The Precursor: Secure and Transparent Development Platform in Your Pocket

Safeguard your freedom to tinker and keep your digital data truly secure with Bunnie Huang's Precursor.

When users are given good quality open and secure hardware to develop on, this becomes the precursor to just about anything. This was Bunnie Huang's idea in his latest product crowdfunding campaign. Adeptly named, the Precursor is an open source electronics platform targeted towards development of secure, mobile computation and communication design to fit in your pocket.

Think of how a board like a Raspberry Pi can be transformed into just about anything from an IoT project to integration into a robotics project given the type of software written on it and hardware peripherals provided. This is the same concept of what's possible with the Precursor for mobile applications.

The Precursor ships with a 32-bit RISC-V soft-core processor running at 100MHz instantiated in its primary FPGA, a beefy Xilinx Spartan-7 XC7S50. However, it can be reprogrammed with any soft-core processor from Xilinx's own MicroBlaze to the range of retro CPU emulators.

Precursor also comes equipped with a secondary FPGA, an iCE40UP5K SG48, designated as a secondary embedded controller for handling tasks such as power management. The Precursor's secondary embedded controller being an FPGA is key to allow users to swap out battery sizes and easily reconfigure power management based on that and the processor running on the main FPGA.

The same way a Raspberry Pi or any FPGA development board provides opportunities have hardware peripherals integrated with it via GPIO headers, USB ports, HDMI ports, etc. the Precursor also offers hooks for hardware modifications. For example, the battery cavity contains GPIOs that a developer can choose to swap out a smaller battery to expose for additional hardware functionality. The I2C interface the built-in keyboard connects to is hosted on its own PCB to enable users to hack together their own novel designs for any I2C sensor.

The most prominent feature of Precursor, though, is its focus on security and trustability. Its hardware design provides support for modern crypto primitives, its network connectivity is hosted on a hardware-sandboxed Silicon Labs WF200 chip, and it includes a built-in audio jack. The hardware is completely transparent from top to bottom to allow for full verification prior to development of your sensitive applications such as crypto wallets or password databases.

Fans of Bunnie's will recognize the Precursor's case design from his previous secure communication device project, Betrusted. This is no coincidence, as the Precursor is the exact type of hardware one would desire to deploy a fully secured software stack on like Betrusted.

And while Betrusted is still in the works and will take a few more years to get just right, Precursor is ready now for users to start their own software stack designs on.

Precursor is extremely valuable in the maker community as is it hardware designed with the intention of providing us full and true privacy in an ever invasive world where our digital data is becoming a valuable form of currency. Being able to develop on a platform where you are able to feel 100% secure is becoming more and more scarce, and projects like Precursor and Betrusted are important to keep this option available to the world.

The open source kit is now available on Crowd Supply, starting at $450 for early birds.

Whitney Knitter
Working as a full-time SDR/FPGA engineer, but making time for the fun projects at home.
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