Benchduino: It’s Gonna Be BIG, for Builders

By Rube Goldberg – Originally published in Collier’s, September 26 1931, Public Domain,

Far more than will admit, amateur electronic builders tend to have a prototype that looks more like a Rube Goldberg cartoon than something designed by Hewlett Packard (when they were building). Me, too. There’s just a lot of wires, connectors, rigged-up jigs, and so forth when you’re trying to get a circuit to work like it’s ‘sposed to. And, put a microcprocessor or small PC board into the mix, aye yai yai!

There are breadboards, even sophisticated ones, that help with this. And, there are design boards to facilitate with some PIC development as well as ones that help with Arduino or Raspberry Pi projects. That’s good. But I’ve seen nothing like a workbench platform for most all of these with hardware and software hooks to keep Rube Goldberg in Collier’s Magazine. Until now.

George Zafiropoulos KJ6VU of the Ham Radio Workbench Podcast team has put together what he calls the Benchduino. George has an Internet group on the project at here. You can follow the beta development there by joining. But you can get more meat on the bones by listening to a recent episode of the HRW podcast on the Benchduino. If you build using microprocessors, you will not be disappointed.

This product will be BIG for builders. You can download the interim documentation file here. Here’s what it looks like, taken from the website page. There are multiple add-on boards to connect to Arduino Mega, Raspberry Pi Zero, PIC – 40 pin 18F series processor, Adafruit Feather, Xbee data radio socket (built-in). George has pre-loaded shopping carts for necessary parts at Digi-Key for various boards. To channel the comedian Martin Short: I must say, I must say!

Benchduino Prototype

Taken from the HRW website page:

The BenchDuino is a development platform for building projects based on the Arduino, Raspberry Pi and PIC microcontrollers. The platform defines a common foot print for processor and expansion boards to make it easy to expand the functionality of the system. The BenchDuino motherboard includes many commonly used peripherals which can be connected to the CPU pins with jumper wires or plug in shunts. The BenchDuino is an open platform and we encourage the development of plug-in CPU and expansion boards.

Now, this is quite dramatic for prototype development using various microprocessor boards. But the pièce de résistance, IMHO, comes via the header on the top edge of the Benchduino as shown in the photograph above. Need several pieces of test equipment, including a logic analyzer, to check out whether your code makes the light blink (or whatever)? Use the Analog Discovery 2 USB-based test workbench directly connected to the Benchduino! I love mine, including the latest add-on Impedance Measurement Board (~$20). The HRW Podcast has a $100 off discount code for the AD2 product through their website which takes you to Digilent.

So, in brief, your project doesn’t have to be a Rube Goldberg cartoon that you’d just not like your builder buddies to see before it’s completed. Your project may not get Bob’s Your Uncle status upon first execution, but it will likely be Bob’s Cousin with the Benchduino and the Analog Discovery 2. The latter has multi-platform free software for the hardware which makes it a Swiss Army Knife of test equipment.

I’m buying my Benchduino boards from the Ham Radio Workbench booth at Hamvention this year. George is giving a Forum talk / demo on the Benchduino too. (Digilent will also be at Xenia with the HRW discount. Get the Impedance Analyzer Board while you’re at it.) Let George know you’re coming via Twitter: @kj6vu

Frank Howell, K4FMH, is a regular contributor to and writes from Mississippi, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

5 Responses to “Benchduino: It’s Gonna Be BIG, for Builders”

  • David WB4ONA:

    Avoid “All-in-One” breakout boards like this. The attempt to connect all things all over a single board results in a rats-nest of traces which invite unwanted parasitic effects (trace resistance, capacitance and inductance). A better approach is to place your micro-controller and peripherals on small breakout boards that stack or interconnect with short wires. This keeps parasitics to a minimum while maintaining a sensible modular approach.

  • Frank K4FMH:

    Thanks for your comment…I’ll be sure to pass it along to George KJ6VU. He works for National Instruments.

  • Elwood Downey WB0OEW:

    I have to echo David. I’ve experienced voltage drops, ringing, cross-talk, slow rise times and other signal quality issues when using small traces that cross or run closely parallel to other devices or traces. Circuit board layout is best done specific to each project after the design is solid. Prototyping is best done with absolutely minimal interconnects. I don’t doubt George knows all this, but it should be made very clear in the shout-outs that the appropriate domain for this board is only for DC or very low frequency applications.

  • George Zafiropoulos:

    Hi David and Elwood. You guys bring up some very valid points. If you are developing a system with high speed interconnect, for example, yes you should do a custom board. Maybe match traces, etc. However, the vast majority of ham radio microcontroller projects have pretty low frequency signals so this is likely not going to pose a problem. It very much depends on what you are building. For example, there are no parallel busses in the traditional sense. Lots of projects might poll a sensor every few seconds over a serial bus like I2C which is designed to be used on boards exactly like this.
    If you were going to design a board to be used over every possible performance point, they you have valid concerns. I doubt most of us will run into those cases for typical projects for which this board is intended.

  • Dr. Frank M. Howell:

    Thanks for responding and clarifying these issues. The Benchduino boards I received at Hamvention are now on my workbench. Now, if I can get to my workbench to work!

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