It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Raspberry Pi single-board computer, and platforms like it, have sparked a revolution in the electronics hobbyist/maker community.
We asked Brian Andrew, RS Components’ managing director for sub-Saharan Africa, how these mini computers can and are being used in the mainstream electronic engineering industry.
RS offers an extensive range of both Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards. These start from a low-spec version all the way to the highest-spec version that is available in that range. RS also offers the full range of accessories such as power supplies, cases, modules and components that are compatible with each brand.
“Raspberry Pi’s hardware is not open source, with the firmware required to run the Pi being closed source,” explains Andrew. “It can, however, run open source software and different operating platforms based on Linux. Many third party operating systems besides the Raspberry Pi’s Raspbian can be run on Raspberry Pi, such as Ubuntu, Windows 10 IoT Core, RISC OS, and other systems.”
While Arduino is open source for both hardware and software (although this is disputed when looking at the definitions for OSHW compliance) it cannot process complex programs like the Raspberry Pi. “For users, the main difference between the two boards is in the application. Arduino was designed for robotics and single-function applications, whereas Raspberry Pi can be used in robotics, multi-function applications and also run as a normal PC. Both boards come with extensive add-on modules, community support, free software libraries and tons of video tutorials,” he says.
As to whether they are suitable for serious electronic engineering designs, it really depends on the application, says Andrew: “An electronic engineer will usually start the process with one of these options as it’s easy to test a prototype quite quickly with either board, as they are simple to program. In addition, both boards are usually more cost effective options than a custom made board.
“From the results they can ascertain whether a premade board will suffice or whether they need to build something from scratch. In most instances the boards play a fundamental role in shortening the design process and reducing time to market.”
Andrew goes on to say that in some cases, developers can skip the custom board design stage entirely, and just deploy a product with something like a Raspberry Pi running it. He says there are more instances of this happening as the Raspberry Pi effectively functions as a mini PC, so it can be programmed to do almost anything. Furthermore, the cost of a Raspberry Pi makes it suitable to be used in commercial applications without increasing the overall cost of the product.
There is also a strong uptake of these platforms from the likes of the education sector and innovation hubs/makerspaces. “The development of these platforms has simplified coding and electronics while making it affordable and accessible to almost anyone. It’s now a breeze to teach robotics and electronics at schools and universities with cost-effective hardware and free software and resources. Similarly, it is easy for innovation hubs and makerspaces to use these platforms to build, design and test their ideas,” Andrew says.