Writing interrupt handlers

On suitable hardware (like the OpenMV Cam) MicroPython offers the ability to write interrupt handlers in Python. Interrupt handlers - also known as interrupt service routines (ISR’s) - are defined as callback functions. These are executed in response to an event such as a timer trigger or a voltage change on a pin. Such events can occur at any point in the execution of the program code. This carries significant consequences, some specific to the MicroPython language. Others are common to all systems capable of responding to real time events. This document covers the language specific issues first, followed by a brief introduction to real time programming for those new to it.

This introduction uses vague terms like “slow” or “as fast as possible”. This is deliberate, as speeds are application dependent. Acceptable durations for an ISR are dependent on the rate at which interrupts occur, the nature of the main program, and the presence of other concurrent events.

MicroPython Issues

The emergency exception buffer

If an error occurs in an ISR, MicroPython is unable to produce an error report unless a special buffer is created for the purpose. Debugging is simplified if the following code is included in any program using interrupts.

import micropython


For a variety of reasons it is important to keep ISR code as short and simple as possible. It should do only what has to be done immediately after the event which caused it: operations which can be deferred should be delegated to the main program loop. Typically an ISR will deal with the hardware device which caused the interrupt, making it ready for the next interrupt to occur. It will communicate with the main loop by updating shared data to indicate that the interrupt has occurred, and it will return. An ISR should return control to the main loop as quickly as possible. This is not a specific MicroPython issue so it is covered in more detail below.

Communication between an ISR and the main program

Normally an ISR needs to communicate with the main program. The simplest means of doing this is via one or more shared data objects, either declared as global or shared via a class (see below). There are various restrictions and hazards around doing this, which are covered in more detail below. Integers, bytes and bytearray objects are commonly used for this purpose along with arrays (from the array module) which can store various data types.

The use of object methods as callbacks

MicroPython supports this powerful technique which enables an ISR to share instance variables with the underlying code. It also enables a class implementing a device driver to support multiple device instances. The following example causes two LED’s to flash at different rates.

import pyb, micropython
class Foo(object):
    def __init__(self, timer, led):
        self.led = led
    def cb(self, tim):

red = Foo(pyb.Timer(4, freq=1), pyb.LED(1))
greeen = Foo(pyb.Timer(2, freq=0.8), pyb.LED(2))

In this example the red instance associates timer 4 with LED 1: when a timer 4 interrupt occurs red.cb() is called causing LED 1 to change state. The green instance operates similarly: a timer 2 interrupt results in the execution of green.cb() and toggles LED 2. The use of instance methods confers two benefits. Firstly a single class enables code to be shared between multiple hardware instances. Secondly, as a bound method the callback function’s first argument is self. This enables the callback to access instance data and to save state between successive calls. For example, if the class above had a variable self.count set to zero in the constructor, cb() could increment the counter. The red and green instances would then maintain independent counts of the number of times each LED had changed state.

Creation of Python objects

ISR’s cannot create instances of Python objects. This is because MicroPython needs to allocate memory for the object from a store of free memory block called the heap. This is not permitted in an interrupt handler because heap allocation is not re-entrant. In other words the interrupt might occur when the main program is part way through performing an allocation - to maintain the integrity of the heap the interpreter disallows memory allocations in ISR code.

A consequence of this is that ISR’s can’t use floating point arithmetic; this is because floats are Python objects. Similarly an ISR can’t append an item to a list. In practice it can be hard to determine exactly which code constructs will attempt to perform memory allocation and provoke an error message: another reason for keeping ISR code short and simple.

One way to avoid this issue is for the ISR to use pre-allocated buffers. For example a class constructor creates a bytearray instance and a boolean flag. The ISR method assigns data to locations in the buffer and sets the flag. The memory allocation occurs in the main program code when the object is instantiated rather than in the ISR.

The MicroPython library I/O methods usually provide an option to use a pre-allocated buffer. For example pyb.i2c.recv() can accept a mutable buffer as its first argument: this enables its use in an ISR.

