The Internet of Things is maturing, Arduino is at hand to reap the rewards
SAN FRANCISCO — Fifteen years after it was first conceived, Arduino is still thought of by many engineers as a hobbyist’s toy even as it is incorporated into more large-scale commercial projects, thanks largely to the rise of the Internet of Things.
“I think there is a big misconception still in the market around what Arduino is,” said Sander Arts, chief marketing officer at Arduino. “There are a lot of people that think that this thing blinks an LED and you can build an Arduino-powered fish feeder. In the meantime, there are a lot of people that are changing the world by building anything and everything, especially in the area of IoT.”
While Arduino is used worldwide by hobbyists, amateurs, tinkerers, and young people first getting their feet wet in electronics, it has also formed the underpinnings of hundreds of noteworthy and successful commercial ventures, including the Pebble Watch and virtually all 3D printers and drones, according to Arts. Arduino is enjoying success in the IoT wave because its easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and supported by a large ecosystem — all important factors, particularly for those who have limited experience with hardware.
There are some indications that Arduino's momentum in large-scale commercial projects has been disrupted in recent years, principally by two major events: a rift between the Arduino founders a few years back that tarnished the Arduino brand and created confusion in the user community; and Intel's decision to discontinue its x86 Arduino platforms, which offer more performance than the 8- and 32-bit microcontrollers that serve as the processor for most Arduino boards.
Duane Benson, chief technology officer at PCB assembly services firm Screaming Circuits, said that prior to the Arduino split his company had been seeing more Arduino-compatible designs come through its factory. The rift — which occurred after one of the Arduino founders broke with the other four, resulting in two Arduinos offering and licensing products — created a mess that is still affecting the number of designs using Arduino, though it was resolved in 2016, Benson said.
Intel's decision to stop supporting its Arduino products, including Joule, Galileo, Edison and Arduino 101, has also left a vacuum in the market, Benson said.
"When Intel had some [Arduino] products, there was a lot more interest in using those things, because that is more processing power," Benson said. "But with those being gone, we are back to seeing things that are a little less powerful."
But Arts and others say the pipeline of products using Arduino has never been more filled, largely because of IoT. They point out that for most IoT devices, the performance of the 8-bit AVR and 32-bit Arm microcontrollers that power most Arduino boards is more than sufficient.
Arduino doesn't release sales figures, but Arts estimates there are millions of Arduino boards "in the wild," in additions to millions more clones that use the same hardware but are not sold by Arduino. Arduino’s website, arduino.cc, is visited by 30 million unique visitors per year and boasts about 23 million page views per month, according to Arts, who points to this as evidence of the platform’s popularity. While not divulging specific numbers, Arts said that a “stunningly large” number of people are also using Arduino Create, a new integrated online platform that enables markers and professional developers to write code, access content, configure boards, and share projects.
“Those aren’t the people blinking LEDs,” said Arts. “You only need professional services around cloud and software when you are building an IoT device and when you are serious about going beyond your prototype and building an eventual product.”
The emergence of IoT and the desire of a lot of people in garages and also in R&D organizations to go and build prototypes in being enabled by Arduino boards and development tools, Arts said.
“The threshold for people to enter the market is getting lower and lower. More people are flocking to Ardunio — hardware and software people. And people are building stuff because it’s easier and easier to do so because you can tap into a community of 30 million people and the tools are available for you go to market super quickly.”
Many projects ultimately migrate off Arduino to other solutions — such as ASICs or custom boards — in order to get more performance or a better form factor. But according to Bob Martin, a senior staff engineer at Microchip and chief innovation officer at non-profit MyMentorTree, newer Arduino board with smaller form factors have emerged such as the Arduino MKR, Arduino Pro Mini and Arduino Nano, that are much more appropriate for taking a product to mid-level production levels. Also, Martin said, products such Atmel Studio (now owned by Microchip) allow users to import their Arduino code base into a more powerful development environment, including source-level debugging.
Limor Fried, an engineer and founder of New York's Adafruit Industries, said in an email exchange with EE Times that her company has seen an evolution over the past several years where large scale commercial projects are using Arduino boards with more appealing form factors, such as the Adafruit Feather.
"Every product made now needs wireless or IoT connectivity and battery power management, something that Feather is designed for, while maintaining Arduino IDE compatibility and embedded Python support," Fried said.
The emergence of the IoT has converged with a growing understanding that people who have created their products with Arduino don't have to start from scratch and can migrate their code base to more professional IDEs such as Atmel Studio, Martin said. Couple that with Arduino platforms such as MKR that offer a smaller footprint, and you have an option that is attractive for industrial products, he said.
"Part of my job is to let people know you don't need to start over from the beginning as you move into a more professional space," Martin said. "It's serious hardware and it's serious software. It's just now coming into its own, and we are just going to go forward with that."
Martin travels frequently to Maker Faires and other events, teaching courses and preaching the value of the Arduino platform for commercial products. He acknowledges that projects may hit performance bottlenecks as the result of the tradeoffs that make Arduino easy to use, but says designs can easily be migrated even if they use custom boards and move beyond the capabilities of the Arduino IDE.
"A lot of people came up with ideas through Arduino because Arduino allowed them to quickly articulate their implementation," Martin said. "They didn't have to worry about all that nasty stuff down there at the bottom about driving pins. That was really part of its success. Now, as you get into a more professional environment, you may realize that you need to tweak a pin a little bit, but you don't have to start from scratch. You can go in and look at the source code and tweak it to your specific requirement."
Looking ahead, Adafruit's Fried said the future will see more hardware using derivatives of the Python programming language such as MicroPython or CircuitPython rather than Arduino.
"Why? For one thing, microcontrollers are inexpensive and overly powerful," Fried said "We're not forced to use 8-bit at 16MHz chips anymore. For the same price we can pick up a 72 MHz ARM Cortex M4. That extra processing power can be used to speed up development and avoid frustrating debugging. Higher-level programming functions like exceptions, memory management, text parsing support, networking libraries, and type-flexibility make Python great for IoT products."
— Dylan McGrath is the editor-in-chief of EE Times.