IoT Interview: BitScope CEO Bruce Tulloch
In January this year, Sydney-based developers BitScope officially launched the BitScope Blade range through element14’s distribution channels. The Blade launch is the latest result of a fruitful strategic alliance between the two companies, which has seen element14 and our subsidiaries providing manufacturing and distribution support for popular BitScope products such as the BitScope Micro.
We caught up with BitScope CEO Bruce Tulloch to find out more about the BitScope Blade launch, working with element14 and carving out a niche in an increasingly competitive market.
In a nutshell, what is the BitScope Blade range?
The BitScope Blade family of products offer an expandable industrial computing platform built with and for Raspberry Pi. It comes in three editions; Uno , Duo and Quattro , capable of powering and mounting one, two or four Raspberry Pi devices respectively. The Blade also supports a range of compatible HATs, cameras, displays and other accessories.
Bruce Tulloch is the CEO of BitScope Designs
What are the main applications for the BitScope Blade?
The applications for the BitScope Blade are essentially anything Raspberry Pi can be used for; with a particular focus on industrial systems in which reliability, robustness and deployment are key considerations.
To give some canonical examples for each of the three editions, the Uno accommodates a single Raspberry Pi and HAT, so one application would be as a physical computing workstation for STEM education. On top of the Raspberry Pi and the BitScope Uno, you might add a HAT such as the Pimoroni Explorer to gain access to the Raspberry Pi’s control signals, in order to devise a system that can be used to teach students various physical computing and electronic programming concepts.
The Duo, which is the same size as the Uno but supports two Raspberry Pi devices instead of one, could be used as a low-cost redundant Micro server for business applications, or in situations in which you might have a small edge-computing device that needs to connect IoT devices to the Internet.
For Quattro – the four Pi board – a classic application would be for the creation of a small cluster for Industrial IoT, cloud computing or similar. We’ve also seen strong sales for the Quattro in the education sector.
What kind of consumer would you say the BitScope Blade is primarily aimed at?
Like Raspberry Pi, the potential audience for the BitScope Blade range is very broad. We’re targeting three main markets that can be roughly broken down into the industrial, education and maker markets.
In the industrial market we’re looking at areas like automation control, test & measurement, data acquisition and the Industrial IoT. In Education we’d be looking at the BitScope Blade as a tool for teaching disciplines such as programming, electronics, networking and simulation.
When you get to the maker market, the potential consumer base is essentially wide open. Virtually any situation in which somebody might want to use a Raspberry Pi but is constrained by power supply requirements or the mounting situation could benefit from using the Blade. That might range from home automation and monitoring, to robotics, and much more.
What were your main goals in developing the BitScope Blade?
Having worked with Raspberry Pi for some time, we really liked it as a single board computer and embedded system. However, like most single board computers, it is very sensitive to its power source, and can be difficult to mount in many industrial situations. We wanted to address these issues in the form of a scalable industrial deployment platform for BitScope products.
Like Raspberry Pi itself, we wanted our platform to be low cost and very easy to understand, install, configure and use. The overarching goals were to make the Blade as accessible as possible to the end user while also developing the market for BitScope products in the industrial space.
The BitScope Blade Quattro is capable of powering and mounting up to four Raspberry Pi devices, making it useful for the building of small clusters.
Talk a little about the technology that’s used in the BitScope Blade range...
The technology itself is fairly simple. It’s a switch-mode power supply built to a regular form factor that’s scaled. One of the great difficulties with most 5 Volt or 3.3 Volt single board computers is that they’re vulnerable to even small variations in the power supply. We needed to ensure that we had a switch-mode supply that was robust and stable enough to ensure that we always guaranteed a reliable power supply for the Raspberry Pi that could handle input voltages from 9 Volts to 48 Volts, without losing functionality if the power supply varied within those parameters.
We also wanted to ensure that the BitScope Blade was capable of a wide range of usage. It quickly became apparent to us that there is extensive potential for applications in areas such as test & measurement and data acquisition. So we consciously factored this into the development of the technology.
What were some of the biggest challenges involved with developing the BitScope Blade range?
