Arduino, a Swiss Army Knife for Scientists
A very basic introduction to micro controllers and their endless possibilities for scientific research.
A brief overview of the benefits of learning to program Arduino microcontrollers for scientific research. More detailed articles to follow.
Sensors and data loggers are constantly changing
Data collection is a scientists bread and butter and the constant barrage of fancy new IoT sensors and data loggers can make it challenging to pick a lane. You may feel like once you buy one company’s product that you have to stick with them for the long-run. Learning to program your own microcontroller can be a way out of this mess and provide your research with long-term solutions in the rapidly shifting IoT ecosystem.
A micro-controller is a processor that has lots of bells and whistles attached to it. These bells and whistles are what defines one Arduino (or other brand micro-controller) from another. For example, the Arduino UNO (a very commonly used board) has less memory and fewer GPIO pins than an Arduino MEGA, but is smaller. Some controllers have built in WIFI and Bluetooth, others are micro sized for IoT applications where physical space is critical. The first step to selecting the proper micro-controller for your project is deciding which of these features you need or anticipate needing in the future. But don’t stress about this too much, as many of these features can be easily upgraded or added.
Almost all sensors can be connected and read with an Arduino
No matter what your project is studying or what sensors you are using it is very likely that there is a Library (a set of pre-defined code used to accomplish a task) that will allow your Arduino to read data from your sensors. One example: A project I worked on recently involved collecting data from four soil moisture probes using a digital SDI-12 interface. Using the SDI12.h package I was able to read the probes and send the data to the cloud for further processing. Additionally, each library comes with example sketches (the name of Arduino scripts) to help you along.
Upgrade to almost anything
What makes Arduino boards a true “Swiss Army Knife” of science is that they have the ability to be upgraded nearly unlimitedly. You can find shields (a term for accessory attachments made for Arduinos) that save data to SD cards, send data via radio signals, connect the controller to 4G and/or wifi, trip relays, receive power via solar panels, maintain battery banks and much much more. Any project you think of can be upgraded in the future without requiring expensive new devices from private companies, and you retain ownership of your custom code!
Where to start: If you are interested in learning more about programming Arduinos, buy a cheap board (Arduino UNO is great for starters), download Arduino IDE software, and check out the example sketches!