IOT, Arduino and “pills”

Like so many other techno followers, I’ve done my share of explorations with the new and emerging areas. For the past several years, I’ve been in pursuit of the “holy grail” as it relates to the increasingly powerful micro controller world.

I began with the humble PIC chip, with it’s limited memory and minimal internal resources, and currently on out to the behemoth micro controller chips of today – sporting huge flash memories and vast shopping cart’s of built-in features such as multiple USART’s, Clocks, Converters and even automotive communications controllers.

I called this my pursuit of the “holy grail” for a reason – once you are hooked into the pursuit, you never really arrive at a real end-point. Instead you spend your time in a myriad of linked oasis, each promising that ‘this is the one’, but never really fulfilling the need. This is because, as soon as you get up to speed on one family of devices, a new family appears that eclipses the previous.

In fairness, I should also say that, with each new wave of these devices, their costs dropped significantly. If you are like me, it’s hard to make a case for passing up the ‘latest and greatest’ if it’s cost amounts to only pocket change.

Seven years ago was when I first looked at the Arduino technology. At that time it was still pretty new, and I was busily working on my first embedded processor efforts with the goal of doing commercially. My effort at that tiem was based on a board-set provided by a company called NXP. I had attended an Arrow Electronics seminar and these boards were given as a free gift to attendees.

I wandered down the NXP path for several years, creating all sorts of little ‘toy’ applications, and promising myself that once I’d mastered the technology, I could turn to something more sophisticated and less ‘hobby’.

That wasn’t to happen; when I began to struggle with some of the architectural limitations on the Freebie boards I found myself struggling with their development tools, and I had no intention of buying the full price software because it was pretty pricey.

As an alternative, I decided to make a step up to their next, and more powerful device family. I guess this was probably my initial mistake, because over the next few years I then turned towards one after another switches in tech, each time looking for that ‘perfect board’.

I jumped from NXP to Cypress to PIC, then over to Raspberry Pi, Pi Zero, back to cypress and even a little time working with WandBoards which showed a little promise. Again, in fairness, I shouldn’t infer this was all wasted effort, because while all these technical permutations were happening – I was getting smarter and smarter about IOT and it’s hardware base – but as the old saying goes “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

So that brings me to the events of last fall.

Somehow, I got reignited on Arduino again, and as I read up on it, I discovered that there were extremely cheap but very powerful boards that were being imported from China that could be used with Arduino to providing a power boost. These boards were called the “blue pill” board.

The blue-pill board costs around $2, meaning you could buy a baker’s dozen and never miss the cost. Add to that it was a 32 bit processor, with a 72mhz clock, an ample supply of GPIO pins, a number of UART’s, and the Maker community had more or less solved the question of making it work with the Arduino. The chip used was the STM32F103c6 device.

The idea excited me and so I invested $20 whole dollars to purchase a few of them and set into explore this new alternative. Working in Arduino was fun and the coding was straightforward. I discovered that there were differences in the way some aspects of the community support were implemented, and I admit I spent far too much time reading blogs and forums searching to get the right gem of information I needed to make things work.

Nevertheless, I was able to do some pretty spiffy things. OLED display, Real time clock, temp sensor, light sensor, etc.

But then, the ‘holy grail’ effect appeared.

A new family of boards began to appear from China. These were nicknamed the ‘Black Pill’ boards to tie them into the blue-pill now widely available. There were two types of “Black Pills”:

One board is based on the STM32F401CEU6 and it has 256mb flash, 32mb RAM, fast clocking speeds, and many of the features in the blue pill like real time clock, UART’s and other goodies. These around $2.75 on AliExpress and much more on eBay.

The second board, the previous board’s big brother, the STM32F411CC boasting 512mb flash, 64mb of Ram, an even faster clock as well as the same goodies as the 401CEU6. And so, off I went on this quest, which is where I am today. You can find these on AliExpress for around $5 each.

I should say that both the F401 and F411 based boards seem to be much more solid than the blue pill’s I started with. But they aren’t THAT solid – I admit I got too confident of myself and burned out a couple of the boards flipping back from 5V and 3.3V power supplies (a no-no with these boards).

From time to time I’ll post a little bit about my experimentation with these devices just in case there is a possible audience out there.


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