Author Archives: Liz Upton

Real-time train station departure board

via Raspberry Pi

All across the UK, you’ll find train departure boards on station platforms that look like this:

They’ve looked this way for as long as I can remember (before they were digital dot-matrix displays, they were made from those flappy bits of plastic with letters of the alphabet and numbers printed on them, which whirled round like a Rolodex; they still look very similar). If you’re a frequent train traveller in the UK, you probably have a weird emotional response to seeing one of these. Mine is largely one of panic about being late.

Some people have a more…benign relationship with trains than I do, like Chris Crocker-White, who has adapted a build tweeted by Chris Hutchinson to make a miniature departure board for his desk. Here’s the tweet that started it all:

Chris Hutchinson on Twitter

Pretty hyped about my most recent @Raspberry_Pi project – a realistic, real-time, train departure board I’ve open sourced the software over at: https://t.co/vGQzagsSpi Next step: find a case and make it a permanent fixture! https://t.co/HEXgzdH8TS

Chris C-W’s build is similar, but has a couple of very neat upgrades, including some back-end software work (his build runs in Docker on balenaCloud, to make configuration easier), and some work on the display, which he’s tweaked to use 1:1 pixel mapping of the fonts and avoid any scaling, so the tiny board looks more like the dot-matrix LED displays you’ll see when you visit the station. You can see the difference in the image below:

 

Chris seems to be using his board as a piece of desktop furniture, where it looks terrific, but model train or narrow-gauge enthusiasts should be all over this project too; it’s a lovely way to inject some realism into a miniature setup. You can find a very complete guide to making your own here.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to catch.

 

 

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Eight years, 2000 blog posts

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Today’s a bit of a milestone for us: this is the 2000th post on this blog.

Why does a computer company have a blog? When did it start, who writes it, and where does the content come from? And don’t you have sore fingers? All of these are good questions: I’m here to answer them for you.

The first ever Raspberry Pi blog post

Marital circumstances being what they are, I had a front-row view of everything that was going on at Raspberry Pi, right from the original conversations that kicked the project off in 2009. In 2011, when development was still being done on Eben’s and my kitchen table, we met with sudden and slightly alarming fame when Rory Cellan Jones from the BBC shot a short video of a prototype Raspberry Pi and blogged about it – his post went viral. I was working as a freelance journalist and editor at the time, but realised that we weren’t going to get a better chance to kickstart a community, so I dropped my freelance work and came to work full-time for Raspberry Pi.

Setting up an instantiation of WordPress so we could talk to all Rory’s readers, each of whom decided we’d promised we’d make them a $25 computer, was one of the first orders of business. We could use the WordPress site to announce news, and to run a sort of devlog, which is what became this blog; back then, many of our blog posts were about the development of the original Raspberry Pi.

It was a lovely time to be writing about what we do, because we could be very open about the development process and how we were moving towards launch in a way that sadly, is closed to us today. (If we’d blogged about the development of Raspberry Pi 3 in the detail we’d blogged about Raspberry Pi 1, we’d not only have been handing sensitive and helpful commercial information to the large number of competitor organisations that have sprung up like mushrooms since that original launch; but you’d also all have stopped buying Pi 2 in the run-up, starving us of the revenue we need to do the development work.)

Once Raspberry Pis started making their way into people’s hands in early 2012, I realised there was something else that it was important to share: news about what new users were doing with their Pis. And I will never, ever stop being shocked at the applications of Raspberry Pi that you come up with. Favourites from over the years? The paludarium’s still right up there (no, I didn’t know what a paludarium was either when I found out about it); the cucumber sorter’s brilliant; and the home-brew artificial pancreas blows my mind. I’ve a particular soft spot for musical projects (which I wish you guys would comment on a bit more so I had an excuse to write about more of them).

As we’ve grown, my job has grown too, so I don’t write all the posts here like I used to. I oversee press, communications, marketing and PR for Raspberry Pi Trading now, working with a team of writers, editors, designers, illustrators, photographers, videographers and managers – it’s very different from the days when the office was that kitchen table. Alex Bate, our magisterial Head of Social Media, now writes a lot of what you see on this blog, but it’s always a good day for me when I have time to pitch in and write a post.

