Simple examples and utilities for the STM32 "Blue Pill"

pushedAt 3 years ago


STM32 Bare Library

System functions and example code for programming the "Blue Pill" STM32-compatible micro-controller boards.


You can now buy "Blue Pill" development boards individually for less than $2. These devices have ARM Cortex M3 CPUs running at 72MHz, 20KB of SRAM, and 64KB of flash, and consume far less energy than standard ARM processors. They offer an amazing amount of computing power for a cheap package that can be run on a battery for a long time. They are perfect for prototyping running compute-intensive algorithms like machine learning on embedded systems.

Unfortunately, though their price point makes them very accessible, there are other barriers to getting started with the boards. They require separate hardware to program, and some basic wiring skills. The system software that you need to do anything useful with them is also often proprietary and confusing. This framework tackles all those problems by standardizing a work flow based on open software and hardware, providing step-by-step guides for the small amount of wiring needed, and offering self-contained system functions and examples in plain C.

What You Need

Before you get started, you'll need to have a few pieces of hardware available. No soldering or tools are required though, you should be able to assemble everything you need by hand. My thanks go to Andy Selle who pioneered the approach that I've documented below.

  • Blue Pill Board. You can usually find these by searching on Ebay or Aliexpress. They come with free shipping, but be aware that can take several weeks, so I often choose a faster option. I also recommend picking up several boards at once, since they're cheap and spares will come in handy in case one is damaged.

  • Raspberry Pi 3. The Blue Pill boards have a CPU and RAM, but don't come with any software pre-installed. To do anything useful with them, you have to use an external hardware device to program code into their flash memory. You can buy commercial tools to do this, but I prefer to use a Pi. They have external IO pins that can be controlled directly from software, so they can communicate directly to the Blue Pill's pin using the SWD protocol to program, control, and even debug the chip's execution.

  • Female-to-Female Jumper Wires. We need these to connect the Pi's output pins to the Blue Pill's inputs. Any electrical connection will do, but this type of wire will slot snugly onto the pins at either end.

Install OpenOCD on your Pi

These steps assume you have a Raspberry Pi 3 running a recent version of Raspbian. There's nothing that I know definitely won't work on a Pi 2 (or a Pi Zero/One with an adjustment to the OpenOCD scripts), but I've not tested any other combinations. The approach I'm using came from a great AdaFruit guide, which I recommend checking out for more background on what we're doing.

The main piece of software we need to install is OpenOCD, the Open On-Chip Debugger. Despite its name, this tool also handles flashing micro-controller flash memory with new programs, as well as displaying debug information from the chip. It does this through the Serial Wire Debug protocol, communicating through dedicated pins on the Blue Pill board.

OpenOCD doesn't have a binary package for the Pi, but it is easy to compile. To build it, run these commands in the terminal on your Pi:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install git autoconf libtool make pkg-config libusb-1.0-0 libusb-1.0-0-dev
git clone git://git.code.sf.net/p/openocd/code openocd-code
cd openocd-code
./configure --enable-sysfsgpio --enable-bcm2835gpio
sudo make install

Wiring up your Blue Pill

The four pins at the thin end of the Blue Pill board are dedicate to the SWD protocol, and need to be connected to the right pins on the Pi's header, which OpenOCD will then control to program the chip.

Here's a diagram showing how the wires should be attached between the Pi and the board:

Blue Pill Wiring

This is based on the wiring recommended by the AdaFruit tutorial, where ground and power (3.3V) can be driven by any of the multiple pins on the Pi that supply them, SWDIO (the data pin) is on pin 24, and SWDCLK (the clock pin) is on pin 25. I'm leaving the reset pin unconnected, since it's optional.

AdaFruit Diagram

Here are some photos of my actual setup:

Blue Pill Wiring

Pi Wiring

Complete Picture of Wiring

If you're using female-to-female jumper wires, you should be able to just push the connectors at each end onto the corresponding pins, and they should fit snugly with a small amount of force.

There are also two yellow plastic jumper switches on the board. Normally they will both in position furthest away from the SWD pins, and closest to the small USB port. This is the recommended position for our workflow, but if they're in a different place when you get your board, you may need to move them back.

Once you've wired in the ground and power (3.3v) connections, you should see a red LED on the board light up. If it doesn't, check your wiring, or try another board in case there's a defect.

Building the Examples

Now you should be ready to build some example programs for the Blue Pill board. To do this, you'll need to clone ARM's CMSIS 5 micro-controller library from GitHub and get this repository too. You'll also need to install the cross-compilation toolchain for ARM.

cd ~
git clone https://github.com/ARM-software/CMSIS_5
git clone https://github.com/petewarden/stm32_bare_lib
sudo apt-get install -y gcc-arm-none-eabi

Now you should just be able to build the library and examples by running:

cd ~/stm32_bare_lib

If this doesn't produce an error you should have binary files ready to be flashed to the Blue Pill in gen/bin/examples/blink.bin, gen/bin/examples/hello_world.bin, and so on.

These are not quite like normal executables, they're just exact copies of the bytes that need to be copied into flash memory on the device. They don't contain any debug symbols, and the very start of flash has to be a table of function pointers, so making sure that boot.s is first in linking order is important. You don't need to worry about that for these examples, because the makefile takes care of all that, but once you start building your own programs you'll need to be careful.

