CircuitPython is designed to run on microcontrollers and allows you to interface with all kinds of sensors, inputs and other hardware peripherals. There are tons of guides showing how to wire up a circuit, and use CircuitPython to, for example, read data from a sensor, or detect a button press. Most CircuitPython code includes hardware setup which requires various modules, such as board or digitalio. You import these modules and then use them in your code. How does CircuitPython know to look for hardware in the specific place you connected it, and where do these modules come from?

This page explains both. You'll learn how CircuitPython finds the pins on your microcontroller board, including how to find the available pins for your board and what each pin is named. You'll also learn about the modules built into CircuitPython, including how to find all the modules available for your board.

CircuitPython Pins

When using hardware peripherals with a CircuitPython compatible microcontroller, you'll almost certainly be utilising pins. This section will cover how to access your board's pins using CircuitPython, how to discover what pins and board-specific objects are available in CircuitPython for your board, how to use the board-specific objects, and how to determine all available pin names for a given pin on your board.

import board

When you're using any kind of hardware peripherals wired up to your microcontroller board, the import list in your code will include import board. The board module is built into CircuitPython, and is used to provide access to a series of board-specific objects, including pins. Take a look at your microcontroller board. You'll notice that next to the pins are pin labels. You can always access a pin by its pin label. However, there are almost always multiple names for a given pin.

To see all the available board-specific objects and pins for your board, enter the REPL (>>>) and run the following commands:

import board
dir(board)

Here is the output for the QT Py.

The following pins have labels on the physical QT Py board: A0, A1, A2, A3, SDA, SCL, TX, RX, SCK, MISO, and MOSI. You see that there are many more entries available in board than the labels on the QT Py.

You can use the pin names on the physical board, regardless of whether they seem to be specific to a certain protocol.

For example, you do not have to use the SDA pin for I2C - you can use it for a button or LED.

On the flip side, there may be multiple names for one pin. For example, on the QT Py, pin A0 is labeled on the physical board silkscreen, but it is available in CircuitPython as both A0 and D0. For more information on finding all the names for a given pin, see the What Are All the Available Pin Names? section below.

The results of dir(board) for CircuitPython compatible boards will look similar to the results for the QT Py in terms of the pin names, e.g. A0, D0, etc. However, some boards, for example, the Metro ESP32-S2, have different styled pin names. Here is the output for the Metro ESP32-S2.

Note that most of the pins are named in an IO# style, such as IO1 and IO2. Those pins on the physical board are labeled only with a number, so an easy way to know how to access them in CircuitPython, is to run those commands in the REPL and find the pin naming scheme.

If your code is failing to run because it can't find a pin name you provided, verify that you have the proper pin name by running these commands in the REPL.

I2C, SPI, and UART

You'll also see there are often (but not always!) three special board-specific objects included: I2C, SPI, and UART - each one is for the default pin-set used for each of the three common protocol busses they are named for. These are called singletons.

What's a singleton? When you create an object in CircuitPython, you are instantiating ('creating') it. Instantiating an object means you are creating an instance of the object with the unique values that are provided, or "passed", to it.

For example, When you instantiate an I2C object using the busio module, it expects two pins: clock and data, typically SCL and SDA. It often looks like this:

i2c = busio.I2C(board.SCL, board.SDA)

Then, you pass the I2C object to a driver for the hardware you're using. For example, if you were using the TSL2591 light sensor and its CircuitPython library, the next line of code would be:

tsl2591 = adafruit_tsl2591.TSL2591(i2c)

However, CircuitPython makes this simpler by including the I2C singleton in the board module. Instead of the two lines of code above, you simply provide the singleton as the I2C object. So if you were using the TSL2591 and its CircuitPython library, the two above lines of code would be replaced with:

tsl2591 = adafruit_tsl2591.TSL2591(board.I2C())

This eliminates the need for the busio module, and simplifies the code. Behind the scenes, the board.I2C()  object is instantiated when you call it, but not before, and on subsequent calls, it returns the same object. Basically, it does not create an object until you need it, and provides the same object every time you need it. You can call board.I2C() as many times as you like, and it will always return the same object.

