Q&A with Mark Woods: ARM is on the Make for More Makers
Mark Woods has a unique title at ARM, which reflects his unique skill set. He is “Applications Architect and Maker,” and his job sounds like one many of us would like to have. The gig? He gets to attend Maker Faires and other venues to encourage hobbyists, students and professionals to make something. Using ARM technology, of course.
- Chris A. (C2) Ciufo, Editor.
Chris A. Ciufo: What is a Maker as ARM defines it, and what is your mission within ARM?
Mark Woods: Good question. Part of my role is really to evangelize ARM technology and educate people who are looking at new applications. We try to influence start-ups and Maker professionals and make them aware of ARM’s technology. If we can influence people or at least tell them about ARM technology, we can make sure they’re aware of the amazing variety and choices they have. That’s really my role.
I work with incubators; I do a little bit of outreach to universities with hackathons and things like that. Makers are people who could be hobbyists and they could have come from Arduino or Raspberry Pi technologies. Or maybe they’re just very interested, and if they’re going to use a digital technology in their product, we want it to be ARM.
C2: Are Makers really just hobbyists, regardless of where they work?
Mark: Well, that’s a real trend, but a lot of innovation has also come out of universities, hackathons and other things. But regardless, we are trying to make sure that people are aware of the technology available to them. So to reiterate, Makers are people who are just starting out building something from a hobbyist point of view—which might be at a university.
But maybe what they create or “make” becomes popular with friends, so they try and Kickstart it and it becomes a small business. We’ve seen things like that. I’m thinking of Dash Robotics at Berkeley, which is a pretty impressive small start-up. The Makers themselves I think are naturally finding good technology teams. We’ve had amazing success with Arduino, Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone. Many of these products find their way naturally, like 3D printers, CNC machines, drones and such. We’re really trying to show people what’s possible. We’d like to influence people who are genuinely the Makers and give them lots of options because there are literally thousands of ARM-based devices out there. As they progress they become what we call “Maker Pros,” when they look like they’re going to create a business.
C2: How does ARM go about influencing Makers?
Mark: The company has a few initiatives, including things like competitions. We have the UNICEF Challenge, there’s been competitions around Keil® [tools by ARM], and different outreach from different parts of the company. Whenever we can, we try to find companies that are using the technology and give them a platform: we try to reach some of the smaller guys and give them some kind of [media] press and some kind of visibility on the web. And as they start to learn, when they have the bandwidth, and as they become small companies, they naturally tend to work through the ARM roadmap of devices.
It’s quite nice to be able to educate them about technology and also to “match-make.” ARM is really a brand or a technology behind other devices, so we really have to match-make with our silicon partners. It’s about educating people, showing them options. When we have bandwidth to work with individual companies, then that’s fantastic, and we help them find the best technology for their applications.
C2: Can you give me an example of a use case: tell me about a company that ARM recently found and explain what it’s doing.
Mark: I’m going to give you two.
First of all, I’m going to give you a very broad one with a company called Synthetos.This company makes motion controllers and historically it has used Arduino. I think I first met individuals from the company at a Maker Faire in 2014 in San Mateo. They were running out of headroom [on their platform] and wanting something more capable. I think they still are, actually. And after some discussion about where they could and couldn’t go, we decided together that a Cortex®-M3 microcontroller was probably the best target for them. Over about two years, they’ve developed with the Cortex-M3, and they’ve had really good success with 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines and similar equipment.
So now they’re looking to expand and looking at the [ARM] roadmap and thinking, okay, maybe Cortex-M4 or Cortex-M7 makes sense. I think we’ve helped them find a really good match for the technology and also given them a roadmap to make very capable motion controllers. And these are some of the highest performance microcontrollers we’ve ever created. We literally started at a Maker Faire and I saw them recently at the New York Maker Faire [September 2015] and got to catch up on what they’re doing.
C2: How specifically did ARM help Synthetos?
Mark: One of the nice things we can do when it makes sense is do some giveaways. So we have silicon partner boards and early on I was able to give them development boards from our partners. In addition to that, things like just making them aware of some of the free DSP code that was out there and the GCC-based tools like GNU tools from ARM and things like that. This year, I wasn’t able to do this at the [NYC] Faire, but I am going to send them a Cortex-M7 board from a partner.
C2: You said you had two use cases. What’s the other one?
Mark: I can describe a generic use case. We’ve seen a big interest in drones, UAVs and things like quad copters and such. And again we’ve found that people have generally, over time, used Arduino AVR microcontrollers. When they need more performance and controllability, they move up to Cortex-M3. I’ve been talking to one very large drone manufacturer which has always based its products on M3 and M4 and is now stepping up to Cortex-M7. Where appropriate, we play matchmaker and aren’t necessarily giving them actual boards, but letting them know about much higher performance devices that can really help them move the needle, a cliché, but this can really improve their drone’s performance.
C2: You mentioned September’s NYC Maker Faire. What did you see there that was exciting?
Mark: We’re definitely seeing people work through the roadmap on drones; drones are huge. And the capabilities going into them aren’t always visible to end-users, other than high-performance. There are drones that can do things like edge detection [on images] or look for obstacles or particular objects.
