What is an Arduino®?

Robert Grimmick

Arduino® refers to a brand of small computing platforms and corresponding programming software targeted at electronics hobbyists, the do-it-yourself (DIY) crowd, artists, and educators. An Italian company of the same name designs Ardunio® products and provides free documentation, software, and even full hardware schematics online for anyone to use or distribute. The technology is primarily intended for interaction with the physical world and can be used with a wide variety of sensors, lights, motors, and other electronics components to sense and interact with the environment. A vibrant community of users have applied the technology in projects ranging from entertainment gadgets to autonomous aircraft

Arduinos® were created in Italy to provide engineering students with an easy-to-make microcontroller board to use in class projects.
Arduinos® were created in Italy to provide engineering students with an easy-to-make microcontroller board to use in class projects.

The Arduino® platform was originally created as an inexpensive and simple way to introduce Italian students to electronics programming and design, but the project’s emphasis on affordability, ease of use, and open design quickly captured global attention. The company become a pioneer in open-source hardware, a philosophy in which full hardware schematics are made available for virtually any purpose. The company trademarked its name to keep its Italian-made circuit boards from being confused with poor quality imitations; a range of products based on the Arduino® designs are available, however, from cheap Asian knockoffs to the community-supported Freeduino site that supports trademark-free projects based on the official designs. The Arduino® team fully embraced this spirit of openness with freely available documentation, support, and example projects and has even incorporated suggested improvements from other users into its own designs.

Since its creation in 2005, the Arduino® brand has expanded to include a variety of different hardware as well as a programming language and an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) to create software programs. Whether produced by the official team or other companies, the hardware is often sold as part of a pre-built circuit board based around a microcontroller, i.e., a small computer that carries out software instructions. Electronics enthusiasts can also buy an unassembled Arduino® kit or even design a circuit board from scratch and purchase the microcontroller separately. The major differences found among pre-assembled products are the size of the board and the number and type of Input/Output (I/O) options to connect the microcontroller to other components.

Most Arduino® projects involve some form of physical computing, meaning the microcontroller senses or somehow interacts with the environment around it. In the simplest examples, this may involve nothing more than turning on and off a light emitting diode (LED), but the platform has enough computational power for robotics or advanced electronics projects. Artists, hardware hackers, and enthusiasts have used Arduino® products to build some very creative projects including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), devices that monitor airborne pollutants, and even plants that can call, tweet, or text their owners when they need water.

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