What Is Arduino & What Can You Do With It? [Technology Explained]

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arduino programmingIf you’re like me, tinkering with electronics is something you’d really like to do – in theory at least – but the realities of time constraints, lack of knowledge and few rewards inevitably prevent you from making a start. It’s just too difficult. You like dissecting broken gadgets, but never do anything with the bits you find other than stash them away for a rainy day (a drawer full of fans and motors? Check).

The Arduino is the answer to all that, and frankly anything that can be considered fun while learning is a truly revolutionary device in my opinion.

Technically, the Arduino is a programmable logic controller, which Ryan explained all about a few weeks ago. Officially though, it’s an open-source electronics prototyping platform – but what does that mean?

To you or me, it’s like a little computer you can program to do things, and it interacts with the world through electronic sensors, lights, and motors. In essence, it makes some truly hardcore electronics projects accessible to anyone – so artists and creative types can concentrate on making their ideas a reality. It’s the ultimate tinkering tool

To quote:

Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.

What Can You Do With It?

Before discussing what makes the Arduino such a revolutionary device, I think it’s better to show you some of my favorite projects that have been made with the Arduino.

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The Maker-Bot

Last week I showed you the MakerBot, a 3D printer. Well, that uses a couple of Arduinos to control things such as ejecting molten plastic from the print head to moving the platform.

Puff The Magic Dragon Fighting Robot

Of course, all kinds of robots are prime candidate for being made with Arduino, but this one is the cutest I’ve seen yet. Using a basic robot frame, 2 motors, and 2 light sensors, this little guy is able to find a source of heat, head towards it, and put the fire out – all autonomously.

(*Autonomous meaning it does it on it’s own, without human control).

Laser Harp

Awesome trance sounds, lasers – what on earth else could you possibly want?

Baker Tweet

A simple way to tell customers that fresh bread is done, the BakerTweet has a dial selection to choose the bread, and a tweet button! I think you’ll agree that this is the most unique use of the Arduino yet.

LED Cubes

The best way to explain these is to just watch the video – these are absolutely gorgeous – an 8x8x8 LED cube (that’s 512 LEDs), with all the controlling done by an Arduino. Wow, this is definitely going on my to-do list, along with the other twenty things I want to make first! (The difficulty level is on the higher side though)

So fun and games aside, what exactly makes the Arduino so special? Surely there are other programmable controllers out there?

Open Source

The hardware and software is open source – the schematics are available online, so if you don’t want to purchase a pre-made Arduino, you are free to buy the individual components and make it yourself. There are even clones available that function in exactly the same way. Bear in mind of course, that by purchasing an original device you support the creators and the future development of the Arduino.

arduino programming


As a piece of hardware, the Arduino can operate either independently (like in a robot), connected to a computer (thereby giving your computer access to sensor data from the outside world and providing feedback), or connected to other Arduino’s, or other electronic devices and controller chips. Pretty much anything can be connected and is bounded only by your imagination, willingness to put some time and effort into learning something new, and the availability of components. If you can think of it – the Arduino can do it.

arduino microcontroller

A Wealth of Support

There are thousands of other people and organizations out there embracing the Arduino, the best of which I’ll highlight in a later article. The upshot of this is that if you lack in the creativity department, there’s always a pre-coded project for you to build, and there’s always something new to learn. It’s also very easy to get started.

arduino programming

Versatility and Cost

An official complete unit costs as little as $50 – far less than other micro controller platforms, which makes these little electronic miracle babies accessible to hobbyists and educational institutions alike.

The programming language you upload with is incredibly simple, and should be familiar to anyone who has had any experience with Java or similar languages. (It’s actually based on Processing)

It’s also a fantastic learning tool, with which you can experiment with electronics and learn the foundations. In fact, if we had these when I was at school, I’m pretty sure I would have become a hardware engineer.

Still want to know more? Check out this short Arduino documentary which goes into the background a little more and the motivation behind the project. A lot of it is in Italian, because if the name didn’t give it away already, the project began in Italy.

I’m glad to report my Arduino arrived yesterday, and within minutes I’d adjusted the standard LED-flashing “hello world” demo app to work with a buzzer instead, and to buzz at random intervals. Literally, within minutes.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a short series of beginner tutorials to strengthen my own knowledge and hopefully get you all interested too, as well as walking you through the construction of a few of my own ideas. The only question left is – at what age should it be legally required to buy one of these for your child?

Image Credit: Adafruit Industries

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