I'm typing this on a MinnowBoard Turbot Quad-Core running Ubuntu Linux while Netflix plays in the background, and all is running smoothly. The latest edition to the MinnowBoard family of open source developer boards has more than enough under the hood to function as a small DIY productivity PC, but the MinnowBoard Foundation, the non-profit behind the MinnowBoard, has loftier goals than that.
At the heart of the 2.9 x 3.9-inch board is a 64-bit, quad-core, Intel Atom E3845 processor (4 x 1.91 GHz, 2MB cache), 2GB of DDR3L 1067MT/s DRAM, and support for microSD and SATA2 storage. It also features integrated HD graphics, and a microHDMI video output (plenty for streaming video). The Turbot quad-core supports most Linux operating systems as well as Android and Windows 10 IoT – a stripped down version of Windows 10 optimized for developing Internet of Things (IoT) apps and devices. And the entire board is open source, from its design files and schematics all the way to its bill of materials, all of which are freely available via GitHub.
|The Minnowboard Turbot Quad-Core's hardware makes it ideal for makers and hobbyists but the real target is developers working in IoT, robotics, and automation. (Image source: MinnowBoard Foundation).|
Brian Ottaway, Product Manager of Open Hardware at Minnowboard, told Design News that with this latest iteration MinnowBoard is less interested in becoming a hobbyist darling, replacing competitors like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino, and more interested in become a serious platform for IoT developers. “The changes we've made over previous models are not dramatic changes, but they do show what we think is important,” Ottaway said.
One of the biggest wins for MinnowBoard this time around has been pursing and achieving a higher threshold of compliance for electromagnetic interference (EMI) and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) emissions, making the Turbot Quad-Core FCC class B compliant. “Most boards rely on exemptions or don't go for [FCC compliance],” Ottaway said. “But that doesn't help people get to market. We don't want developers to be hindered in getting to production.”
Ottaway added that all of the improvements made with the Turbot Quad-Core were made because of feedback from the MinnowBoard user community.
“We would have pursued the quad core design alone just to achieve class B. But it also solves questions around distribution and product integration,” he said. “We got requests to produce the quad core for core compute. Our customers told us their individual applications need to work harder, especially in robotics and computer vision.
Take the Intel i210 ethernet controller for example. We got lots of request from industrial robotics and automotive for this as opposed to an i211. Doing so opens up apps that require synchronization and advanced control, things like audio-visual synchronization. It's a $1-2 price add for the board, but it's a big deal for market areas we focus on.”
The MinnowBoard Foundation's open licensing policy makes it difficult to keep track of what developers have been doing with the MinnowBoard, since they aren't required to disclose to the foundation. However some of the applications suggested by distributors include small form Linux boxes, IoT edge controllers, digital signage, thin clients, endpoints for industrial automation, and as a controller for Kubernetes, an open-source system for automating containerized applications.
“Mostly we know where the boards are because someone came to us for firmware support or we heard about it through word of mouth,” Ottaway said. “We're surprised with where people end up putting them.”
He admits that developing and releasing open-source hardware comes as a sort of balancing act, especially when your aim is to “expose as much capability as possible" for users. The open-source community can be very vocal about its needs and wants and users may try to apply the board to whole new applications that MinnowBoard may not even have anticipated. Automotive Grade Linux (AGL) is one example. Counting companies like Mazda, Toyota, ARM, and Qualcomm among its membership, AGL is a collaborative effort between automakers, suppliers, and tech companies, aimed at building an industry standard for automotive applications built on a Linux-based open software platform.
Ottaway said that had MinnowBoard been a closed platform it may never have been able to leverage itself as a go-to hardware component for AGL. “Automotive Grade Linux is an example where just by staying open and trying not to pigeonhole our tools that the board has found a function ... and it extends from there. We rely on the community at large to enhance or grow the software support.”
Still MinnowBoard acknowledges it can't be all things to all developers. But if the open source community is ready to tackle IoT the MinnowBoard Foundation has pledged it will be there to support it.
“We cannot please everyone. And it's a challenge finding the correct tradeoff of what input we can follow verbatim and what can take in spirit or disregard entirely,” Ottaway said. “But we look first and foremost at the potential number of uses and the likelihood that a given function would have value in the future. How broad is the need and where is it going?”
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Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News