The robot revolution just got a little closer thanks to some of the cool devices that are coming down the pipe. One such cool device is called the Raspberry Pi
. The Raspberry Pi device is basically a $25 Linux PC on a credit card sized board! This microcomputer looks perfectly suited as a low cost, micro form factor, low power, PC performance robot brain. If you think that's unbelievable, well, believe it! Sure it's not available just yet but already the Alpha Boards are being manufactured
and they anticipate the devices will be available for sale later in 2011.
I contacted the Director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Eben Upton, and he graciously answered some of my questions pertaining to his foundation, the Raspberry Pi device, and how the device relates to robotics. After the jump, read more about the Raspberry Pi device and read the interview by Director, Eben Upton.
The board itself (Alpha layout above) is very tiny. As you can see from the image below it looks to be just a little larger than a thumb drive. The main processor is an ARM-based application processor with HDMI and analog out, USB 2.0 hub, and 128 MB of Ram with a price point of about $25. A model B device will have 256 MB of Ram and also a 10/100 Ethernet Controller for about $5 to $10 more. The minimum quantity will be 1 unit. Yea!
So, what can you do with this thing? Well, imagine plugging this into your HDMI port (and possibly nothing else) and up pops your portable PC! Wow! Add a mouse, keyboard, some USB storage, power plug and Ethernet connection and viola, you have yourself a regular networked PC albeit very tiny (see the photo below of a running networked PC configuration). Or, skip all of that and just add power and a i/o and servo controller and you have a really inexpensive robot control configuration. With this much computing power, you could do some serious stuff. This thing is by far in another league compared to most embedded controllers of the same size hobbyists use for a robot brain. Even more of a bonus is this device is designed to run free/open software like GNU/Linux. That pretty much means that all of the Development tools are free!
After reading about this device on their website,
I contacted the Director of Raspberry Pi and he graciously answered a few of my questions.
Interview with Raspberry Pi Foundation Director, Eben Upton:
Tell us more about your charity work and why you chose to design the
Raspberry Pi device to further that charity?
What main applications are you designing the Raspberry Pi device?
A group of us in Cambridge became concerned that the quality and quantity of applicants to the Computer Science course at the University here was falling year on year, to the point that it was becoming hard to fill the course with good candidates. This in turn has had a knock-on effect on the ability of firms in the Cambridge area to recruit graduates.
There are likely several causes for the decline in applicant numbers, but one factor is the lack of a cheap programmable home computer of the sort that I grew up with in the 1980s. We formed the Raspberry Pi Foundation to develop such a machine.
What applications do you feel designers might use the Raspberry Pi device for instead and are you OK with that?
We began by designing it to be cheap, reasonably powerful (especially on the multimedia side), easy to program and easy to interface to external components. As time has gone on, we've also ended up with a device that can support general-purpose productivity apps as well.
Who are your competitors and why do you believe your device is better?
We've seen an enormous range of applications proposed, from HAM radio to aerospace. Of course, we're very happy with people doing pretty much whatever they want with the device.
Do you think your device might be a good fit for personal robotics builders to use for their robots?
Our obvious competitors are devices like Beagleboard and Arduino. We're cheaper than Beagleboard, and offer better processing and multimedia capabilities than either. Our interfacing is weaker than Arduino, but we'll be addressing this through add-on boards.
Are there a certain robotics application that you might envision the Raspberry Pi device would be best for?
Applications which require a lot of comput[ation], or which want to utilize a camera for machine-vision tasks (this last is dependent on our solving certain business-model issues involved in distributing a camera with the device).
Director, Raspberry Pi Foundation
In the interview, I'm hearing computer vision, daughter boards for various control applications and that it will blow away many hobbyist boards that are common today. Not to mention that just about any USB device that works with Linux should also work on this device. This all sounds like it could be a great future for robotics!
Many thanks again to Director, Eben Upton for the interview and we look forward to when the Raspberry Pi device begins to go on sale later this year.