Both its hardware design and software
are open source. That means others are able to take the
best ideas and improve on them, all without paying
licensing fees. This has created something of a cottage
industry of fans and third-party support.
Though the most popular version of the Arduino is
made by a company in Italy (where the board was originally
developed), many others offer compatible designs in one
form or another. Add to this a growing body of add-ons
that maximize the Arduino, and free resources for
programming examples, code libraries, and step-by-step