Hackaday Supercon: introduction to the state of the art in open-source FPGAs

Hackaday writes about an interesting talk from the recent Supercon:

David Williams Is “FPGA-Curious” — Hackaday

If you hadn’t noticed, we had a bit of an FPGA theme running at this year’s Superconference. Why? Because the open-source FPGA toolchain is ripening, and because many of the problems that hackers (and academics) are tackling these days have become complex enough to warrant using them. A case in point: David Williams is a university professor who just wanted to build a quadruped robotics project. Each leg has a complex set of motors, motor drivers, sensors, and other feedback mechanisms. Centralizing all of this data put real strains on the robot’s network, and with so many devices the microcontrollers were running out of GPIOs. This lead him to become, in his words, “FPGA-curious”.

If you’re looking for a gentle introduction to the state of the art in open-source FPGAs, this is your talk. David covers everything, from a bird’s eye view of hardware description languages, through the entire Yosys-based open-source toolchain, and even through to embedding soft-CPUs into the FPGA fabric. And that’s just the first 18 minutes. (Slides for your enjoyment, and you can watch the talk embedded below the break.)

Screenshot from 2019-12-06 16-22-42

The second half of the talk is more about his personal experience and advice based on the last year or so of his experience going from FPGA newbie to master of his own robot. He highlights the versatility of a soft-CPU in an FPGA versus a pre-baked microcontroller solution. With the microcontroller you get all of the peripherals built into the silicon, but with the FPGA you get to write your own peripherals. Want a 10-wire SPI-like bus? Just code it up. Your peripherals are as simple or complex as you need them to be.

On the hardware side, David touts the PMOD standard (a man after our own heart!) and points out the large ecology of PMOD-compatible devices out there. Going for a plug-in solution also means that your engineering job is reduced to building a carrier board that can seat the FPGA brainboard of your choosing and interface it with a bunch of PMODs. It’s hard to get much simpler than that.

 

 

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