Introduction: Help: an Absolute Beginner's Guide to 8-Bit AVR Programming-AVR Dragon

Picture of Help: an Absolute Beginner's Guide to 8-Bit AVR Programming-AVR Dragon
If you'd like to test the waters of microcontroller programming, the new AVR Dragon by Atmel Corporation is a nifty, low-cost entry-level development tool. Unfortunately, right out of the box, the AVR Dragon is not the definitive answer for the beginner looking for an all-in-one solution. Rather, the AVR Dragon is a great microcontroller programmer foundation, but it is seriously lacking in enabling the beginner to hit the ground running.

What is an AVR?

An AVR is a relatively inexpensive user-programmable microprocessor that can be integrated into just about any project that needs a brain. Unlike most computer/electronics terms, decoding the AVR acronym is tricky. While some Atmel AVR devotees will claim that it doesn't have a definition others will state with a straight face that it isn't even an acronym. Some microcontroller programmers think that AVR is derived from the initials of the engineers who designed the AVR--Alf & Vegard + RISC. After extensive research, however, the most believable definition could be: AVR = Advanced Virtual RISC.

Enter the AVR Dragon

Whether it's a marketing lapse or a brilliant design configuration feature, beginners should be aware that Atmel Corporation does not include several vital pieces of equipment in the AVR Dragon box.

Yes, the AVR Dragon is USB-powered and yes, there is a free programming application that can be used with the AVR Dragon; but, you will need to provide your own USB cable and you will have to download the latest version of AVR Studio from the Atmel Web site.

Furthermore, you will be required to solder several components to the AVR Dragon to enable it to work with the widest variety of 8-bit AVR products. These components enable the budding AVR user to program and emulate many of the products in the AVR device family. A properly configured AVR Dragon offers these programming interfaces:

  • In-System Programming
  • High Voltage Serial Programming
  • Parallel Programming
  • JTAG Programming

As well as these emulation interfaces:

  • JTAG
  • debugWIRE

Still the nagging question for the beginner is what components do I need for making the AVR Dragon easy to use?

Step 1: How to Prepare the AVR Dragon for AVR Programming

Picture of How to Prepare the AVR Dragon for AVR Programming

2 hours
Cost: $56.67

Parts List

  • AVR Dragon (Digi-Key; ATAVRDRAGON-ND $49)
  • (1) AMP 6-Position, 2-Row, .100 Connector Housing (Digi-Key; A3032-ND $1.30)
  • (32) AMP 1-Position, .100 Connector Housing (Digi-Key; A26962-ND $11.12)
  • (38) AMP 15 Au, Crimp 27-32 AWG, Connector Socket (Digi-Key; A25955-ND $25.02)
  • (1) IDC Multi-Color 20-Position Ribbon Cable with 20-Position, 2-Row Socket (Digi-Key; M1AXA-2036R-ND $4.39)
  • (1) AMP 20-Position, 2-Row .100 Straight Breakaway Header Connector (Digi-Key; A26525-10-ND $1.21)
  • (1) AMP 40-Position, 2-Row, .100 Straight Breakaway Header Connector (Digi-Key; A26525-20-ND $1.61)
  • (1) ARES 40-Pin ZIF Socket (Digi-Key; A306-ND $12.02)

Step 2: It's in There, Somewhere

Picture of It's in There, Somewhere

Atmel does include a brief mention about configuring the AVR Dragon inside its online help with AVR Studio 4. Unfortunately, they don't offer any help for determining the best components for obtaining this flexible configuration capability.

In order to review Atmel's AVR Dragon hardware configuration information, select AVR Tools User Guide under the Help menu. Inside the chapter AVR Dragon Prototype Area and under the section Using the Onboard Prototype Area near the bottom of this section there is a brief mention of adding a 20-pin header, a 40-pin header, and a 40-pin zero insertion force socket (ZIF) for making the AVR Dragon "even more flexible."

Step 3: Headers and ZIF and Solder, Oh My

Picture of Headers and ZIF and Solder, Oh My

From a beginner's perspective, the thought of having to "scratch build" your commercial programmer might seem a little daunting. Actually, the hardest part of this DIY venture is complete--once you purchase the headers and ZIF. The actual soldering is tedious, but straightforward.

Step 4: Follow the Device Connection Sheet

Picture of Follow the Device Connection Sheet

All of the connection information for setting up the programming and emulation interfaces for a specific AVR device is listed on a Device Connection Sheet. A handful of these sheets are available in the online AVR Tools User Guide. Consult the appropriate microcontroller's Device Connection Sheet for determining how many jumpers you will need to fabricate.

Step 5: Long and Winding Ribbon Cable

Picture of Long and Winding Ribbon Cable

Making the various header connections depicted on an AVR Device Connection Sheet is best accomplished with a fistful of jumper wires. A 20-position socket with ribbon cable can reduce the drudgery of soldering 1-position socket receptacles to both ends of 20 jumpers. Using ribbon cable is optional. If you elect to use ribbon cable, cut the cable to a length of approximately 7 inches.

