An open demo kit for a few bucks

It all commenced in September, when I was in Portland Oregon for training, and decided to buy an Arduino Uno board at Radioshack. Funny thing for an italian buying an italian product so far from home, especially after having lived for years right in front of the factory in Scarmagno, Torino.

Arduino is not just one of the several open source electronic hardware prototyping platforms appearing in the market, but it’s actually a real pioneer in this field and widely recognized as a real high quality hardware, with a framework counting a huge tribe of followers from all over the world.
Replicas of Arduino board can be found from SainSmart , where a Xilinx FPGA Development board can be found at a relative low price.


Fig.1 Sainsmart shield for Arduino

Also Digilent offers a fantastic chipKIT compatible board (with their propotype platform based on PIC32); they are both good and relatively cheap but as an italian I prefer the original (and in the end, it’s easier to enter the open source world with someone else’s source :)))


Fig.2 Arduino compatible chipKIT

Arduino boards are really easy to work with and the material you can find in the web is huge: videos from youtube, schemes from hardware hobbist blogs are really helpful.Where I currently live, a small User Group has been founded to enjoy time together and have fun with Arduino.  Smart people starting projects of Arduino’s clone can also be found (

In fact, if this offer is still not sufficient for you, with Fritzing Fab service you may consider to design and have your personal board manufactured.

As an Application Engineer I sometimes struggle in having some practical system to demonstrate when demoing low or mid range instruments, so I thought it could have been interesting to play with this board.

Arduino Uno for example has an ATmega328 microcontroller for an I/O set of 14 digital pins (6 can be used as PWM outputs), 6 analog inputs, a 16 MHz ceramic resonator and a USB connection direclty controlled by Atmega16U2 for USB to serial conversion. The ATmega 328 supports I2C and SPI busses so I used them to demonstrate oscilloscope decoding capabilities. There’s a newer version of Arduino (Due) supporting CAN an LIN bus too.

For scopes analog channels it’s possible to play with Arduino analog functions; we can program its DAC converter to get a PWM output, but with an extra transistor it quite easy to give a power measurements demo demonstrating voltage and current probes features (

But if we want to move to more interesting demos involving RF signals, which is perfect for the new Mixed Domain Oscilloscopes with built in Spectrum Analyzers, it’s just a matter of adding a shield board and a Xbee module to play with.

Searching for RF signal generation made me discover several other interesting and cheap platforms to play with as instruments demo boards.
First one is Openpicus Flyport module. Just get the rust off your C programming skills and you have full control of a customizable web server you can manage to contact either via Ethernet (other with we are usually asked to demo on midrange scopes) or Wi-Fi (but 3G is coming soon as well).


Fig.3 Openpicus Flyport

I can’t also really wait putting my hands on this really nice wireless micro-controller:


Fig.4 “Pinoccio” module

Stuffed with sensors and switches controller it really look nice!
These smart guys may be waiting for some kind of “shadow testing” before launching I guess but looks a very promising idea.

All these boards can easily get data from any kind of sensor like temperature and pressure sensors till more evolved accelerometers and gyroscopes, that are now very cheap and easy to find already “hardware-shaped” for perfectly fitting the pinout of Arduino boards and other shields.

Another great platform is Waspmote
whose source code examples include the easy setup of mesh networks whose nodes are other cheap sensors boards

Fig.5 Waspmote Wireless kit

For those in love with Linux and searching for more powerful processors there are plenty of “single board computers” to play with, the so called SoC. These come from the spread of home automation and the “Internet of things” concept, and are available from several producers but obviously pricy.

If you are like me and prefer not spending hundres of euros, a good point to start is the famous and brilliant Raspberry pi, whose foundation is now getting money also from Google Giving.
With around 24 euros you have something really open and with so many resources and examples on the web that you rarely would find something original to propose.
Raspberry pi itself can be used as a development platform for Arduino IDE ( so that the former can easily reprogram the latter.


Fig.6 Raspberry Pi

What can I say then? Well, still I can’t find low cost open source optical transceivers prototyping platforms, but maybe in the future, why not? 🙂

Good luck folks!


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