Raspberry Pi was meant to be a learning tool, but its power could not be ignored by professional designers. Modified for commercial use, it’s being used in more and more applications.

By Brian Santo, contributing writer

Last year, the
Raspberry Pi Foundation delivered the third model of its professional-grade
Raspberry Pi board. The Compute Module 3 (CM3) is a testament to the
accelerating use of the commercial-grade version of the board in a broad
cross-section of products that range from industrial automation and control to consumer
electronics.

You might not
have heard about this widespread adoption, however. The Raspberry Pi Foundation
is restrictive about the use of the Raspberry Pi trademark
in commercial marketing and promotion. Meanwhile, many companies consider their
use of Pi to be competitive information and decline to talk about it. Consequently,
professional applications of Raspberry Pi tend to remain unpublicized. However,
there are certainly hundreds of examples, and maybe thousands, with more
coming. The Raspberry Pi Foundation said that roughly
one-third
of the Pis that it sells go to commercial applications.

Raspberry Pi resellers
are seeing increased demand as well. “In a given month, the Compute Module will
be 5% to 10% of our Raspberry Pi sales,” said Peter Wenzel, global director of
Raspberry Pi products at element 14, one of the leading purveyors of Raspberry
Pi products. “It’s growing, and we can’t forecast its growth enough.”

Raspberry Pi was
created for children to learn basic digital system design skills. The idea was
to specify a basic board that would be simple but not so rudimentary as to be a
toy. Raspberry Pi boards are designed to have more than adequate computation
power to support a wide range of real-world applications as well as to be
inexpensive and easy to use. It just so happens that those are some of the requirements
for many commercial applications — so why not use it for commercial
applications?

At first, it wasn’t
possible due to a lack of popular communications options and on-board memory,
an inability to operate across the full temperature range typically specified
for commercial products, and minimal flexibility for modification.

All of that began
to change with the introduction of the first Compute Module in 2014. It had
some drawbacks for professional use, including the fact that the Broadcom chip
ran a little too hot. But those drawbacks were addressed by the time CM3 was
introduced in 2017. The Raspberry Pi 3 had become quite attractive for
professional and/or commercial use.

“So, what
actually gives the Raspberry Pi 3 a significant leg up over smaller
microcontroller boards? The key is the Broadcom
BCM2837 — a microprocessor that has some unique advantages,” according
to Nick Powers
, an application marketing manager at Arrow Electronics,
who evaluated the product when it came out. “The actual core is an Arm
Cortex-A53, which features heaps of cache and floating-point units that help to
speed up data manipulation, especially in advanced mathematics and graphics.”

There are a
couple of versions of the CM3. They both use Broadcom’s BCM2837 processor at up
to 1.2 GHz and pack 1 GB of RAM. The standard version has 4 GB of on-board eMMC
flash, while the Lite version is more stripped down, including bringing the SD
card interface to the module pins so that users can connect to an eMMC or SD
card of their choice, according to the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The versions
are priced at $30 and $25, respectively.

Element14 (a subsidiary
of Premier Farnell) sells the boards as specified by Raspberry Pi and also creates
variations. Its most recent is the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, built on a new
quad-core Broadcom BCM2837 64-bit processor running at 1.4 GHz and featuring
wireless connectivity (IEEE 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2) and better
thermal management, among other changes. Model Bs are standard products, but the
company will also build custom variations specified by customers. Wenzel said
that element14 has the only license to do that. Element14 recently began marketing
a development kit as well.

The combination
of technical merits and low price make the CM3 attractive, but sometimes it’s
just the ease of use. Because it’s so easy to use, explained Wenzel, it’s
often considered for projects that need to be completed quickly. One of the 10
largest banks in the U.S. chose Raspberry Pi for precisely that reason when it
wanted to upgrade its ATMs to support a new feature. Wenzel declined to
identify the bank in part because it ultimately decided against the upgrade for
business and not for technical reasons.

Raspberry Pi was
invented for kids, and even if there is a version aimed at professionals, it’s
a bit of disservice to not describe
the range of applications as fun bordering on bonkers.

The survey of
commercial uses of Raspberry Pi that follows includes examples provided by the
Raspberry Pi Foundation, element14, Comfile Technology, and Kunbus.

Sorting cucumbers
A family farm in
Japan is using a system based on Raspberry Pi to sort its thorny cucumbers,
according to the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The sorter was created by the
proprietors’ son, Makoto Koike, whose full-time job is as an embedded systems
designer for a company in the Japanese automotive industry.

Wenzel told Electronic
Products that the Compute Module requires some design experience to use it.

The
cucumbers require sorting
because the
straightest, thickest, and thorniest cucumbers can be sold at a higher price.
In fact, there are nine categories of relative desirability into which the
cucumbers can be sorted. Koike’s system incorporates machine learning. He
trained the system using 7,000 photos of cucumbers that he had taken and
categorized. The system has an accuracy rate in excess of 95%, but during
real-world use, it drops to about 70%.