Regardless of your choice, you will need to make one jumper for each header/ZIF connection that is cited on the applicable AVR Device Connection Sheet.

Step 6: If I Only Had a Brain

Picture of If I Only Had a Brain

Drop your target AVR DIP into the ZIF, connect the USB cable to the AVR Dragon, fire up AVR Studio 4, and you are ready to burn your first microcontroller. Consider yourself armed and very dangerous. Now no LED is safe.

Step 7: The Land of Ahs

Welcome to the world of microcontroller project design. If you are convinced that AVR microcontroller programming is the method to your madness, then here are some links for making you the master of your new domain:


mattilaniko (author)2015-02-17


I got atmel ICE basic, 6pin wire and atmega1248. how i should connect the pins, because it not send the program. I tried to look datasheet but it now work.

Scargill (author)2013-09-28

And all of that is fine until you take your 1284 chip, plug it in and absolutely nothing happens because it uses an external crystal - and there is no clock feed. Simple answer though it took me ages to figure it out, feeling as I did that my dragon was bust - is simply to drop a crystal into the relevant socket pins!

ktracy14 (author)2013-09-24

I have a question, I am using a xmega32A4, and i know that the A4 subfamily is compatible with the dragon. The issue is this MCU has 44 pins and is embedded. Any suggestions as to how to overcome this issue?

Gonras (author)2011-08-14

I think I am stupid...
but on my avr dragon the "B" and "G" are both VCC the whole column 2,4,6 is vcc and 1,3,6 is gnd. did I miss something why you short that to the ground pin of the MCU?
Please help me out there!

cdingdong (author)2011-05-11

There's actually no need to build that cable. All you have to do is by some jumper wires like these: (Jumper Wires Premium 6" F/F Pack of 10). Just use as many as you need, as according to the AVR Dragon manual. I think it's ridiculous to make that $50 cable that involves crimping and stuff. Just get the Dragon and headers from Digikey and two packs of those jumper wires from Sparkfun, and you'll be set.

shanakaplus (author)2011-04-07

um looking for elevator avr program. Do you have example program ?

pannaguma (author)2010-07-08

Only $16? Thats a lot for something that originally costs just a couple of dollars.

nandki (author)2010-01-19

 I want a complete programmer, how much u wil cost it exactly

jonathanjo (author)2008-09-24

Hi popsci thanks for the help making sense of what needed doing! For what it's worth, I did mine with pcb-mount sockets instead of flying leads; see pictures. (NB: these are for Atmega168, which has a slightly different pinout, but intended to show the principle.)

j0nk13 (author)jonathanjo2009-10-18

I also like the perf board. I made mine with 2 40 position receptacles and the small one. The digikey part is A32967-ND for the ones I bought.

I really like your idea of making the "cable" on a perfboard. Very elegant.

TheMadScientist (author)2007-12-11

is a zif socket REALLY nessecary? I mean cmon...

osgeld (author)TheMadScientist2008-08-03

only if you like bending and eventually breaking off the pins of a 40$ chip

The Ideanator (author)osgeld2009-07-27

If you go on Atmel's site and poke around, you can find their sample button and get em for free, I haven't tried it though, since I'm totally new to the programming scene, so you might have to pay for shipping. Oh, and FTR, Radio Shack, Digi-key & Mouser are overpriced

vonnieda (author)The Ideanator2009-08-10

Any recommendations on who isn't overpriced? I've always found Digikey to be really reasonable.

The Ideanator (author)vonnieda2009-08-28

Oh, NVM, I didn't mean digi-key & mouser, i meant allied elec. I was commenting to osgeld that people can get free samples on some stuff, just don't sample too much and screw it up for everyone else

zachninme (author)osgeld2008-08-07

I don't know what chips you're talking about, but the attiny2313, as demoed here, only runs about two bucks a pop.

twenglish1 (author)zachninme2008-08-30

yah where does he get his chips i can get about 15 attiny2313's for 40 dollars

If you're programming a pile of chips, it sure is nice.

the pro (author)2008-07-20

is there any robot that you can make out of old electronics?

