Micro Bit for Every Year 7 Child – BBC’s Make it Digital Initiative

BBC Make It DigitalIn March 2015 the BBC announced a new initiative called Make it Digital. As part of this project they have developed a small programmable hardware device with the “working title” Micro Bit (or is it micro:bit – different sources are calling it different things!).

The aim with Micro Bit is similar to that of the Raspberry Pi – the BBC say it “aims to help transform a new generation from passive consumers of technology to creators and innovators in the digital world” and takes inspiration from the BBC Micro. The BBC and their delivery partners will eventually (likely around September 2015) be giving out a Micro Bit device to each year 7 (age 11 to 12) student in the UK – which will add up to around 1 million devices in total! (If you don’t know what the BBC Micro is, it was a computer released in 1981 with a similar goal of affordable computing and education and featured both a Model A and Model B version which is where the Raspberry Pi Foundation got their product naming inspiration from – loads more info on the BBC Micro on Wikipedia.)

We have been keenly watching this project since we first heard about it as it has a lot of potential and could prove to be a fantastic little companion board for the Raspberry Pi, among other things. The original prototype design (pictured) featured an Atmel ATmega32U4 processor, two buttons, a 5 x 5 LED matrix and two other LED “eyes” for a total of 27 individually addressable LEDs, a MicroUSB connector, large input/output connectors for use with crocodile clips or conductive thread and a coin cell battery holder on the reverse to provide power.

BBC Micro Bit Prototype

We have been doing a lot of research about what chips the Micro Bit would feature in the final iteration and now have a pretty good idea of what the juicy bits of the finished specification are going to look like. It is actually pretty easy to work this out from the original BBC press release, based on some of the “Formal Sponsors” that have been named…in particular the ones we are interested in are ARM, Freescale Semiconductor and Nordic Semiconductor. Samsung are also a sponsor and they too have some nice processor offerings, however this Digital Spy article implies that Samsung’s involvement is mainly in a software related capacity to develop a communications API for Android based smartphones (it is likely Apple devices will also be supported, but it is probably unlikely that Samsung would be doing this work too!).

Speaking to Wired earlier in the year, Howard Baker from the BBC said “what we’re going to move to in the next version is we’ll have ARM chips on there, Cortex-M0s. One chip will have the Bluetooth on it, the other will have the accelerometer and magnetometer on it. We want to expose the instruction set on those devices to the end user.” As mentioned above this is no surprise as ARM are listed as a formal sponsor and both Freescale and Nordic Semiconductor are licencees of ARM and both manufacturer chips based around the Cortex-M0 range mentioned by Baker. This blog post on the ARM Connected Community webpage confirms the involvement of Freescale and Nordic as well as mentioning support for Firmware Over The Air (FOTA) meaning cable free programming of the device should be possible, potentially using ARM’s super easy to use mbed platform.

Knowing all of this, it only takes a little more digging to find a press release on the Freescale Semiconductor website that mentions the use of their Kinetis line of MCUs, as well as the use of their motion sensors. On the Nordic Semiconductor website there is an article which mentions the use of their Bluetooth Smart (formerly known as Bluetooth low energy) wireless chips.

After digging into their respective product catalogues, our guess at the main hardware is as follows:

  • Freescale Semiconductor Kinetis L or W Series ARM Cortex-M0 based MCU
  • Freescale Semiconductor Compass / Magnetometer / Accelerometer and possibly some other sensors
  • Nordic Semiconductor nRF51822 or nRF51422 Bluetooth Smart ARM Cortex-M0 based MCU
  • 5 x 5 LED matrix
  • 2 switches
  • Large connector holes for use with crocodile clips or conductive thread
  • MicroUSB connector for programming the device
  • Possibly some kind of battery power connector, since they are clearly heavily targeting the wearables market, although this may just go through the USB connector
  • Retail price of around £10 based on the above info, but hopefully cheaper with any luck!

If this is close, or anywhere near close, then it will definitely be a capable little device perfect for learning, making and as a versatile wearable electronics platform. It would be equally at home in a low cost robot as it would in a flashing handbag and with the Bluetooth Low Energy / Bluetooth Smart support you could even control them from your smartphone or other BLE enabled device. We have been playing around with a number of ARM Cortex-M0 based processors for a while here at Pi Supply HQ and have already been using them in some of our projects (PiJuice in particular). We have been seriously impressed with their capabilities and it seems pretty likely that these low cost MCUs will play a huge part in the current internet of things (IoT) movement.

Unfortunately we will have to wait until September to find out if any of this speculation is correct 🙂