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Matt Brailsford's Petduino: An Interview

Gareth Halfacree

The Arduino project has inspired uncountable makers throughout the world, powering everything from robots to games machines. To highlight some of the projects that have been born of Arduino technology we've asked roving reporter Gareth Halfacree to seek out some of these creations and talk to the people behind the build to get their stories. If you have a story to tell, contact Gareth and he'd be thrilled to chat to you too.

Sheffield-based developer Matt Brailsford is no stranger to the maker scene. "Having started a maker space in Barnsley just over a year ago - Barnsley.IO - I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking of how I can inspire people to get involved in tech, and more specifically, the younger generation," he explains as a background to this latest hobby project. "Tech has become much more accessible over the last few years, with great products such as the Arduino and Raspberry Pi becoming extremely popular with makers. One of the biggest obstacles I still see, though, is the big barrier to entry these products have. Simply having an Arduino and a Raspberry Pi is just the beginning, you then need to buy a bunch of sensors, enclosures, and equipment to make even the simplest of projects."

Matt's solution is the Petduino, a device which he describes as being designed "to pull together a handful of simple sensors, and output devices, along with a simplified code library to give a fun starting point in which to learn, whilst leaving enough scope to run with the idea and create something personal and unique - all wrapped up in a cute little package." Inspired by virtual pets like the Tamagotchi, the must-have toy of the 90s, the Petduino is an Arduino-based experimentation system designed with the maker in mind. While it's ready to run out-of-the-box, complete with a user-selectable initial 'personality,' the aim is to provide a platform for near-limitless customisation. "Because you program the Petduino yourself, you are in control of everything your pet is capable of," Matt explains of his creation. "But it doesn't have to stop there: because the body of the Petduino is made from simple laser-cut parts, makers are free to create new body parts and change their pet completely. You can't do that with a Tamagotchi!"

The Petduino is made from a few basic off the shelf components, namely an Arduino Nano, an 8x8 Led Matrix module, two buttons, a light sensor, a temperature sensor, and an LED, all tied together on a custom made circuit board and then housed in a simple laser-cut body," Matt describes, tearing down the contents of his innovative device. "One of the primary goals of the Petduino was to take simple components and show how, together, even the most basic of sensors and output devices can create something fun and engaging."

The process of designing the Petduino was relatively straightforward, but one Matt laughingly describes as "backwards compared to most. I tend to visualise the final product and work backwards. I'll figure out what the basic components are I need, such as an 8x8 matrix and the Arduino, and then work in Inkscape to design what the Petduino might look like. Once I'm happy with that, I then jump into Eagle CAD to work out the schematic and then the board designer to make sure it all works and fits together. Once I have the circuit worked out, I then prototyped it on a breadboard to make sure my design will actually function correctly before then placing an order for some prototype circuit boards to be manufactured.

"Whilst waiting for the boards to arrive," Matt recalls, "I then worked on the all-important code library, creating a simple interface to interact with all the sensors as well as ways to easily draw images and animations to the screen and play tones and melodies with the buzzer. By this time my prototype boards arrived so I then put a complete Petduino together and tried it all out for myself. From playing around with it, I was then able to make my final tweaks to the board design, and created a bunch of example code snippets to prove everything worked. I've now sent off for my final prototype boards and hope to get this in the next few days for the final test before the Petduino is fully ready to go."

Matt may have found a design and production process which works for him, but that doesn't mean the process was easy. "The hardest part was the actual design and getting it into as small a form factor as possible. One of the hardest decisions was that of how to power the Petduino: originally I had wanted to make them battery powered but this would have increased both the size and cost significantly which lead me to make them USB powered instead, meaning I could take advantage of the built-in power regulator of the Arduino Nano and not worry about how long the Petduino would last."

For the Petduino, which is designed specifically to appeal to the young and young-at-heart maker, the Arduino platform proved a logical choice. "One of the things I was conscious of when creating the Petduino was that I wanted to make sure what people learn with the Petduino can be used elsewhere on other projects," Matt explains as he walks through his decision-making process. "Given the popularity of the Arduino as probably one of the most widely-used microcontrollers, it was a no brainer that this had to be the platform to go with. The second reason was the form factor of the Nano. I wanted to keep the Petduino small and desk-friendly so having a microcontroller that takes up as little space as possible was important and the Nano lived up to its name perfectly.

"My primary goal is to inspire kids into making," Matt declares. "However, in reality, the Petduino is a great project for people of all ages wanting to get into making - I didn't really start myself till my late twenties - and learn some basic maker skills, so my hope is that people of all ages will pick one up and give it a go."

More information on the Petduino project is available on Matt's blog, Circuitbeard, while source code is available on Matt's GitHub respository.

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