CorticalCafe Picaxe Projects

Picaxe Projects

Picaxe Projects:

Software is interesting because it is a unique sequence of instructions that tells fixed hardware to do captivating things. After all, we humans have pretty common standard hardware, but the variation in our software makes things interesting. Software is never finished since there is always a better, more efficient way to accomplish the task at hand. Fortunately, as processing power becomes faster and cheaper, everything starts to benefit from a software solution... regardless of whether it was needed in the first place!

The Picaxe is a neat little microcontroller that is a PIC programmed with a bootloader and BASIC interpreter. A simple (but clever) PC-based development environment allows you to write programs in a PBASIC-like language, and then download them to nonvolatile memory on the chip for execution.


For hardware people who have been programming microcontrollers for years, this might not seem like a big deal, but for software-oriented people and newbies, it’s an incredible device that offers a quick start into microcontroller projects with almost no learning curve. Traditional hardware based projects can be put quickly into software without getting bogged down in assembly code, development tools, libraries, linkers, and the like. The language and tools are limited, but very well designed. And at $3.00 each, it runs circles around other embedded microcontroller options like the basic stamp. A low-end PICAXE-08M has 5 I/O lines, is capable of 8 bit A/D conversion and has D/A output via PWM. Power consumption is measured in nanowatts! These inexpensive chips have somewhat limited memory (hundreds thousands of instructions) and barely execute sub-millisecond instructions, so don’t expect to build an RF spectrum analyzer. But for simple logic signal tasks, this device is perfect. Revolution education offers a very nice free IDE for programming and downloading code for the chip complete with simulation mode. This means that you can go from having a handful of parts to a fully assembled device (whatever it may be) extremely rapidly.


Although the manufacturer is in the UK, the chip can be purchase in the US from Peter Anderson who has an excellent site describing the capabilities and some projects he created using the chip for educational purposes.

Unfortunately, I have little time for electronics projects these days. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy a few of these and put them to work as programmable toys which light up, make music, and respond to switches. As a toy, I put a few switches, a white LED, and a piezo speaker in a project box with a 3 pin header that allows reprogramming as desired. Tied together with a half an hour's worth of code, and its something very entertaining and educational. The devices use such little power, that I don’t even have an on/off switch. Instead, when in “off” mode the devices goes into power-saving sleep and just has a “heartbeat” light which smoothly flashes about once every thirty seconds.

Take look at the picaxe projects at the top of this page for details. Although some of the projects are limited right now to flashing lights and sounds, there is some real-world control (e.g. a mini-robot) and who knows what the next project may bring...

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