You don’t need to be an expert in computers before starting with a single board computer, but you have to know which one of these is the best and the ultimate tool for your DIY project. Based on several features and the most common options for robotic applications, I explore four of the most powerful single board computers used by hobbyists, students or engineers in unique and breathtaking robots.
The most important thing as a single board computer is that there are no rules to use it. After you select one of these simple computers, you have to use it as an alternative to any other modern computer. These days are many choices for creating DIY robotic projects, and all of these robots are based on embedded computer controllers.
Reading this article you can discover why you have to use the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, PandaBoard, or BeagleBone, as well as what operating system, programming language, or how many options you have to interface sensors, button, motors, etc.
We can negotiate about the best thing about the Raspberry Pi, but I’m sure that this will come to every user after the arm single board computer is used. Over the time, more precisely since 2009 when the Linux computer was officially registered, the Raspberry Pi has generated a lot of excitement and was plunged into the top of most used single board computers in robotics.
Capable of many things in electronic projects, the fruit-name computer takes part of the same category with Arduino, PandaBoard, or BeagleBone, and can be compared with any of these embedded boards.
No matter how far we go to use the RPi, it will never become a new Mac computer. You can buy the Raspberry Pi at a price of about $40 including shipping taxes, which is a reasonable price to start doing DIY robotic projects.
No matter on which side you turn the credit-card sized computer, you can easily observe that this is not a fully computer. With few resources and electronic skills, the motherboard can be plugged into your TV and allows you to do different applications using a simple keyboard.
There’s a good reason to believe that with few imagination and combining programming with electronic skills, you can build a wide range of applications including autonomous robots, games or high-definition video processing, as well as learning others about electronics and programming.
It is probably difficult to draw a conclusion now, but following the next chapters you will understand why this little breathtaking single board computer it’s so cool and has taken by storm the DIY method of building.
Raspberry Pi: Good to be Used For
It’s needless to make a list with fields where the ARM single board computer can be used. My focus in this article is the robots, and I will stay in this area where a large number of robots are based on this embedded system.
We can build mind-blowing robots for almost anything, and for this we have to use powerful tools and resources. For example, the RPi is a good embedded Linux system for multimedia applications including graphic processing, allows a large number of connection options, or it could become an excellent hacking tool.
Analyzing the robotics enthusiast community, you could easily understand why this cheap single board computer is a good platform to build UAV, mobile robots, robotic arms, or used as a teaching tool to get children into programming. Attaching an accessory such as a webcam, you can easily build a program to capture and detect objects, and this is the charm of the Raspberry Pi computer.
The price of Raspberry Pi
In DIY world the price is an important feature and can make the difference in sales. Available in two versions, version A and version B, between the boards are few differences with a triumph for the B version. The price for Raspberry Pi model B is around $35 plus shipping, which usually makes a total of around $42.
The people around Raspberry Pi let each user to choose the preferred operating system. This is the reason that the fruit-named computer comes without any operating system installed. The disadvantage is that you have to do in a way to have an SD card with an operating system on it and plugged into your Raspberry Pi board. For this, you have to download an image file with an operating system and write it to an SD card.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation recommends the Debian-based operating system, but since the board is an ARM based computer, you have large options to run Linux, Android, Risc, Debian, or even Firefox OS.
With a great support all the time for adding additional programming languages, the Raspberry Pi becomes a platform able to compile almost any programming language compatible with ARMv6 processor architecture. The list can start with the official educational language – Python, and continue with C, C++, Java, Perl, PHP, or Ruby.
The Raspberry Pi allows a large number of connections and connectivity including here USB support, HDMI and RCA outputs, an audio jack, an Ethernet port, 8 × GPIO UART, I2C bus, SPI bus with two chip selects, I2S audio, and extra adapters for WiFi connectivity.
There are two options to power this little computer. One option is to power the Pi using the USB port of a computer, while the second option is to use a 5V power adapter or batteries.
Arduino is another “me too” embedded system with an open-source architecture and a programmable logic controller. Many hobbyists recommended Arduino as the best choice for getting started with DIY robotic applications, and one of the main reasons is that behind the Arduino project is a large community that works together to make a product even better and even cheaper.
These boards are available in several versions such as Arduino Uno, Due, but the most important device is close to be released under the name of Arduino Tre. In the following, I will refer to the features of Arduino boards already available on the market, as well as the Arduino Tre who wants to be the most powerful single board computer in its category.
There are many reasons that we should believe in Arduino Tre, and many more reasons to use it.
So far, any of the Arduino boards was used as a prototyping platform with easy-to-use hardware and software, but the most spectacular jump of Arduino computers expected to see this year once the Arduino Tre is still in the launch phase.
Born to control the physical world, any Arduino board is much more than a DIY hardware system. It is a tool for learning, building robots and automated devices, as well as an open-source embedded system able to be expanded from the original source.
Arduino: Good to be Used For
It is very clear to me that Arduino plays in a different league than Raspberry Pi, but there is at least one chance to become a very hard competitor for Raspberry, BeagleBone, or PandaBoard.
This little computer is engineered for prototyping and allows you to play with sensors, motors, LED’s, while it is an excellent controller for flying robots, autonomous robots, 3D printers, or to communicate with other computers.
