Christmas 2019 gifts round-up for Raspberry Pi, micro:bit and more!

Hi everyone. I thought it might be nice to put out a blog post with some great gift ideas for the Raspberry Pi/electronics/robotics/micro:bit person in your life who might like to have a little something to open at Christmas ūüôā This post comes with a piece of advice: Watch out for Black Friday (week) deals!

Beginners

Let’s start off with a gift for someone who might just be about to start their Raspberry Pi journey. The Official Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop Kit is lovely. It comes with everything you need to get started, including a great Beginner’s Guide book. Also included is the official keyboard and mouse, as well as the Pi, a case, an SD card and monitor cables. You could also look at The Pi Hut’s Starter Kit which is cheaper (but doesn’t have the keyboard/mouse) or Pimoroni’s equivalent kit which comes with slightly different items.

Festive Fun

If you’re looking for a couple of stocking fillers, take a look at The Pi Hut’s website for their Christmas tree range or alternatively, pre-order Pimoroni’s new offering: a Snowflake LED board.

Robots!

If you think that special someone might appreciate some robotics fun, take a look over on 4tronix’s website for some Raspberry Pi and micro:bit goodies. Gareth has just launched the MARS Rover for micro:bit kit (pictured above). It’s just lovely and well worth the money if you want something a bit more expensive. If you want something at the lower end, you could also take a look at the Bit:Bot XL for micro:bit which comes in at ¬£42. There are Raspberry Pi goodies too, so have a browse!

If they’re just starting out with robotics, take a look at the CamJam EduKit 3 which is a great little starter kit that myself and Tim Richardson designed and produced in partnership with The Pi Hut. It gets you going on your journey and includes a set of downloadable worksheets to teach you what you need to know.

And finally, if you want something a bit different, take a look at PiBorg’s RockyBorg which is a steerable robotics platform.

Audio

Pimoroni have just launched their Pirate Audio range which is a collection of audio boards to suit a variety of tastes for £19.50 plus shipping. These are fairly low-power audio devices, but they look gorgeous as usual and produce a nice sound on a small scale.

If you or your loved one is an ‘audiophile’ and you want to drive more powerful speakers, I thoroughly recommend IQaudIO’s boards. These are high-quality, beautifully designed and really pack a punch.

3D printing

If your enthusiast is into 3D printing, getting some filament for them (check the size they need!) is one way to win your way into their hearts… Well, you know what I mean.

Pimoroni have just started stocking some nice-looking filaments but if you want a 3D printing specialist, I recommend 3D Printz who are based up in Shropshire.

High class Add-ons

For add-on boards, you will want to check out the RasPiO website – there’s plenty on there that you might not have seen before. Alex Eames has been in the Pi community from the very beginning and he’s created some great boards including the Breadboard Pi Bridge (above), an Arduino-powered Night Light kit (which is¬†great fun to put together as you can read in my beta review) and the Pro HAT which puts the GPIO pins in the right order!

LoRa LoRa Laughs

If your Pi/micro:bit enthusiast is into long-range communication, take a look at Pi Supply’s LoRa range.

 

That’s all, folks

There is plenty of other electronics wizardry out there, just take a look around.

Remember, though: the true joy of Christmas is spending time with your loved ones, cherishing that time and making the most of the Winter break, if you get one! There’s also the small matter of the birth of Christ, but I know my readership is mixed so I won’t go on about that – if you know me well, you know how I feel about Jesus and his love for the world. Hopefully you’ll hear from me again on or around Christmas. Until then: Keep warm!

Red Robotics’ RedBoard+ review – a fully-featured motor controller that isn’t afraid of high power and multiple functions

Neil Lambeth, of Red Robotics has recently released his first motor controller board for the Raspberry Pi. “Oh, not another one!” I hear you cry… Well, hold up there – this is one to pay attention to and it’s not ridiculously expensive, either.

TL;DR – Just buy one if you’re into robotics – it’s fantastic!