Testing OpenOCD

Once you've got this library's repository from GitHub, you can start testing your wiring connection. There are a lot of settings you need to pass to OpenOCD to make a successful link, so to make things easier these are included in opened.cfg in the root of the source tree. To try out OpenOCD, run:

cd ~/stm32_bare_lib
sudo openocd -f openocd.cfg

If it's working correctly, you should see output like this:

Open On-Chip Debugger 0.10.0+dev-00299-g6d390e1b (2018-02-17-00:10)
Licensed under GNU GPL v2
For bug reports, read
BCM2835 GPIO config: tck = 11, tms = 25, tdi = 10, tdo = 9
BCM2835 GPIO nums: swclk = 11, swdio = 25
BCM2835 GPIO nums: swclk = 25, swdio = 24
adapter speed: 1000 kHz
adapter_nsrst_delay: 100
none separate
cortex_m reset_config sysresetreq
none separate
Info : BCM2835 GPIO JTAG/SWD bitbang driver
Info : JTAG and SWD modes enabled
Info : clock speed 1001 kHz
Info : SWD DPIDR 0x1ba01477
Info : stm32f1x.cpu: hardware has 6 breakpoints, 4 watchpoints
Info : Listening on port 3333 for gdb connections
semihosting is enabled
Info : Listening on port 6666 for tcl connections
Info : Listening on port 4444 for telnet connections

If you see Error: Could not initialize the debug port instead, that's a sign that's something is wrong with the connection. Check your wiring, and if that's okay make sure that you have the correct pins on your Pi hooked up.

Running Examples

With OpenOCD running in one terminal, open up a new window and type:

telnet localhost 4444

This should bring you to a command console for OpenOCD that looks something like this:

Trying ::1...
Connected to localhost.
Escape character is '^]'.
Open On-Chip Debugger

This is the place where you can execute commands to control the Blue Pill board. The first thing we need is to stop the chip so we can program it. We do that by running the reset halt command, which means restart the CPU and then stop before executing any instructions.

> reset halt
target halted due to debug-request, current mode: Thread 
xPSR: 0x01000000 pc: 0x00000052 msp: 0x20005000, semihosting

Next we will upload one of the binary example programs we've built with flash write_image erase gen/bin/examples/blink.bin 0x08000000. This is telling OpenOCD to write the data in the file, starting at address 0x08000000, which is where flash is mapped to on the Blue Pill.

> flash write_image erase gen/bin/examples/blink.bin 0x08000000               
auto erase enabled
device id = 0x20036410
flash size = 128kbytes
wrote 1024 bytes from file gen/bin/examples/blink.bin in 0.096076s (10.408 KiB/s)

If it complains that the file isn't found, make sure that the examples built correctly in the earlier step, and that the openocd command was run from the stm32_bare_lib source folder.

Finally we need to restart the chip again, at which point it should try to execute the program we've just uploaded to flash. We do this with the plain reset command, which with no arguments restarts the chip and begins execution.

> reset

If you look at the board, you should see a green LED just below the red power LED flashing a couple of times a second. Congratulations, you've run your first micro-controller program!

Debug Output

Blinking LEDs is fun, but to be at all productive on complex programs we need to be able to easily pass information back to the host computer for debugging purposes. The Hello World example shows how to use DebugLog() to do this. To run it, execute these commands in the OpenOCD command console:

reset halt
flash write_image erase gen/bin/examples/hello_world.bin 0x08000000 

If you switch back to the first terminal that you started the openocd command in (not the console you just used), you should see the line "Hello World!" at the bottom.

The DebugLog() function can take several hundred milliseconds to execute, since it has to call back to the host machine, so it shouldn't be used in performance-critical code, but it is handy when you're trying to track down issues.

Debugging with GDB

The standard Gnu debugger gdb works reasonably well with this setup. To install it, run:

sudo apt-get install -y gdb-arm-none-eabi

You can then debug a program by executing:

cd ~/stm32_bare_lib/
arm-none-eabi-gdb --eval-command="target remote localhost:3333" gen/elf/examples/blink.elf

You should see a gdb prompt, and you can execute commands to inspect variables:

(gdb) info locals
shift = 536891384
old_config = 2101681877
cleared_config = 172

If the program has crashed, you should also be able to inspect the call stack. I haven't found it easy to step through programs or continue execution though.

Using the Library

If you want to create your own programs using this framework, you should start off by copying one of the examples and expanding it. You'll need to:

  • Add new makefile rules for your program.
  • Link against the output of boot.s as the first object in the linking stage. This should happen automatically when you use the makefile rules, but it's important since this assembly contains the table of function pointers used to call our program code and it has to be at the start.
  • Link using -T stm32_linker_layout.lds, so the linker knows where program and data memory start on the Blue Pill.
  • Instead of a main() function, provide OnReset(). This is called when the chip starts up.
  • Be aware that global variables aren't set up by default, so you need to do all initialization explicitly at the start of your OnReset() call.

When you need to call more advanced capabilities on the micro-controller, there are a couple of different approaches. Arm's CMSIS library defines a lot of device registers in core_cm3.h. It can't be called without some extra definitions beforehand though, so stm32_bare_lib's core_stm32.h header handles setting those up for the Blue Pill.

Device manufacturers typically also release a header file that defines registers for peripherals that are not standard across all particular CPUs but that exist only on their boards. Since Blue Pill SoCs are STM32-compatible, these would normally be in something like stm32f*.h, but this is only available as part of proprietary products from ST. Instead, the core_stm32.h header includes a few of the most commonly-used device registers, as defined by ST's reference guide to the processor. These definitions are used to set up and control the LEDs for example.

Further Reading

Looking through the examples folder should give you some ideas on the sort of things that are possible.

STM32duino has a wealth of information on Blue Pill boards, and the name even comes from a thread on their forums.

Thomas Trebisky has some fantastic examples of bare-metal STM32 programming, and I've found them very useful to reference as I've been working on this.

David Welch has also made available great sample code for the STM32.

Reference Manual - The ultimate resource for understanding what the micro-controller can do.

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