Project image
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£6,347
pledged of £9,500pledged of £9,500 goal
78
backers
Funding Unsuccessful
The project's funding goal was not reached on Wed, April 2 2014 6:06 PM UTC +00:00
Last updated April 2, 2014

Alan - an Arduino compatible mircoprocessor and Xilinx FPGA

The Alan board has been developed to enable you to create more interesting projects.

Alan - an Arduino compatible mircoprocessor and Xilinx FPGA

The Alan board has been developed to enable you to create more interesting projects.

£6,347
pledged of £9,500pledged of £9,500 goal
78
backers
Funding Unsuccessful
The project's funding goal was not reached on Wed, April 2 2014 6:06 PM UTC +00:00
Last updated April 2, 2014

About

An Idea

The idea for Alan originally arose while looking for a suitable Xilinx FPGA development board for a project I wanted to complete. 

While Xilinx development IDE is available for free the challenge comes when you want to program a device as programmers can range in cost from a tens to hundreds of dollars.

Having consulted on FPGA designs for a number of years I am very familiar with configuring them from a microprocessor so I begin to think about could this be done easily and cheaply? My first thought was to use an Arduino compatible board as I had built a number of project with both the Arduino Uno and the Leonardo and I am a great fan of Arduino and simplicity of their IDE. 

The challenge was how to open a bit file and transfer it from the PC to an Arduino compatible microcontroller using the serial interface in as simple a manner as possible?

While opening the Arduino IDE one afternoon I noticed the reference to Processing in the splash screen - my problem was solved. I could use the Processing environment, which is very similar to the Arduino IDE, to create the interface to an Arduino compatible microcontroller and FPGA all with free software.

It became obvious to me that the Processing IDE would also allow me to create some really interesting projects that could integrate an PC with the Arduino compatible microcontroller and the FPGA – Alan was suddenly looking like a really nice project.

As there didn’t appear to be anything like Alan on the market I thought that this blend of well-established elements (Processing, Arduino and Webpack FPGA tools) might be something that other people would be interested in – hence this Kickstarter Project.

I realised that to be successful Alan would need to be developed to a high quality from the start so the first stage was to create the schematics for the prototype boards. 

Prototype schematics
Prototype schematics

 Once I had completed the schematics I then passed these to a PCB layout specialist (Cadlay Designs Limited - www.cadlay.co.uk) that I had previously used to layout complex circuits for an MRI spectrometer and who were excellent to work with. 

Prototype PCB Layout
Prototype PCB Layout

 I also approached a trusted electronics assembler (Triangle Electronic Services www.triangle-electronics.com) that I had previously use to assemble boards on other products. 

By engaging with Triangle at this early stage I got excellent feedback regarding the manufacturability of Alan and also established realistic costings and assembly timescales.  

These first two prototypes of Alan produced by Triangle are the two boards that have been used in the production of the video accompanying this project and are now being used for development of the software.

First Alan Prototype Board!
First Alan Prototype Board!

The Project

Alan has been developed to enable you to create more interesting projects.

So whether you are a beginner hobbyist or a professional designer Alan’s fusion of an Arduino compatible Microcontroller with a Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) device gives you a powerful and flexible platform to use in your projects. 

Alan has been designed to be compatible with the Arduino IDE so you can tap into the strong community of hobbyists and professionals that have already invested a considerable amount of time and effort into creating innovative hardware projects, shields and software scripts. 

Alan, however, goes further than this by also providing you with access to the some of the latest FPGA devices from Xilinx in a user friendly package to allow you to expand you projects in ways not previously possible. 

Of course it can be a daunting task to begin to explore the development of an FPGA but we are here to help you through this learning process. 

Our website we will provide you with the templates and code snippets that you need to get started, along with tutorials showing you how to install the software tools and begin to explore FPGA designs. We hope that you will also want to contribute your thoughts and ideas with other developers through the forums we will be creating for Alan. 

Alan
Alan

Just in case you are unclear what the difference is between a Microcontroller and an FPGA we’ve provide a brief explanation below.

What’s a Microcontroller? 

