A very simple Arduino task manager

The LED chain project I'm working on requires that the AVR microcontroller handles several different tasks:

  • Read a rotary encoder and switch
  • Drive a seven-segment display
  • Drive a radio
  • Drive four LED strips each containing twenty LEDs
  • Provide logic to tie all the above together

Normally that sort of multiple-task workload might suggest the use of a RTOS, but the Arduino Pro Mini has only 32Kb of program memory (of which 2Kb is used by the bootloader) and 2Kb of RAM, so every byte is precious. So, whatever we come up with has to be as minimal as possible. OK, let's see if we can make some assumptions and trade-offs that will help keep things simple and create a small set of C++ classes we can use to implement the task management we need:

  • Use cooperative multitasking rather than preemptive multitasking. Out of that fall a couple of constraints:
    • Each task must complete quickly when it runs. Long-running operations such as delay() are forbidden.
    • Any interrupt service routines must also complete quickly, preferably by recording the details of the event and scheduling a task to handle it.
  • The task management system should not require the use of dynamic memory management (e.g. malloc()) so as to minimise memory requirements.
  • The list of tasks will be fixed at compile-time. That's reasonable as the configuration of the system is fixed - we aren't going to be adding new hardware on the fly.
  • Tasks will be scheduled in priority order to allow processing that has strict time constraints to be handled first, but to keep things simple the priority order will be fixed at compile time. Again, that's reasonable as the configuration of the system is known in advance.
  • Tasks can communicate with each other by making standard C++ method calls but (as for interrupts) any such methods should simply store the details of the event and schedule themselves to be run to handle the event.
  • Much of the processing we are doing is time-driven, e.g. sequencing the LED patterns, so explicit support for scheduling tasks at specific intervals should be provided, as well as more general 'triggered' tasks.

The last constraint needs some further thought - what timer 'tick' interval should we use? The 'real world' events we will be dealing with won't be happening quicker that 1 millisecond apart and the CPU is clocked at 16MHz which equates to 16000 instructions per millisecond. Scheduling time-based tasks at millisecond resolution will allow us to run several tasks within the same 'tick' and will be more than fast enough to deal with the events we have to handle.

OK, so given all that, what would a suitable task implementation look like?

class Task {
    virtual bool canRun(uint32_t now) = 0;
    virtual void run(uint32_t now) = 0;

class TimedTask : public Task {
    inline TimedTask(uint32_t when) { runTime = when; }
    virtual bool canRun(uint32_t now);
    inline void setRunTime(uint32_t when) { runTime = when; }
    inline void incRunTime(uint32_t inc) { runTime += inc; }
    inline uint32_t getRunTime() { return runTime; }
    uint32_t runTime;

bool TimedTask::canRun(uint32_t now) {
    return now >= runTime;

Yep, that's really all there is to it. Each task can be queried to see if it can be run via the canRun(), method and if it can, it will be executed via a call to its run() method. We pass in the current time in milliseconds to avoid each task having to separately determine it. The canRun() and run() methods could be merged, but having them separate allows us to provide more flexible scheduling if we ever need to, e.g. by penalising tasks that are runnable too often.

OK, next step is to implement the actual task scheduler:

class TaskScheduler {
    TaskScheduler(Task **task, uint8_t numTasks);
    void run();
    Task **tasks;
    int numTasks;

TaskScheduler::TaskScheduler(Task **_tasks, uint8_t _numTasks) :
  numTasks(_numTasks) {

void TaskScheduler::run() {
    while (1) {
        uint32_t now = millis();
        Task **tpp = tasks;
        for (int t = 0; t < numTasks; t++) {
            Task *tp = *tpp;
            if (tp->canRun(now)) {

Again, that really is all there is to it. We create the task scheduler with a fixed list of tasks, then call its run method. The run method iterates endlessly over the task list, calling the canRun() method on each in turn to see if it needs to be run. If it does, its run() method is called to execute the task. One very important note: after running a task we break out of the iteration over the task list and start back at the top of the list. That gives us the fixed task priority feature - if multiple tasks are runnable the earlier tasks on the list will always be dispatched first and the later tasks on the list will be lower priority,

The last part is to show an example of how to actually use the scheduler. Each task is derived from either the base Task class or from TimedTask, depending on how it needs to be run. And example TimedTask that blinks the pin 13 LED might look something like this:

// Timed task to blink a LED.
class Blinker : public TimedTask
    // Create a new blinker for the specified pin and rate.
    Blinker(uint8_t _pin, uint32_t _rate);
    virtual void run(uint32_t now);
    uint8_t pin;      // LED pin.
    uint32_t rate;    // Blink rate.
    bool on;          // Current state of the LED.

Blinker::Blinker(uint8_t _pin, uint32_t _rate)
: TimedTask(millis()),
    pinMode(pin, OUTPUT);     // Set pin for output.

void Blinker::run(uint32_t now)
    // If the LED is on, turn it off and remember the state.
    if (on) {
        digitalWrite(pin, LOW);
        on = false;
    // If the LED is off, turn it on and remember the state.
    } else {
        digitalWrite(pin, HIGH);
        on = true;
    // Run again in the required number of milliseconds.

If you compare this to the standard Blink sketch you'll see there are no calls to delay() in the run() method. Instead the method simply toggles the LED state, sets up when it is next to run and returns. If we did call delay() we'd sit there waiting and no other tasks would get a chance to run - by returning as quickly as possible we return control to the scheduler which can then find any other tasks that are runnable and run them. The scheduler will take care of calling the Blinker::run() again when the required time interval has passed.

Having defined our tasks classes, in the main body of the program we create a list of the tasks, pass it to a TaskScheduler instance and then run the scheduler, which then takes care of calling the run() methods of the tasks at the right time:

    // Create the tasks.
    Blinker blinker(13, 25);
    Echoer echoer;

    // Initialise the task list and scheduler.
    Task *tasks[] = { &blinker, &echoer };
    TaskScheduler sched(tasks, NUM_TASKS(tasks));

    // Run the scheduler - never returns.

That's all there is to it. With this approach it's possible to provide a lightweight set of communicating tasks that are scheduled in priority order. The code is both high performance and lightweight, two vital attributes considering the constrained environment it must operate in. Providing the various run() methods are reasonably short, it will run tasks within less than one millisecond of when they are scheduled, which is perfectly adequate for our needs - I'll give an example of using this library to perform a timing-critical process (switch de-bouncing) in a later post.

It's simple enough to implement your own variant, but if you want the code it's available here. The archive also includes an example sketch that blinks the pin13 LED whilst simultaneously reading the serial port and echoing characters back.


I'd like to acknowledge my MSc tutor Dr. Colin Machin who sat down with me one afternoon back in 1984 and outlined this approach to me, which I then used for the Z80 robot controller that was the subject of my MSc thesis. He'd used used the same technique for a LIDAR data acquisition system he'd written to collect data on the wingtip vortices caused by commercial aircraft as they land. Good ideas always stand the test of time - thanks Colin :-)

Categories : Tech, AVR

It's a secret

Went for a walk with the family yesterday evening after tea and took the following picture with the less than excellent camera on my phone but I rather like the soft effect. The location is less than 6 miles in a straight line from the house, and less than 200 metres from the nearest road, but I'm not telling you exactly where it is - it's a secret :-)

Secret waterfall