In its short life so far of just over three years, the Raspberry Pi has been an absolute game changer – not just as a piece of reduced price hardware, but for nurturing a community of like-minded individuals with a common goal: learning and making awesome stuff!
We can’t recall the number of times we’ve browsed over to the Raspberry Pi blog and been blown away by the brilliance of a new project. From sorting Portuguese mail to making bullet time rigs, there are a lot of incredible projects out there – more and more are surfacing every day. People often ask what they can do with a Raspberry Pi and it is actually sometimes difficult to articulate an answer to that question, as the use cases are so broad that it is hard to do the Raspberry Pi justice.
When comparing the Raspberry Pi to your average off-the-shelf computer or mobile device, the brilliance of the Raspberry Pi comes down to its upgradeability and the amount of customisation that is possible. With a smartphone or tablet you can get a trendy case or some cool headphones to go with it, but the customisation with the Raspberry Pi goes far further than that – both in software and hardware. A lot of projects you look at appear to actually be the real-life manifestations of a childhood dream. That ability to turn what used to be dreams into reality is what makes the Raspberry Pi so well loved.
Here we take a look at ten of our favourite Raspberry Pi upgrades, which will help you bring your ideas to life and serve as some inspiration for your next project!
Short Crust Plus – £8.99/$15.95
The Raspberry Pi is a durable and reliable little computer, especially when you consider that it is just a populated circuit board with no real protection. However, there may be times where you want to give your Pi a nice shell. Maybe because you want your Pi-based home theatre to look more sleek next to all of your other electronics, or maybe you just want to keep the dust off your tiny computer when carrying it around in your pocket.
The Short Crust Plus is one of our favourite cases for the Model B+ and 2B Raspberry Pis due to its sleek, tidy design and well thought-out features. It is also easy to use – the Pi itself snaps into place inside the case and the lid also clicks into place. Each case comes with a set of self-adhesive rubber feet and a free extension that enables you to increase the height of the case in order to accept any add-on boards you might be using.
PiJuice – £25/$39
You can now get hold of an elegant little add-on board that lets you take your projects off-grid and away from mains power sources. PiJuice is compliant with the Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) specification and makes use of a slim, off-the-shelf mobile phone battery, and some intelligent charging and power circuitry, to make your Pi truly portable. There’s also a version called PiJuice Solar that enables solar recharging and is even capable of taking inputs from other renewable energy sources.
PiJuice also has a powerful ARM Cortex M0 processor that provides deep sleep functionality, a real time clock, watchdog timers and plenty of other very useful features. The firmware and GUI (graphical user interface) that comes with the PiJuice communicate with the common ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) battery and power APIs for tight integration with Raspbian. PiJuice only uses a I2C power sand one GPIO pin, so most of the GPIO pin bank is left free for use with other projects. It comes as standard with a stacking header to make it extremely simple to add other HATs or add-on boards on top. PiJuice will enable you to make a variety of awesome projects – check out the PiJuice Instructables page: bit.ly/1e2CoGE.
Pi Supply Switch – £15/$23.10
The Raspberry Pi has been so popular, in part, because of the extremely good value for money of the hardware. It packs a lot of punch for the price point and, because it is designed by a charity, they don’t need to inflate the price with high profit margins as much as would be done with a more commercial product. Unfortunately, as with anything low-cost, some compromises had to be made in order to bring it in at such an affordable and small form factor.
When comparing it to your more standard desktop or laptop computer, one thing that it is obviously lacking is a power switch and power management functionality. It is surprising how something as simple as a power switch can be so very useful, and it is not until you do not have one that you realise this!
The Pi Supply Switch is a self-solder kit which provides an on, off and soft-off (file-safe shutdown) button to give you basic power management functionality for your Pi. With some provided sample scripts you can make sure your Pi is correctly shut down when you switch off – without the need to open any menus or issue any commands in the terminal – and the circuitry in the switch ensures that power is only removed after the Pi has been shut down. As well as making it more convenient for you, it also reduces the possibility of corruption to your SD card from prematurely pulling the power cable.
