Author Archives: Helen Lynn

Build an IoT device with Ubuntu Appliance and Raspberry Pi

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The new Ubuntu Appliance portfolio provides free images to help you turn your Raspberry Pi into an IoT device: just install them to your SD card and you have all the software you need to make a media server, get started with home automation, and more. Canonical’s Rhys Davies is here to tell us all about it.

We are delighted to announce the new Ubuntu Appliance portfolio. Together with NextCloud, AdGuard, Plex, Mosquitto and openHAB, we have created the first in a new class of Ubuntu derivatives. Ubuntu Appliances are software-defined projects that enable users to download everything they need to turn a Raspberry Pi into a device that does one thing – beautifully.

The Ubuntu Appliance mission is to enable you to build your own secure, self-updating, single-purpose devices. Tell us what you want to see next, or let’s talk about turning your project into the next Ubuntu Appliance in Discourse. For now, we are excited to bring these initial appliances to your attention.

The initial portfolio of five

  • Plex Media Server allows its users to organise and stream their own collection of movies, TV, music, podcasts and more from one place.
  • Mosquitto is a lightweight open source MQTT message broker, for use on all devices from low power single board computers to full-scale industrial grade servers.
  • OpenHAB is a pluggable architecture that allows users to design rules for automating their home, with time- and event-based triggers, scripts, actions, notifications and voice control.
  • AdGuard Home blocks annoying banners, pop-ups and video ads to make web surfing faster, safer and more comfortable.
  • NextCloud is an on-premise content collaboration platform that allows users to host their own private cloud at home or in the office.

How it all works

Head over to the Ubuntu Appliances website, click the appliance you would like, select download, follow the instructions, and away you go. Once you get to this stage, there are links to tutorials and documentation written by the upstream project themselves, so you can get next steps from the horse’s mouth. If you run into any bother let us know with a new topic and we’ll get on it.

But why bother?

The problem we are trying to solve is to do with the fragmentation in IoT. We want to give publishers and developers a platform to get their software in the hands of their users and into their devices. We work with them to securely bundle the OS, their applications and configurations into a single download that is available for anyone to turn a Raspberry Pi into a dedicated device. You can go to the portfolio and download as many of the appliances as you like and start using them today.

How to add your project to the Ubuntu Appliance portfolio

All of this gives a stage and a secure, production-grade base to projects. There are no restrictions on who can make an Ubuntu Appliance; all you need is an application that runs on a Raspberry Pi or another certified board, and to let us know what you’ve got so we can help you over the line. If you need more information, head to our community page where you’ll find the rules and the exact steps to become featured as an Ubuntu Appliance.

Try them out!

All that’s left to say is to try them out. All five of the initial appliances work on Raspberry Pi, so if you have one, you can get started. And if you don’t have one – maybe your Raspberry Pi is still in the post – then you can also ‘try before you Pi’: install the appliance in a virtual machine and see what you think.

The list of appliances is already growing. This launch marks the first five appliances, but we are already working with developers on the next wave and are looking for more. Start with these ones and go to our discourse to tell us what you think.

Thanks for having me, Raspberry Pi <3

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Raspberry Pi vs antibiotic resistance: microbiology imaging with open source hardware

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The Edwards Lab at the University of Reading has developed a flexible, low-cost, open source lab robot for capturing images of microbiology samples with a Raspberry Pi camera module. It’s called POLIR, for Raspberry Pi camera Open-source Laboratory Imaging Robot. Here’s a timelapse video of them assembling it.

Measuring antibiotic resistance with colour-changing dye

The robot is useful for all kinds of microbiology imaging, but at the moment the lab is using it to measure antimicrobial resistance in bacteria. They’re doing this by detecting the colour change in a dye called resazurin, which changes from blue to pink in the presence of metabolically active cells: if bacteria incubated with antibiotics grow, their metabolic activity causes the dye to turn pink. However, if the antibiotics stop or impede the growth of the bacteria, their lower levels of metabolic activity will cause less colour change, or none at all. In the photo below, the colourful microtitre plate holds bacterial samples with and without resistance to the antibiotics against which they’re being tested.

POLIR, an open source 3D printer-based Raspberry Pi lab imaging robot

An imaging system based on 3D-printer designs

The researchers adapted existing open source 3D printer designs and used v-slot aluminium extrusion (this stuff) with custom 3D-printed joints to make a frame. Instead of a printer extrusion head, a Raspberry Pi and camera module are mounted on the frame. An Arduino running open-source Repetier software controls x-y-z stepper motors to adjust the position of the computer and camera.

Front and top views of POLIR

Open-source OctoPrint software controls the camera position by supplying scripts from the Raspberry Pi to the Arduino. OctoPrint also allows remote access and control, which gives researchers flexibility in when they run experiments and check progress. Images are acquired using a Python script configured with the appropriate settings (eg image exposure), and are stored on the Raspberry Pi’s SD card. From there, they can be accessed via FTP.

More flexibility, lower cost

Off-the-shelf lab automation systems are extremely expensive and remain out of the reach of most research groups. POLIR cost just £600.

