A Tiny Piece of Pi

A couple of weeks ago, I asked if there were any military applications for a hugely powerful quantum computer.

How about something at the other end of the scale, a $5 computer.

Yes, $5.


And tiny


The original, and British designed, Raspberry Pi is a small (65 x 30 x 5 mm) Linux computer that took the market by storm. The newest member of the Raspberry Pi family has the potential to be even more disruptive. It has a Broadcom 1GHz BCM2835 processor, 512 MB SDRAM, microSD slot, 40 pin header, mini-HDMI socket and two micro USB ports. The beauty of the Pi Zero is the simple fact that it can run Linux and form the basis of numerous development projects whilst being small, power efficient.

And at $5, incredibly cheap.

MPEG video encoding, software defined radio, equipment monitoring and telemetry, remote sensing and encryption are the kind of applications that immediately spring to mind but instead of a small number of incredibly powerful computers, how about a a large number of incredibly cheap computers?

What are the defence and security applications?

Oh, and Made in Wales.

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November 28, 2015 10:25 pm

It certainly won’t satisfy any environmental tests, bit it’d be a great morale booster for the boys on a long trip away from their lady friends.

November 29, 2015 3:21 am

Not sure about about Super cheap aspect because as soon as BAE touch it $5 will become $5,000 but Super small and light has some fantastic benefits for our new pseudo satellite development.

The zephyr 8 that we are purchasing will already have the NIIRS 6 level imaging capability but aim to eventually progress to NIIRS 8 ( which will let it read a licence plate from 70,000ft) as well as ELINT and COMMS packages. Obviously for such a platform weight is the real key issue so the lighter the electronics are the more we can cram on.


In future I think it’s entirely possible that pseudo satellites could replace most aspects of military satellites.

A Caribbean Perspective
A Caribbean Perspective
November 29, 2015 5:28 am

The Pi is a rather nice piece of kit, which has generated a huge worldwide community of hardware hackers. The Pi Foundation set out to “break the mould” and bring coding and hardware hacking to kids, which hopefully will bear fruit in a genuinely computer literate generation (not like those brought up on the Blair/Gates “let’s all convince everyone that computer literacy means being able to type your own letters and do a powerpoint presentation”. Cheap microprocessors have been around for a while, but the Pi makes everything vastly more accessible, as it supports proper operating systems and high-level languages (no more struggling with assembler or machine code).
There have already been decent attempts at building rPi based “supercomputers”, with one PhD student in the USA building a 10 gFlop system using 32 rPis, for less than $2000 (the original Cray supercomputer was a 1.9 gFlop system and cost a bit more). Southampton University have built a 64 rPi system using Lego for the frame. The new Pi Zero came from the fact that they realised that for some people, $25 is a barrier to access – so they built one that they can sell for $5, which includes connector cables (you can actually get one for free with their magazine this month – I’ve had my daughter out scouring the newsagents of Manchester for a copy – they seem to have sold out within hours).
Will they change the face of defence computing – maybe not directly, but hopefully we will see a new generation of young people coming into the defence industries, who grew up building their own robots and drones while they were still in school.
It’s also nice to note that the hardware is basically all British – the Broadcom SoC is a licensed copy of an ARM processor, which traces it’s lineage right back to the old BBC computer.
The Pi Foundation is also a charity.
Disclosure: I currently have 3 rPis (two performing dedicated functions and one for playing with, sorry, developing stuff on) and I’m hoping that Santa brings me a Pi 2, as well as a Pi zero for Christmas. Unfortunately I don’t own any ARM shares (yet)

November 29, 2015 6:45 am

The BBC microcomputer…..a machine that let us play this…..

Steve Coltman
Steve Coltman
November 29, 2015 1:36 pm

I wonder if AQ and ISIS have got their orders in yet? I fear computing will prove to be a leveller…..

November 29, 2015 3:45 pm

Steve that is a fantastic subject for,a whole series of posts. Personally I almost, almost subscribe to “if your not doing anything wrong…” School of monitoring the general population, but I also read 1984 at school !

information and Communications Technologies can be a leveller for criminal and terror groups because they are already in everyday use. However stories of Daesh 24/7 IT helpdesk and an InfoSec manual proved to be erroneous / hoaxes. The Paris conspirators were not even using widely available encryption tools on their mobiles. However on paper at least our society / education system should churn out a lot more talented wngineers / users than the say middle eastern madrasas can (on paper…..). So if bad guys use the dark net, Tor and encryption and western public backlash puts the NSA / GCHQ etc on a back foot with their massive survaillance programs then surely police and security agencies are back to investigatory field craft and humint ?

Does cheap,computing have a military application of non state actors operating on a tight budget? Maybe off the shelf mobiles, tables and iPads do, but unless your building a electronic timer for a bomb I am not sure rPi has any applications ????

November 29, 2015 6:16 pm

Off the shelf mobiles depend on mobile phone towers, which one hopes have been destroyed to deny ISIS comms. You can use a Pi as a base station for these devices to connect to, as well as form a mesh network between other Pi’s.

