Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Posts Tagged ‘RTOS’

Idling in low-power mode

In AVR, Software on May 28, 2013 at 00:01

With a real-time operating system, going into low-power mode is easy. Continuing the recent ChibiOS example, here is a powerUse.ino sketch which illustrates the mechanism:

#include <ChibiOS_AVR.h>
#include <JeeLib.h>

const bool LOWPOWER = true; // set to true to enable low-power sleeping

// must be defined in case we're using the watchdog for low-power waiting
ISR(WDT_vect) { Sleepy::watchdogEvent(); }

static WORKING_AREA(waThread1, 50);

void Thread1 () {
  while (true)

void setup () {
  rf12_initialize(1, RF12_868MHZ);


void mainThread () {
  chThdCreateStatic(waThread1, sizeof (waThread1),
                    NORMALPRIO + 2, (tfunc_t) Thread1, 0);

  while (true)

void loop () {
    Sleepy::loseSomeTime(16); // minimum watchdog granularity is 16 ms

There’s a separate thread which runs at slightly higher priority than the main thread (NORMALPRIO + 2), but is idle most of the time, and there’s the main thread, which in this case takes the role of the idling thread.

When LOWPOWER is set to false, this sketch runs at full power all the time, drawing about 9 mA. With LOWPOWER set to true, the power consumption drops dramatically, with just an occasional short blip – as seen in this current-consumption scope capture:


Once every 16..17 ms, the watchdog wakes the ATmega out of its power-down mode, and a brief amount of activity takes place. As you can see, most of these “blips” take just 18 µs, with a few excursions to 24 and 30 µs. I’ve left the setup running for over 15 minutes with the scope background persistence turned on, and there are no other glitches – ever. Those 6 µs extensions are probably the milliseconds clock timer.

For real-world uses, the idea is that you put all your own code in threads, such as Thread1() above, and call chThdSleepMilliseconds() to wait and re-schedule as needed. There can be a number of these threads, each with their own timing. The lowest-priority thread (the main thread in the example above) then goes into a low-power sleep mode – briefly and repeatedly, thus “soaking” up all unused µC processor cycles in the most energy-efficient manner, yet able to re-activate pending threads quickly.

What I don’t quite understand yet in the above scope capture is the repetition frequency of these pulses. Many pulses are 17 µs apart, i.e. the time Sleepy::loseSomeTime() goes to sleep, but there are also more frequent pulses, spread only 4..9 ms apart at times. I can only guess that this has something to do with the ChibiOS scheduler. That’s the thing with an RTOS: reasoning about the repetitive behavior of such code becomes a lot trickier.

Still… not bad: just a little code on idle and we get low-power behaviour almost for free!

ChibiOS for the Arduino IDE

In AVR, Software on May 25, 2013 at 00:01

A real-time operating system is a fairly tricky piece of software, even with a small RTOS – because of the way it messes with several low-level details of the running code, such as stacks and interrupts. It’s therefore no small feat when everything can be done as a standard add-on library for the Arduino IDE.

But that’s exactly what has been done by Bill Greiman with ChibiOS, in the form of a library called “ChibiOS_AVR” (there’s also an ARM version for the Due & Teensy).

So let’s continue where I left off yesterday and install this thing for use with JeeNodes, eh?

  • download a copy of from this page on Google Code
  • unpack it and inside you’ll find a folder called ChibiOS_AVR
  • move it inside the libraries folder in your IDE sketches folder (next to JeeLib, etc)
  • you might also want to move ChibiOS_ARM and SdFat next to it, for use later
  • other things in that ZIP file are a README file and the HTML documentation
  • that’s it, now re-launch the Arduino IDE to make it recognise the new libraries

That’s really all there is to it. The ChibiOS_AVR folder also contains a dozen examples, each of which is worth looking into and trying out. Keep in mind that there is no LED on a standard JeeNode, and that the blue LED on the JeeNode SMD and JeeNode USB is on pin 9 and has a reverse polarity (“0″ will turn it on, “1″ will turn it off).

Note: I’m using this with Arduino IDE 1.5.2, but it should also work with IDE 1.0.x

Simple things are still relatively simple with a RTOS, but be prepared to face a whole slew of new concepts and techniques when you really start to dive in. Lots of ways to make tasks and interrupts work together – mutexes, semaphores, events, queues, mailboxes…

Luckily, ChibiOS comes with a lot of documentation, including some general guides and how-to’s. The AVR-specific documentation can be found here (as well as in that ZIP file you just downloaded).

Not sure this is the best place for it, but I’ve put yesterday’s example in JeeLib for now.

I’d like to go into RTOS’s and ChibiOS some more in the weeks ahead, if only to see how wireless communication and low-power sleep modes can be fitted in there.

Just one statistic for now: the context switch latency of ChibiOS on an ATmega328 @ 16 MHz appears to be around 15 µs. Or to put it differently: you can switch between multiple tasks over sixty thousand times a second. Gulp.

