Boston College, Department of Physics

 PH351001 Contemporary Electronics Laboratory


Fun with microcontrollers.


This is worth a look if you are interested in building robots, instruments, or systems with a little bit of "smarts".

There are two major hobby level microcontroller systems on the market. They are both functionally equivalent, and any "add-on" for one can work with the other once you work out the I/O connections. The first one is Parallax' BASIC Stamp modules, the second is the Arduino module system. I have worked with BASIC stamps for at least 15 years, and Arduino's for a few years as well.

BASIC Stamp programs are written in a specialized version of the BASIC programming language which is compiled and loaded into the module, Arduino's programs are written in a specialized version of C/C++ which is compiled and loaded into the module.

While BASIC Stamp & Arduino aficionado's might argue about "which is better", I've never found anything one could do that the other can't, and I've never found any difficulty using accessory boards marketed for one with the other, and some manufactures like Parallax sell accessory boards explicitly marketed for both.

BASIC Stamp & Arduino modules of different I/O, RAM & computation power are available, so you need to choose one powerful enough for your specific project. In both cases, the low end bare modules run about $25-$30, and the "higher end" modules are all under $100. In both cases, in general programs written for "low end" modules can be run on the "higher end" modules so if one gets into a project but find you really need to upgrade to a more powerful module, porting your program usually isn't an big issue. BASIC stamp core modules tend to be physically more compact than Arduinos & so made to be plugged into a motherboard or custom PCB, Arduino's come integrated on their own motherboard & hence are physically larger.

Parallax' BASIC Stamp

Arduino module system


Below are example photos from a real-life microcontroller project: A solar powered automated lamp system for a Duckhouse. Contact me if you'd like schematics, plans, source code, etc for any part of all of this project (including the Duckhouse itself). The system automatically keeps a rechargeable battery charged off solar panels, detects sundown, and at sundown turns on a set of LED lights inside the duckhouse for a specified number of hours. The controller is also used to monitor the rechargeable battery condition (won't turn on the lights if the battery is too low to avoid damaging the battery) and provide the user with some external controls & an RS-232 port to communicate/reprogram the microcontroller. This project uses a $29 BASIC stamp BS1 microcontroller, but could easily be implemented with an $25 Arduino Uno.



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