Rudolph Hucker
Rudolph Hucker
November 29, 2015 10:41 pm

Britain’s ESA contribution is already helping Brit school kids put Pi’s in Space.
Even more hands-on is the High Altitude Ballooning – which is near-space on a shoestring budget.

The official Pi mag has a map of who’s stocking the latest mag with a free Pi Zero on the cover.
See https://www.raspberrypi.org/magpi/how-to-get-magpi-40/ for your nearest retailer.

November 30, 2015 12:26 am

More Pi (like) computers, bought in huge quantities, open up the ability for more Big Data to be used by Little Purses. And that in turn allows a truck-load of defense possibilities. Not just collecting, but the ability to real-time cross-reference and calculate all kinds of data will -and already have- radically improve radar and especially (passive) sonar performance.

On the actual ‘kinetic’ front, early on in Afghanistan and Iraq troops were using remote-control toys before the ‘mature’ UGV robots took over. Various rPie amateur projects have shown it can control toy cars and even toy quad-copters. It doesn’t take a giant leap from cell-phone IEDs to possible weaponized rPie controlled not-so-toys.

Look at your modern cell-phone with its GPS, stabilized camera (future models will have night-vision) and on-board computing power; you can easily see it as the controlling system of a smart weapon.

Personally I believe that small computers are the future; instead of large cabinet sized systems for defense applications a smaller box with several connected rPie-like computers are much more durable – easily replaced or upgraded, just like plugging in extra RAM banks. When you look at the US AEGIS system it looks positively pre-historic, and although still viable, its outdated architecture is vulnerable due to its limitations. Modern weapon computers just need to be able to keep up with the much faster civilian industry, especially with Cyber becoming more of an issue every day.

Engineer Tom
December 1, 2015 1:04 pm

It is a great idea, creating a truly computer literate generation, but they need to follow this through to all levels of educational bureaucracy. I have an A-Level in computing, 2 years of databases and programming. Didn’t count when I got my HND 4 years later, I had to spend 3 months doing lessons in Word and Powerpoint to get a level one qualification to say I could use a PC, however if I had done an IT A-Level it would have counted, sheer stupidity.

December 2, 2015 10:45 pm

More interesting, but not as sexy as deploying rasp pi hardware is the impact Docker software containers as a means of easily deploying systems will have on hedging against too complex software systems.

We clearly need a more productive programming language than C++. I think, with the F-35, we finally hit the wall of what is manageable. Maybe, we’ve already crashed into that wall.

A more productive language would allow to iterate software releases faster. In case of a peer conflict and in a cyber conflict, we would be forced to quickly innovate and adapt. Julia, Go or .NET Core are the obvious OSS candidates.

December 2, 2015 11:26 pm

: WTF is “Julia”: I assume you mean Java? And although the core .NET libraries are open source, MS still owns all the IP. Go is optimised for distributed systems.

In the end, it’s more important that languages you use have the same tool chain: revision control system, interfaces and the like. I must admit I was surprised to see they mainly used C and C++: both are a good choice for the “hard real time” stuff, but poor for applications.

A Caribbean Perspective
A Caribbean Perspective
December 3, 2015 3:09 am
December 3, 2015 7:47 am

Oh, interesting. However, I note that my organisation’s git archive contains C, C++, Java, Python, Ruby, PHP, Perl (naturally!), but no Julia. We’ve thousands of developers, which says to me it’s not widely used, so it’s probably not a good idea to write a major software project in since experienced developers are rather thin on the ground.

The Other Chris
December 3, 2015 9:46 am

For critical hardware, software languages often must be deterministic in a real-time operating system or firmware environment.

A number of the languages suggested so far are not, which is why you are not allowed to write guidance software for missiles or control rod sensors for a nuclear power station in any Western regulatory regime using Java for example.

No joke. It’s even in the JDK T&C click-through.

December 3, 2015 9:55 am
control rod sensors for a nuclear power station in any Western regulatory regime using Java for example.

– that’s the theory
– “they” are still in the process of weeding out spreadsheets!

Hugh Neve
December 4, 2015 9:10 am

A microcontroller similar to the Pi and capable of deterministic processing in eight parallel cores in the Parallax Propeller. I’ve used it for time-of-arrival stuff that other kit couldn’t do as easily.

Pi aside, the various comments about quadcopters, etc., lead me to suggest you look at the Ardupilot: dirt cheap and very capable. I have one in a £160 quadcopter that has a range of a mile or more, a ceiling of a couple of thousand feet and that can operate on a pre-programmed course or under guided mode (i.e., ‘go here’, ‘loiter here’, ‘keep the camera pointed here’, etc.,). The latter is via a £30 refurb Tesco Hudl with two way telemetry via £20 worth of radio modems. It can also lift a couple of kilos of ‘stuff’ (at the moment a £30 HD camera on a £30 gyro-stabilised gimbal mount). Cheap, levelling technology indeed and no need for a ground station in an ISO container (sorry TD).