MCU Programming with the NerdKit

The USB NerdKit is an introduction to microcontrollers package offered by NerdKits.com. Rather than being an integrated development platform like the TI Launchpad or the Arduino, the NerdKit is composed of modular components and is designed to teach newcomers the fundamentals of embedded systems. In other words, it’s a perfect place to start learning about MCU programming.

The NerdKit uses the Atmel AVR ATmega168 microcontroller. Over the years, the ATmega168 has made appearances in some of the official Arduino boards, most notably the Arduino Duemilanove. The NerdKit MCU is an 8-bit, low-power chip, but it is not as power efficient as some of TI’s MSP430s. Of course, the kit will be running off of a nine volt battery and not solar cells, so power efficiency will not be an issue.

The kit arrives disassembled, and all of the work takes place on a small breadboard. The power regulating MOFSET, the crystal oscillator for regulating the chip’s clock speed, and the output LCD are wired to the chip using jumpers. Then the USB programer’s cable can be added, allowing the user to upload new programs to the chip from his or her computer.

NerdKitThe long chip at center is the ATmega168. The elongated silver object above the chip is the quartz clock. The MOFSET power regulator is located between the battery and the chip on the breadboard.

The NerdKit is very well designed, and the kit’s creators are easily reached via email for questions and help. The kit is cross-platform (Linux, Mac, and Windows), although the Mac drivers linked on the NerdKits website for the programming cable are out of date (updated drivers here). Purchasers of the kit receive a downloadable manual that provides step-by-step instructions for assembling the circuit and explains the basic concepts behind electrical engineering. Because of its modularity, the NerdKit can be used in a wide variety of applications. Many of these applications are described on the NerdKits website, and some of them will be discussed here.

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