Electronics development for the masses

I am NOT an electrical engineer.  I had a breadboard and a pile of capacitors and resistors to play with when I was an undergraduate, and that’s about it.  I have to do a lot of soldering and splicing when equipment breaks, but that’s just repair–no development.

That all changed today.  I was at Radio Shack (and yes, I was offered a cell phone plan twice) getting spare parts, and saw the Arduino display. If you’ve never seen one, it’s a little open-source prototyping platform.  You connect various components to it, develop your code and download it to the chip.  It’s tiny, and cheap:

The Arduino Uno board. Image from arduino.cc.

I got this badboy, and a ‘compass’ chip, which is actually just a three-component magnetometer.  In under half an hour, I had a working prototype:

Magnetometer prototype.

which was actually dumping data via USB:

My workbench for the Arduino setup.

It’s not the most precise mag ever made, but it cost well under $100.  GPS chips, Bluetooth, wireless, 3-component accelerometers, solar panels, and so much more is available.

There are a variety of boards like this for $5 to as much as you care to spend.  TI makes a remarkably cheap board for controller development and such, while the Beagleboard is about $200 if I remember correctly and can run Linux.

Think of all the cool stuff that we’re going to see when anyone can prototype their own electronics.  My plan for these (if I can find a way to digitize quickly enough) is to build a phased-array radio telescope in my backyard.  What a fascinating and modern age in which we live.


About faradaysheadache

Research Geophysicist with the US Geological Survey.
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