Open Source Targets Embedded Hardware

There are very few engineers who are not aware of Linux and the impact that its development has had on the global software community. Linux has provided software engineers with a low cost operating system solution that can easily be adapted and expanded. In the Cambridge region of the UK, this same open source approach is now being applied to embedded hardware.

The “Balloon” project is an open source, Xscale based, single board embedded computer. As one would expect, the current ‘Balloon’ solution uses an open-source Linux operating system and a collection of open source tools to enable engineers to develop on the platform. The board will be available in various build options, with a range of daughter boards, offering functionality that includes, Zigbee, A/D, I/O, LCD and USB.

UK contract electronic manufacturer, Barric, currently build a version of the Balloon board for Toby Churchill, a company developing technology for speech impaired disabled people.

“We’ve been working closely with Toby Churchill on the Balloon project,” stated Mike Bayley of Barric. “Initially on an earlier StrongARM version but more recently on the newer Xscale version (Balloon3). As far as electronics go, the Balloon board is an impressive design, with a lot of computing power in a small space. Open source hardware is an exciting concept and we are pleased to be involved at such an early stage.”

The Balloon 3 board stands to become an important new platform for engineer training and is already being used as the basis for robotic development on engineering courses at Cambridge University Engineering Department (CUED). This work has been funded as a part of the Multidisciplinary Design Project (MDP), started as a result of the formation of the Cambridge MIT Institute, a UK government sponsored project to encourage UK technological development. Staff at CUED are creating educational packages around the Balloon board that will enable other engineering departments at universities in the UK to quickly adopt this advanced technology at minimal cost, providing a much needed boost in educational training in embedded development.

Companies adopting the Balloon board include Toby Churchill, Aleph One, iTechnic and seismic equipment manufacturer Guralp Systems.

“The Balloon project has enabled us to develop a critical new processor board for our LightWriter ‘text-to-speech’ systems at a fraction of the cost that it would have been if we’d have set about this project on our own.” said John Drake of Toby Churchill. “The new board will bring a lot of new functionality to the LightWriter and will further enhance the lives of those who need to use this type of technology. The Balloon project is a very exciting project, not just for us, but for many other specialist companies that need this kind of powerful embedded computing technology.”

The Balloon project was originally the brain-child of Steve Wiseman . Toby Churchill saw the benefit of its design and funded the work on Balloon 2. More recently the Balloon 3 project has been funded through the MDP. Its continued development is undertaken by a collection of individual engineers supported by commercial sponsorship from interested companies now under the umbrella of Balloonz a new subsidiary of Toby Churchill.

The benefits to engineers are similar to those in the Linux community. The Balloon board offers a low cost entry into modern 32 bit embedded development with the support of an ever widening community of users and developers. Although the design is fixed, the build options allow volume purchasers to get the performance, price and functionality that they require for each project.

Information about the Balloon project is available.

About Barric Ltd
Barric manufacture electronic products for large and small companies across the world. With 20 years of experience, investment and success, Barric are very much leaders in this field. Equipped with the latest surface mount manufacturing equipment, hi-tech inspection technology and a team of expert engineers, Barric works closely with ‘cutting edge’ development companies from early stage design right through to volume shipment. Whether it is simply the production of electronic assemblies or complete product manufacture, Barric provides one of the best facilities available in Europe.

About Toby Churchill Ltd
Toby Churchill Ltd is a world leader in the development and manufacture of communication aids. This unique company is run by someone who is himself physically and speech disabled and the user of a communication aid and the designer of the company’s products. Toby Churchill believe this unique combination gives the company a deeper understanding of the particular needs of people with speech disabilities, and helps design better products through greater first hand experience.