Top Ten Raspberry Pi Projects (Part 2)

12/5/2012 2:52:46 PM

7.    Space exploration

Putting a Raspberry Pi in space may sound extreme, but the device is well suited to such Endeavours: it’s passively cooled, with no moving parts, and can run from batteries or solar power. Several projects have appeared hoping to create Pi-powered micro satellites, but the first to bear fruit is slightly more sedate: near space photography using a Raspberry Pi, a webcam and a weather balloon.

Dave Akerman was the first to think of using the Pi as a lightweight near space exploratory vehicle, and to date is the most successful: his Raspberry Pi in the Sky maiden voyage hit an altitude of 39,994m only 300m short of a world record.

Description: Raspberry Pi IN THE SKY: Wallet-sized PC is disaster drone brain

Raspberry Pi IN THE SKY: Wallet-sized PC is disaster drone brain

Achieving near-space flight did require a few modifications to the Pi, including heatsinks for improved cooling in the rarefied atmosphere, shorted out USB fuses to increase output current for the webcam, and direct soldering to a high amperage 5V power supply. But Akerman’s modifications, detailed in full on his blog, are within reach of a hobbyist with a soldering iron and some spare time.

Akerman’s experience as an amateur high altitude balloonist certainly helped with the success of the Raspberry Pi in the Sky, but it’s a project that has captured the imagination of many other Pi owners across the globe and is only likely to be bettered when the first Pi reaches orbit.

Full details about the Raspberry Pi in the Sky mission can be found on Akerman’s blog.

8.    ZX Spectrum emulation

The compact form factor of the Raspberry Pi is exciting to retro-computing enthusiasts: for the first time, it’s possible to emulate almost any home computer from the 1980s and 1990s and a large chunk of arcade machines and games consoles, too – on a device the size of a pack of cards.

Steve Wilson, a fan of Sir Clive Sinclair’s low-cost computers that helped define the 1980s, demonstrates the Pi’s flexibility with his project to place one inside the casing of an original Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Using a variety of cheap additional components, Wilson has given an old rubber-keyed Spectrum a significant upgrade from its original 3.5MHz Z80 processor and 48KB of RAM.

“The initial problem was finding somewhere to locate the Pi with the minimum component removal,” Wilson explains. “I knew I wanted the Pi’s USB ports internal, so they were the first to come off. The video-out connector was then the only problem, and swiftly resolved by its removal.”

Description: Steven Wilson has placed a Pi inside a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, creating an emulator that can run original software and play Full HD video

Steven Wilson has placed a Pi inside a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, creating an emulator that can run original software and play Full HD video

Once the keyboard is wired to a USB controller, Wilson will have something of a unique item: a Spectrum that can run original software through an emulator, but which can also play 1080p Full HD video as a home theatre system. Wilson’s progress can be followed on his Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/_SteveWilson_.

9.    Commercial products and service

One of the first projects to dip its toes into the water of Pi-powered commercial products is Shoop, a souvenir photo printer created by freelance software developer Brian de la Cruz. “When I started selling my software, I saw a huge market for photo-souvenir solutions, and I became more and more interested in further innovating the business and offering fresh solutions to the market,” he explains of his inspiration. “When I got my hands on a Raspberry Pi, a light bulb went on and Shoop was born.”

Combining a Raspberry Pi and an inkjet printer, de la Cruz created a system that can accept image uploads over Wi-Fi from any smartphone or tablet. Templates are applied to the images, which are then printed and the customer, naturally, charged.

The Foundation has indicated that it’s happy to see the Pi used in profit-generating commercial enterprises, providing the various trademarks are respected and that a message declaring the product to be Raspberry Pi-powered is included somewhere on the packaging or website.

A video demonstrating the Shoop printer in action, missing only some security-related details, can be found on de la Cruz’s blog.

10.  Home theatre

The most accessible project in our list: setting up the Pi as a home theatre system requires no changes to the hardware. The Pi’s multimedia-centric BCM2835 system-on-chip processor is capable of decoding and playing 1080p Full HD video content, but licensing restrictions on the codecs used had previously meant that only H.264 format video was supported.

Recently, the Foundation announced a deal that allows those who desire broader video support access to two additional codec formats: MPEG2 and VC-1. The former, common to older video files and DVDs, costs an additional $3.5 in licensing, while Microsoft’s (significantly less popular) VC-1 codec costs only $2 to enable. The Foundation has also enabled H.264 hardware encoding, which is available for all Raspberry Pi systems via a free firmware update, along with support for the Consumer Electronics Control standard meaning media playback on the Pi can be controlled using the remote control from a CEC compatible HDMI connected TV.

Using a freely available distribution such as Raspbmc, XBian or OpenELEC, the Raspberry Pi can become a powerful tool for media streaming and playback and at less than $45, it’s one of the cheapest high definition playback devices on the market. More information on the newly released codecs, CEC support and using the Pi as a home theatre system can be found on the official Raspberry Pi blog.

Raspberry Pi Revision 2

The Raspberry Pi Foundation recently shifted manufacturing to Wales and took the opportunity of moving factories to make modifications to the design of the circuit board. Although those with original boards needn’t upgrade, the changes do add flexibility to an already capable device. The most visible change is the addition of two mounting holes, drilled to accept an M2.5 screw. Where the earlier Pis required a case that would grip the board at the edges, it’s possible mount Revision 2 boards directly to almost any surface.

There have also been some more fundamental changes: the USB and Ethernet controller has been modified to reduce its operating temperature, and it’s now possible to reset the BCM2835 system-on-chip processor by shorting Pin 1 to Pin 2 on the connector marked P6.

Description: Raspberry Pi Revision 2

Raspberry Pi Revision 2

More importantly, the general-purpose input-output (GPIO) capabilities of the Revision 2 boards are improved by the addition of four more GPIO signals on a new connector, which can alternatively be used for digital audio output. Currently, theres no way to guarantee that you’ll get a Revision 2 board, but supplies of the original boards are running low; orders placed now have a good chance of receiving the updated hardware.

Alternatives to the Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is by far the most popular microcomputing system today, but it isn’t the only device on the market and for some tasks, it may not be the best choice.

Low-power computing specialist VIA has launched a sub-brand, APC, which exists specifically to offer the Pi some competition. Its first product is a Neo-ITX system based on a WonderMedia 800MHz ARM11 processor with 512MB of RAM (http://apc.io). It offers a faster processor and double the memory, and comes in at a similar price with an RRP of $49 compared to the Pi’s $45, although it is around twice the size.

An older alternative is the BeagleBoard, an open hardware project packing a powerful ARM Cortex-A8 processor running Alternatives to the Raspberry Pi at 1GHz alongside 512MB of low-power RAM (http://beagleboard.org). It’s a step up in power from both the Pi and the APC, but comes at a significant cost: the BeagleBoard-XM, the latest revision, costs $149.

If your project is more about sensing and control, an ARM-based microcomputer may be overkill. A popular choice for robotics projects is the open source Arduino, which uses an Atmel microcontroller in place of a CPU (http://arduino.cc). Much simpler than a Pi running at 16MHz and providing program storage space of only 32KB it nevertheless boasts powerful features including 14 general-purpose input/ output pins and 12 analogue input pins, and costs only $28.5.

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