The UART/SPI/I2C singletons will use the 'default' bus pins for each board - often labeled as RX/TX (UART), MOSI/MISO/SCK (SPI), or SDA/SCL (I2C). Check your board documentation/pinout for the default busses.

What Are All the Available Names?

Many pins on CircuitPython compatible microcontroller boards have multiple names, however, typically, there's only one name labeled on the physical board. So how do you find out what the other available pin names are? Simple, with the following script! Each line printed out to the serial console contains the set of names for a particular pin.

On a microcontroller board running CircuitPython, connect to the serial console. Then, save the following as code.py on your CIRCUITPY drive.

"""CircuitPython Essentials Pin Map Script"""
import microcontroller
import board

board_pins = []
for pin in dir(microcontroller.pin):
    if isinstance(getattr(microcontroller.pin, pin), microcontroller.Pin):
        pins = []
        for alias in dir(board):
            if getattr(board, alias) is getattr(microcontroller.pin, pin):
                pins.append("board.{}".format(alias))
        if len(pins) > 0:
            board_pins.append(" ".join(pins))
for pins in sorted(board_pins):
    print(pins)

Here is the result when this script is run on QT Py:

Each line represents a single pin. Find the line containing the pin name that's labeled on the physical board, and you'll find the other names available for that pin. For example, the first pin on the board is labeled A0. The first line in the output is board.A0 board.D0. This means that you can access pin A0 with both board.A0 and board.D0.

You'll notice there are two "pins" that aren't labeled on the board but appear in the list: board.NEOPIXEL and board.NEOPIXEL_POWER. Many boards have several of these special pins that give you access to built-in board hardware, such as an LED or an on-board sensor. The Qt Py only has one on-board extra piece of hardware, a NeoPixel LED, so there's only the one available in the list. But you can also control whether or not power is applied to the NeoPixel, so there's a separate pin for that.

That's all there is to figuring out the available names for a pin on a compatible microcontroller board in CircuitPython!

Microcontroller Pin Names

The pin names available to you in the CircuitPython board module are not the same as the names of the pins on the microcontroller itself. The board pin names are aliases to the microcontroller pin names. If you look at the datasheet for your microcontroller, you'll likely find a pinout with a series of pin names, such as "PA18" or "GPIO5". If you want to get to the actual microcontroller pin name in CircuitPython, you'll need the microcontroller.pin module. As with board, you can run dir(microcontroller.pin) in the REPL to receive a list of the microcontroller pin names.

circuitpython_Essentials_microcontroller_pin_names.png
Microcontroller pin names for QT Py.

CircuitPython Built-In Modules

There is a set of modules used in most CircuitPython programs. One or more of these modules is always used in projects involving hardware. Often hardware requires installing a separate library from the Adafruit CircuitPython Bundle. But, if you try to find board or digitalio in the same bundle, you'll come up lacking. So, where do these modules come from? They're built into CircuitPython! You can find an comprehensive list of built-in CircuitPython modules and the technical details of their functionality from CircuitPython here and the Python-like modules included here. However, not every module is available for every board due to size constraints or hardware limitations. How do you find out what modules are available for your board?

There are two options for this. You can check the support matrix, and search for your board by name. Or, you can use the REPL.

Plug in your board, connect to the serial console and enter the REPL. Type the following command.

help("modules")
circuitpython_Essentials_help_modules_QT_Py.png
help("modules") results for QT Py

That's it! You now know two ways to find all of the modules built into CircuitPython for your compatible microcontroller board.

This guide was first published on Aug 02, 2019. It was last updated on Aug 02, 2019.

This page (CircuitPython Pins and Modules) was last updated on Apr 15, 2021.

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