Capabilities

Coming in at ¬£30/$38, the RedBoard+ is a HAT-sized controller board and it’s just¬†packed with features:

  • It takes a battery input from 7V-24V and has reverse polarity protection.
  • It powers the Pi with a steady 5.2V, 3A power supply, meaning it will cope with a Pi 4, if necessary.
  • It has a 3.3 Volt 800mA Regulator.
  • It can control two sets of DC motors with two H-bridges on-board, capable of handling 6A per channel (12A overall!) This is one beefy controller.
  • It has a 4-Channel 5V level shifter for driving Neopixels, DotStars or other 5V electronics.
  • It breaks out three channels of an analogue-to-digital converter (one channel is used for battery monitoring)
  • It has one RGB LED on-board used for anything you like, but most useful as a battery warning light and/or an IP blinker (both scripts are included on the code repository).
  • It can directly drives up to twelve hobby servos (with a separate power input for large ‘robot’ servos).
  • It has one user-programmable button which is best used, as supplied, to shutdown or reboot your Pi with different hold-times.
  • An actual power switch to route battery power to the Pi and the motors.
  • Four I2C channels broken out onto headers.
  • Headers for serial communication (RX & TX).
  • Several Ground and Power pins.
  • A “really useful header” onto which you can plug an optional (but not yet available) OLED screen – this came in really handy, so thanks Neil for including one in my review pack!

Using the board

I have a robot I’ve been working on for ages with four powerful, 12V motors and a wooden chassis. It normally uses another motor controller board, but it makes an ideal test platform for the RedBoard+. Here it is in action (with thanks to the wife for doing the recording!):

I used a 10 x 1.2V rechargeable AA battery pack to power the Pi and the motors together, through the RedBoard+. To start with, the Pi kept rebooting and I wondered why… Panic set in! But it turns out that the batteries I was using were… not very good. Neil had pointed out that this could be the problem right at the beginning, but I spent a good few hours in denial before switching over to some Eneloops/Amazon Basics batteries (after which the problem miraculously went away!)¬†Lesson learned: Always Use Good Batteries. It will also work with LiPo batteries, but I’m not that brave… yet! There’s even a test script in the GitHub repository that monitors battery power, tuned for LiPos.

For reference the offending AA batteries were these ones (EBL batteries which I got through Amazon):

Blummin’ things! Anyway!

All this time to test things out meant that I got to code a script to control the robot, with some help from Neil’s original test scripts and a program I’d written (for that other motor controller) that used Tom Oinn’s approxeng.input library (if you haven’t tried this out and you’re into robotics, give it a go – it’s lovely and is compatible with a lot of different games controllers.

Code and Scripts

The controller comes with a GitHub repository containing a simple-to-use library and various test scripts. These were instrumental in trying out the controller board and diagnosing the battery issue. If you get really stuck, and don’t want to install the software yourself, there’s even an SD card image linked to from the GitHub page. Neil’s really put a lot of thought into the user experience. The code he’s released works with both Python 3 (thank goodness) and Python 2 (shudder).

I’ve yet to put to the test the servo capabilities, but if you look at the bottom of this blog post, you’ll see an example of the board using servos as well as DC motors.

Conclusion

There are a¬†lot of motor controllers out there, some more capable than others. If you want a controller board that does more than “just run a couple of motors”, I thoroughly recommend the RedBoard+. It’s good on price, fantastic on functionality and just oozes usefulness. Use the right batteries though – some just aren’t good enough to reliably run the Pi – stick with Eneloops or Amazon Basics or IKEA rechargeable batteries (which seem to all be the same base unit).

Put it another way: if I had to return this review unit (I don’t), I’d buy one in a heartbeat. When you consider the complexity of robotics competitions such as Pi Wars and the need to run more than just two DC motors at low speed, a controller that can handle a wide input range, can deliver high ampage to the motors and can also handle servos (including high-power servos) at the same time, RedBoard+ is what you need.

You can buy a RedBoard+ from Tindie.

Final bit

I’ll leave you with this demo video, shot by Neil himself. It shows all the functionality being used!

