Andrew Huynh
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Adventures in IoT: Dev Environment

2018 April 10 - San Francisco | 1139 words

#iot #hardware

As part of an Arduino hobby project, I wanted to set up a development environment that steered clear of the Arduino IDE and gave me an easy-to-use toolchain that fit in with my existing tools. While the Arduino IDE is useful for simple sketches, once I moved into anything remotely complex I yearned for the features provided by modern day text editors such as Sublime Text or VS Code. This post documents my journey to the almost perfect (for me) dev environment for Arduino and other micro-controllers.


Before I started down the path of customizing everything I had a couple constraints:

VS Code Arduino Extension

My daily text editor for a while has been Visual Studio Code, an electron based editor that wooed me over from native editors like Sublime Text through a rich ecosystem of extensions and just really great sane defaults. Hoping I’d still be able to use VS Code as part of my Arduino dev process, I was able to find the VS Code Arduino extension developed by none other than Microsoft.

The extension is currently in preview, with a couple issues that may or may not affect your workflow. It interfaces with the Arduino IDE to bring over some handy functionality:

Getting IntelliSense to work

Fortunately and unfortunately the extension only get us 80% of the way there. I ran into errors where Arduino symbols like pinMode or LOW/HIGH were undefined and which seemed to be a common issue that other Arduino hobbyists encountered.

The fix is simple, we need to set up our include paths so that VS Code C/C++ IntelliSense parser knows where to look. Since part of the issue is the inability to recursively walk through the include folders, we'll need to explicitly add each folder. This can be accomplished by editing the c_cpp_properties.json file to include the following paths:

Note: The c_cpp_properties.json file can be accessed via the command palette: ⌘⬆P -> C/Cpp: Edit Configurations.

// note to save some space,
// $PACKAGES = $HOME/Library/Arduino15/packages/arduino
"includePath": [

The versions in the paths will change depending on how often you update your Arduino IDE libraries, but should cover all the standard Arduino includes. If you need additional libraries, you should be able to find the paths for those roughly around the same area. Custom libraries, such as ones you’ve written yourself, should ideally be in a lib folder under the same folder as your main sketch file. For example if you have a sensor library it’d look like below. The importance of the lib folder structure will come into play in the toolchain section.

├── lib/
│   └── sensor/
│       ├── sensor.cpp
│       └── sensor.h
├── Makefile
└── main.ino

Lastly and most importantly, we need to add #include <Arduino.h> at the top of our main sketch file so that the VS Code IntelliSense to start working its magic.

Arduino Toolchain

With the text editor now working within the requirements I set earlier, I looked towards compiling and uploading an Arduino sketch file using nothing but the command line. After a little searching I stumbled upon Arduino Makefile, a fantastic open source project with a very configurable workflow for sketch compilation and upload.

Issues and Fixes

Following the example Makefiles, getting up and running with a single sketch file was easy. As more files were added to the project there were a couple non-obvious changes I needed to make to my project structure and the Makefile to support user-defined libraries.

First, user-defined libraries should have a folder structure that follows a familiar format:

└── /
│   ├── .cpp
│   └── .h

In the Makefile, we’ll need to define two variables which define the libraries that should be included in the compilation process and the path to the user-defined libraries.


# The following path may be different for you. This path
# is for OSX users who installed Arduino Makefile via Homebrew
include /usr/local/opt/arduino-mk/

Now we should be able to run make to compile the project and make upload to upload the sketch to the connected Arduino board. The Arduino Makefile will attempt to auto-detect variables based on your current OS and settings that you have setup already in the Arduino IDE. If you need to override any of variables, such as setting the BOARD_TAG to the board you’re using, simply put the user-defined variable before including the Arduino Makefile.

For easier project management, the best practice is to include Arduino Makefile as a git submodule in your project repo and set the include path to the submodule.

Serial Monitor/Debugging

Once we’re able to upload a sketch to our Arduino, the last step would be to monitor and interactively input data into the serial port connection. This can be for any logs we’re outputting, setting up configurations, etc. Luckily, if you’re using any of the tools above there are plenty of ways to accomplish this.

If you’re using VS Code, the Arduino extension has commands to open a serial connection, set the baud rate, and select the serial port. Unfortunately, the Arduino extension only allows you to read from the serial port.

Arduino Makefile has a built-in command, make monitor that connects to the Arduino with the correct incantations through the screen command.

While this works just fine, I’ve always enjoyed using the feature-ful minicom to connect to serial ports. It takes a little configuration but the end result is a more powerful way to interact with the Arduino serial connection.

Minicom is available on OSX via homebrew:

homebrew install minicom

To configure minicom, start it up with minicom -s to prevent it from immediately attempting to connect to any serial ports. From here you can set the serial device to point to the usb serial port (/dev/cu.usbserial-XXXX) and set Hardware Flow Control to Off so that you can send data through the serial port. Save these settings as the default and every time you run minicom it’ll start up with those settings and immediately connect to the serial port.


And that's it! I've so far used the above configuration for about a month so far with no major problems. Next up on this adventure, I dive deeper into a project which involves sensors, pumps, and even WiFi communication for a more automated home.