A Microcontroller is essentially a processor with a set of peripherals built in to the device. These might include analogue to digital converters (ADCs), programmable IO pins, serial interfaces or timers. You write software that runs on the Microcontroller and drives these various peripheral to interface with the external circuitry that you have added, for example a motor controller for your robot. The main constraint of this software and your Microcontroller is that you can only get the processor to do one thing at a time. If your already familiar with programming the Arduino then you will now that it initially runs the startup() function and then runs through the loop() function one line at a time. 

What’s an FPGA? 

With an FPGA, however, your code creates digital circuit functions that are implemented in the device using logic gates and registers. So you can create something as simple as a logical AND gate to combine two signals to a complex processor or Microcontroller! This means that you aren't writing software any more but instead you are building hardware functions - creating your own circuits. So instead of designing a development board with a logic device on it you can simply write a piece of HDL (Hardware Description Language) to implement this device’s functionality within your FPGA. 

What’s more is that each device or function that you create can all run independently so you can be doing many things at the same time. In order to allow you to create different sizes of projects Alan is available with four different sizes of FPGA, the smallest having 1,430 Logic Slices and the largest having 6,822 Logic Slices – all in the same package so you can move your design from one board size to another by simply re-compiling your project targeted at the different size of device. Just in case you were wandering a logic slice consists of 8 flip-flops and four 6-input LUTs (Look Up Tables). 

Unlike with a Microcontroller you are also not limited to a fixed number of peripherals so if you need an extra serial port then you can simply create another within your FPGA. 

In order to interface all these new circuits you are creating with the outside world Alan has an additional 100 user configurable IO pins that connect to two banks of IO connectors so you can connect to your new circuits. 

So where should you start? 

Well clicking on one of the Kickstarter sponsoring links to support the project would be a great starting point! 

Once the project is funded then Alan will be accompanied by online tutorials that will guide you through everything you need to download and set up the Arduino, Processing and Xilinx development software. We will also provide you with scripts and executable code for programming the FPGA along with templates for your FPGA projects with the basic pin assignments for the FPGA devices that are available on Alan. And of course as the community develops we will continue to add tutorials to explore all aspects of Alan’s capabilities. 

Processing sketch for loading the FPGA
Processing sketch for loading the FPGA

We will also provide you with sample HDL and scripts for creating VCs Virtual Controls to allow you to couple your designs to a PC running the Processing 2 software environment should you want to explore this type of interface. 

So what are Virtual Controls? 

If you are familiar with the Arduino IDE you may be aware that it is possible to communicate with an Arduino boards using the Processing IDE. Processing allows you to write sketches that are targeted at the visual interface; your computer monitor or screen. In order to fuse the visual elements of Processing with the physical elements of Alan we have created Virtual Controls for use in Processing sketches which mimic and can be logically combined with the physical controls in you project. 

For example, if you want to have a physical switch make your FPGA do a certain function then the switch input to the FPGA can then be combined in you HDL with a switch VC. This switch VC can then be included in you Processing sketch as an on-screen button which is equivalent to your physical switch – so when you push the on-screen button it will produce the same effect as the physical switch. You could also create a switch VC without a corresponding real switch so you can control the function purely from you PC though the visual interface. With the VC templates we will be providing you can modify the graphical representation of the control to create your own unique designs. 

Switches are only a simple example of a Virtual Control and we will have a library of elements including sliders, buttons, rotary controls and LEDs. We will continue to expand this library to support different elements and we will also include any new controls that you might want to share with other Alan board users. The close coupling of the Processing sketch with the FPGA means that the Virtual Controls interface will support update rates of approximately 30 per second, once per video frame. with the VC interface route through the Microcontroller you can also create these same controls from within your own sketches. 

