By Rob Whent
Anybody Hungry for a Raspberry Pi?
Growing up in South Windsor in the 70’s, I lived around the corner from a Radio Shack which to me was the equivalent of a Best Buy, Future Shop and GameStop all rolled into one. I would go into the store almost daily to look at the shelves full of new technology and interesting items that included a wall full of resistors and diodes. And even though I didn’t know how to use them at the time, I often bought some and brought them home in a red and white Radio Shack bag to experiment with.
My first computer was the Timex-Sinclair 1000 which was ground breaking when it was released way back in 1982. It came complete with a 16KB memory expansion pack and a RF module allowing you to connect it to your TV set. It retailed for $99US and it opened my eyes to the future of technology and the ability of electronic devices like this to change our lives forever. For comparison, an Apple II at that time cost $1,298US or about $5,000 in today’s Canadian dollars.
According to Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” They are referring to it as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
The Internet of Things is connecting smart devices to the cloud in exponentially increasing numbers. Smart devices rely on computers to connect to other computers and much like the Timex-Sinclair was a marvel of technology in its day, it pales in comparison to the technology available today for a fraction of the price. The Internet of Things is powered by small computers more powerful than the ones NASA used for the Space Shuttle program. An example of such a device is the Raspberry Pi, a funny name for a powerful computer smaller than a deck of cards.
The Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer developed in the UK by the not for profit Raspberry Pi Foundation in 2012, initially to promote the teaching of basic computer science in schools and developing countries. Several generations of the Raspberry Pi have been released since then and the third generation, the Raspberry Pi 3, launched in February of this year. These computers can be found online for under $50 CDN. The stripped down Raspberry Pi Zero board goes for as little as $5 and starter kits for the Pi3 that include a case and an array of various sensors can be found for around the same price as the Timex-Sinclair cost 36 years ago….$99.
The Pi3 features a Broadcom BCM2837 system on a chip (SoC) computer, which includes a 64bit Quad Core ARM central processing unit (CPU) and an on-chip graphics processing unit (GPU). CPU speed is 1.2 GHz and on board memory is 1 GB RAM. Wireless and Bluetooth connectivity is built in and storage is available through a MicroSD slot. Ports included are HDMI, a 3.5mm analogue audio-video jack, 4 USB 2.0 ports, 10/100 Ethernet, Camera Serial Interface (CSI) and a Display Serial Interface (DSI). The Raspberry Pi 3 still features the 40 pin General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) interface used to connect items such as LEDs, motors and a myriad of other devices.
The official Raspberry Pi website has hundreds of projects that you can make using the hardware and sensors including things like building an interactive pet or making a robot or a video game. The programming language of choice is Python, a widely used high-level, general-purpose and dynamic programming language. Its design philosophy focuses on code readability, and its syntax allows programmers to create programs in fewer lines of code than possible in languages such as C++ or Java. The language provides constructs intended to enable writing clear programs on both a small and large scale. There are coding lessons for beginners on the site and forums for troubleshooting or for just talking with other Pi users and developers.
The Raspberry Pi is not the only game in town however. Competitors like Arduino, Hummingbird, Minnowboard Max, BeagleBone and BananaPi have all entered the market recently due to the increased demand and each offers similar specs as the Pi, although some are geared more towards certain applications. Starter kits for each of these can be easily found online.
So if you are interested in experimenting with technology or have a son or daughter wanting to build their own video game or make a robot out of GI Joe, look for one of the starter kits out there that suits you. There is extensive online help available on YouTube if you get stuck. It makes a great gift and is much more educational than a plastic bag full of resistors and diodes.
Rob Whent is an Industrial Technology Advisor with the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, helping accelerate the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises by providing them with a comprehensive suite of innovation services and support. He can be reached by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Any views or opinions expressed are that of the author and do not represent those of NRC.
Check out Rob “Gadget Guy” Whent’s other guest blog post: My Internet of Things