Our main challenges were centred around the use case for the product and what we wanted to achieve with it – such as figuring out how to power multiple Raspberry Pi devices with minimal wiring and cables, and designing the Blade in such a way that it would be scalable from small embedded systems right up to large clusters using the same basic building blocks. We also wanted to make sure that the product was functionally expandable with access to the Raspberry Pi IO, which necessitated the development of a dedicated hub expansion connector underneath each Pi on the Blade. Our aim was to keep it very simple and flexible, while also ensuring that it had the potential to be useful to the widest possible audience.
How did Farnell element14 and our subsidiary companies become involved in the project?
We’ve had a close working relationship with Premier Farnell since 2014, shortly after we launched the BitScope Micro. We initially negotiated a distribution deal for the Micro through Farnell element14’s sales channels, followed by a Strategic Alliance agreement that involved having the Micro manufactured by Embest.
As the BitScope Micro market developed, we recognised jointly that we wanted to make further inroads into the industrial markets. Farnell and BitScope both work in the Raspberry Pi eco-system, and we like everything the platform offers. So we prototyped the BitScope Blade in-house, then developed the range as a licensed family of products for Farnell element14.
What does it mean to BitScope to have a company like element14 as a partner?
First and foremost, working with element14 means access to and wide distribution in many of the key markets we’re operating in. For many years, element14 has provided ready access to engineers, makers and the wider development community – particularly since Raspberry Pi arrived on the scene. This gives us an opportunity to develop our products based on actual demand and up-to-date intelligence that comes back to us through element14’s sales channels and international community.
Of similar importance is our strategic alliance for the licence and manufacture of several of our key products. Many of these products need to be manufactured at high volume for distribution all around the world, and our partnership with element14 facilitates that, both through their own sales channels and subsidiaries like Embest, and through their various resale partners. This ready availability of our products for customers around the globe is a key benefit to our relationship with element14.
Why should a potential customer choose the BitScope blade over other power and mounting solutions on the market?
My response to that would be – “what other power and mounting solutions?”
As far as we can tell, in the market for power and mounting devices for commodity class single board computers – in this case Raspberry Pi – the BitScope Blade is pretty much unique. In effect, we’ve invented a new deployment mechanism for these kinds of products. There’s nothing similar that we’re aware of in terms of ease of use or robust deployment. Whether you want to effectively power and mount one Raspberry Pi or one hundred, BitScope Blade is the best and perhaps only choice, whatever your end goal might be.
Can you give some examples of some projects the BitScope Blade has been used on already?
We recently published two really interesting examples of BitScope Blade applications on the element14 community. The first was a weather station developed by the Robotics Association in Nepal. Using a BitScope Uno, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, a solar panel, a motorcycle battery and a range of sensors for wind, pressure, temperature and humidity, they were able to develop a standalone 24/7 weather station that sits on a roof in Nepal. They’ve since deployed the same system in a number of other locations.
Closer to home for us, we recently worked with the MAAS Powerhouse Museum here in Sydney to develop an interactive Theremin that allows the user to not just hear the sound but to see it too. We used a BitScope Blade, a Raspberry Pi and an LCD monitor to effectively implement a standalone mixed-signal oscilloscope that displays waveforms and spectra as the Theremin is played. This was all achieved at a rough cost of $200 in terms of the parts required.
BitScope recently worked with MAAS Powerhouse Museum in Sydney to create an interactive Theremin that displays waveforms and spectra as it plays, using a BitScope Blade, Raspberry Pi and an LCD monitor.
We’ve also seen some really interesting projects published by members of the element14 Community. For example, there was recently a series on how to use the BitScope Quattro to create a four-node render farm using a 3D modelling application called Blender. A couple of our larger industrial customers are also currently in talks with us about using the Blade as the basis for their own factory analytics systems to monitor things like CNC machines for preventative maintenance.
In a broader sense for BitScope, who do you see as your main competition on the market and what sets you apart?
When we started the business almost twenty years ago, our traditional competition was in the USB connected test and measurement market – particularly around USB oscilloscopes and logic analysers. So you’d be looking at traditional oscilloscope makers such as Tektronix and Keysight at the high end, and also Pico Technology in the UK.