Once with Arduino Tre, the single board computer is transformed into a muscle car for electronics and robotics projects.
The price of Arduino
The world of single board computer was taken by assault with several Arduino models, which are designed to fit for any project from robotics, electronics, arts, etc.
Arduino Uno is probably the most popular minicomputer from the Arduino range, and its popularity probably will become history once with the Tre version engineered to provide 100 times more performance.
When I write this article, the price for Arduino Tre is still secret, but I can write many more words about the price of Uno. With the dimensions of a credit card, the Uno board can be purchased at a price of $29 plus few dollars more for shipping.
You don’t have too many options for operating systems compatible with Arduino boards. For example, you have to choose between at least two operating systems such as DuinOS (a real-time embedded operating system) or the graphical operating system built on top of the Arduino and called Pyxis.
From the same area, I have one good news and one bad news to share with you. The greatest news is that you can run a full version of Linux on an Arduino board, while the bad news is that you have to buy an Arduino Tre.
Until the Tre version will be released and able to run a full version of Linux where you can install a set of advanced integrated development environments, you must be satisfied with a simple and free source code editor with support for Mac OS X, Windows and Linux. The programming language is in the spirit of C/C++ and it is very easy to learn.
As I said before, the Arduino is an excited tool for robotics and allows you to control several sensors and motors in the same time. I would like to add here a very important feature that will be available in the Arduino Tre and consist in three microcontrollers dedicated for real-time applications.
I would like to write few more information about the options that you have with an Arduino board, but I’m afraid to not be a confusion between the options of upcoming Arduino Tre and any of the Arduino boards already released.
Almost all Arduino boards can be powered in two different ways. One way is to use the USB port and a cable that makes the connection between the board and computer, while the second option is to use a power adapter or a set of batteries.
All single board computers presented in this article have limits, and BeagleBone Black is one of these. Designed to enter in the field such as piranha with advanced features and a very good development system, the BeagleBoard Black is very close in style by the Raspberry Pi.
Since 2008 when the BeagleBone releases the first device, four more models were released and only one SBC has made noticeable: BeagleBone Black.
The single board Linux computer is intended to be a good platform for developers and hobbyists, which is an opportunity to attract the same enthusiast market as the Raspberry Pi.
BeagleBone: Good to be Used For
The BeagleBone Black is designed to perform almost all the duties of a computer with a single chip and allows you to interface a wide range of devices to create truly innovative projects.
With its powerful features, any hobbyist and engineers can use the Black in projects where high speed processing power is required, as an embedded system platform for learning, or for video capture and image processing applications using a computer vision library such as OpenCV.
The price of BeagleBone
Compared with the first two single board computers, the BeagleBone Black comes with a price close to these: around $45.
The BeagleBone is an embedded system designed for users and for diversity. Based on powerful specifications and a wide range of options for interface sensors, motors, and many more components for robotics, the Black allows you to run operating systems such as Ångström Linux, Android, or Ubuntu.
If you like C, C++, Python, Perl, Ruby, Java, or shell script, you ‘re lucky and free to be comfortable with all of these, while you’re using the BeagleBone Black.
My experience in robotics started with Arduino Uno and I was impressed by the capabilities of this little computer. Compared with Arduino Uno, I have to recognize that the Black is far away in the processing capabilities with a powerful 1 GHz ARM processor and up to 512 MB DDR3. With these specifications is not a surprise that the boot time is under 10 seconds.
You have many options with Black as an embedded system, and among connection features, I can include USB client for power and communications, USB host, HDMI port, and up to 2x 46 pin headers to interface sensors, buttons, or motors.
Like many other single board computers, the Black can be powered by attached to your PC using the USB port, or using a 5V power supply.
It’s natural to think that the big is the best. There is no way to be true even in the area of small computers for hobbyist and engineers. PandaBoard is the biggest embedded system with a height of 4.5 inches (114.3 mm) and a width of 4.0 inches (101.6 mm), a place where a powerful Texas Instruments OMAP44xx processor is located and able to run various operating systems.
PandaBoard: Good to be Used For
The PandaBoard is capable of complex behaviors, such as autonomous navigation and object manipulation, as well as working with ROS and the Kinect sensor. Most users think that the SBC doesn’t have the support from the ROS, but many demonstrations have shown that the motherboard is able to work with the software framework for robot software development.
You can design and run Simulink models as standalone applications as well as real-time Linux extensions, which is a good reason to pay more for this embedded system.
The price of PandaBoard
The most advanced Panda board is the ES version, which has a price that beats any other minicomputer from this article. You have to pay up to $250 for the PandaBoard ES.
The ES version is ideal for development and is able to run various operating systems including Ubuntu, Android, or Chrome.
In the area of programming languages you have to choose between a very short list of languages: C or C++.
The options available for applications in robotics is not the strongest point of the Panda board. It allows Wireless and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as camera expansion header and USB, I2C, GPMC, MMC, DSS, or ETM ports.
In this chapter, there is not much information to be added since the board can be powered in a similar way with the Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or BeagleBone boards. You can power the Panda board over the USB port from a PC, or using an external 5V power supply or batteries.