At the most basic level, a microcontroller development kit consists of a microprocessor on a circuit board, with very limited programming capacity. Today, most of the manufacturers of these products provide development software used to program the microcontrollers. The software generally runs on a PC.
Microcontroller development kits are widely used for prototyping purposes. The boards are minimal, but allow for a great deal of experimentation on the part of the builder. The microcontroller development kits available today include models designed to work with Bluetooth, USB and other interfaces out of the box.
Types of Microcontroller Development Kits
These kits come in numerous different designs for a multitude of applications, but here are some examples.
- Silicon Labs C8051F850DK: This is a microcontroller development kit including a mixed-signal microcontroller on a board that is set up with a USB interface. The USB interface is used by the debug adapter. It comes with a CD and instructions on how to use the device.
- USB to 4-Bit SPI/FT1248 Development DIP Module: This kit includes a printed circuit board with a DIP socket, a USB mini-B socket and the capacity to interface with a standard PC for programming and other purposes.
- C8051T606 MCU Development Kit: This kit works with the microcontroller of the same designation and contains debugging, cables, power adapters and other accessories. It comes with multiple boards, including ones that allow the microprocessor to be used to program other devices.
There are many other examples of microcontroller development kits that are used inindustry. As was mentioned, they are oftentimes used for prototyping, but can provideother functions, as well, such as interfacing with sensors and beyond.
Classifications of Microcontrollers
Microcontrollers can be classified in many different ways. The classification used will generally depend upon what the microcontroller development kit is being used for. For instance, a microcontroller may need to be selected based on having a particular architecture, and there are two classifications that are commonly used in that regard, von Neumann and Harvard. Von Neumann architecture can read and write data in both directions from the microcontroller’s onboard memory. Harvard architecture is designed so that the instructions and the data have their own busses and memory. This allows for very fast performance. In the von Neumann architecture, the read and write operations both share a bus and, thus, the architecture is slower in this regard.
There are other classifications that are used to describe these devices. The width of the busses, for example, may be important for some uses.
The specs that allow builders to get exactly the microcontrollers they need are easily sorted through on online catalogs. Because there is such a diversity of specifications for these devices, there are generally many different classifications on extensive sites, such as adapter boards, accessories, cable type, connector types and so forth.
While microcontrollers typically have limited interfaces—though much more complex ones than they had historically—they are available in such a variety of different types today that finding a precise match to fill a given need is typically not difficult.
What Parts Come with a Microprocessor Development Kit?
As was stated in the previous section, there is a huge variety of design where microcontrollers are concerned, so different kits may come with vastly different parts included with them. Some of the kits will be set up with inputs and outputs already and others may only come with boards that have the capacity to be outfitted with a variety of different types of interfaces.
There are, however, some nearly universal parts that do come with these kits and, to a significant degree, those parts define the appropriateness of a given microprocessor development kit to a particular project.
Software: Most microcontroller kits will come with a CD containing software that is used to program the device. The microcontroller is sometimes named after the program that it uses. This is sometimes referred to as the debugger, as well.
Connectors: The board to which the microprocessor is attached will have connectors allowing for input and output to the board. Many modern microcontroller development kits come with USB interfaces installed already, allowing the engineer to get to work programming the device immediately. Older kits used the connectors of the time, including serial ports and other common designs.
ROM: One of the differences between microcontrollers and microprocessors is that microprocessors are designed to take their programming from external read only memory (ROM). A microcontroller has the ROM built into it.
The processor is, of course, the brain of the device and the most important component. There are different options for processors, including designs by manufacturers such as ARM and others.
Microcontroller development kits may come with daughter boards, various types of adapters for power, batteries, programming cables and more. Some kits come with controllers and other accessories, as well.
Assembling Microcontroller Development Kits
Microcontroller development kits require little assembly these days, with most of them being shipped complete with everything from the most basic components to the connectors assembled and ready to go.
There are some development kits, however, that may have parts that require the developer to connect them to the board. Power adapters usually have a port for them and USB connectors simply have to be plugged in.
In cases where the microcontroller development kit may be attached to a specific type of hardware—a printer, for example—it will come with accommodations for the right sort of connector, and may come with it pre-installed, as well.
Some Variations of Microcontrollers
There are variations on these devices that take advantage of the easy to connect nature of PCs. For example, the TMS320F28335 Experimenter Kit from Texas Instruments is based on the controlCARD concept. The device is designed as a single daughter card that plugs into a very simple connector on a motherboard and requires only one power connection from the motherboard.
The TinkerKit LED microcontroller development kit, conversely, is very simple and the connections are soldered as they would be on a breadboard, with a three-pin connector providing enough sophistication for the function of the device.
