Roman's blog

Arduino + Rust + Qemu = ?

I love writing code for hardware. I don’t like hardware per se (must have something to do with me missing electrical engineering classes at uni) - but I find the concept of working at a bare metal level extremely fascinating. So naturally, I gotta love QEMU.

For those non-initiated, QEMU is a “A generic and open source machine emulator and virtualizer” - or, in layman’s terms, it’s programme that allows you to emulate just about any physical machine in existence - starting from x86 / amd64, all the way down to tiny 8-bit microcontrollers. This is excellent because that’s exactly what I’m going to do here.

For one of my projects I wanted to write some code in Rust, but I don’t have the actual MCU (microcontroller) at hand at the moment, so I figured it would be nice to figure out how to piece together several moving pieces.

In this post I’ll explain how to set up Rust toolchain for AVR MCU (such as Arduino Uno), compile basic Blink example and run it on QEMU, inspecting the output.

I’ll be using Debian-based developer machine, but just about any flavour of modern Linux would work (it might work on a Mac, it will almost certainly not be easy to do this in Windows).

We start by installing all the dependencies for rust toolchain as well as qemu itself.

sudo apt install qemu libudev-dev gcc-avr arduino-core

The components here are as follow:

  • qemu - the virtualisation framework, we’ll be using it to run our bare-metal code
  • libudev-dev - a USB library needed to upload code to the actual MCU; strictly speaking we won’t need it here for qemu-only testing, but might just as well get it for when we start uploading code to the microcontroller.
  • gcc-avr - a version of GCC capable of cross-compiling for AVR MCUs (such as atmega328p)
  • arduino-core - depending on the OS version, apt might replace it with full arduino package, which, in essence, everything you need to develop for Arduino - all the libraries, headers as well as not-so-nice IDE.

Once we finished installing all of this, let’s get Rust running (feel free to skip this section if you already had it installed). Run

curl --proto '=https' --tlsv1.2 -sSf | sh

And follow the step-by-step (agreeing with everything feels like a reasonable choice here). Make sure that you add ~/.cargo/env to your dotfile (it’s .zshrc in my case, or .bashrc if you are bash user); or simply run . ~/.cargo/env to add it to a current session only.

Now if you run cargo you should get some meaningful output. The next step is installing a wonderful utility called cargo-generate - it needs to be said, that building for AVR is a little more involved than just a straight rust build; this utility helps you by ‘cloning’ a template which should ease this process. Run

cargo install cargo-generate

And wait for it to complete. Once it’s done, change to your code directory and execute:

cargo generate --git

[[email protected]:~/tmp]$ cargo generate --git
🤷   Project Name: my-awesome-rust-avr-project
🔧   Destination: /home/sgzmd/tmp/my-awesome-rust-avr-project ...
🔧   project-name: my-awesome-rust-avr-project ...
🔧   Generating template ...
? 🤷   Which board do you use? ›
  Adafruit Trinket
  Adafruit Trinket Pro
  Arduino Leonardo
  Arduino Mega 2560
  Arduino Mega 1280
  Arduino Nano
  Arduino Nano New Bootloader
❯ Arduino Uno
  SparkFun ProMicro

It asks you to enter your project name (I used my-awesome-rust-avr-project because duh), and select your MCU (I’ve used Arduino Uno because frankly for qemu purposes it makes no difference). Once you’ve confirmed, it’ll reply with something like:

🔧   Moving generated files into: `/home/sgzmd/tmp/my-awesome-rust-avr-project`...
💡   Initializing a fresh Git repository
✨   Done! New project created /home/sgzmd/tmp/my-awesome-rust-avr-project

Now would be a really good time to see if our toolchain is functional:

cd my-awesome-rust-avr-project
cargo build

This might take a while, but if everything goes as planned, you will receive a message like this:

   Compiling my-awesome-rust-avr-project v0.1.0 (/home/sgzmd/tmp/my-awesome-rust-avr-project)
WARN rustc_codegen_ssa::back::link Linker does not support -no-pie command line option. Retrying without.
    Finished dev [optimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 25.96s

Let’s check what do we have here!

[[email protected]:tmp/my-awesome-rust-avr-project]$ file \

  ELF 32-bit LSB executable, Atmel AVR 8-bit, version 1 (SYSV), 
  statically linked, with debug_info, not stripped

Yay! - here’s our elf file (that is, executable linux format - even though it won’t really run on Linux), ready to be uploaded to the MCU. But we won’t stop here, for we want to see if it runs in QEMU.

Basic way of running our code in QEMU is as follows:

qemu-system-avr -machine uno \
  -bios target/avr-atmega328p/debug/my-awesome-rust-avr-project.elf

I think QEMU authors are being slightly sneaky here - we are providing our program as a -bios argument to qemu-system-avr - even though it’s clear there’s no BIOS on an MCU. Note, if you are not running this in an X session (or just don’t want to see an empty QEMU window), pass -nographic key to the QEMU.

Either way, if everything works, QEMU will start … and exactly nothing will happen. I mean, we aren’t really doing anything much - but let’s have a look at the code!

Open src/ - let’s see what have we got here. I’ve added comments to the code to make it slightly more comprehensible.

// We are instructing Rust that we are not linking against std crate. 
// It's a little bit like stdlib in C - a set of standard routines, that
// provide some useful functionality, but assume a sane environment - 
// which means an operating system. We have none, hence `no_std`.

// Instruction not to expect regular Rust `main` function. More below

// Configuring panic handler, but also instructing Rust that we won't
// really be using anything explicitly from that crate.
use panic_halt as _;

// Now this is our entry point, as instructed by arduino_hal::entry
// Instructing Rust that this function will never return
fn main() -> ! {
    let dp = arduino_hal::Peripherals::take().unwrap();
    let pins = arduino_hal::pins!(dp);

    let mut led = pins.d13.into_output();

    loop {

The rest of the code is pretty straightforward and if you’ve ever tried anything with Arduino, you should recognise the infamous Blink programme straight away.

So, we can compile it, and we can launch it, but we really have no idea if it’s doing anything. Let’s add some debug output to see if it’s running. Let’s modify the code a bit:

fn main() -> ! {
    let dp = arduino_hal::Peripherals::take().unwrap();
    let pins = arduino_hal::pins!(dp);

    // Configuring serial output, a bit like Serial.begin(57600) 
    // when you are writing in the Arduino flavour of C++
    let mut serial = arduino_hal::default_serial!(dp, pins, 57600);
    let mut led = pins.d13.into_output();

    loop {
        // Writing "Blink!" to the serial output
        _ = ufmt::uwriteln!(serial, "Blink!");

To see this output, we’ll have to launch QEMU slightly differently:

 qemu-system-avr -M uno -bios target/avr-atmega328p/debug/my-awesome-rust-avr-project.elf \
        -nographic \
        -serial tcp::5678,server=on

Here we are instructing QEMU to proxy serial on port 5678. After launching the server, we can connect to this port:

[[email protected]:~/tmp]$ telnet localhost 5678
Trying ::1...
Connected to localhost.
Escape character is '^]'.

We see exactly what we expect to see - text “Blink!” appearing on the screen - Q.E.D.