Use of Python objects

A further restriction on objects arises because of the way Python works. When an import statement is executed the Python code is compiled to bytecode, with one line of code typically mapping to multiple bytecodes. When the code runs the interpreter reads each bytecode and executes it as a series of machine code instructions. Given that an interrupt can occur at any time between machine code instructions, the original line of Python code may be only partially executed. Consequently a Python object such as a set, list or dictionary modified in the main loop may lack internal consistency at the moment the interrupt occurs.

A typical outcome is as follows. On rare occasions the ISR will run at the precise moment in time when the object is partially updated. When the ISR tries to read the object, a crash results. Because such problems typically occur on rare, random occasions they can be hard to diagnose. There are ways to circumvent this issue, described in Critical Sections below.

It is important to be clear about what constitutes the modification of an object. An alteration to a built-in type such as a dictionary is problematic. Altering the contents of an array or bytearray is not. This is because bytes or words are written as a single machine code instruction which is not interruptible: in the parlance of real time programming the write is atomic. A user defined object might instantiate an integer, array or bytearray. It is valid for both the main loop and the ISR to alter the contents of these.

MicroPython supports integers of arbitrary precision. Values between 2**30 -1 and -2**30 will be stored in a single machine word. Larger values are stored as Python objects. Consequently changes to long integers cannot be considered atomic. The use of long integers in ISR’s is unsafe because memory allocation may be attempted as the variable’s value changes.

Overcoming the float limitation

In general it is best to avoid using floats in ISR code: hardware devices normally handle integers and conversion to floats is normally done in the main loop. However there are a few DSP algorithms which require floating point. On platforms with hardware floating point (such as the Pyboard and the OpenMV Cam) the inline ARM Thumb assembler can be used to work round this limitation. This is because the processor stores float values in a machine word; values can be shared between the ISR and main program code via an array of floats.


If an ISR raises an exception it will not propagate to the main loop. The interrupt will be disabled unless the exception is handled by the ISR code.

General Issues

This is merely a brief introduction to the subject of real time programming. Beginners should note that design errors in real time programs can lead to faults which are particularly hard to diagnose. This is because they can occur rarely and at intervals which are essentially random. It is crucial to get the initial design right and to anticipate issues before they arise. Both interrupt handlers and the main program need to be designed with an appreciation of the following issues.

Interrupt Handler Design

As mentioned above, ISR’s should be designed to be as simple as possible. They should always return in a short, predictable period of time. This is important because when the ISR is running, the main loop is not: inevitably the main loop experiences pauses in its execution at random points in the code. Such pauses can be a source of hard to diagnose bugs particularly if their duration is long or variable. In order to understand the implications of ISR run time, a basic grasp of interrupt priorities is required.

Interrupts are organized according to a priority scheme. ISR code may itself be interrupted by a higher priority interrupt. This has implications if the two interrupts share data (see Critical Sections below). If such an interrupt occurs it interposes a delay into the ISR code. If a lower priority interrupt occurs while the ISR is running, it will be delayed until the ISR is complete: if the delay is too long, the lower priority interrupt may fail. A further issue with slow ISR’s is the case where a second interrupt of the same type occurs during its execution. The second interrupt will be handled on termination of the first. However if the rate of incoming interrupts consistently exceeds the capacity of the ISR to service them the outcome will not be a happy one.

Consequently looping constructs should be avoided or minimized. I/O to devices other than to the interrupting device should normally be avoided: I/O such as disk access, print statements, and UART access are relatively slow, and their duration may vary. A further issue here is that filesystem functions are not reentrant: using filesystem I/O in an ISR and the main program would be hazardous. Crucially ISR code should not wait on an event. I/O is acceptable if the code can be guaranteed to return in a predictable period, for example toggling a pin or LED. Accessing the interrupting device via I2C or SPI may be necessary but the time taken for such accesses should be calculated or measured and its impact on the application assessed.

There is usually a need to share data between the ISR and the main loop. This may be done either through global variables or via class or instance variables. Variables are typically integer or boolean types, or integer or byte arrays (a pre-allocated integer array offers faster access than a list). Where multiple values are modified by the ISR it is necessary to consider the case where the interrupt occurs at a time when the main program has accessed some, but not all, of the values. This can lead to inconsistencies.