NoIR Infrared Camera – £16.80/$29.95
The CSI connector on the Raspberry Pi (between the 3.5 mm jack plug and HDMI connector on the most recent models) enables you to connect a camera module directly without the need for a USB-powered webcam. The camera modules that you can connect here use less power and, as you would expect from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, they come in an impressively small form factor – 25 x 24 x 9 mm, weighing in at around three grams (not including the cable).
As you would expect, there is a ‘normal’ camera module on offer (and by normal, we mean one that captures visible light) with some impressive stats – a 5 MP fixed focus camera, which supports 1080p30, 720p60 and VGA90 video modes (full specs here: bit.ly/1Gy3D8q). When the camera module was first released, some people clearly were not happy with a visible light camera and had some other (very cool) applications in mind – so they took apart the tiny camera sensor and removed the infrared filter before putting it all back together again. Painstaking work which obviously voids the warranty, but so many people were doing it that the Raspberry Pi Foundation took notice and started doing it themselves, eventually releasing a new infrared camera module – Pi NoIR.
There are some fairly commonplace nighttime uses for infrared video, and if you pair your Pi NoIR with some infrared LEDs (check out the Bright Pi add-on board for this), then you can easily use it for a night vision security camera or a nocturnal animal monitoring setup. Perhaps most amazingly, if you use the infrared camera in the daytime, it can actually be used to monitor the health of green plants (bit.ly/1QnZdFG).
HiFiBerry DAC+ – £30/$34.90
As an educational tool, the Raspberry Pi is pretty much unparalleled due to the support of the very large community that surrounds it. As a high quality audio device, however, you may think it is lacking due to the fact it only has a 3.5 mm stereo output that isn’t tuned for high fidelity.
Due to its low cost, small footprint and its ability to act as a home media centre, music and video streaming server and much more, you have probably dreamed of enhancing the audio and taking your setup to the next level. The good news is that the clever folk at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, from the second revision of the original Model B, have provided access to the I2S pins; initially on the separate P5 header, and now on the A+, B+ and 2B models it is available from the main 40-pin GPIO header.
I2S is a communications protocol designed specifically for audio devices and has enabled a number of companies like HiFiBerry and IQaudIO to create high quality audio add-ons for the Raspberry Pi. The HiFiBerry DAC+, for example, is an add-on which brings a high resolution (192 kHz, 24-bit) Burr-Brown digital-to-analogue converter to your Pi. It has hardware volume control using Alsamixer, among other features, and as it is a HAT-compatible board. It works plug-and-play out of the box with the latest Raspberry Pi firmwares, and it works with all the popular operating systems for both standard use and media playback, such as Raspbian, Arch Linux, OSMC, OpenELEC, Volumio, Pi MusicBox and many more. If you are serious about your audio quality and want a high quality, low cost, Internet-connected solution, then you no longer have any excuse – you can build your own for under £100!
Pi-Pan Pan Tilt Mechanism – £45.99/$39.99
The camera module and Pi NoIR we look at on the opposite page are some pretty essential upgrades to have in your Raspberry Pi toolbox, but what happens if you want to move the camera around to get a different viewpoint? This would be useful in a multitude of projects, such as a robot with a movable camera or an Internet-connected webcam that you can control via a web interface (many IP cameras used for security applications already have a pan-tilt feature, in fact).
The Pi-Pan from Open Electrons is a pan-tilt mechanism for the Raspberry Pi that enables you to articulate the camera by an impressive amount – 110 degrees from top to bottom and 180 degrees from left to right. The kit includes a well considered array of hardware, including a servo driver board, the servo motors required for the actuation and mounting hardware for the camera and servos. On the software side, there are libraries in Python and Scratch so it is easily flexible enough for most projects.
One of the most impressive applications you could use this for is an OpenCV-based motion detection and face-tracking camera. There is sample code available on the openelectrons.com forum and it looks like a truly great project to try (bit.ly/1JJpXLe).