Potton Pi & Pints Raspberry Jam – Saturday, 23rd November, 2019 from 1pm-5pm

Fancy doing some Raspberry Pi, Arduino or micro:bit stuff in a relaxed, social atmosphere?
Fancy a chat with fellow geeky-type people?
Fancy finding out about the Raspberry Pi and other boards from first principles?
Then, the “Potton Pi & Pints” Raspberry Jam is for you!

What?

This is an informal family-friendly event from the same team that brings you the Cambridge Raspberry Jam and Pi Wars.
We start at lunchtime and encourage people to bring along their projects to Show and Tell or to come along and find out more about the Raspberry Pi, micro:bit or Arduino and what they can do. We set up some pi-topCEED Raspberry Pi workstations for general hacking, but you’re welcome to bring your own equipment along.

This event is an ideal opportunity to get some one-on-one help with setting your Pi up or to get assistance with an ongoing project.

If you want to drop in and learn something new, we supply some Raspberry Pis, worksheets and electronics so you (and your kids, if you have them!) can get hands-on.

Where?

The event is being held in Potton, a small town on the Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire border, at The Rising Sun, a family-friendly, dog-friendly pub. Food is available all day and is of the pub-grub variety: generously-portioned and reasonably-priced. You can read more about The Rising Sun on their website.

We’ve arranged to use the upstairs function room which has tables and chairs and plenty of space for your projects or just for talking if that’s all you want to do.

This event is a real social for Pi enthusiasts and we’re hoping it will be nice and relaxed with none of the stress and frantic nature of the usual CamJam and Pi Wars! Kick back, unwind and do stuff with your Pi.

Equipment

We’ll be supplying a few Raspberry Pi workstations in the shape of pi-topCEEDs, keyboards and mice. All you have to do is come along. We’ll have some of our worksheets with us so there’ll be some activities for kids available.

Show and Tell

Feel free to bring your own Pi (or Arduino, micro:bit or other) project and whatever other electronic wizardry/gadgetry you happen to have.¬†Please bring a 4-way adapter and extension cord just in case we run out! ūüôā

Stay for a meal or a drink

At the end of the Jam (5pm-ish), feel free to join us for a meal/drink/chat. We generally go on into the evening! Everyone is welcome, so feel free to bring the whole family!

Safeguarding

Questions

Any questions can, as usual, be addressed to Tim Richardson (tim@potton.me.uk) and/or Michael Horne

Raspberry Pi and micro:bit robot maker Dexter Industries acquired by Modular Robotics

American educational robotics company Dexter Industries has been acquired by fellow American robotics company Modular Robotics. Dexter Industries, the company behind the excellent Raspberry Pi-based GoPiGo and the micro:bit-based Gigglebot as well as several others was merged into Modular Robotics back in July. Since then, they’ve been integrating their operations. Modular Robotics, based in Boulder, Colorado, make Cubelets – a fantastic way to get your kids into physical computing and robotics. You start off without a screen, assembling the blocks together, before moving on to using Blockly to program more advanced behaviour.

For now, both product lines are expected to continue, which is very welcome news for this blogger – the GoPiGo in particular is a brilliant robotics kit and the visual programming environment/software that goes with it (Bloxter) is first-rate, providing a user-friendly interface to help get you started with programming your robot. I reviewed the kit and the software a couple of years ago and it’s a great starting point.

It will be interesting to see how things progress as the companies innovate and work together to create new, exciting ways of encouraging kids of all ages to get into robotics.

The answer, my friend, is written on a Raspberry Pi 3 in this wind chime installation

At The Minories Galleries in Colchester, something is travelling on the wind. Sound artist Frazer Merrick has taken a set of wind chimes and connected them up to a Makey Makey board. The Makey Makey is then connected to a Raspberry Pi 3 which runs a Scratch script. The Scratch script interprets touches and movements of the chimes into additional sound, which are then player back through a set of headphones connected to the Pi. The effect is quite hypnotic:

Frazer has written up how he made it, and you can find the write-up on Instructables. You can read more about the project, and Frazer’s other work, over on his website.