The Arduino is an open source, credit card sized micro controller board suited for prototyping everything from robotics to Christmas light displays. The standard IDE is programmed in C++, and contains libraries for everything imaginable. With a thriving community as well as relatively low learning curve and cost, the Arduino is the perfect board for anyone looking to create a prototype.
The standard boards (the older Duemilanove and newer Uno) come with 14 digital input/output pins and 6 analog input pins. They are capable of being run off an external power supply ranging from 7 to 12 volts. However, Arduino boards come in all different shapes and sizes. The nano is perfect for small projects, while the Mega is perfect for larger projects.
However, the Arduino is not limited to official boards. Being open source, other companies have created “shields,” or printed circuit boards capable of certain functions that can be plugged directly into the Arduino board. Perhaps the most helpful is the Bluetooth, Ethernet, and Rockblock, capable of connecting the board to a mobile device, wireless network, or iridium satellite respectively. One can even use Fritzing to create their own shields!
Finally, one must not forget the thriving Arduino community. “Makers” (what backyard project builders are sometimes referred to as) post their projects, questions, and advice from sites ranging from the official Arduino forums to LetsMakeRobots. Combine this with the detailed example sketches and member-run tutorials, and one can easily pick up the basics of using the Arduino.
Since its development, the Arduino has replaced the Picaxe among hobby and educational use. The Arduino can simply handle more tasks more efficiently, as there is no need to calculate voltage, resistance, and other electrical components precisely. Also, not having to use a breadboard for the micro-controller is always a plus.
So, what is possible with the Arduino? The short answer is almost any realistic project one can think up. I have used this board to create several robots, from maze solving to fighting. Others have used it to create robot boats capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean! Others still have used the Arduino for creating autonomous drones. Heck, the Arduino is even being used by the military!
If a task is too complex for the Arduino alone, multiple boards can be connected as master/slave to handle the task at hand. If that does not work the Arduino can be connected to the Raspberry Pi, a small Linux computer capable of handling more advanced tasks but not as capable at handling simpler tasks, such as moving a servo (it was more designed for programming, not prototyping). When combined, the user gets the best of both worlds—the Linux programming environment and the Arduino’s capability to handle multiple inputs and outputs.
The Arduino boards can be purchased for $30 or below. There are even knock-offs on Ebay. They work, but are not covered by warranty. It is best to purchase a name-brand board from a reputable dealer. They can be used again and again.