Driving APA102 RGB LEDs

The APA102 is an RGB LED in a small 5050 package that incorporates a microcontroller so you control the colour and brightness using a two-wire SPI signal. You can also daisy-chain a virtually unlimited number of them together, with individual control over the colour and brightness of each LED:


Unlike the older NeoPixel LEDs, the APA102 will continue displaying the last colour and brightness you programmed, even without a signal.

You can buy them in strips, or as individual LEDs. I chose the individual LEDs, available from Adafruit [1] or from Makersify in the UK [2].

You could carefully solder 6 wires to each 5050 package, but I mounted them on breakout boards available from Adafruit [3].

Connecting the APA102C

If you're using an Arduino Uno or ATmega328 connect the pins as follows:

  • Arduino Pin 11 to DI.
  • Arduino pin 13 to CI.
  • GND to GND.
  • 5V to VCC.

Here's the circuit I used with four ARA102C devices:


Controlling the APA102C

The APA102 is programmed using a two-wire SPI signal (ignoring the enable signal). The data consists of:

  • A start frame of 32 '0' bits.
  • A 32-bit frame for each LED, specifying the brightness and colour.
  • An end frame of 32 '1' bits.

The 32-bit frame for each LED consists of:

  • Three '1' bits.
  • Five bits specifying the brightness, MSB first.
  • Eight bits specifying the blue component, MSB first.
  • Eight bits specifying the green component, MSB first.
  • Eight bits specifying the red component, MSB first.

Because you can specify the brightness independently of the individual R, G, and B components, the overall resolution is actually 13 bits.

The uLisp program

Here's the definition of a uLisp program dis, suitable for an Arduino Uno upwards, to control a chain of LEDs:

(defun dis (lst)
  (with-spi (str 10)
       (dotimes (x 4) (write-byte #x00 str))
        (lambda (col) 
          (write-byte (logior (first col) #xE0) str)
           (lambda (b) (write-byte b str))
           (cdr col)))
       (dotimes (x 4) (write-byte #xFF str))))

It specifies the enable signal as pin 10, although this isn't actually used.

To use it, call it with a list of the following values for each LED:

(brightness blue green red)

where brightness is a number from 0 to 31, and the other numbers are values from 0 to 255.

For example, to set a row of four LEDs to blue, green, red, orange, each with a brightness of 1/32, evaluate:

(dis '((1 255 0 0) (1 0 255 0) (1 0 0 255) (1 255 0 255)))

Using uLisp it's fairly simple to set up changing patterns or sequences of colours on a row of these LEDs.

  1. ^ APA102 5050 RGB LED with Integrated Driver Chip on Adafruit.
  2. ^ Adafruit APA102 5050 RGB LED with Integrated Driver Chip on Makersify.
  3. ^ 5050 LED breakout PCB on Adafruit.