I’d forgotten some of the early stuff before looking at 2011’s blog posts to jog my memory as I wrote today’s. What were we thinking when we decided to ship without GPIO pins soldered on? (Happily for the project and for the 25,000,000 Pi owners all over the world in 2019, we changed our minds before we finally launched.) Just how many days in aggregate did I spend stuffing envelopes with stickers at £1 a throw to raise some early funds to get the first PCBs made? (I still have nightmares about the paper cuts.) And every time I think I’m having a bad day, I need to remember that this thing happened, and yet everything was OK again in the end. (The backs of my hands have gone all prickly just thinking about it.) Now I think about it, the Xenon Death Flash happened too. We also survived that.

At the bottom of it all, this blog has always been about community. It’s about sharing what we do, what you do, and making links between people all over the world who have this little machine in common. The work you do telling people about Raspberry Pi, putting it into your own projects, and supporting us by buying the product doesn’t just help us make hardware: every penny we make funds the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s charitable work, helps kids on every continent to learn the skills they need to make their own futures better, and, we think, makes the world a better place. So thank you. As long as you keep reading, we’ll keep writing.

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Literature dispenser

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There are many things I do not know about Argentina. Until today, one of them was this: if you’re in an Argentinian bank, you may not use electronic devices. That includes phones and e-readers like the Kindle (and I can’t be the only person here who is pretty much surgically attached to their Kindle).

Enter the literature dispenser.

Roni Bandini, an Argentinian author, found himself twiddling his thumbs in a Buenos Aires bank queue, and thought that perhaps the 50 other people he could see in the same situation might benefit from a little distraction. How about a machine, owned by the bank, that could furnish you with one of a curated selection of short stories at the touch of a button? The short stories bit was easy: he writes them for a living.

Expendedor de literatura en tickets (invento argentino)

Expendedor de literatura en tickets desarrollado por @ronibandini Versión 2 Elementos utilizados para su fabricación: Raspberry Pi Thermal Printer LCD Display 16×2 Custom 3d Printed Case Más información en https://medium.com/@Bandini

He chose a Raspberry Pi because there are so many libraries for thermal printers and LCD displays available (and because it’s tiny, and you can fit a heck of a lot of short stories on an SD card these days).

Roni says:

This project was “trial and error” in many aspects. I had troubles with power source amperage due to thermal printer requirements, conflicts with previous software running in the Raspberry – since the same one was used for other projects – and I had to write some routines to avoid words being split due to ticket width. Since the machine could be working for 12 hours in a row, I have added a small 5v cooling fan in the back.

He built a wooden prototype, and was helped out by Z-lab, a small, local 3d print design studio, with permanent casing (which is rather lovely).

literature dispenser

The UI’s very simple: press the green button, be rewarded with a short story, printed to order on a till strip. We’d love to see businesses use these in real life (and we’re thinking one of these would be a lovely addition to the Pi Towers lobby, to help soothe anxious interview candidates). Thanks Roni – I’m off to try to find some of your work in translation, and we’re all agreed that we’re very grateful for internet banking.

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We have the plague

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Apologies to our daily visitors (we love you guys); we don’t have a proper blog post for you today because we’re all really ill. (I have food poisoning, Helen is coughing up goo and can barely speak or breathe, and Alex is being sick.)

You’ve got a day until Halloween; if you’re looking for inspiration, we’ve got several years of archived spooky project posts for you to check out. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and have a little lie down.

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Autonomous drones (only slightly flammable)

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I had an email a little while ago, which opened: “I don’t know if you remember me, but…”

As it happens, I remembered Andy Baker very well, in large part because an indoor autonomous drone demo he ran at a Raspberry Pi birthday party a couple of years ago ACTUALLY CAUGHT FIRE. Here’s a refresher.

Raspberry Pi Party Autonomous drone demo + fire

At the Raspberry Pi IV party and there is a great demo of an Autonomous drone which is very impressive with only using a Pi. However it caught on fire. But i believe it does actually work.

We’ve been very careful since then to make sure that speakers are always accompanied by a fire extinguisher.

I love stories like Andy’s. He started working with the Raspberry Pi shortly after our first release in 2012, and had absolutely no experience with drones or programming them; there’s nothing more interesting than watching someone go from a standing start to something really impressive. It’s been a couple of years since we were last in touch, but Andy mailed me last week to let me know he’s just completed his piDrone project, after years of development. I thought you’d like to hear about it too. Over to Andy!

