A new way of no-solder prototyping

Lead Image © Oleksiy Tsupe, 123RF.com

Plug and Play

The Grove system's standardized connector and multitude of devices allow quick and easy project prototyping with your favorite small-board computers.

At SwitchDoc Labs, I have been building prototypes for engineering projects for many years. Sometimes these prototypes become a product, sometimes not. Meanwhile, I have been on the lookout for a good pluggable prototyping system that allows me to swap out parts and yet has a good mechanical interface. I've looked at a variety of systems over the years. What did I want? I wanted something that is supported by a number of manufacturers, has no licensing fees, is easy for beginners and younger folks to use, is straightforward enough that I can build boards without much problem, and is flexible enough for use with all three of the small-board computers I use regularly: the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and ESP8266. I've now found such a system that has some significant support in the industry: the Grove system.

The Grove System

Grove is a modular prototyping system with a standardized connecter that takes a building block approach to assembling electronics. Compared with jumper- or solder-based systems, it is easier to connect modules, experiment, and build projects, and it simplifies the learning system, but not to the point of dumbing the process down to playing with blocks. The Grove system allows you to build real systems and requires some knowledge and expertise to hook things up.

The Grove system consists of a base unit (stem) and various modules (twigs) with standardized connectors. SeeedStudio [1], the company originating the Grove system, has introduced the use of "stems" and "twigs" as part of the Grove lexicon. After some consideration, I'm dropping those names. They just aren't needed and can confuse the issue.

The base unit, connected to a microprocessor, allows for easy connection of any input or output from the Grove modules, and every Grove module typically addresses a single function, such as a simple button or a more complex heart rate sensor. However, you don't need a base unit to connect up to Grove modules; you can use a cable (jumper wires to Grove connector) to run from the pins on the Raspberry Pi or Arduino to the Grove connectors. That is what I do in the SunRover project and in the examples here.


A Grove connector is a four-pin standardized plug used to connect base units and Grove modules. Figure 1 shows the male Grove connector. These connectors come in flat 90 degree versions and vertical versions (Figure 2). SeeedStudio reveals the exact dimensions in the specifications [2]. These standardized connectors, common to all Grove modules, are the means of making this system work. They are keyed so they can't be plugged in backwards, and the four types of connectors (see below) are all designed so that it's no problem if you plug the wrong type of device into the wrong type of base unit. They just won't work.

Figure 2: Vertical and horizontal versions of Grove connectors on a base unit.
Figure 1: Male Grove connector.

An exception would be if you plugged in a 3.3V I2C Grove module that can't accept 5V into a 5V I2C Grove connector; then, you could fry the device. The same could happen with an output coming back from a Grove button or switch, for example, into another output. Although you do need to be careful and think about what you are doing, it is a lot less risky than soldering or using jumpers to wire up devices to your Pi or Arduino.

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