The Ideanator (author)the pro2009-07-27

Yes! I bet if you used printer or scanner guts, you could make a perfectly good, high accuracy, sliding carriage for lightweight applications (one might need to program something anyway though)

The Real Elliot (author)2009-06-29

Just read through this, with a Dragon in hand, and I'll admit I was a bit confused in Steps 5/6, but I think I get it now. Basically, the Dragon provides you with your choice of programming methods, and is adaptable to various chips. This means there's some configuration that still needs to be done. Steps 5/6 are essentially making an on-board version of what I'd call a "programming cradle" or "target board" for the target chip. First, you solder in in a ZIF socket to the board. Then you create a cable that will route the pins from the ISP header to the right pins on socket for the chip that you're using. The confusion I had was figuring out that the 2x20-pin header mapped to the holes that you soldered your ZIF into. That's a cool design because it means you can switch between chip families simply by switching cables. But it means that you'll probably eventually need three cables: one for the 8-pin Tinys, one for the 20-pin Tiny2313 (as you made), and then one for the 28-pin Megas (see Jonathanjo's comment). Oh, and I just noticed that the pinouts for the ISP and JTAG headers are actually screenprinted on the bottom of the board. Thanks, Atmel!

tonecluster (author)2007-04-23

I was a little confused about the total cost at first until I realized the Dragon wasn't included. Total cost with Dragon: $105.67. Where do the connector housings go and why are 32 of the 1-Position, .100 Connector housings required? Do the crimp connector sockets require a special crimp tool?

tonecluster (author)tonecluster2007-04-24

Ok, it's slowly sinking in. The connector housings are what's pictured in Step 5.

The digikey photo for part A26962-ND (the 1 position housing) has 12 pins, but I guess it's just a photo for that family of parts (looking at the data sheet, it's just one pin). I couldn't figure out why you needed 32x12 pins, but it's just 32 single-pin sockets. Yes indeed, I'm an absolute beginner. ;)

And I guess you need a crimp tool as shown in this link:

chrisoat (author)tonecluster2009-05-15

Here's how to crimp using narrow tip (needle nose) pliers:

TheArduinoGuy (author)2009-04-23

The best introduction to AVR by far, is the Arduino. Start there, then progress onto full blown low level AVR programming.

eggman (author)2009-03-23

(38) AMP 15 Au, Crimp 27-32 AWG, Connector Socket (Digi-Key; A25955-ND $25.02) i cant order 38 on digikey,but 40 of them is only $16.24. is this right?

artha_sec (author)2008-11-08

HI I'm a new here, I'm an AVR user to, i think for some beginner, buy a Dragon or STK is quite expensive, I use an ISP programmer, for the example i use Ponyprog from <a rel="nofollow" href="">Lan Cos</a>, its quite cheap, in my country Indonesia i made it only for 25000 Rupiah or about US$2,5, it cost just to buy a 74LS244 Buffer IC, and then it goes well, i use a AT MEga 8535 IC, For the code editor i always use AVR Studio from atmel, it's free and satisfied me, it's have a simulation window for every register and etc, so keep on going and PEACE FROM BALI the way, it's a good article...<br/>

James (pseudo-geek) (author)2008-06-09

does anyone know how to use this to make a automated targeting system? I want it to recognize a moving object, and lock onto it. Once locked on, it will activate a relay switch, and remain locked on until the motion stops. At this point it will also release the relay.

(airsoft turret, if your wondering)

it would be easier if you used an arduino diecimila i have one and can probably write code to control it like that i let you know if i get anywhere on the code.

you'll probably need a lot of work to pull that off... good luck

i dont really play airsoft anymore i play paintball but that would be awesome (maybe i should make one for paintball)

astrozombies138 (author)2008-07-25

Does AVR only work with certain controllers? I keep coming across instructables that require programming controllers like a 555, and they post the code will that work with avr? or do i need a JDM programmer for that.

ECROS Technology (author)2008-04-10

Regarding comments such as "It's very helpful to get a warning before purchasing the Dragon that it's not going to be complete out of the box", here is a related instructable that might make the AVR Dragon more "out of the box" friendly, i.e. no ZIF socket, no wire jumpers and somewhere to build an actual project to boot:

Full disclosure: I am the manufacturer of the Dragon Rider 500.

ferrariman610 (author)2008-03-14

this is nice an all but... is it just me or do parallax products look less intimidating? does anyone have an instructable for parallax bots?

toogers (author)2008-02-24

nice............ ffdsyuhbvgdshfbdhfusvfgadshfvadsfrthjgjfvhjfghagfdsj


Tailslvr7_7 (author)2008-02-18

my brain hurts... from all of the programming I've seen today...

Crash2108 (author)2007-03-14

What is with the Wizard of Oz references?

maker12 (author)Crash21082007-12-13

no he is using brain as
reference for atmels duh does some need a new hard drive. be glad to do it. lol!

mothflavour2 (author)Crash21082007-03-14

Either someone just saw Wicked recently, or he's making random references to movies from the 30's. Cool instructable though. Very detailed. (I'd be more likely to scratch build my own programmer.

tonecluster (author)2007-04-24

The rollover info boxes on the first photo are shifted over to the left by about 1.5 inches (at least when viewed with Safari).

tonecluster (author)2007-04-23

Thanks for posting this instructable. It's very helpful to get a warning before purchasing the Dragon that it's not going to be complete out of the box. However, from an Absolute Beginner's perspective, there seem to be a lot of missing sub-steps (especially within steps 3 and 5). Any possibility of fleshing those out a bit?

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