There are many other variations like these that make it easy to find microcontroller control kits for most any application in industry, from sophisticated prototyping to simple signal monitoring from sensors.
Uses for Microcontroller Development Kits
The uses for microcontroller development kits have expanded dramatically as the sophistication of the devices themselves has increased. Today, these kits are used for all manner of prototyping, machine control, signal processing and more.
Microcontroller development kits, because they do have a great deal of capacity, but operate at a very basic level, are often used for educational purposes, which also flows from their increasing sophistication.
Early microcontroller development kits used Assembly language for programming. In the years since the first microcontroller development kits came on the market, however, increasing sophistication has allowed higher-level programming languages to be used.
Today, many microcontroller development kits can be programmed using C or C++. Both of these languages are powerful and flexible, allowing designers to have the microcontrollers perform more sophisticated functions.
Microcontrollers are a bit different from microprocessors, though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. A microcontroller is provided with pins for input and output. These pins allow the device to be used for creating embedded applications, unlike is the case with standard microprocessors.
This greatly influences the usage of these devices, as they can perform tasks that standard microprocessors, which are designed to be a part of a computer, cannot.
Where Are they Used?
The name development kit suits the early usage of these devices very well. The microcontroller kits that first came on the market were intended to be used in laboratory conditions. This meant that they were generally just a printed circuit board with a microcontroller installed on it and nothing more. There was no practical way to use these boards in industrial applications and they were largely for prototyping in the lab environment and, to a great extent, were used by hobbyists involved in computer programming before personal computers became affordable or widely available.
Some microcontroller development kits today, however, include enclosures and other accessories that allow them to be used outside of the laboratory. They might be integrated with existing equipment, such as a sensor that is added to machinery.
These boards are widely used in personal and educational experimentation, as well as in research and development in industrial settings. That usage has never gone away and, just as they did when they first came out onto the market, microcontroller development kits provide a very affordable way to prototype new ideas or to teach students basic concepts about programming and industrial electronics.
Embedded systems can be developed using microcontroller development kits. These are very simple computer systems that generally have only one function, something to which a microcontroller is ideally suited. Prototyping such an embedded system on a microcontroller development kit is easy for engineers, given the power of the modern microcontrollers and the ability to quickly write and rewrite code in higher languages than was possible in the past.
Some of these kits are used to demonstrate or teach about a given microcontroller. There are such kits for the 8051 microcontroller, for example, a very popular model with students.
on the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, the Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer that allows the user to develop applications easily and quickly, and that interfaces with many common devices, such as computer monitors. This device also takes advantage of the ability of modern microcontroller development kits to work with higher level languages and uses Python and others for programming. This has the effect of making using microcontroller development kits for prototyping accessible to most anyone with a basic programming background and experience with electronics.
Brand Specific Microcontrollers
Some manufacturers did, as was stated, put out microcontroller development boards specific to their other hardware. For example, RCA put out microcontroller development kits that interfaced with some of their video controllers.
These types of kits are useful for prototyping embedded systems and more on a specific piece of equipment. These types of microcontroller development boards aren’t as dominant on the market as they once were, but they still do have a role in industry in that they make it very easy for engineers to develop for a given microcontroller type or other type of hardware. In some cases, microcontroller development kits are even made to go along with a text book company’s lessons.
Changing Roles in Industry
As computers have become more complex and able to interface with more devices, manufacturers haven’t had to produce microcontroller development kits to showcase or simply allow the use of their products. Today’s boards are very purpose specific and not necessarily connected to any particular manufacturer, though dominant names like Texas Instruments, Intel, RS and other brands continue to produce a huge range of these devices.
The options for interfaces and technologies has also changed the role of microcontroller development kits in industry. Once widely used by hobbyists and very complex to operate, the higher language levels that can be used to program these kits and the many different interface options on the market makes them increasingly useful to a wider swath of developers. Where comparatively few people knew how to program assembly language, many people today know how to program languages like C++ and Python. This allows for faster, easier and more flexible development within industries.
Microcontroller development kits have not lost their appeal with hobbyists, either, and for much the same reason they remain useful tools industry. Their limited capabilities—at least compared to a personal computer—make them very affordable options for industrial controllers. They are capable of being programmed over and over again for different purposes, making them ideal R&D tools. They are also becoming powerful enough that industry developers and hobbyists alike can use them for more and more complex tasks all the time.
Microcontroller development kits are also used in communications quite frequently, providing inexpensive solutions to Wi-Fi connectivity, for example.
These devices come in many different designs, with more impressive models coming on the market at a steady rate.