The battle for tiny computing power is only going to intensify as companies look for the next big “Internet of Things” development.
UK-based manufacturer Raspberry Pi has been leading the way since 2011, when it built a credit-card sized computer and started selling it for around $30.
Raspberry Pi was launched as an educational tool, on the back of its founders’ concerns that kids and amateurs had stopped “tinkering” with programming. It’s grown to become a huge success story, selling around six million units, and now has the backing of Microsoft, which handed over free access to Windows 10 for the update, Raspberry Pi 2.
With success, came the imitators. There’s even one called “Banana Pi”.
And Intel joined the party with its Galileo board.
And when scientists at Australia’s CSIRO wanted to collect data from tiny chips stuck on the backs of thousands of bees, it avoided all of them, opting instead for a new, even smaller Intel device named “Edison”.
Intel says Edison is the embodiment of “Moore’s Law” – the theory penned by Intel founder Gordon Moore that sees the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubling every year.
Obviously, some sacrifices in comparison to the larger, proper Pi-competitor Galileo had to be made to produce Edison, and Edison has its detractors due to that. There are complaints about the lack of extra USB ports, the cost, and smaller processor speed.
In fact, comparisons with Raspberry Pi are unfair to both devices. Edison is smaller, has wifi and Bluetooth capability – and above all, it’s not a single board computer.
But crucially, for the CSIRO, Edison wins in a few key areas. They tried different platforms, but noted early one of the most important issues was power consumption.
“You just can’t just take a laptop and put it in the Amazon,” CSIRO’s Professor Paulo de Souza says.
So the team had to downsize. When it comes to very small platforms, Intel’s Edison wins firstly because it takes about 1W to power. Raspberry Pi is closer to 3W.
The CSIRO team also noted Raspberry Pi had “reliability problems with power”, although it didn’t specify what problems.
“It’s also easily customisable, which means that if a scientist has a sensor they would like to add, they can virtually plug in and play,” de Souza said.
Most importantly, for field research, Edison allowed the team to build in a “watchdog”, so if it crashed, it would simply start again.
“We quickly realised we have everything we need, really small power consumption, wifi communication – it’s good to keep some distance from bees, particularly the angry bees in the Amazon.
“It’s very reliable, we have peace of mind the data will be collected. Which is important, because it’s a huge effort for scientists to go and tag the bees.”