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Bq's Icezum Alhambra: An Open, Arduino-Compatible FPGA Platform

Gareth Halfacree

Eladio Delgado Mingorance's Icezum Alhambra

The Arduino community is a special thing indeed. Since the launch of the original board, the ecosystem has exploded with everything from add-on boards to Arduino-compatible devices using new and novel hardware appearing almost every day. It's a strong ecosystem, and one that helps bootstrap hardware designs by offering a familiar experience and access to a wealth of accessories right out of the gate. There's little wonder, then, that companies like Intel are building Arduinos in an effort to convince makers to build on their particular platforms - and that makers themselves often pick an Arduino-style layout for their own board designs.

The Icezum Alhambra is one of these designs. Brought to our attention by the guys over at Hackaday, the Alhambra - built by Spanish smartphone and tablet giant Bq - is an open-hardware Arduino-alike which replaces the usual ATmega microcontroller with a Lattice field-programmable gate array (FPGA) chip, giving it a considerable boost in capabilities while retaining compatibility with the majority of Arduino shields currently available.

Unlike a microcontroller, which has fixed hardware and must be controlled in software, an FPGA is rather more flexible: as the name suggests, the FPGA is an array made up of individual logic cells which can be told to operate in a variety of gate types. The result: it's possible to program an FPGA to turn itself into a chip specialised for a particular task, from emulating an out-of-production processor for classic computing to providing 'glue logic' between levels of a design. Properly programmed and assuming the task fits in the hardware available, an FPGA will typically outperform a general-purpose processor at any given task and its program can then be used as the basis for the creation of an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) which can perform still faster.

In short, FPGAs are incredibly flexible, but all too often expensive and locked behind proprietary closed-source toolchains. The Alhambra, however, uses a popular Lattice FPGA which includes an open-source toolchain, which combined with the open hardware nature of the design makes the entire platform significantly more accessible than its rivals. Presently, the team behind the project have been testing the first revision of the hardware, design files for which are already available via GitHub. Although the team has been using the commercial Altium software for circuit design, files compatible with the popular open-source KiCAD package have been promised for the future. Thus far, Bq hasn't announced whether or not it plans to bring the design to mass production.

FPGA development board (iCE40HX1K-TQ144 from lattice); Open hardware; Compatible with the opensource icestorm toolchain; Multiplatform: Linux / Mac / Windows; Arduino like board: similar pinout than Arduino one / BQ zum; You can Reuse most of available Arduino / Zum shields.

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