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‘Smart Dusts’ and ‘Raspberry Pi’ — a credit card size computer

Exploring the 'Smart Dust' and 'Raspberry Pi' mini-computers that have enthralled the world!


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Mehul Gala

3 years ago | 6 min read

If there was one computer who could recreate this enthralling Tyrion Lannister moment, “The most famous dwarf in the world”, it would certainly be the “Raspberry Pi”. It is the most famous miniature computer in the world right now, millions of its pieces sold in a very short span of time, and its popularity is constantly on the rise. But is it the smallest computer ever made? Let’s figure out.

We, the sapiens, have undoubtedly, a rather delightful, affection for the things that touch the limits, or even better, push the limits further out. If I were to ask you who is the fastest animal or the tallest building or the the longest river in the world, the odds are you would know the answer. Every now and then, we are confronted with new marvels that stretches the known boundaries. That is indeed a fascinating prospect.

As you would imagine, the computing world is not immune to it either. It has seen, and is seeing, a great deal of extremes, and the thrill continues. In terms of performance and computational power, the supercomputers are setting the new benchmarks, and the quantum computers are knocking on the door as we speak, taking the world by storm. They would a different kind of beast in the times to come. But we’re here not to talk about speed but size.

ENIAC
ENIAC

The first general purpose electronic computer of the world was ENIAC made by IBM in the 40’s. It filled the entire Room. Since then, the general purpose computers have been gradually decreasing in size. The space consuming parts eventually getting replaced by their compact counterparts. From Desktop to laptop, tablets and smart phones, each are occupying lesser space than their predecessors, pushing the bar one notch higher.

There has been a raging debate on what to call a computer. Is every device that does some sort of computation a computer? Is your smart phone a computer? Is a single board chip sitting inside your microwave oven or your building elevator a computer? The grey area remains as there is no consensus on the definition.

Traditionally, we know what a computer must have. Like the bare minimum. It must have a processor to process data, it must have a memory unit for temporary storage, it should have a way to take the data in, do some operations on it, and throw the output back. Now, the input and output need not go through the usual mouse, keyboard or monitors mediums, instead, it could be any kind of device (electronic, mechanical, or any other sensing device), that is able to intercept and interpret them.

Michigan Micro Mote (M3) — World’s smallest computer in 2015
Michigan Micro Mote (M3) — World’s smallest computer in 2015

Let us for a moment, for the lack of better clarity, assume this is the definition of a computer, then I have something extremely wonderful to show you. There has been a cat and mouse race between IBM and University of Michigan for holding the title of designing the world’s smallest computer.

In 2015, University of Michigan launched the world’s smallest computer with dimensions of less than half a centimeter. It can take input using sensors and throw output as radio waves. It was able to generate its own power using light. The photo of this device with a coin, was taken to put things in perspective, which became quite popular.

IBM ‘Smart Dust’ with Salt — World’s smallest computer in Mar 2018
IBM ‘Smart Dust’ with Salt — World’s smallest computer in Mar 2018

Few years later, IBM launched its own miniature version of the computer which was 1 mm across. Another famous image made rounds where this device was placed with salt to put its smallness in perspective. And then University of Michigan hit back with their latest micro computer which is 0.3 mm across, so much small that it makes a grain of rice look mammoth when placed along side.

These computing devices belong to the suite called ‘Smart Dust’ which are special purpose microcomputers designed to detect light, temperature, vibrations or noise, and send the data back to the receiver. Mind you, they all are well within their rights to call a computer as per our globally accepted definition. It has a small processor, a tiny memory unit and it has data input and output capabilities, all embedded on a single board.

University of Michigan ‘Smart Dust’ near a grain of rice- World’s current smallest computer (as of Oct 2019)
University of Michigan ‘Smart Dust’ near a grain of rice- World’s current smallest computer (as of Oct 2019)

Amidst all the madness, out of the blue, a special mini computer has made giant strides, and is punching above its weight. Worth noting that, Raspberry Pi was not conceptualized for mainstream computational needs. It was designed by Raspberry Pi Foundation in UK to promote teaching of basic computer science and programming in schools and in developing countries by offering computer infrastructure at a very low cost.

The first model (Pi Zero) became far more popular than anticipated, selling way beyond its target markets, and finding its application in many diverse fields such as Robotics, Surveillance systems, Weather monitoring systems. Where it stands out from ‘Smart Dusts’ is, unlike them, this is a general purpose mini computer, not designed for any special task, but suitable to anything you dare imagine. It offers fairly decent configurations at mind-numbingly low prices, and that has proliferated its usage in a range of applications.

Where it really cuts the deal is, it is a very low power consumption unit, it doesn’t need a lot of fans or special cooling, it produces less heat. It practically runs on a USB power supply which is just 5 V compared to our laptop or a desktop that needs a 220 V power supply. Let me unveil what it looks like, don’t be fooled by its eye-catchy name, and don’t expect it to look like a desert :)

Raspberry Pi
Raspberry Pi

Possibly, there must be two doubts raising in your head right now. This champ doesn’t look like a computer we’re used to seeing, and why is it named Raspberry Pi? Let me clear the air.

It belongs to the class of ‘headless computers’, where they provide the computing infrastructure without the peripheral devices. Users are free to attach any kind of additional hardware to them as they wish to. Raspberry Pi is a single board computer, the first version Pi Zero was the size of a stick of gum, and it offered decent computation capabilities in a price as low as 5$. The latest model Raspberry Pi 4 is of the size of a credit card, and its lowest configuration is priced at 35$. This is out-rightly insane price to have a fully functioning general purpose computer.

Now, onto its name. The word “Raspberry” was kept as a homage to early computer companies being named after fruit, like Apple, Apricot Computers, and Acorn. The “Pi” derives from the original idea to make a small computer to run only the Python programming language. There are other siblings of Raspberry Pi like Orange Pi, Banana Pi and Arduino but none are as famous.

Let’s talk about its impressive list of configurations.

Raspberry Pi 4 configuration
Raspberry Pi 4 configuration

It has a quad-core 1.5 GHz processor, which is reasonably powerful. Users can choose the RAM between 1, 2 and 4 GB. It has two USB-2 ports, two USB-3 ports. It can connect to an Ethernet cable which can transfer data at Gigabits per second speed. It has WiFi and Bluetooth capabilities. 2 micro HDMI ports which can display up-to 4K screen resolutions. It is powered by a USB Type C power supply which is very low power consumption for a general purpose computer device. It has an audio jack for sound. It supports micro SD hard for persistent storage, and to boot the operating system.

All of these are quite handy, and comparable to configurations to a modern desktop. But the main attraction that made it so popular are its 40 GPIO (General purpose input output) Pins which anyone can use to connect the Raspberry Pi hardware to any custom device, and create a wide array of application (which we shall see below). You can take inputs from say a temperature monitor or video surveillance feed, process it in Raspberry Pi, and throw the output to any other device like an alarm systems, LEDs, stepper motors etc. The GPIO pins gave made Raspberry Pi immensely powerful.

The operating system that is designed for Raspberry Pi is a special Linux distro Raspbian which you can mount on a micro SD card, and have it running on the Pi. The pi has been driving the ecosystem of low power consumption applications like security web cams, smart door controllers, temperature and weather monitoring systems or flying drones. Its potential is limitless. I have to admit, it has climbed to my fourth favorite British Invention after Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Cricket.

Leaving you with some of its application photos. Hope it amazes you.

A low power Virtual Keyboard player
A low power Virtual Keyboard player
A low power microscope
A low power microscope
Pi Phone
Pi Phone
Robots
Robots
CCTV Camera
CCTV Camera

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