Sunday, November 29, 2015

Using PlatformIO for Embedded Projects

I recently started using the PlatformIO system. It is a command line based development environment for many of the embedded platforms out there, such as the Arduino, Teensy, and Amtel, and I thought it would give me an easy way of automating my software builds, so decided to try it for one of my current projects. You can learn more at As a quick overview, it is a Python-based system that connects to a variety of toolchains, such as avrdude and gcc-avr that also has a very nice system for downloading board descriptions and libraries and all of their dependencies and making them available for your projects.

To give you an idea of how much time and effort PlatformIO saves you, the following is the set of commands to compile a project of mine for a room sensor that I will be talking more about in a future post.

$ avr-gcc -Os -g -std=gnu99 -Wall -funsigned-char -funsigned-bitfields \
    -fpack-struct -fshort-enums -ffunction-sections -fdata-sections \
    -DF_CPU=20000000UL -DBAUD=9600UL -I. -mmcu=atmega328p \
    -c -o roomsensor.o roomsensor.c

$ avr-gcc -Wl,-Map,  -Wl,--gc-sections  -mmcu=atmega328p \
    roomsensor.o -o roomsensor.elf

$ avrdude -c usbtiny -p m328p -e -U flash:w:roomsensor.elf

That is a lot! Many people will wrap all this up into a Makefile so they don't have to do type in each command every time, but if something changes about your program and its needs or you decide to target it another board, you may find yourself having to modify various parts of build process. Also, personally I hate creating Makefiles, so if I can find a process that eliminates the need to write them, I am happy.

With PlatformIO, the commands to compile and upload the software is

$ platformio run -t upload

Let's get PlatformIO installed. I am using a Linux-based system, so my installation instructions are for that. The documentation at PlatformIO is quite good, so you should find it easy to find instructions for your particular platform.

I tried just installing PlatformIO on my Linux laptop but found it wouldn't properly install due to the fact that my Linux distro didn't have the latest version of pip, so the instructions below makes sure you have the latest before installing PlatformIO

$ sudo pip install -U pip setuptools
$ sudo pip install -U platformio

Once PlatformIO is installed, you should create a directory for your new project and initialize it for a PlatformIO project with the following command.

$ platformio init

You can also specify things in the init command, like what board you are developing against. However, I am working with a bare ATMega328p chip and a USBTiny programmer and I could find nothing in the supported boards that would work with what I am using. It may be there, but I didn't find it.

The initialization process will create a src/ and lib/ directory for your project, as well as a platformio.ini file that will contain all information about your project and how it is to be build and uploaded. Since a bare init command was used without specifying a board or anything, I had to fill in the values myself using my favorite editor.

platform = atmelavr
board_mcu = atmega328p
board_f_cpu = 20000000UL
upload_protocol = usbtiny -e

If you specify the board to be used, say an Arduino UNO, you will find very different contents in platformio.ini. The following command will initialize the project.

$ platformio init --board uno

The contents of platformio.ini will be filled in for you.

platform = atmelavr
framework = arduino
board = uno

But on with the current project.

I then created the file roomsensor.c in the src/ directory. This program is for reading a PIR sensor and lighting an LED when the sensor detects motion. The PIR is wired to pin PB1 and the LED is wired to pin PB0.

#include <avr/io.h>
#include <util/delay.h>

int main(void) {

  // Set the direction of the LED port to output.
  DDRB |= 0b00000001;

  while (1) {
    if (PINB & 0b00000010) {
      // Light the LED.
      PORTB = 0b00000001;
    } else {
      // Turn the LED off.
      PORTB = 0b00000000;


  return (0);

I will show the circuit for the room sensor in the post that will cover the sensor, for now I am just wanting to discuss PlatformIO. If you actually want to just blink an LED, you could eliminate the if statement and just use a couple of delays for the amounts of time you want the LED to remain on and remain off.

As stated above, you can now compile the program and upload it to the 328p with the following command.

$ platformio run -t upload

All in all, I have found PlatformIO to be easy to use. It was easiest to use when I used an Arduino. I had to do a bunch of experimentation to figure out how to handle the bare atmega328p and the USBTiny programmer, but now that I have that figured out, future projects will be as easy as a board supported by PlatformIO. Actually, I should look how to define my own board description that I can then make available for others to use.

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