The Star Trek Tricorder Gets Raspberry Pi’d: Behold the Picorder!


Efforts to build a Star Trek tricorder-like device have been ongoing for at least a decade or two now, with various individuals and organizations contributing their own idea to the concept. For those of you who aren’t Star Trek fans: A tricorder is a small, handheld device capable of determining various types of information about the local environment. In science fiction terms, this often takes the place of scanning for chronitons, dissipating energy patterns, or Spot, Data’s cat. The real life efforts to build a tricorder have been a bit more prosaic, but there’s huge potential value in being able to see invisible forces around us.

Naturally, that means somebody had to go and build one out of a Raspberry Pi. Somehow, the name “Picorder” hasn’t been slapped on this thing yet, and while I’m certain ViacomCBS would be all over that branding like a Klingon on blood wine after a grueling Kal’Hyah, it’s a pretty good nickname for a tricorder built from a Raspberry Pi.

Gabe Emerson, of SaveItForParts, has built himself a Picorder with a nifty set of mostly-functioning capabilities.

The guy gets some props for kicking off a discussion of a Star Trek device with a reference to wormhole travel via SG-1. Official name: The “Save it For Parts Handheld Scanner.” Integrated components include a display, RTL-SDR software-defined radio for picking up radio signals, and a thermal imager built into the top of the package. Local atmosphere, temperature, and pressure sensors were supposed to be installed as well, but due to unspecified problems, those components had to be left out of the (current) final build.

Components that did make it include an Adafruit display, a DHT11/22 sensor for temperature and relative humidity, and a fair bit of home-made modification and rewiring for his own custom project. Obviously this is a homemade DIY device and scarcely going to be competing for design dollars in professional contexts, but bit by bit, the idea of a tricorder is becoming a reality.

We already have handheld devices with dedicated cameras and it isn’t hard to imagine fielding a FLIR module. With optical and thermal imaging addressed, let’s integrate a night vision module in there as well. A microphone with the ability to capture a wider range of sound than the human ear can hear would do for the episodes where tricorders are depicted as having sensed something beyond the bounds of human hearing.

This might seem beyond the scope of this story, but during the recent TSMC event, one of the designers they tapped, Butterfly iQ, was discussing their ongoing efforts to build a universal, hand-held ultrasound machine, and the required “Ultrasound on a chip” they had to build in order to bring the machine to life.

Of course, on Star Trek, tricorders were powered by the plot, with a disparate set of capabilities depending on what was called for. The real-life version, however, is increasingly a question of “When will it get easier to put all these components in the same box?” as opposed to “Nobody could ever build a sensor that advanced.” In the long-term, we may find this is one area where our own inventions quickly outstrip the sorts of capabilities late 90s sci-fi envisioned. As impressive as tricorders were, they weren’t as good for content ingestion or review as the devices we already have today.

In any event, as backyard “Picorders” go, this seemed a fun project. There are a number of other backyard projects on SaveItForParts, so check it out if you feel the urge.

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