The system has a number of advantages over higher-cost off-the-shelf imaging systems. One is its flexibility: the robot can image a range of sample formats, including agar plates like those in the video above, microtitre plates like the one in the first photograph, and microfluidic “lab-on-a-comb” devices. A comb looks much like a small, narrow rectangle of clear plastic with striations running down its length; each striation is a microcapillary with capacity for a 1μl sample, and each comb has ten microcapillaries. These microfluidic devices let scientists run experiments on a large number of samples at once, while using a minimum of space on a lab bench, in an incubator, or in an imaging robot like POLIR.

POLIR accommodates 2160 individual capillaries and a 96 well plate, with room to spare

High spatial and temporal resolution

For lab-on-a-comb images, POLIR gives the Reading team four times the spatial resolution they get with a static camera. The moveable Raspberry Pi camera with a short focus yields images with 6 pixels per capillary, compared to 1.5 pixels per capillary using a $700 static Canon camera with a macro lens.

Because POLIR is automated, it brings higher temporal resolution within reach, too. A non-automated system, by contrast, can only be used for timelapse imaging if a researcher repeatedly intervenes at fixed time intervals. Capturing kinetic data with timelapse imaging is valuable because it can be significant if different samples reach the same endpoint but at different rates, and because some dyes can give a transient signal that would be missed by an endpoint measurement alone.

Dr Alexander Edwards of the University of Reading comments:

We built the robot with a simple purpose, to make antimicrobial resistance testing more robust without resorting to expensive and highly specialised lab equipment […] The beauty of the POLIR kit is that it’s based on open source designs and we have likewise published our own designs and modifications, allowing everyone and anyone to benefit from the original design and the modifications in other contexts. We believe that open source hardware is a game changer that will revolutionise microbiological and other life science lab work by increasing data production whilst reducing hands-on labour time in the lab.

You can find POLIR on GitLab here. You can also read more, and browse more figures, in the team’s open-access paper, Exploiting open source 3D printer architecture for laboratory robotics to automate high-throughput time-lapse imaging for analytical microbiology.

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Make a hamster feeder with Raspberry Pi Zero

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People make marvellous things for their pets with Raspberry Pi. Here’s a splendid hamster feeder tutorial from Christopher Barnatt of Explaining Computers, just perfect if you’re after a small project for this weekend.

Raspberry Pi Zero Hamster Feeder

Raspberry Pi servo-controlled pet feeder, using a Raspberry Pi Zero and two SG90 servo motors. This project builds on the servo control code and setup from m…

All you need to build your hamster feeder is a Raspberry Pi Zero and peripherals, a couple of servos, some plasticard, sellotape and liquid polyadhesive, and some jumper wires. The video takes you very clearly through the entire set-up, from measurements to wiring details to Python code (which is available to download). As Christopher explains, this will allow you to feed your hamster controlled portions of food at suitable intervals, so that it doesn’t eat the lot in one go and, consequently, explode. What’s not to love?

Check out the Explaining Computers YouTube channel for more clear, detailed videos to help you do more with computing. And for more Raspberry Pi projects, head to our own Raspberry Pi projects, with hundreds of ideas for beginners and beyond available in English and many other languages.

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The Nest Box: DIY Springwatch with Raspberry Pi

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Last week, lots and lots of you shared your Raspberry Pi builds with us on social media using the hashtag #IUseMyRaspberryPiFor. Jay Wainwright from Liverpool noticed the conversation and got in touch to tell us about The Nest Box, which uses Raspberry Pi to bring impressively high-quality images and video from British bird boxes to your Facebook feed.

Jay runs a small network of livestreaming nest box cameras, with three currently sited and another three in the pipeline; excitingly, the new ones will include a kestrel box and a barn owl box! During the spring, all the cameras stream live to The Nest Box’s Facebook page, which has steadily built a solid following of several thousand wildlife fans.

A pair of blue tits feeds their chicks in a woolly nest

The Nest Box’s setup uses a Raspberry Pi and Camera Module, along with a Raspberry Pi PoE HAT to provide both power and internet connectivity, so there’s only one cable connection to weatherproof. There’s also a custom HAT that Jay has designed to control LED lights and to govern the Raspberry Pi Camera Module’s IR filter, ensuring high-quality images both during the day and at night. To top it all off, he has written some Python code to record visitors to the nest boxes and go into live streaming mode whenever the action is happening.

As we can see from this nest box design for swifts, shown on the project’s crowdfunding profile, plenty of thought has evidently been put into the design of the boxes so that they provide tempting quarters for their feathered occupants while also accommodating all the electronic components.

Follow The Nest Box on Facebook to add British birds into your social media mix — whatever you’ve got now, I’ll bet all tomorrow’s coffees that it’ll be an improvement. And if you’re using Raspberry Pi for a wildlife project, or you’ve got plans along those lines, let us know in the comments.

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Growth Monitor pi: an open monitoring system for plant science

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Plant scientists and agronomists use growth chambers to provide consistent growing conditions for the plants they study. This reduces confounding variables – inconsistent temperature or light levels, for example – that could render the results of their experiments less meaningful. To make sure that conditions really are consistent both within and between growth chambers, which minimises experimental bias and ensures that experiments are reproducible, it’s helpful to monitor and record environmental variables in the chambers.

