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Development boards and open source hardware platforms are an excellent way to start designing a new prototype. These boards are a great option for anyone that wants to create a prototype of their new idea and eventually build it into a working product. They are also a great resource for entrepreneurs that want to build a proof of concept for their next project.
Some available options for development boards include Arduino, BeagleBone, Raspberry Pi, and the Edison platform from Intel. Although Arduino and Raspberry Pi happen to be massively popular among makers and entrepreneurs, BeagleBone Black definitely deserves some mention as it offers similar or better capabilities at a competitive price point. We’ll take a look at some of the capabilities of BeagleBone Black and the steps you’ll need to take to create a clone of a BeagleBone Black board.
BeagleBone Black vs. Arduino vs. Raspberry Pi
A quick comparison of these popular platforms is quite useful; those who may be more familiar with Arduino or Raspberry Pi may not be familiar with BeagleBone, or vice versa. These three popular open source hardware platforms have some similarities, although there are a few areas where BeagleBone stands above these other products.
Arduino is a microcontroller board and comes in several variants. Each variant is specialized for a different MCU, although you could certainly download the Arduino schematics and make your own redesigned version of an Arduino board that runs on a different microcontroller. Arduino requires a specialized IDE for programming that is its own variant of C/C++.
In terms of its hardware capabilities, it requires modest power (e.g., 6-20 V for the popular Arduino Uno, although it is recommend you stay within 7-12 V) and can run on a 9 V battery. It supports dozens digital I/O pins, including some pins with PWM output, depending on the exact variant you want to use. Note that Arduino boards can accept analog inputs and convert these signals to digital data with an internal ADC, but not all boards provide analog outputs. These boards come in 8, 16, or 32-bit variants.
This development board is really a single-board computer that runs on Linux, giving software junkies many more options for programming the module. This module includes a much higher end microprocessor (700 MHz) with memory provided by an external SD card. This board is essentially a mini-computer that interface with a variety of hardware interfaces (HDMI for display, I2C/SPI/UART digital communication, and USB) that can connect to a network via Ethernet or wireless.
These features make the Raspberry Pi an extremely useful module for edge computing or as an IoT device that provides some serious data processing. In contrast, Arduino boards are better for less memory or processing-intense applications. The ability to support more mainstream languages allows anyone to start running open source code on one of these boards; you can easily tunnel into your Raspberry Pi over your LAN via SSH and start configuring your board.
Raspberry Pi single board computer
BeagleBone Black is another single-board computer that supports Linux, but it has more powerful hardware capabilities than Raspberry Pi. It consumes similar power, has a similar footprint, and can communicate over standard interfaces (I2C, SPI, CAN bus, etc.). However, it includes a faster processor (1 GHz vs. 700 MHz) and GPU, supports 4 GB of onboard memory, and 10/100 Ethernet connections. If you decide to spend a few extra dollars per board, you can upgrade to the BeagleBone Blue, which includes wireless access.
BeagleBone Black and BeagleBone Blue both contain the same processing architecture, the primary difference is the wireless communication capabilities in BeagleBone Blue. This makes both boards capable for processing-intensive applications as part of sensor networks, for edge computing, a variety of automation tasks, and other applications.
Forking BeagleBone Black
Upverter is one of those unique platforms that stresses sharing and community. Many users are happy to share their designs with others as open hardware projects, allowing you to fork an existing project and build your own variant in a GitHub-style manner.
Unfortunately, the schematic for the BeagleBone Black on the project’s GitHub page is only compatible with Allegro, so it may not be usable with every PCB design program. Thankfully, the BeagleBone Black module just happens to be available in the Upverter project library as an open source project, and you can quickly create a variant of this board.
From a PCB design and signal integrity aspect, it may be better to integrate all your desired capabilities onto a single board if possible. Otherwise, you can place your external circuits on their own board and use best PCB design practices to ensure signal integrity in multiboard systems. You can probably get away with hanging components and floating circuits when working with a slower Arduino board, but these issues become more important when working with BeagleBone Black projects as these systems run at much higher speeds.
Working with a board like BeagleBone Black makes this quite easy; you can rest assured that signals on the development board itself will not be degraded, and your remaining concern should be providing a low inductance connection to your external circuits. Ben Jordan provides some great advice on this point; be sure to watch this video if you are not familiar with the finer points of signal integrity and multiboard design.
Your newly-cloned BeagleBone Black layout
This gives you a quick way to expand its capabilities or even build your own board directly on top of the existing BeagleBone Black project. And it allows you to take your proof of concept and integrate it into a single board, rather than working with hanging components that need to be fastened to the enclosure. You can increase the board size to fit the extra components you want to add to this module and incorporate these components in the schematic and layout directly from Upverter’s component library. You can also request new parts be added to Upverter’s library with EE Concierge directly from the online editor.
With the browser-based design features in Upverter®, anyone has the ability to create BeagleBone Black projects and other custom projects from a unique browser-based design interface. The schematic design and PCB layout tools can help you take your design from start to finish and prepare for manufacturing. These standard design and production planning features are accessible from anywhere by multiple collaborators.