UBM Tech
UBM Tech

Open-source hardware heats up

-August 16, 2012

BeagleBone just announced 20 new daughter boards that provide a wide array of interfacing capabilities to the BeagleBone embedded controller. For test and measurement, there are some particularly good ones, such as boards for interfacing via RS-232, RS-485, CAN and also boards for driving stepper motors. Add this to the digital I/O, PWM output and 12-bit ADCs already on the board and the BeagleBone, costing just $89, is a powerful emerging platform for test and measurement.
BeagleBone is an open-source single board computer that runs Linux. It fits in the palm of your hand and is loaded with resources. Because it's a computer you can program your tests in any programming language you like, from C to the command line. Python, also open source, seems to be the most popular language for BeagleBone.

A BeagleBone controller fits in the palm of your hand.

The BeagleBone itself comes stacked with resources for the test-and-measurement engineer. There are 2 I2C (inter-Integrated Circuit two-wire interface) ports and 2 SPI (serial peripheral interface) ports for communicating with chips such as ADCs (analog to digital converters), DACs (digital to analog converters), digital potentiometers and other electrical components.  There are two CAN (controller area network) buses for communicating in harsh environments. There are 66 general digital I/O pins, which can also be used as interrupts. BeagleBone also has seven 100ksample/s 12-bit ADCs and 8 PWM (pulse width modulation) outputs. There are also four serial ports and then all of the stuff we'd expect in a single board computer:  USB, ethernet, LCD driver and SD card. One of my favorite features is that it's open source, so feel free to download the schematics, layouts and software source when you download the development tools and documentation. It feels powerful to be free.
The BeagleBone has some very interesting resources and, because it's a computer running Linux, it's very flexible. The 20 new daughterboards expand on these capabilities and provide some signal conditioning as well. I don't know why, but BeagleBoard calls a daughterboard a “cape.” The new capes range from the simple breadboard prototyping area to wifi communication and LCD drivers. Obviously, the RS232, SR485, CAN and motor driver capes will be of interest for test and measurement, but there are some others in the lot that look very interesting too.

BeagleBone has resources such as Ethernet, USB, and SD cards.
The cape that first caught my eye is called the BeBoPr Cape, and it's designed to control a 3D-printer. I have no intention of using this cape to run a 3D printer, but it's mix of resources looks great for many test and measurement tasks. It has three analog inputs, six digital inputs, three high-power PWM outputs, and four stepper-motor axes, all of which are isolated to protect the BeagleBone so a little accident doesn't fry your hardware.

The BeBoPr cape adds analog, digital, and high-power I/O to the BeagleBone controller.
So, for your next embedded test, consider the BeagleBone. Spec out your board and capes, write some Python code, and away you go. Click here or a listing of the new BeagleBone capes.
If you haven't considered it already, take a look at the BeagleBone. It's another open-source platform that works like a dog.

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