Using an iPad to control the small Raspberry Pi is easier than you think

[Ed. note: Mike Amante will deliver a related session on iPads and the Raspberry Pi at this year’s ISTE conference on Tues. June 30.]

pi-ipadPart of the magic of the magic of iPads are all the great apps that can turn them into so much more than a tablet. With the maker movement in schools in full force across the country, it seems like students everywhere are excited and interested in learning about programming, electronics, robotics, and more. When apps can help them make and learn, all the better.

How can these two ideas be melded together to create a stellar learning experience? This is where the Raspberry Pi, a small credit card-sized computer that was created in England just a few years ago, comes in. The Raspberry Pi, which runs an open source Linux operating system, was created with the intention of teaching programming and computer science concepts to students. The beauty of the Pi is that you can plug it into a TV or monitor, add a keyboard, and you have a fully functional computer for under $40. In addition, the GPIO pins on the unit allow students to connect sensors, motors, LEDs, and other electronics and then write and execute code to interact with the physical world.

Using the Raspberry Pi in tandem with the iPad as the means for viewing, controlling, and programming offers many advantages over traditional microcontroller setups. Most other microcontrollers require the computing power of a full-fledged laptop or desktop machine, which limits the mobility of what can be done. With the simple yet feature-rich apps on the iPad, as well as the small, powerful footprint of the Raspberry Pi, which features its own ARM-based microprocessor, the duo can offer a wide variety of opportunities for fun and exciting computing projects in any classroom.

Next page: Apps and projects to try

Once you are up and running, the Raspberry Pi and iPad combination makes it easy to ramp up quickly from simple projects that can be done without any hardware to more sophisticated ones that can involve quite a bit of electronics and coding if you and your students are up to the challenge.

To begin, if you don’t have a WiFi adapter for your Raspberry Pi, you will definitely need one. To be successful, it will be best to operate the iPad and the Raspberry Pi on the same wireless network. This makes both the Pi and the iPad much more flexible as you can set up projects that won’t require any tethered connections and can work in small, confined spaces.

Next, you will want to get your Raspberry Pi set up so it can run as a headless unit. You will want the Pi to be configured as a VNC server and allow SSH connections to it. The VNC connection will allow you to see the graphical user interface (GUI) of the device without needing a connection to an external monitor: It will show up right on the iPad’s screen. The SSH connection will let you install software packages and issue commands to the Pi remotely from your iPad. Getting your Pi set up and then configured with SSH and VNC can be done using some excellent tutorials online at Adafruit, one of the leading websites for DIY electronics today that not only sells components but offers lots of useful tips and project ideas.

After you get the Pi up and running, you will want to load your iPad up with some apps to control, interact, and manage the Pi. There are many options on the App Store for this but two that work exceptional well are Screens,for its VNC capabilities, and Prompt 2, for managing SSH connections. Other useful apps include Pythonista for creating and editing Python scripts as well as Textastic, which is great for editing all kinds of text files including HTML and Javascript that many Pi projects will involve.

Once you are able to view, control, and program the Pi remotely from your iPad, the real fun begins. Just searching online for Raspberry Pi will yield hundreds of fun and interesting project ideas to try. Adafruit offers a number of well-documented tutorials that are perfect for a classroom environment, which allow students to create all kinds of simple projects. (The projects might require free software installation over SSH and/or some simple breadboarding and components). Some of the more interesting ones include how to create your own video looper that repeats a video over and over on a TV screen, a web-connected DIY digital camera, and even a DIY cellphone with Raspberry Pi at its core!

To get started on these kinds of projects, the best advice is to stockpile various components and sensors and let students explore ideas for computing problems to solve at home or in your school. This way, the projects are more real world oriented and offer a tangible outcome. For example, one group of students might have an old inkjet printer at home that they can turn into a wireless printer so that family members can print from their iPads, smartphones, and other wireless devices. With the Raspberry Pi and some simple coding, the “new” wireless printer could bring new life into what was formerly an older, less versatile piece of equipment.

To build off of this idea, you could make the iPad even more central to the kinds of Raspberry Pi project students create by leveraging some of the technologies that are built-in and supported by the iPad itself. These might include turning the Raspberry Pi into an iBeacon to explore indoor mapping and proximity or even introduce home automation by turning the Pi into a device that can control lights, small appliances, and more using the iPad.

The Raspberry Pi, when combined with the versatility of the iPad, offers an amazing combination of tools and hardware than can accelerate and excite students into the field of coding and electronics. When you consider how mobile the equipment being used is and the abundance of ideas online to try out, the possibilities for all kinds of maker projects at school, home and beyond seem almost limitless.

Mike Amante is a technology integration specialist in New Hartford, N.Y.