A neat grid of small leafy plants on a black plastic tray. Metal housing and tubing is visible to the sides.

Arabidopsis thaliana in a growth chamber on the International Space Station. Many experimental plants are less well monitored than these ones.
(“Arabidopsis thaliana plants […]” by Rawpixel Ltd (original by NASA) / CC BY 2.0)

In a recent paper in Applications in Plant Sciences, Brandin Grindstaff and colleagues at the universities of Missouri and Arizona describe how they developed Growth Monitor pi, or GMpi: an affordable growth chamber monitor that provides wider functionality than other devices. As well as sensing growth conditions, it sends the gathered data to cloud storage, captures images, and generates alerts to inform scientists when conditions drift outside of an acceptable range.

The authors emphasise – and we heartily agree – that you don’t need expertise with software and computing to build, use, and adapt a system like this. They’ve written a detailed protocol and made available all the necessary software for any researcher to build GMpi, and they note that commercial solutions with similar functionality range in price from $10,000 to $1,000,000 – something of an incentive to give the DIY approach a go.

GMpi uses a Raspberry Pi Model 3B+, to which are connected temperature-humidity and light sensors from our friends at Adafruit, as well as a Raspberry Pi Camera Module.

The team used open-source app Rclone to upload sensor data to a cloud service, choosing Google Drive since it’s available for free. To alert users when growing conditions fall outside of a set range, they use the incoming webhooks app to generate notifications in a Slack channel. Sensor operation, data gathering, and remote monitoring are supported by a combination of software that’s available for free from the open-source community and software the authors developed themselves. Their package GMPi_Pack is available on GitHub.

With a bill of materials amounting to something in the region of $200, GMpi is another excellent example of affordable, accessible, customisable open labware that’s available to researchers and students. If you want to find out how to build GMpi for your lab, or just for your greenhouse, Affordable remote monitoring of plant growth in facilities using Raspberry Pi computers by Brandin et al. is available on PubMed Central, and it includes appendices with clear and detailed set-up instructions for the whole system.

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Tracking the Brecon Beacons ultramarathon with a Raspberry Pi Zero

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On my holidays this year I enjoyed a walk in the Brecon Beacons. We set out nice and early, walked 22km through some of the best scenery in Britain, got a cup of tea from the snack van on the A470, and caught our bus home. “I enjoyed that walk,” I thought, “and I’d like to do one like it again.” What I DIDN’T think was, “I’d like to do that walk again, only I’d like it to be nearly three times as long, and it definitely ought to have about three times more ascent, or else why bother?”

Alan Peaty is a bit more hardcore than me, so, a couple of weekends ago, he set out on the Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks Ultramarathon: “10 peaks; 58 kilometres; 3000m of ascent; 24 hours”. He went with his friend Neil and a Raspberry Pi Zero in an eyecatching 3D-printed case.

A green 3D-printed case with a Raspberry Pi sticker on it, on a black backpack leaning against a cairn. In the background are a sunny mountain top, distant peaks, and a blue sky with white clouds.

“The brick”, nestling on a backpack, with sunlit Corn Du and Pen y Fan in the background

The Raspberry Pi Zero ensemble – lovingly known as the brick or, to give it its longer name, the Rosie IoT Brick or RIoT Brick – is equipped with a u-blox Neo-6 GPS module, and it also receives GPS tracking info from some smaller trackers built using ESP32 microcontrollers. The whole lot is powered by a “rather weighty” 20,000mAh battery pack. Both the Raspberry Pi and the ESP32s were equipped with “all manner of additional sensors” to track location, temperature, humidity, pressure, altitude, and light level readings along the route.

Charts showing temperature, humidity & pressure, altitude, and light levels along the route, together with a route map

Where the route crosses over itself is the most fervently appreciated snack van in Wales

Via LoRa and occasional 3G/4G from the many, many peaks along the route, all this data ends up on Amazon Web Services. AWS, among other things, hosts an informative website where family members were able to keep track of Alan’s progress along windswept ridges and up 1:2 gradients, presumably the better to appreciate their cups of tea and central heating. Here’s a big diagram of how the kit that completed the ultramarathon fits together; it’s full of arrows, dotted lines, and acronyms.

Alan, Neil, the brick, and the rest of their gear completed the event in an impressive 18 hours and one minute, for which they got a medal.

The brick, a small plastic box full of coloured jumper leads and other electronics; the lid of the box; and a medal consisting of the number 10 in large plastic characters on a green ribbon

Well earned

You can follow the adventures of this project, its antecedents, and the further evolutions that are doubtless to come, on the Rosie the Red Robot Twitter feed. And you can find everything to do with the project in this GitHub repository, so you can complete ultramarathons while weighed down with hefty power bricks and bristling with homemade tracking devices, too, if you like. Alan is raising money for Alzheimer’s Research UK with this event, and you can find his Brecon Beacons 10 Peaks JustGiving page here.

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