So what are Alan’s features: 

The Alan Board
The Alan Board

Four sizes of Spartan-6 LX FPGAs 

Alan09 – 11,440 Flip-Flops 

Alan16 – 18,224 Flip-Flops 

Alan25 - 30,064 Flip-Flops 

Alan45 – 54,576 Flip-Flops 

100 general purpose digital IO pins (3.3V logic level) connector to the FPGA 

4 user controlled LEDs connected to the FPGA 

A powerful 10W on board voltage regulation (3.3V and 1.2V outputs) protected by a resettable fuse 

50 MHz on-board clock connected to the FPGA 

Two reset button to be used in your designs 

16-Mbit SPIFlash for storing the FGPA image 

ATmega32u4 Microcontroller with 32 KB of Flash Memory of which 4 KB used by the bootloader 

20 Digital IO pins with 3 user controlled LEDs 

7 PWM Channels 

12 Analogue Input Channels 

2.5 KB of SRAM 1 KB of EEPROM 

16 MHz Clock Speed 

JTAG and ISPC programming connectors 

Alan also exports through the connectors, 5V for USB, Vin to the regulators and the 3.3V to power your own circuits. 

In order to make Alan as flexible as possible we don’t fit the user IO connectors, which also add to the cost, but we can provide these as an extra item if you want them. Fitting the connectors yourself also provides you with the flexibility to choosing which side of the board you want to place them on. 

Don’t know what size of Alan to buy? 

If you have never designed with FPGAs before and are unsure as to the size of device you might need for your project then we would recommend that you go with either Alan09 or Alan16 as these boards will still support very large designs but are lower cost. 

So what's the money for? 

Alan is currently a prototype design that we have built and functionally tested and are now using to build up the support software and documentation. What we need to do now is raise the money to manufacture the first batch of production boards. As always the unit cost is dependent upon building sufficient quantity of board to get to the lowest price point. We have already identified a supplier to build the boards and agreed pricing so as soon as we have secured the funding necessary to produce this first batch we will place the order. 

Add you name to the board as our main sponsor
Add you name to the board as our main sponsor

In return for your invaluable support we are able to offer you one of these first batch at a reduced price with the option to buy a set of connectors if you want them. 

So here's the Plan

The prototype design requires some minor tweaks to fix a couple of problems found during the testing which will be incorporated into the PCB for the production boards in parallel with the Kickstarter project. We have already discussed the production schedule with our board assembler who will also purchase all of the components for the build. While the boards are being assembled we will create the website with so that you can access all of the scripts and documentation associated with Alan.

  • Kickstarter Project (Feb - Mar 2014)
  • Purchase Materials for Production Run (Mar - Apr 2014)
  • Assembly of boards by Manufacturer (Apr - May 2014)
  • Testing and shipping Early Birds (May 2014)
  • Testing and shipping Remaining Orders (June 2014)
  • Revise schematics and layout(Feb - Mar 2014)
  • Software Development and website (Mar - May 2014)
Alan Project Plan
Alan Project Plan

What else will you need? 

You will need to install the Arduino IDE (www.arduino.cc) and the Xilinx ISE Webpack Edition (www.xilinx.com) to develop your projects on Alan. You will also need to install Processing (www.processing.org) so you can run the script for configuring the FPGA and to use the Virtual Controls.

 You will also need a power supply +5V and 2A with a 2.5mm connector to power the board. We don’t supply a power supply with Alan as they are heavy and expensive to ship internationally. If you contact us we can recommend a suitable supply in your region if you have a preferred supplier. 

Please also be aware that Xilinx ISE is only available for Linux and Windows and it does not currently support OSX.

Please ask us questions!

If there is anything you want to know about Alan then please ask - we are here to make sure you can create exciting projects but if there is anything about this project you don't understand or want clarified then please contact us.

We look forward to your support and hearing from you.

Thanks.

Risks and challenges

We have provided our supplier with an indication of volume of parts that we are likely to need and these are currently available. Inventory levels are usually maintained at a low level in the market at the moment so we will not have full visibility of parts availability until we place the order. This may lead to a delay in building the batch.

Similarly if the number of supporters of the project is large than the delivery schedule for the first batch may be impacted. Our supplier believes that they will be able to maintain the agreed delivery schedule providing the parts are available even if we receive a large level of interest.

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    Get your name on the board! We will add your name or your company's name to the silkscreen on the rear of the board where you will be listed as the Pricipal Sponsor for the project. (Subject to approval of the name!) We will also provide you with a framed copy of the board and a fully assembled and tested version of the Alan45 board.

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Funding period

- (30 days)