You no longer need to be an electronics wizard to build sophisticated devices. “Makers” are unleashing their creativity thanks to Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards.
Eben Upton is co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which has sold more than 3 million of the nanocomputers.
TECHNOLOGIST Did you think you would do so well?
EBEN UPTON Absolutely not. We were hoping to sell 10,000 units over the life of the product. The biggest surprise for us is that there is a whole community of adult “makers”, notably in our largest markets: the U.S., Germany and the UK.
TECHNOLOGIST Could Raspberry Pi and Arduino do for hardware what apps have done for software, becoming tools that allow people to develop things that suit their particular needs?
EBEN UPTON That’s an interesting analogy. Certainly the very low cost of Raspberry Pi makes it close to being “disposable” hardware in the same way that apps are “disposable” software. A big surprise for us has been that people who use a Pi in a project will often buy a new Pi for a new project, leaving the old one in the old project rather than re-using it.
TECHNOLOGIST Will you improve the Raspberry Pi?
EBEN UPTON We’re continuing to optimise the software stack on the Raspberry Pi. At some point, perhaps in 2017, we’ll need to consider introducing a new Pi, but there’s still a large amount of improvement available to us simply from software work. This has the advantage that everyone who has already bought a Pi will benefit, rather than “orphaning” them when we move to new hardware.
Two credit-card sized products are revolutionising the world of innovation: a nanocomputer called Raspberry Pi and a microcontroller known as Arduino. There appear to be no limits to the projects that can be concocted with these two tools. They range from simple utilitarian devices to gadgets at the outer edges of creativity, including drones, robotic prostheses, alarm systems, 3D printers, arcade games and Twitter-controlled coffee makers – not to mention innovative products yet to be conceived.
This development is deeply rooted in the “open-source” philosophy. Originally used in software development, this model for information- and rights-sharing is increasingly making its way to hardware projects. New do-it-yourselfers spend hours on specialised websites like Adafruit and Instructables sharing plans for their latest inventions.
Brains and brawn
Raspberry Pi and Arduino share three major features: they’re simple to use, they’re small and they’re cheap (about €20).
The Arduino project, founded in 2005, completely upended the world of microcontrollers – circuit boards that process information from sensors and execute such pre- programmed commands as starting a motor.
The Raspberry Pi is a real computer stripped down to the bare essentials. It has an open-source operating system and can be connected to peripherals such as a screen, speaker, keyboard and mouse. Despite its small size, it has impressive computing power and uses very little power. It can serve as a standard PC, but makers tend to use it as a multimedia centre, server or web interface.
The two devices are often used together, notably in domotics (intelligent-home control systems). The Raspberry Pi is a control centre, receiving input from various microcontrollers (like a room thermometer) and issuing commands in response (like adjusting a thermostat).
“The Pi is the brains and spinal cord, while the Arduinos are the tentacles that connect it to the world,” explains Pierre- Yves Rochat, who teaches a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on microcontrollers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).
Users are thrilled. “Arduino completely changed how I saw electronics,” says Sami Sabik, a French nanotechnology researcher who has been working in the Netherlands for five years. “Before, I was intimidated. Development boards were the size of a sheet of A4 paper, with cables all over the place. It took a week to get one to turn on an LED bulb. Today, it takes five minutes.” Similar boards exist, but the Italian-made Arduino is the most popular.
“Actually, Arduino didn’t invent anything,” says EPFL’s Rochat. “Its creators just had the right technology at the right time, a coherent package and effective communication, and it took off from there.”
A more human language
Simplification is at the heart of the revolution. “Until now, microcontrollers had to be programmed in assembly language, a complicated machine-specific language,” explains Rochat. “But Arduino innovated with a high-performance board and a wonderfully simple programming environment. By putting this added layer between the microcontroller and the user, the internal structure of the system could be forgotten. You don’t need to be an engineer to program an Arduino board. A humanities student with no electronics experience whatsoever discovered a passion for microcontrollers while taking my MOOC. Another student built a flying robot.”
The two handles of a revolution
Raspberry Pi computer
Released in 2012, this British nanocomputer’s modest goal was to promote basic computer-science education in schools. But Raspberry Pi’s astounding success went far beyond the educational world to become a symbol of the democratisation of electronics. The device is delivered completely stripped down: just a circuit board, with no keyboard, monitor, mouse or even housing. There are several clones, such as the more powerful Banana Pi and the PandaBoard.
Arduino controller boards are designed to read inputs from sensors, compile them and then activate actuators in response. The programming environment is based on C, a general-purpose programming language. The project was founded in 2005 by students from the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy as a way for non-experts to make interactive devices. The boards can be bought completely stripped down or with a variety of optional accessories (LCD screen, USB adapter, Wi-Fi, Ethernet controller, 2G mobile phone shield).
By Benjamin Keller. With Thomas Pfefferlé and Sara Bandelier