Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Teaching Kids to Code and Build

Britain will drift into the Digital Doldrums if we can't excite a whole new generation of kids to get involved with learning the skills of computer programming and making - which we learned in our bedrooms back in the early 80's with our Sinclair Spectrums and BBC Micros.

I built my first computer from a kit, when I should have been revising for my A Levels, and I made a Turtle robot in the Easter holidays before the exams. What seemed normal for a geeky 17 year-old back then, when there wasn't the easy access to low cost technology, meant that you had to go out and make your own. What I learnt in the last few summers of my schooldays set me up for life as an electronics design engineer.Nanode RF - an Arduino Compatible Clone with Ethernet and low power wireless connectivity for £30

Now in my mid-40s, I am one of a generation of technology professionals who learned their craft on simple 8-bit machines - often in the late nights and early mornings - with school the next day. However, lack of sleep to a 17 year old is the last thing on your mind when you are programming a new game, or in my case a floor-roaming robot controlled by a ZX81 and half a kilo of NiCad batteries.

In the last few months, I have been alerted to the fact that some of my contemporaries are now forming a movement to campaign for a return to the teaching of real computer science in schools, as the years of the very much lesser ICT has left students bored and disinterested.

David Braben, Emma Mulqueeny and Dr. Sue Black - to name but a few, are most vociferous in this field. David is spearheading Raspberry-Pi, a £15 computer to excite youngsters in learning real programming. Emma is running a campaign to get Parliament to reintroduce computer science in schools, and Sue has just announced the goto Foundation - described as

Making computer science more meaningful to the public, generating public excitement in the creation of software, and helping to build a tech savvy workforce

More strength to their bows, I say, and in these depressing times we live in, it good to see people take on a challenge like they have and really pick it up and run with it.

So, ask not what your country can do for you - but what y
ou can do for your country? What can I offer, as a hardware engineer?

Well in the last 8 months I have released a couple of low cost 8-bit computing platforms, based on the ever-popular Arduino, but take Arduino into the re
alms of web and wireless network connectivity.

However, these are going against the Arduino gr
ain - in that you actually assemble the board yourself from a kit of components. Not only do you gain the important learning experience of building a real electronic device, you get to handle and fit real components - and you learn to solder. Within a couple of hours you have built your own, fully functional web connected computer! An then you learn how to program it - taking your first steps in embedded computing.

Over 1600 Nanode kits have been sold, and there have been very few failures. Part of this high success rate is a very easy to follow pictorial build guide - which bypasses the more traditional methods of component identification and placement, and
makes the assembly process as easy as following a series of detailed pictures. Follow the pics and you won't go wrong.

Nanode was conceived in a hotel room in China in June of 2010 as the lowest cost Arduino like board which could connect to the internet - a simple pcb with all through hole construction which can be made by anyone with the most rudimentary soldering experience.

Within 8 months, we had the first prototypes ready, and now 6 months into commercial sales, we have sold 1600 of the original Nanode.

December 6th marks the arrival of a completely updated version: Nanode RF. The same basic philosophy of a low cost board with ethernet connectivity - but now with low power wireless as well.

Nanode RF can form the gateway between the ethernet and remote wireless devices offering up exciting possibilities of wireless connected sensors and even robots - controlled remotely from a web browser.

To give Nanode RF a paired device to talk to- so we have created our own
compatible wireless device - WiNode.

WiNode - Compatible with Nanode RF for building low power wireless networks - from £15. Two channel motor speed controller opens up wireless controlled robot applications .

WiNode is essentially an Arduino with a low cost wireless transceiver attached. But we have thrown in some analogue sensor channels, a two channel bi-directional driver circuit for controlling dc motors or relays and fitted it out with easy to use screw terminals.

But best of all - the basic WiNode will only cost you £15 - when bought in pairs. I remember that my first ZX81 kit cost me £39.99 in the early 1980s - so WiNode at 2 for £30, is clearly a good buy. is a repository for open source hardware designs - here's how they sum up Nanode and WiNode:

Brainchild of monsonite and developed in conjunction with London Hackspace, the Nanode is an open source Arduino-like board that has in-built web connectivity.

It is supplied as a kit of through-hole components, that can be assembled by following a pictorial build guide.

Nanode Kit Contents

Nanode starts with a kit of parts - within a couple of hours you have built your own web connected computer.

In supplying the Nanode as a kit, it not only keeps costs down but provides a sense of achievement for hobbyists and experimenters that are new to electronics. Use of through-hole components means that assembly, and repair, is within the grasp of those without experience of working with surface-mount technology (SMT).

Projects such as Open Energy Monitor have employed Nanode extended with wireless capabilities, to act as a wired-wireless bridge or hub for remote wireless devices. A common Internet of Things (IoT) use case for Nanode, this has led to the development of the Nanode RF- a variant that can directly accommodate an RFM12B wireless module, with additional features that include a microSD card socket, real-time clock (RTC) and SRAM.

The WiNode is the third member of the Nanode family and is intended to be used as an end node in a wireless network. It employs the same RFM12B module as the Nanode RF, but drops support for Ethernet in favour of enhanced I/O capabilities. In addition to acting as a remote sensor and actuator control node, it can also serve as a shield to a classic Nanode, thereby extending it with support for wireless, a RTC and increased I/O capability.

All three are fully Arduino-compatible and make use of the same IDE and libraries etc. However, to keep costs down a USB controller has been omitted and programming requires use of a USB to serial adaptor cable. Traditionally this would be a FTDI cable - costing nearly as much WiNode. But a chance find on Taobao - the Chinese equivalent of Ebay, and Nanode now has it's own customised programming lead for just £5. Only one cable is required for programming - regardless of how many Nanodes you have.

The Nanode project philosophy:

Creating useful open source hardware building blocks - at the lowest possible price - that people have a need for. Through the Power of Making - electronics becomes accessible again to education and enthusiasts.

Contact nanodenanode at gmail dot com for more details of the Nanode products, pricing and availabilty.

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