Have you ever used an Arduino board, and wanted to hook it straight up to a JST connected LiPo battery but knew it wouldn’t work? Or maybe you wanted a microcontroller with built-in wireless capabilities?
Well, Adafruit has developed their family of microcontroller boards, each of which utilising different microchip combinations for specific tasks. Data logging, Wi-Fi, LoRa, and Bluetooth enabled boards are all among the collection of Feather Boards by Adafruit. Additionally, each of the boards can be powered by (and charge) any standard 3.7V LiPo using the JST connector on the board.
One design basis of the newer Feather ecosystem is to upgrade makers to a 32-bit CPU for processing power; the Atmel ATSAMD21 is Adafruit’s chip of choice, being featured on most of the new range feather boards. Of course, there are still all the original 32u4 8-Bit boards available; the newer 32-bit are the exciting ones, though!
The addition of the ESP8266 wireless module to the maker market meant Wi-Fi hacks that made it easy to add wireless capabilities to the existing platforms of the microcontroller. But, these weren’t without their pitfalls. Adafruit decided on using the ATWINC1500 module alongside the SAMD21 CPU to give the Feather M0, the flagship board of the range, a tonne of Wi-Fi capabilities and an independent processor for the Wi-Fi handling.
Physically, the dimensions of the boards are 51mm x 23mm x 8mm. All of the boards in the range have the same dimensions and mounting options, meaning all the cases you design should fit your Feather. In addition to the souped-up hardware specifications, the feather also features the standard, breadboard friendly 2.54mm pin headers. All in all the Feather boards are built to carry you through from prototype to final design.
Arduino boards have Shields; the Raspberry Pi has Hats, and the Feather boards have Wings. Stackable using the pin headers, Wings add extra capability to your Feather, allowing you to add GPS to a Wi-Fi feather, maybe add Lora to a Bluetooth feather, or even just a handy OLED display to the top of your Feather. As always Adafruit provides example code and tutorials for every one of their Feather boards and wings, it’s quite straightforward to learn how to pull strings with them.
As we were saying above, there are two significant distinctions between the collection of Feather boards, even though they are all compatible with the collection of Wings. That is the 32u4 boards use the 8 Bit Atmel Microcontroller, and the M0 boards use the 32 Bit SAMD21 package.
For both categories of Feather we see a range of modules that includes:
- A Basic Proto Feather, this is the barebones feather board that comes loaded with all the features of the processor broken out into easily accessed pin headers. These functions include:
- 20GPIO Pins
- 3.3V regulator with 500mA peak output
- Native USB support
- Serial Communications options (i2c, SPI, serial, etc.)
- 8 PWM outputs
- 10 Analog Inputs
- Built-in LiPo charger
- LED on Pin 13
- Standard Feather mounting options
- Reset Switch
- Prototyping pad (8 pin x 5 pin grid)
- RFM69HCW Packet Radio (915MHz for Australian Owners) Feather, this packet radio module, is an inexpensive little chip that gives you the ability to send data wirelessly without the added costs and power of a Wi-Fi network. You can use as many modules as you like in one network, handling ranges of hundreds of meters in suburban environments. It uses a 4-wire interface (SPI) for data transmission but needs a microcontroller to handle the data. These modules are fantastic for outdoor wireless connections; they work well when you don’t need a constant connection between modules. If you are looking to transmit small bursts of data up to 300 meters, these modules will be perfect for your kit. This flavour of the Feather is the 915MHz version in Australia; however, there is a 433MHz version available in other countries.
- Bluefruit Feather, if there is one thing I’ve noticed when talking about Bluetooth in the maker market, it’s that Adafruit does it fantastically! This Feather comes with the Bluefruit Bluetooth Module and is compatible with the Arduino IDE, for piping data in through your processor. Bluefruit is a BTLE module, meaning it has native phone/tablet support, and Adafruit has an easy-to-use app available for it! If you want to control data from a phone/tablet/PC using Bluetooth, this feather would be a perfect choice for your project.
- The Adalogger Module, this is one of the newer feather boards available from Adafruit. Its purpose is straightforward; it has all the pins required for an SD card connected to the module onboard. The built-in SD Card reader means you can interface with and read and write data from the SD card. The SD library only takes up 1KB of RAM, so you have plenty of room for your project’s other needs too.
- The LoRa Radio Module (900MHz) Feather boards combine Long Range (LoRa) wireless networks with the Arduino development environment to upgrade the previous packet radio feather up to ranges of 1-2km (With directional antennae 20km is possible). The modules are very low powered, meaning you get fantastic battery life when using them. You can also utilise all the features of the LoRa network systems to create a massive Wide-Area-Network using a tonne of nodes. It’s quite slow, though, at ranges of 1km you can expect speeds of 1kbps.
We will cover off on some of the popular feather wings you can stack onto your Feather board in a later tutorial. As you can see, all of these boards come with the features listed under the top proto board subheading above, but with an added functionality/communication chip. Each of the above boards comes with either an Atmel 32u4 chip (8 Bit) or the Atmel SAMD21 chip (32 Bit) and depending on the requirements of your project you’ve got the option there for more power. There are also two more boards that are worth a mention, the Teensy Adapter Board for the Feather and the Huzzah 8266 Feather.
The Teensy Adapter board is an adapter that allows you to take a Teensy 3.x board and turn it into a board of the same form factor and with the pinout as a Feather. You can plug a Teensy in and use any of the Feather libraries or Wings that are available. It can open up some interesting possibilities if you are a big fan of the Teensy.
The another board is the Huzzah ESP8266 Feather module, which features the crowd favourite ESP2866 Wi-Fi Module alongside the Feather system we’ve seen above. Essentially you get the attached microcontroller hardwired to the ESP8266 for some great battery powered, stackable fun with fun to use Wi-Fi module for $25.00 AUD.