Getting to Grips with Arduino

On Saturday 6th February 2016 researcher Catherine Wilkinson attended a beginner’s training course at London Hackspace, ran by creative technologist and Arduino enthusiast Lily Madar and London Arduino. London Hackspace is a non-profit space, and home to a number of tinkerers and maker groups. Impressively, it is the biggest hacker space in Europe. Arduino, the focus of the training course, is a single-board microcontroller that is used for building digital devices and interactive objects. Here’s what Catherine has to say about the day.

 
Being a novice, I was excited about what the day would hold, but also worried that my lack of experience in Arduino (or anything tech-related beyond a mobile phone, laptop, and PC) would mean I wouldn’t feel confident to actively participate. The training day was hands-on, and we were given our very own Arduino starter kit, but Lily also taught us everything we needed to know to understand Arduino through an informative presentation.

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The presentation covered the basics of circuits, something I hadn’t revisited since science lessons at school. The course also required that participants understood IDE, which is open source Arduino software, which makes it easy to write and then verify code that has been input, and then upload it to the board.

 
Once we were confident with this, Lily taught us the basics of programming. We learnt about variables – an item with a value that can change throughout the programme. These variables have types; they can be numbers and words. You can also assign variables a value. To make it all the more complex, some variables have values that never change, they are constants. I also learnt about wiring basic components. This required me to understand the difference between inputs and outputs. In Arduino, an input is an action the program expects from the user; for instance, pressing a button, whereas an output is something the user can notice (e.g. a light being on/off).

 
In Arduino, without having to wire any components you can make the built-in LED (Light Emitting Diode) switch on and off. Before trying anything more technical, this was the first task that Lily set us. We then added an LED to the circuit, using a resistor to reduce the amount of current passing through. Lily talked us through a number of exercises: making the LED blink; making two LEDs blink alternatively; and then making the LED fade in and out at various speeds. The next task was to incorporate a button into the circuit. The pushbutton that accompanied the Arduino kit was a simple switch mechanism. We used the button to turn the LED light on and off.

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We then cleared our breadboard and experimented with a Piezo buzzer. Piezo is short for piezoelectric – piezoelectric materials vibrate when subjected to a voltage. We then experimented with a potentiometer electronic component, which is used to control the amount of current that flows through an electronic circuit. The final task was a memory game. Lily instructed us to generate a sequence of lights using three different colours, and to enable the button to trigger the sequence. If we were feeling particularly experimental, we could then link sound to a particular colour of light, and use a potentiometer to choose the speed at which the lights play.

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During the day, I was given a tour of Hackspace by Marc Barto, co-organiser of London Mini Maker Faire, who runs open source hardware and software groups London Arduino, Not Just Arduino and Spring of Code. I saw many enthusiasts tinkering away on various projects, ranging from sewing and woodwork through to laser cutting and 3D printing. I look forward to visiting Hackspace again, and learning more about the creative culture of the space. To find out more about London Hackspace yourself, you can visit https://london.hackspace.org.uk.

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