Raspberry Pi Foundation moves into microcontrollers with the $4 Pi Pico using homegrown silicon

Dual-core Arm Cortex-M0+ board for hobbyists and power users alike


The Raspberry Pi team has announced its latest bit of hardware – the $4 microcontroller-class Raspberry Pi Pico.

Some 37 million Raspberry Pi computers have been sold to date, according to head honcho Eben Upton. And although hobbyists, educators, and industry pros have seen success in connecting the diminutive computer to the outside world, often the board is paired up with a microcontroller (something like an Arduino device springs to mind) to take care of analogue input, low-latency input/output or a low-power mode.

The power consumption of a dedicated microcontroller is dwarfed even by the power-sipping Pi Zero

The gang has therefore created the Pi Pico, built on the in-house-designed RP2040 system-on-chip.

There is a useful amount of gubbins within the 40nm silicon. Processing is taken care of by a dual-core Arm Cortex M0+ running at up to 133MHz. 264kB of on-chip RAM is also present as well as USB 1.1 and those handy general purpose IO pins (26 are exposed to the user of which three are analogue inputs). A variety of low-power modes should see extended operation from the device when running on battery power.

Anyone expecting the connectors seen on the board's larger siblings are, however, to be disappointed. The 21mm x 51mm board uses hole pads with castellated edges. As if to underline where this microcontroller might see the most use, it can also be purchased in 600-unit reels to fit into automated assembly lines.

Chief operating office James Adams told The Register: "We designed the silicon from scratch ourselves. The RP2040 chip has been a long time in the making – we started initial work at the back end of 2016, we had some test silicon in our hands in September 2018.

"We can fit everything on a low cost 2-layer PCB as the RP2040 chip pinout was designed alongside the Pico PCB – so you can see all the IO fan out perfectly to the edge pins and everything 'just fits'."

The Pico itself is built at Sony Inazawa, Japan.

For the power user, there is a C SDK and Visual Studio Code integration. The Cortex M0+ lacks a floating point unit so those math operations are handled in the SDK. A port of MicroPython has also been made, exposing the hardware (including the PIO subsystem) to tinkerers.

A plethora of development boards and projects based on the silicon have been announced alongside the Pico, including the Pimoroni Picosystem, a handheld game-making set, and the Adafruit Feather RP2040.

The Raspberry Pi Pico itself can be found stuck to the cover of this month's HackSpace magazine.

As for the Pico's stablemates, Upton told us the recently released Pi 400 has sold well – "pretty much everything we've made that isn't on a ship" – but also that the company was suffering from a "fatter downstream logistics chain than usual" due to the current environment. Shipping things by air was proving uneconomical due to a jump in air freight charges arising from last year's slump in passenger numbers.

And an 8GB version? No plans right now, but he had noted "some demand from the community" so never say never. ®

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