We definitely see lots of people interested in 3D printers and CNC machines. Laser cutters, as well. There’s a company called Glowforge that opened a request for funds. It started a campaign at a Maker Faire and got up to $3 million within two days. Glowforge makes a relatively affordable laser printer for less than $2,000. So I think these trends are definitely fantastic. For people like me who maybe can’t afford high-end laser printers it’s fantastic, all this very accessible technology.
Many of these devices have been based for years on standard ARM boards: things like Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone. One of the standout things was the sheer number of companies and individuals who were using Raspberry Pi II. This is the new Raspberry Pi with Cortex-A7, a device that’s really being made possible by the economies of scale of [the] mobile [market]. So you have a very high performance computer for $35. People are using it for IoT for computing at the node instead of in the cloud. Well, Raspberry Pi II gives you what can look like a microcontroller, but it can also stack up and give you performance for things you might want to do close to the node like video analytics and such.
We saw Windows-based products, and even Microsoft demoing pretty much everything on Raspberry Pi, which is such a wonderful platform. I also saw a demo by a company called Wolfram, which is behind a lot of artificial intelligence [AI] work, and it too was using Raspberry Pi as their computer. You can make intelligent AI IoT-based devices on some very low cost hardware. Raspberry Pi II was everywhere.
And then another emerging technology for advanced Makers is Autonomous Robotics. You may remember these from a conference where a robotic concierge brings items to your hotel room. If you ever want a delivery drone that works, you need a lot more compute power than just the microcontroller’s: one must look after multiple variables such as attitude and altitude and things like that.
C2: Are there any new Maker platforms besides the ones you’ve mentioned?
Mark: Another one, an even more impressive platform, was the Qualcomm DragonBoards from Arrow Electronics. This represents an extremely high performance credit-card sized computer costing $75. The SoC on this board was probably the basis for some fairly premium mobile products within the last 18-24 months. So it’s incredible how fast it’s become available to Makers, and I think that it will be used for extremely high performance compute at the node for IoT. So if you want video analytics and you don’t want to send video back to a cloud to process, then local computing will be needed. Suppose you want to be able to take a picture or an image, figure out what’s happening, and do analytics on that scene. Raspberry Pi II or the Qualcomm board or any high-end Cortex-A board from ARM will work nicely. The Qualcomm board ends up being in a lot of the robotics platforms for things like high-level “Pathfinding” and search, so working in conjunction with a microcontroller for heterogeneous computing within drones.
C2: Let’s look forward. Do you think Grandma is going to start experimenting with a Maker project? But seriously…what do you think we’re going to see in the next couple of years?
Mark: We’re going to see more miniaturizations, so we’ll see people using computers in some fashion that they’ve never been able to before. We’re seeing more integrated modules. There are companies that are literally integrating video, microcontrollers and sensors into something about the size of a coin cell battery. You know, the idea of wearables that can detect Grandma falling over or monitoring her general physical behavior: I like that.
Using ARM’s mbed™ OS as an example, I think people will be able to prototype and build things for their own use, and they’ll be able to customize things that are more than a cat feeder.
And here’s a key point: people who were never Makers will be personalizing and creating things now, so it’s not just mechanical or electrical engineers. People are now being given access to technology that was once really expensive, and really difficult and time-consuming to develop with.
C2: ARM’s reputation is built on low power. How does that affect the Maker Movement?
Mark: A hope that I have is that we see more examples of things using none or nearly no batteries. This is a bit of a reach, but we’re starting to see our first products that can literally energy-harvest. So one of my personal passions is technology for good. I mean: things that don’t have to use batteries and things that can make a difference in our environment. The Maker community might just be where some of those things happen. But that’s a personal desire.
In terms of ARM, this is one of the very few companies that can help create energy-harvesting microcontrollers to be used in things that don’t need batteries. Think of use cases beyond anything we have now. The idea of leaving something to operate autonomously without thinking about power resupply, or having Smart Dust to use—to borrow a popular example—is an idea that’s been coming for a long time. But technology can help. I’m excited to see where it will go. You know, in the next few years an adventurous teenager could hack together something we can only imagine.
C2: Why is ARM in a unique position to help enable low battery or no battery energy harvesting applications?
Mark: We have a nice tradition and nice legacy of low power or optimized power designs. That’s taken ARM into ever more challenging designs in mobile devices. But almost unnoticed by the market we’ve been expanding up and to the right and down to the left in microcontrollers across our entire roadmap. But with microcontrollers we have some of the smallest high-performance 32-bit RISC machines that can clearly outperform an 8-bit microcontroller. We have the capability of doing more with the amount of energy that you can capture [from harvesting], and we can also run the devices at very low frequency. Or you can run them fast when energy is abundant.
We’ve got a very efficient architecture that can run on extremely low power levels, and that’s helped our adoption in wearables, and it will definitely help our adoption in IoT for things like sensors and very simple devices. Last year our partners shipped 4 billion devices into embedded applications out of a total of 12 billion ARM devices sold. We’re starting to see the first people implement ARM devices into things where there’s practically zero energy available. That’s really exciting.
You asked me about MEMS sensors integrated into an ARM core. It wouldn’t be done by ARM, but possibly by one of our partners for a connected energy capture device. Someone just shared with me a fantastic example of this, which is an insulin pen, or an injection pen that has a microcontroller and a Bluetooth radio, and the pen dispenses the measured dose and sends metadata wirelessly. But here’s the kicker: that device is fully powered by the action of pulling the cap off the syringe.
That makes me go “Wow!” It inspires me for the future.