English
28.08.2012

Board Turns Raspberry Pi into Industrial PC

The RasPiComm is one of the first expansions for the popular 29-euro computer. The add-on board is sold by the Austrian company Amescon and is intended to make the device an “industrial computer for anyone” that can be used to control up to 256 devices.

The

, claimed to be the “cheapest computer in the world,” is taking the market by storm. According to Eben Upton, president of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, over 200,000 units have already been shipped, and the waiting list is said to be just as long. The affordable credit-card-sized computer is proving to be especially popular in the do-it-yourself community, which has already installed it in weather balloons and satellites. A young Austrian hasdeveloped one of the first expansions for the well-known mini-computer, the RasPiComm, which can substantially expand the capabilities of the 30-euro device.

The RasPiComm is an expansion board for the Pi and is primarily intended to be used to control stepper motors. It was designed by the Viennese entrepreneur Daniel Amesberger, who has big plans for it. Motivated by the overwhelming feedback from the Raspberry community, he now wants to establish a platform “that provides code and wiring diagrams showing how the RasPiComm can be used as the basis for automation tasks.” His first blog post received over 10,000 hits, and now the creator and president of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, Eben Upton, has taken notice of the young developer and wants to help him market the board.


Cheap home automation
Unlike the GertBoard, which provides a complete microcontroller, the RasPiComm is based on communication over serial interfaces. An RS485 and an RS232 interface form the core of the board, which can be used to control up to 256 devices. This is especially interesting for home automation applications that can control complete relays and sensors, and would at least theoretically allow the cheap Raspberry Pi to run the infrastructure of an entire building.

Another advantage compared to the GertBoard, which was released last week, is that it can be piggypacked directly onto the GPIO port. This keeps the Raspberry compact, and allows some of the custom housings to still be used. The board is marginally higher than the CPU, but should not cause any overheating problems despite the lack of cooling. But anyone who wants to be absolutely sure will be pleased to learn that the newest variant of the RasPiComm offers a plug for a 5-volt fan.


Cheaper than the GertBoard
A very practical feature that the Raspberry Pi unfortunately lacks is also provided by the RasPiComm: a realtime clock (RTC). At present, the Pi loses the time when it is disconnected from its power supply. But this convenience brings a different problem. Because the RTC chip is relatively expensive, it was not included in the original design of the Raspberry Pi.


But the price of the RasPiComm is said to be lower than for the

, which is currently only sold as a kit. The target price for the first lot of 1,000 units is 35 euros, but is “not yet set in stone.” Amesberger is hoping to win the support of electronics manufacturer Farnell, which also sells the GertBoard and the Raspberry Pi, for the manufacture of his product.


Competitor may start earlier
Farnell suddenly began accepting pre-orders for the GertBoard, which had just gone into production, just one week after Amesberger published the first concept for the RasPiComm. Amesberger thinks that this is no coincidence, but does not see the GertBoard as a competitor because the two devices have completely different focuses.


An API for programming the controller is to be provided when the board becomes available for sale. This will be published as open source, as has the board layout. Amesberger is especially betting on the large Raspberry community, which has already delivered tremendous feedback on the RasPiComm and will hopefully develop drivers, software and circuits for the board. A driver for the open source stepper motor controller Steprocker will be delivered with the board.


It supports 256 microsteps and the simultaneous control of up to three axes so that it can even be used to control custom CNC machines. A joystick control on the RasPiComm is used to check the programs, and supports up to five input variants (directions and “enter” by pressing).

A version with more features by the name of RasPiComm Plus is already under development. This board will be significantly larger than the conventional RasPiComm and will extend above the Raspberry Pi board. In addition to a CAN bus, it will also offer an installation solution that will allow the entire device to be mounted in a housing.


Pioneering decision
For Amesberger, RasPiComm is anything but a hobby project – it is a decision for the future. Amesberger has been managing partner of  Amescon GmbH, a company specializing in automation, for nine years. The company is best known for its money automation systems that can automatically count the quantities of up to 160 different bills, bundle and package them and move them to the armored truck. Its customers include numerous major German banks. Despite this success, Amesberger does not rule out a switch to the new platform in the future. He finds the Raspberry Pi to be “extremely interesting” and feels that it can serve as the basis for “a kind of industrial computer for anyone.”

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