Updated by Ian Buckley on August 14 2017
If you’re anything like me, tinkering with electronics is something you’d really like to do – in theory at least. In reality, time constraints and lack of knowledge inevitably prevent you from trying. 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 microwave parts? 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. 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!
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.
1. 3D Printers
In the past we 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.
2. Puff The Magic Dragon Fighting Robot
Of course, all kinds of robots are prime candidates 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 its own, without human control).
3. Laser Harp
Awesome trance sounds, lasers, what more could you possibly want?
4. 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.
5. LED Cubes
The best way to explain this 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.
The difficulty level is on the higher side though. Don’t worry if that seems complex — we have a full Arduino LED Cube tutorial, which covers everything you need to know.
So fun and games aside, what exactly makes the Arduino so special? Surely there are other programmable controllers out there?
Arduino is a brand name, but most of the hardware and software they’ve developed is open source. The schematics are available online, so if you don’t want to purchase a ready-made Arduino, you are free to buy the individual components and make it yourself, or buy one of the many clone devices now available. At this point, it is worth considering whether to use an official Arduino board at all!
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.
A Wealth of Support
There are thousands of other people and organizations out there embracing the Arduino. 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.
Versatility and Cost
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.
Plenty of Options
Since the Arduino’s release, many other companies have taken on the open source hardware ethos. Alongside the many clone boards which have hit the market, several unique designs are available which are compatible with the Arduino IDE. These boards take the general spirit of the original Arduino boards and add extra features.
A notable example is the Teensy line of development boards. These small boards pack a much bigger processing punch than Arduino boards, with a tiny form factor making them perfect for small projects which rely on powerful processing at their core.
A current favorite here at MakeUseOf is the NodeMCU development board. This board which is also tiny, has on board Wi-Fi, and alongside being Arduino compatible, can be used as a tiny Node.Js server. Available for as little as $3, these tiny boards are so good that we wondered if they would be a direct competitor to the Arduino throne.
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.
Arduino have completely changed the hobby electronics game. What wasn’t possible without extensive knowledge in the past is now achievable by all due to the wide range of cheap micro-controllers available, and the huge community surrounding it. Getting started is pretty easy too, and we have a handy beginner’s guide to get you off the ground.
Are you just getting started in the world of micro-controllers? Which board are you thinking of getting? What do you plan to make? Let us know in the comment section below!