Maker Board Spotlight: Nordic nRF9160 DK
Nordic Semiconductor has made a name for itself by producing trusted, cheap, and low-powered connected microcontrollers. The chips can be found in a variety of modern connected devices, ranging from Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices to standalone GPS and LTE communication, operating anywhere cellular signal is available.
Developing for bleeding-edge hardware is not easy to learn, but Nordic is trying to make it as easy as possible, by bundling the best their tech can offer into an all-in-one single-board development kit - the nRF9160 DK.
What is the nRF9160 DK - Specs and More
The nRF9160 DK is a single-board evaluation kit for the nRF9160 System in Package (SiP). The SiP is a combined package featuring an Arm Cortex M33 microcontroller (MCU) and an onboard modem for LTE and GPS communication. The development board also comes with a SIM slot and SIM for connecting via LTE-M and NB-IoT protocols, and a band antenna designed to work globally on a variety of LTE bands.
If you are looking to develop an LTE-based product, the nRF9160 seems to have everything you'd need.
While the nRF9160 is the star of the show, the development board also features an nRF52840 board controller - a powerful MCU in its own right capable of BLE connectivity. Both chips can be programmed separately via a toggle switch on the development board. The board also provides a number of optional antenna hook-up points, and a whole host of general-purpose input/output (GPIO) pins, capable of SPI, TWI, and compatible with all Rev3 Arduino shields. Make no mistake, this is an industry-standard board and has a much steeper learning curve than most hobby development boards, but for the price, the nRF9160 DK gives a huge amount of scope for learning about low power connected device development.
Nordic nRF9160 DK Specs
The nRF9160 DK has a wide range of specs due to the two separate SoCs it has, and its wide-ranging connectivity options.
- Single board development kit for the nRF9160 SiP
- 700-960 MHz + 1710-2200 MHz LTE band support
- Same certification coverage as nRF9160 SiP
- nRF52840 board controller
- Arduino Uno Rev3 compatible
- LTE-M/NB-IoT, GPS and 2.4 GHz antennas
- SWF RF connectors for LTE-M/NB-IoT and 2.4 GHz antennas
- Nano/4FF SIM card slot and MFF2 SIM footprint
- SEGGER J-Link OB programmer/debugger
- Pins for measuring power consumption, e.g. with Nordic's Power Profiler Kit II
- User-programmable LEDs (4), buttons (2) and switches (2)
- 3.0-5.5 V supply from external or 5 V supply from USB
- Certified for global operation:
- AT&T, Bell, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, KDDI, Telstra, Verizon, Vodafone, etc.
- GCF, PTCRB
- FCC (USA), CE (EUR), ISED (CAN), ACMA RCM (AUS), NCC (TWN), IMDA (SGP), MIC (JPN), MSIP (KOR), (IND)
- Multimode LTE-M/NB-IoT modem
- 700-2200 MHz LTE band support
- +23 dBm output power
- eDRX and PSM power-saving features
- Coverage enhancement modes
- Single pin 50 Ω antenna interface
- UICC interface
- Application processor
- 64 MHz Arm® Cortex®-M33 CPU
- Arm TrustZone® for trusted execution
- Arm CryptoCell 310 for application layer security
- 1 MB Flash & 256 KB RAM
- 4 x SPI/UART/TWI, PDM, I2S, PWM, ADC
- Board controller
- Bluetooth Low Energy and NFC support
- 64 MHz Arm Cortex-M4 CPU with FPU
- 1 MB Flash & 256 KB RAM
How Do You Get Started Developing on the nRF9160 DK?
Nordic provides a getting started guide for all of their development kits, taking you through the installation process of their free nRF Connect software, and compilation of a test project.
Software installation is modular, and rather than housing all functionality in one app, nFR Connect acts as a hub for installing and updating different aspects of the toolset. For programming, use the Programmer. To install the full SDK for development, use the Toolchain manager. There are a number of different modules for different uses, but for the basics of what the nRF9160 can do, you'll need the programmer and the LTE Link Monitor.
You'll also need to create an nRF Cloud account and register the SIM with the service. With these done, you can try out the test application, which uses a switch to simulate a change in orientation, which is broadcast over LTE and logged in the web interface. From here, it's time to move on to some example projects using the SEGGER Embedded Studio for ARM. It's a fully-fledged IDE for embedded programming and debugging, and free to use for non-commercial purposes. There are numerous example projects to build, debug and modify
Rust on the nRF9160
Rust lovers rejoice! There is now a crate for working with multiple Nordic nRF boards, including the nRF9160. Given Rust's reputation as a low-level language that it much safer and easier to use than C, many folks are glad to see it move into more and more hardware. It's still early days yet, but the hardware abstraction layer (HAL) provided in the nrf9160-hal crate allows direct programming of the development board in Rust, with plenty of examples provided to get you started!
What can You Do With the nRF9160 DK?
Given the onboard nRF9160 chip, this development board shines when it comes to learning about and developing low powered mobile hardware - whether that is some kind of remote data logger that needs to work away from regular internet connectivity, or a device that uses GPS location data to log and exchange information remotely. Conversely, the included nRF52840 makes working with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) an option too, allowing the development of low powered connected sensors like heart rate monitors, or in place temperature and humidity sensing.
Who Should Buy the nRF9160 DK?
The nRF9160 DK is a professional development kit aimed at industry-level development. While Nordic provides great documentation and free access to software and toolchains, it's going to be tough going for absolute beginners. This kit is probably not suited to beginners, but if you've been making hobby projects for a while and are looking to move up from Arduino to something more challenging, it could be perfect for you. It may cost more than most hobby boards, but it gives you everything you need to get hands on with the technology at the forefront of IoT and connected device design.
It's definitely not a board for casually tinkering with, but to get a grasp of how LTE, GPS, and BLE works in the modern world, the nRF9160 is worth every penny.
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