Raspberry Pi Zero: 5 Original Project Ideas

(The third part of a running mini-series about the Raspberry Pi Zero, the second part is here).

In my last post about the Raspberry Pi Zero, I promised to give some ideas for projects that would be well-suited to implement with our favorite little hobby SBC. Through logical reasoning, we determined that the qualities to look out for are “battery-powered, space-confined, camera-connected, slighty complex but not too performance-critical projects that could not be served by JustAnotherApp on your phone”. In order to keep this post short (and worth your read), I’m going to limit the list to the 5 project ideas that I think are most exciting and at least reasonably original (so, everything on this list is off-limits), and that I might actually consider doing myself. So, without further ado, some of my best ideas:

1. Baby FRAC (obviously!)

A project where the RPi Zero can really shine is a miniature version of the FRAC robot! All the features of the current FRAC could be handled by the Zero as well. The current build is actually rather clunky and heavy, and I am keen on trying to remake it into something lighter, smaller and cheaper, so that it could eventually be bundled into a modular kid-friendly kit… Watch this space!

2. Stop motion (and timelapse) video rig

Stop motion animation

The real work only starts when the stop motion system is already done…

Slightly open door but nonetheless very cool project that the RPi Zero is highly suitable for. The small footprints of the cam as well as the base unit make sure that it could even be used for doll-house (or Lego) interior style stop motion shooting. The electronics interfacing part is of course for the servos and motors that programmatically move/aim the cam to shoot nice and smooth panning/trucking/dolly scenes and the RGB LEDS that illuminate the scene. And oh yeah, might as well make this rig suitable for timelapse while you’re at it, but that is infinitely more boring than creating and animating your own story…

  • Camera: Yes (HD essential)
  • Electronics interface: Yes
  • Battery powered: Optional
  • Physically restricted: Optional
  • Fit for purpose: This is basically a no-brainer; the HD camera functionality is essential and there is no way you can pull this off properly with just your phone… Stop motion and RPi Zero are a match made in heaven!

3. Automated puppet theatre

By far the most original idea on this list (or maybe I just googled wrong…?), yet it might also be the most marginally relevant; it takes a very specific combinations of skills, interests and circumstances for someone to take up the automated puppet theatre project… and this uniqueness aspect is exactly what makes it appealing to me.

The concept is simple: you have (or make) a standard puppet theatre, and add automation to it. Strips of individually addressable RGB LEDs around the stage make for very interesting programmable lighting options. Also, LEDs in stage setting and puppets. A small audio chip + integrated speakers can be used to play pre-loaded sound effects and background music. Motors and servos can be used to move scenery, open curtains and those kind of things. Just add foot switches to cycle through all the pre-programmed sequences while your hands operate the actors. And of course, the camera unit can be used to livestream your puppeteering performance to the world!

  • Camera: Yes (HD essential)
  • Electronics interface: Yes
  • Battery powered: Certainly not
  • Physically restricted: Not really
  • Fit for purpose: I just realized that the idea of a camera capturing the play is really awesome, but will not work with the Zero’s camera ribbon that is only available with 15cm cable (for now), while we more likely need something like 2m… and even if we forget about the camera, we still have to hack around the Zero not having standard audio output… but if we really really try and leave the video registration to a dedicated unit (another Zero of course!), this might just be doable with an RPi Zero at its heart…

4. Garden monitoring (or, how to get your community garden parents in on the IoT)

Do you want to know how your home-grown veg is doing? Of course you do. Do you want to know if they get enough shade and water? Naturally. Do you want to chase stinking cats’ bottoms away from your pristine first-grade growing soil? Who doesn’t! Do you actually want to step outside in the torrential downpour and strain your muscles to make it so? Don’t be ridiculous!!

Solar birdhouse

The bird house design makes for a low profile presence of your GardenWatch™ device (design by oooms.nl)

Enter the GardenWatch™, a waterproof solar-powered unit that constantly monitors and manages your garden. Collect all the mission-critical data from a range of environmental sensors to be analysed online from the comforts of your couch*. Continuously adapt water & fertilizer supply to establish perfect soil humidity factors, and automatically send personal alerts when human intervention is needed. In addition to the continuous timelapse footage of your garden which is accessible through any web browser, the GardenWatch™ can trigger personal alerts based on unauthorized access to your patch, be it feline or human. The perpetrator will be clearly identifiable from the hair sharp video evidence. If the offender is identified as feline, appropriate measures will be taken with a non-lethal water spray attack combined with our proven CatRepellant™ ultrasonic technology.

Available with either WiFi communication for home use, or LoRa communication for remote deployments such as in the community garden. Place your pre-orders now, and please do not forget to check our GreenhouseWatch™ for all your indoor remote garden management needs!

*Couch not included

  • Camera: Yes (HD essential)
  • Electronics interface: Yes
  • Battery powered: Yes, combined with solar charging for (hopefully) very long standalone operation
  • Physically restricted: Not really
  • Fit for purpose: As long as the environmental sensors can be (converted to be) digitally read, she’ll be all right, mate!

5. Reaction game

This project idea is basically just a rehash of what I have already done with the Reactor project… create a custom console with an LCD, a buzzer, some LEDs and some action keys to create a fun and addicting gaming experience, where players press a key as fast as possible after a light lights up. The computer drives the electronics and generates the online leaderboard. I guess you have to see this to appreciate it:

  • Camera: No
  • Electronics interface: Yes
  • Battery powered: Could be, but not necessarily
  • Physically restricted: Yes, if the computer will be embedded
  • Fit for purpose: The price, size and power efficiency make the Pi Zero a lot more suited to be embedded in this project than its bigger brother B+, for which the project was originally designed. The B+ to Zero swap is only natural here, and brings the whole project a lot closer to commercial viability!

Honorable mention: High Altitude Ballooning

This project did not make my shortlist, since the topic lies well beyond my comfort zone in terms of skills & knowledge, but this may well be THE most exciting RPi Zero-powered project. When the 1.3 model with the CSI-connector was announced by The Foundation, they mentioned a project by Dave Akerman, who attached a Pi Zero to a balloon to take pictures from 41km above the earth’s surface. This is definitely worth checking out!

  • Camera: Yes (HD essential)
  • Electronics interface: Yes
  • Battery powered: Yes
  • Physically restricted: Yes
  • Fit for purpose: In high altitude ballooning, image quality, payload weight and battery up-time are critical limiters to success. The Pi Zero is very fit for this purpose!

So, which one of my ideas do you like best? Did I inspire or motivate you to go and try something yourself, or have you ever made anything like these? Looking forward to reading your reactions!

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