Consider the following design. An ISR stores incoming data in a bytearray, then adds the number of bytes received to an integer representing total bytes ready for processing. The main program reads the number of bytes, processes the bytes, then clears down the number of bytes ready. This will work until an interrupt occurs just after the main program has read the number of bytes. The ISR puts the added data into the buffer and updates the number received, but the main program has already read the number, so it processes the data originally received. The newly arrived bytes are lost.

There are various ways of avoiding this hazard, the simplest being to use a circular buffer. If it is not possible to use a structure with inherent thread safety other ways are described below.


A potential hazard may occur if a function or method is shared between the main program and one or more ISR’s or between multiple ISR’s. The issue here is that the function may itself be interrupted and a further instance of that function run. If this is to occur, the function must be designed to be reentrant. How this is done is an advanced topic beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Critical Sections

An example of a critical section of code is one which accesses more than one variable which can be affected by an ISR. If the interrupt happens to occur between accesses to the individual variables, their values will be inconsistent. This is an instance of a hazard known as a race condition: the ISR and the main program loop race to alter the variables. To avoid inconsistency a means must be employed to ensure that the ISR does not alter the values for the duration of the critical section. One way to achieve this is to issue pyb.disable_irq() before the start of the section, and pyb.enable_irq() at the end. Here is an example of this approach:

import pyb, micropython, array

class BoundsException(Exception):

ARRAYSIZE = const(20)
index = 0
data = array.array('i', 0 for x in range(ARRAYSIZE))

def callback1(t):
    global data, index
    for x in range(5):
        data[index] = pyb.rng() # simulate input
        index += 1
        if index >= ARRAYSIZE:
            raise BoundsException('Array bounds exceeded')

tim4 = pyb.Timer(4, freq=100, callback=callback1)

for loop in range(1000):
    if index > 0:
        irq_state = pyb.disable_irq() # Start of critical section
        for x in range(index):
        index = 0
        pyb.enable_irq(irq_state) # End of critical section
        print('loop {}'.format(loop))


A critical section can comprise a single line of code and a single variable. Consider the following code fragment.

count = 0
def cb(): # An interrupt callback
    count +=1
def main():
    # Code to set up the interrupt callback omitted
    while True:
        count += 1

This example illustrates a subtle source of bugs. The line count += 1 in the main loop carries a specific race condition hazard known as a read-modify-write. This is a classic cause of bugs in real time systems. In the main loop MicroPython reads the value of t.counter, adds 1 to it, and writes it back. On rare occasions the interrupt occurs after the read and before the write. The interrupt modifies t.counter but its change is overwritten by the main loop when the ISR returns. In a real system this could lead to rare, unpredictable failures.

As mentioned above, care should be taken if an instance of a Python built-in type is modified in the main code and that instance is accessed in an ISR. The code performing the modification should be regarded as a critical section to ensure that the instance is in a valid state when the ISR runs.

Particular care needs to be taken if a dataset is shared between different ISR’s. The hazard here is that the higher priority interrupt may occur when the lower priority one has partially updated the shared data. Dealing with this situation is an advanced topic beyond the scope of this introduction other than to note that mutex objects described below can sometimes be used.

Disabling interrupts for the duration of a critical section is the usual and simplest way to proceed, but it disables all interrupts rather than merely the one with the potential to cause problems. It is generally undesirable to disable an interrupt for long. In the case of timer interrupts it introduces variability to the time when a callback occurs. In the case of device interrupts, it can lead to the device being serviced too late with possible loss of data or overrun errors in the device hardware. Like ISR’s, a critical section in the main code should have a short, predictable duration.

An approach to dealing with critical sections which radically reduces the time for which interrupts are disabled is to use an object termed a mutex (name derived from the notion of mutual exclusion). The main program locks the mutex before running the critical section and unlocks it at the end. The ISR tests whether the mutex is locked. If it is, it avoids the critical section and returns. The design challenge is defining what the ISR should do in the event that access to the critical variables is denied. A simple example of a mutex may be found here. Note that the mutex code does disable interrupts, but only for the duration of eight machine instructions: the benefit of this approach is that other interrupts are virtually unaffected.