Supercomputing clusters
Automating and
accelerating the sorting of thorny cucumbers might be consequential for thorny
cucumber growers, but when you get right down to it, they are cucumbers. You want a serious example? How about supercomputer
development?

When it comes to
supercomputers, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is about as serious as
you can get. The organization’s Trinity machines typically rank among the 10 fastest supercomputers in
the world. The problem is that no one conducting supercomputer R&D (on
parallel computing architectures, operating systems, applications, etc.) can
afford a Top-10 petascale supercomputer, and running R&D tests on Trinity
is a waste of resources. What was needed, then, was a testbed.

Bitscope received
a call to build a testbed that would have a massive number of nodes (similar to
Trinity) but still be inexpensive. BitScope built five Pi Cluster Modules, each
with 150 four-core nodes of Raspberry Pi Arm processor boards. With a total of
750 CPUs (or 3,000 cores) working together, “the system gives developers
exclusive time on an inexpensive but highly parallelized platform for test and
validation of scalable systems software technologies,” according
to LANL
.

Keep in mind that
a cheap supercomputer will put an eight-figure dent in your bank account. Bitscope
said that it can build a 1,000-node cluster that can be used as a testbed for
less than $150 per node.

The BitScope Pi Cluster Modules system is
comprised of five rack-mounted BitScope Pi Cluster Modules consisting of 3,000
cores using Raspberry Pi Arm processor boards, fully integrated with network
switching infrastructure. (Image: BitScope)

Underwater drone exploration
OpenROV

builds submersible drones for underwater exploration. They can explore for
three hours, providing a high-definition (HD) feed for the duration. The
top-of-the-line Trident model reaches a depth of 100 meters.

The Trident drone
is based on a custom Raspberry Pi board created by element14. As OpenROV
company’s co-founder Eric
Stackpole told element14
, “We needed to fit everything into a very
small package, so we needed a version of the Raspberry Pi that didn’t have the
headers, USB ports, Ethernet jack, and some other large components, so they
worked with us to make a stripped-down version that’s very thin.”

Tridents aren’t for sale yet, but the company
is taking orders. The basic drone, good down to 25 meters, is priced at $1,500,
while the 100-meter model costs $2,050. The company sells a separate $400
Android-based controller.

Industrial control
There are several companies building
controllers and gateways based on the Raspberry Pi Compute Module. One example
is Kunbus, a German company that built its Revolution Pi (aka RevPi) product line
of controllers based on CMs.

Kunbus-disassembled-core3

The Kunbus Revolution Pi is an industrial PC based on the Raspberry
Pi. The image shows the base module RevPi Core 3 dismantled into its
components. In the middle is the Raspberry Pi Compute Module (Image: Kunbus)

If there’s any doubt that a Raspberry Pi-based
product is industrial-grade, Revolution Pis conform to the IEC’s
61131-2 open
international standard for programmable controllers.

One user of RevPi modules is Oxygen
Technologies. When energy customers generate their own solar power and are
connected to the grid, it creates some grid management challenges. Oxygen Technologies
is trying to solve this problem.

Kunbus
describes
how Oxygen Technologies is running a
system in which private and commercial electricity producers can trade their
electricity among each other without any middlemen (Oxygen’s explanation is in
German). The approach relies on everyone having a gateway that can relay
consumption and production data at each node. Oxygen chose the gateway version
of Kunbus’ RevPi.

Other uses
There are a host
of uses for the CM3, ranging from web hosting to smart mirrors.

Web
hosting
— When you sign up with ISP Mythic Beasts, you get a
dedicated Raspberry Pi server backed by network storage. Mythic Beasts drily
notes: “This is a beta service and shouldn’t be used for nuclear power station
command and control systems.” Best advice you’ll get today.

Home
automation and control
FutureHome, based in Oslo,
specializes in smart home technology that it sells to both individual homeowners
and homebuilders in Norway. The FutureHome system is centered on a hub unit
that Wenzel said is based on the Raspberry Pi CM.

Mirror computer
displays
AirNodes is a French company that
describes itself as a design operation that specializes in IoT applications.
One of its most recent products is the Anna Smart Mirror for the hospitality
and retail industries. This is another project based on Raspberry Pi, according
to Wenzel.

Industrial
control applications

— Comfile Technology has created a panel
PC
based on the Raspberry Pi CM that includes a 24-bit color LCD with a
touchscreen and a set of ports (USB, Ethernet, RS-232). A company spokesman was
not able to identify any of the customers of its panel PC by name but did
provide a list of the businesses that they are engaged in. These include:

  • Manufacturers of hydraulic presses
  • Sand molding
  • Manufacturing of HVAC systems
  • Prop and model making
  • Manufacturers of high-voltage
    contacts, capacitors, and relays
  • Manufacturers of high-precision
    scientific measurement equipment
  • Lobster fishing and processing
  • Automated vehicle and safety systems
  • Robotics and sound system manufacturers
  • Signal
    systems for light and freight railways