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The Launchpad - A $2 Arduino Nano alternative

A near-Arduino Nano form factor and Arduino compatible board based around a "better" and cheaper AVR MCU (currently an ATtiny1616)

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A small, Arduino compatible microcontroller development board that does away with the old and dated ATmega328p used in the classic Nano in favor of a newer, cheaper, and equally capable AVR microcontroller (currently an ATtiny1616). The goal is to design a board aimed at basic education that can be made for as low as $2. The current version has all the features of the classic Nano (albeit fewer pins), plus a faster 20MHz clock speed, and true analog output.

First off, some answers to questions that may or may not pop up:

Launchpad? Isn't there a development board by Texas Instruments with the same name?
  • Yes, of course. However, I didn't know that at the time I was designing and ordering the PCBs for version 1.0 (public knowledge of microcontroller development boards isn’t that widespread where I’m from). I deliberated on Launchpad because I’m very interested in spaceflight and that I also envision this project to one day help people have an easy and cheap starting point to turn their ideas and dreams into reality.
Are you planning to sell these?
  • Well, probably. If there is demand I probably will. However, I surely will not be able to sell these at the $2 price mentioned since that only covers the cost of the components and does not include labor and assembly. I’m still assembling boards via hand-soldering so it will take a bit of time and effort to produce.
Open source?
  •  Yes, I will release the design files eventually once I'm happy with a version I deem "releasable" or of course (with regards to the first question), I will be obliged to release the design files either way if I put these up for sale since this is indeed a derivative work.

Introduction

With the rise of technology use and the predicted arrival of Industry 4.0, it has been said that an interdisciplinary workforce will soon be vital as advanced technology becomes more and more integrated into our daily lives. Thus, it becomes apparent that knowledge in technology and programming must become a basic life skill. A great way to help aid in this endeavor is by creating low-cost learning tools for electronics that can be easily accessible to anyone, especially those living in poverty.

The goal of this project is to design and create a low-cost (and probably commercially viable) microcontroller development board that is targeted towards both beginners and experts alike; improves upon the Arduino Uno and Nano; and only costs as little as $2 to manufacture. The board should also be intuitive and easy to use for basic education applications.

This project is probably the first time I've ever designed a PCB (I won't make it a secret that I am relatively new with... all of this). Thus, I had to read up a lot on PCB design, concepts, and stuff regarding working with EDA's. Considering this, I'm very proud of my work and I'm glad to share it all with you.

Special thanks to Spence Konde (DrAzzy) for creating megaTinyCore that enabled the board to have full Arduino IDE support and for being accommodating and friendly in assisting me with all the issues I have encountered along the way and answering some of my (sometimes dumb) questions.


Current Version (Version 1.0)

Features:

  • Breadboard-friendly pinout
  • Micro USB  type B connector
  • Microchip ATtiny1616
    • 20MHz clock speed
    • 16kB of flash memory
    • 2kb of RAM
    • 256 bytes of EEPROM
    • 18 I/O pins (1 is currently configured as the reset pin)
    • 8 PWM outputs (8-bit resolution)
    • 12 analog inputs (10-bit resolution)
    • 1 true analog output (0 - 4.3V)
    • UPDI programming interface
    • 1 UART
    • 1 SPI
    • 1 I2C
    • Configurable custom logic (CCL) pins
    • tinyAVR 1-series architecture (similar to the megaAVR 0-series chips on the Arduino Nano Every and Uno WiFi rev2 boards)
  • OptibootX bootloader
  • CH340G USB to serial converter
  • AMS1117 5V LDO voltage regulator

Pinout

With the first version, I have already achieved (although quite barely) my goal of having a $2 total cost in components, PCB, and shipping fees per unit. The thing to note here though is that it is a unit price - since buying components is always done in bulk and panelizing the PCB is the best way to achieve low unit prices, the $2 price is only true in a production run with a minimum of 100 boards. The version 1.0 board itself isn't that complicated. It's basically a Chinese Nano clone schematic modified to be able to use the ATtiny1616 microcontroller instead (and fix some quirks...

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  • The progress so far...