However, I think we’ve tended to be fairly agile in terms of how we’ve developed our products and our position in the market. For example the BitScope Micro is at heart a USB connected mixed-signal test and measurement platform, but it actually has a much broader range of functions. It’s an oscilloscope, but it’s also a logic analyser, spectrum analyser, waveform generator and pattern generator – all in a tiny, self-contained, water-resistant package. This makes it quite different from other test and measurement products on the market.
BitScope Blade is developed primarily for use with the Raspberry Pi - is it compatible with any other development platforms such as Arduino and BeagleBone?
The current model of the BitScope Blade was designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi. In terms of physical compatibility, we’ve had reports from some of our customers that it works with Pi compatible clones – i.e. products that are physically similar to Raspberry Pi and capable of plugging into it.
At the moment, products such as BeagleBone won’t work with the existing blade footprint, but we are looking very closely at extending the family of products to add support for other single board computers. Arduino of course already works with Raspberry Pi in development terms, but we are looking at supporting Arduino more directly with the Blade as well. For the moment, I can’t talk too much about that other than to say “watch this space”.
Are there any learning tools available to complement the BitScope Blade range?
We’ll be publishing a detailed user and deployment guide with supporting videos very soon, in conjunction with the element14 web team. In terms of learning tools we also offer the BitScope Pi Core software platform, which is derived from Raspbian Lite, the core of the Raspberry Pi operating system. We’ve effectively taken the core of the Raspbian operating system and added features and capabilities that make it very easy to deploy Blade-based computing platforms using Raspberry Pi.
Our other products – particularly the BitScope Micro – run seamlessly in Blade-hosted platforms. This makes them very useful tools in terms of understanding how a system works, because at heart our products are diagnostic tools. They display Waveforms and logic to allow you to understand what’s happening in a particular circuit. If that circuit is made up of a Raspberry Pi and a Blade, you have the tools right there to solve a wide variety of problems.
What’s coming up next for BitScope?
We have new BitScope test & measurement and data acquisition products for industrial use in the pipeline, specifically designed for the Blade. We’ll be making some announcements in the not-too-distant future. People who’ve been looking carefully at some of the blogs we’ve been posting around Blade in the element14 community might have spotted some things with the word BitScope on them, so we’ve actually anonymously showcased a few things already...
We’re also planning to expand the Blade ecosystem itself by releasing various optional extras including hub card expansion boards, cluster packs and power plates to make it easier to construct and scale up from the maximum four Raspberry Pi devices on the Blade to larger clusters of twenty, forty, eighty devices etc.
Aside from your own products, what current tech developments and innovations are you excited about?
We’ve always been very interested in open source software, but now we’re beginning to see open source platforms for cluster and cloud computing, in effect commoditising what used to be a very complicated process. I’m thinking about platforms such as Docker, which is really leading the pack in terms of containerised computing. When you’re looking at physical compute clusters built with Raspberry Pi, Docker makes it very easy to deploy a wide range of cloud and cluster applications. So that’s something very relevant to what we do, and something we’re actively pursuing developments in.
With the explosion of Internet of Things applications, we’re seeing a lot more system-on-module type developments, and we think that’s very interesting. IoT has been viewed by some as a solution looking for a problem, but in our view it’s been in industrial applications for years, just under different names. New technologies such as System on Module are making things possible now that people might otherwise never have thought of, and that could really be where the rubber hits the road for Industrial IoT.
Finally, an area that represents a particular sweet spot for us is in distributed and network connected virtual instrumentation and machine/factory analytics. There are a huge number of applications in which downtime can be a real problem and faults, when they occur, can be catastrophic. If you add distributed virtual instrumentation and monitoring, plus proper analytics, you can undertake asset management via preventative maintenance to identify a failure before it occurs. We can see a lot of opportunities there, particularly in power and distribution and production factory markets.
For more information about Farnell element14’s partnership with BitScope, read our case study here.
You can also view our full range of BitScope Blade products here.