Blinking in real-time

In AVR, Software on May 24, 2013 at 00:01

As promised yesterday, here’s an example sketch which uses the ChibiOS RTOS to create a separate task for keeping an LED blinking at 2 Hz, no matter what else the code is doing:

#include <ChibiOS_AVR.h>

static WORKING_AREA(waThread1, 50);

void Thread1 () {
  const uint8_t LED_PIN = 9;
  pinMode(LED_PIN, OUTPUT);
  while (1) {
    digitalWrite(LED_PIN, LOW);
    digitalWrite(LED_PIN, HIGH);

void setup () {

void mainThread () {
  chThdCreateStatic(waThread1, sizeof (waThread1),
                    NORMALPRIO + 2, (tfunc_t) Thread1, 0);
  while (true)

void loop () {

There are several things to note about this approach:

  • there’s now a “Thread1″ task, which does all the LED blinking, even the LED pin setup
  • each task needs a working area for its stack, this will consume a bit of memory
  • calls to delay() are forbidden inside threads, they need to play nice and go to sleep
  • only a few changes are needed, compared to the original setup() and loop() code
  • chBegin() is what starts the RTOS going, and mainThread() takes over control
  • to keep things similar to what Arduino does, I decided to call loop() when idling

Note that inside loop() there is a call to delay(), but that’s ok: at some point, the RTOS runs out of other things to do, so we might as well make the main thread similar to what the Arduino does. There is also an idle task – it runs (but does nothing) whenever no other tasks are asking for processor time.

Note that despite the delay call, the LED still blinks in the proper rate. You’re looking at a real multitasking “kernel” running inside the ATmega328 here, and it’s preemptive, which simply means that the RTOS can (and will) decide to break off any current activity, if there is something more important that needs to be done first. This includes suddenly disrupting that delay() call, and letting Thread1 run to keep the LEDs blinking.

In case you’re wondering: this compiles to 3,120 bytes of code – ChibiOS is really tiny.

Stay tuned for details on how to get this working in your projects… it’s very easy!

It’s time for real-time

In Software on May 23, 2013 at 00:01

For some time, I’ve been doodling around with various open-source Real-time operating system (RTOS) options out there. There are quite a few out there to get lost in…

But first, what is an RTOS, and why would you want one?

The RTOS is code which can manage multiple tasks in a computer. You can see what it does by considering what sort of code you’d write if you wanted to periodically read out some sensors, not necessarily all at the same time or equally often. Then, perhaps you want to respond to external events such as a button press of a PIR sensor firing, and let’s also try and report this on the serial port and throw in a command-line configuration interface on that same serial port…

Oh, and in between, let’s go into a low-power mode to save energy.

Such code can be written without RTOS, in fact that’s what I did with a (simpler) example for the roomNode sketch. But it gets tricky, and everything can become a huge tangle of variables, loops, conditions, and before you know it … you end up with spaghetti!

In short, the problem is blocking code – when you write something like this, for example:

void setup () {}

void loop () {
  digitalWrite(LED, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(LED, LOW);

The delay() calls will put the processor into a busy loop for as long as needed to make the requested number of milliseconds pass. And while this is the case, nothing else can be done by the processor, other than handling hardware interrupts (such as timer ticks).

What if you wanted to respond to button presses? Or make a second LED blink at a different rate at the same time? Or respond to commands on the serial port?

This is why I added a MilliTimer class to JeeLib early on. Let’s rewrite the code:

MilliTimer ledTimer;
bool ledOn;;

void setup () {
  ledTimer.set(1); // start the timer

void loop () {
  if (ledTimer.poll()) {
    if (ledOn) {
      digitalWrite(LED, LOW);
    } else {
      digitalWrite(LED, HIGH);
    ledOn = ! ledOn;
  // anything ...

It’s a bit more code, but the point is that this implementation is no longer blocking: instead of stopping on a delay() call, we now track the progress of time through the MilliTimer, we keep track of the LED state, and we adjust the time to wait for the next change.

As a result, the comment line at the end gets “executed” all the time, and this is where we can now perform other tasks while the LED is blinking in the background, so to speak.

You can get a lot done this way, but things do tend to become more complicated. The simple flow of each separate activity starts to become a mix of convoluted flows.

With a RTOS, you can create several tasks which appear to all run in parallel. You don’t call delay(), but you tell the RTOS to suspend your task for a certain amount of time (or until a certain event happens, which is the real magic sauce of RTOS’es, actually).

So in pseudo code, we can now write our app as:

  TASK 1:
    turn LED on
    wait 100 ms
    turn LED off
    wait 400 ms

    start task 1
    do other stuff (including starting more tasks)

All the logic related to making the LED blink has been moved “out of the way”.

Tomorrow I’ll expand on this, using an RTOS which works fine in the Arduino IDE.