The $5 Raspberry Pi Zero Can Power Ventilators to Fight COVID-19

Image by Raspberry Pi Foundation

When the Raspberry Pi project was first announced, I thought it looked like an interesting toy for the programmatically inclined, and not much more. As the device family has improved, it’s become more capable, but I’ve never personally had a project that demanded a Raspberry Pi. Now, however, the work the Raspberry Pi Foundation has done to promote and build an ecosystem for their homebrew product could save your life, or the life of someone you know.

Companies like Ford and Toyota, as well as boutique PC manufacturers like Maingear, are building ventilators in factories around the world. But the mechanical components still require a control board to run them. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has announced that its diminutive, $5 Pi Zero will be used to control ventilators going forward. While the tiny board packs very little in the way of horsepower, with just 512MB of RAM and a single-core ARMv11 CPU at 1GHz, it turns out you don’t need much processing power to run a ventilator.

Raspberry-Pi-Zero“One of the main challenges with rapidly scaling manufacture of products like this is that you may be able to surge production of the air-handling elements, but you still need to provide the control element: often the components you need are on 20-week lead times and (hopefully) we’ll be out of the other side of this pandemic by then,” Eben Upton, CEO and Founder of Raspberry Pi, told Tom’s Hardware. “Raspberry Pi ‘builds to stock’ rather than ‘building to order,’ so we generally have products either on-hand or in the pipeline with short lead times.”

RBF produced 192,000 Raspberry Pi Zero / Zero W devices in Q1 2020, but the company plans to boost this to 250,000 / quarter going forward. Upton reports that interest in the Pi Zero is basically due to its low price and packing enough compute power for a minimally demanding (but critically important) task. The Raspberry Pi isn’t known to have been used before in medical devices, in any form or SKU. Pi sales have reportedly been booming, with 1.75M sold in Q1 alone. The demand is reportedly due to consumers using them in homeschooling and telecommuting.

The Raspberry Pi 4 is currently the most powerful version of the system available, with four Cortex-A72 cores at 1.5GHz. While the Pi is not and should not be considered a desktop or laptop replacement, the Pi 4 is capable of running a much wider set of workloads, with up to 4GB of RAM, a Video Core VI processor, and HDMI 2.0 support. According to Upton, the increased demand for Raspberry Pi Zero / Zero W hasn’t affected the supply of other Pi products. If demand for Pi Zeros for ventilators continues to grow, it might even be nice to pick an alternate platform for whatever embedded project you were planning to use one for, to ensure the hardware flows where it’s needed most.

From ramping up supercomputing efforts to fight COVID-19 to building ventilators, the tech industry has been stepping up to help fight the pandemic in multiple ways. A big thank you goes to the Raspberry Pi Foundation for working to ensure more people around the world have access to life-saving equipment.

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