Building an autonomous drone from scratch

I suffer from “terminal boredom syndrome”; I always need a challenging hobby to keep me sane. In 2012, the Raspberry Pi was launched just as my previous hobby had come to an end. After six months of playing (including a Raspberry Pi version of a BBC Micro Turtle robot I did at school 30+ years ago), I was looking for something really challenging. DIY drones were emerging, so I set out making one with a Raspberry Pi and Python, from absolute ignorance but loads of motivation.  Six years later, with only one fire (at the Raspberry Pi 4th Birthday Party, no less!), the job is done.

Here’s smaller Zoë, larger Hermione and their remote-controller, Ivy:

Zoë (as in “Ball”), the smallest drone, is based on a Pi ZeroW, supporting preset- and manual-flight controls. Hermione (as in “Granger”) is a Pi3 drone, supporting the above along with GPS and obstacle-avoidance.

Penelope (as in “Pitstop”), not shown above, is a B3+ with mix of the two above.

Development history

It probably took four years(!) to get the drone to simply hover stably for more than a few seconds. For example, the accelerometer (IMU) tells gravity and acceleration in 3D; and from sum math(s), angles, speed and distance. But IMU output is very noisy. It drifts with temperature, and because gravity is huge compared to the propeller changes, it doesn’t take long before the calculated speed and distance values drift significantly. It took a lot of time, experimentation and guesswork to get accelerometer, gyrometer, ground-facing LiDAR and a Raspberry Pi camera to work together to get a stable hover for minutes rather than seconds. And during that experimentation, there were plenty of crashes: replacement parts were needed many many times! However, with a sixty-second stable hover finally working, adding cool features like GPS tracking, object avoidance and human control were trivial in comparison.

GNSS waypoint tracked successfully!

See http://blog.pistuffing.co.uk/whoohoo/

Obstruction avoidance test 2 – PASSED!!!!!

Details at http://pidrone.io/posts/obstruction-avoidance-test-2-passed/

Human control (iPhone)

See http://pidrone.io/posts/human-i-am-human/

In passing, I’m a co-founder and assistant at the Cotswold Raspberry Jam (cotswoldjam.org). I’m hoping to take Zoë to the next event on September 15th – tickets are free – and there’s so much more learn, interact and play with beyond the piDrone.

Finally, a few years ago, my goal became getting the piDrone exploring a maze: all but minor tweaks are now in places. Sadly, piDrone battery power for exploring a large maze currently doesn’t exist. Perhaps my next project will be designing a nuclear-fusion battery pack?  Deuterium oxide (heavy water) is surprisingly cheap, it seems…

More resources

If you want to learn more, there’s years of development on Andy’s blog at http://pidrone.io, and he’s made considerable documentation available at GitHub if you want to explore things further after this blog post. Thanks Andy!

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Raspberry Pi as car computer

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Carputers! Fabrice Aneche is documenting his ongoing build, which equips an older (2011) car with some of the features a 2018 model might have: thus far, a reversing camera (bought off the shelf, with a modified GUI to show the date and the camera’s output built with Qt and Golang), GPS and offline route guidance.

rearcam

We’re not sure how the car got through that little door there.

It was back in 2013, when the Raspberry Pi had been on the market for about a year, that we started to see carputer projects emerge. They tended to be focussed in two directions: in-car entertainment, and on-board diagnostics (OBD). We ended up hiring the wonderful Martin O’Hanlon, who wrote up the first OBD project we came across, just this year. Being featured on this blog can change your life, I tell you.

In the last five years, the Pi’s evolved: you’re now working with a lot more processing power, there’s onboard WiFi, and far more peripherals which can be useful in a…vehicular context are available. Consequently, the flavour of the car projects we’re seeing has changed somewhat, with navigation systems and cameras much more visible. Fabrice’s is one of the best examples we’ve found.

solarised map

Night-view navigation system

GPS is all very well, but you, the human person driver, will want directions at every turn. So Fabrice wrote a user interface to serve up live maps and directions, mostly in Qt5 and QML (he’s got some interesting discussion on his website about why he stopped using X11, which turned out to be too slow for his needs). All the non-QML work is done in Go. It’s all open-source, and on GitHub, if you’d like to contribute or roll your own project. He’s also worked over the Linux GPS daemons, found them lacking, and has produced his own:

…the Linux gps daemons are using obscure and over complicated protocols so I’ve decided to write my own gps daemon in Go using a gRPC stream interface. You can find it here.

I’m also not satisfied with the map matching of OSRM for real time display, I may rewrite one using mbmatch.

street map display

We’ll be keeping an eye on this project; given how much clever has gone into it already, we’re pretty sure that Fabrice will be adding new features. Thanks Fabrice!

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