    Clyde D. Corpuz07/31/2020 at 08:19 2 comments

    Beginnings

    This project started out as a little idea of mine in late 2019. Back then, I only had a year of experience with Arduino and electronics in general, but I've always had a knack for tinkering and figuring out how things work. Where I come from, official Arduino boards are considered relatively expensive, and the local market for development boards are mainly dominated by Chinese-made clones. I found some cheap ATtiny2313 microcontrollers being sold in a local online selling platform (around $3.70 for 5 chips) and I thought to myself, “Why not make a development board cheaper than a Chinese Nano?” (That’s only easy to say of course, and I did not expect that this small idea would throw me down a deep rabbit hole where I learned so much about PCB design concepts and electronics in general)

    I immediately bought 10 of those ATtiny2313 chips and began the project with the initial motivation to give the boards to my friends as Christmas gifts. I quickly realized that the ATtiny2313 wouldn't be up to the task of being an ATmega328p alternative (not by a long shot) due to its small flash memory (a whopping 2kB) in which installing a bootloader would render 25% of the memory unusable for program code. At that time, as any sane person would, I was using Spence Konde (DrAzzy)'s  ATTinyCore library so that I could program them with the Arduino IDE. DrAzzy thankfully pointed me in the right direction and suggested the use of the new ATtiny chips from the TinyAVR 0/1-series which have loads more program memory and RAM for about the same (or cheaper) price. Meanwhile, I realized that this idea could be more than just a simple Christmas gift to my friends, and instead be something that can help other people.

    Why $2?

    As we progress further and become more advanced (especially with the coming of Industry 4.0), people would need to be able to have more basic skills (such as electronics) to keep up with technology integrated into our lives, as well as to find better jobs and opportunities. To do so, there must be a way to increase accessibility to tools necessary to learn these skills, especially to those living in poverty (poverty rates are especially high here in the Philippines). Many of the schools offering basic education here do not have the appropriate learning tools (such as an Arduino or similar boards) to use in simple to advanced electronics classes since these kinds of lessons are not officially part of the local curriculum but are instead pushed by the teachers themselves.

    I remember an experience during my high school Physics class where we had to buy an Arduino Uno or compatible board to use for a day. Many of my colleagues had a hard time looking for one while some even bought an expensive, or even outright wrong boards which were never even allowed to be used in class. In the end, many of them felt like they just wasted their money as most were not that into electronics in the first place.

    What’s $2 for you? It’s not that significant of an amount is it not? As I’ve mentioned previously, Arduino boards are considered relatively expensive where I come from and are not widely known to the general public. The market for these kinds of boards is also mainly dominated by Chinese-made clones - which are good enough I guess, but these boards lack any kind of support and their quality control is questionable at best. The idea behind making it very cheap while still maintaining some sense of quality is to aid in increasing accessibility to learning tools by lowering the barrier of entry, especially to the financially disadvantaged. Also, for those in a well-off situation, $2 dollars would be nothing. It’s the same price for a snack or even a meal! By providing affordable boards, people would be motivated to create more projects and turn their robotics dream into reality. Another benefit is that it encourages more prototyping (Would you really prototype risky setups in official Arduino boards??...

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Discussions

Leah wrote 7 days ago point

USB-C when? 🙃

And how much would it add to the cost?

  Are you sure? yes | no

Clyde D. Corpuz wrote 6 days ago point

USB-C might still be in the far future. I forgot to mention it but I deliberately chose micro USB as the connector of choice since it is the most common, widespread, and cheapest USB connector type out there right now which was mainly due to the smartphone revolution of the last decade. 

There’s a high chance anyone’s got one or more unused micro B cables somewhere around their house since they own a mobile device. I did this to save costs not only to the manufacturing side of things, but also to the end-user. Even the normal-sized USB type B cables used in the Uno are becoming costlier and harder to find unless you have owned a printer.

As the industry inevitably shifts to type C for mobile devices, it will soon become feasible to use a type C connector with the Launchpad. Meanwhile, micro B currently seems to be the most cost-effective solution especially if this project’s aim is to target low-cost education.

Well, of course, once I release the project’s design files you can modify them yourself to include type C ;-)

-CC

  Are you sure? yes | no

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