Raspberry Pi: Top projects to try yourself

The best projects to try with the Raspberry Pi and Raspberry Pi Zero

There has never been a greater need to boost digital skills, nor more opportunity to do so. You can do this at home with the Raspberry Pi, the tiny computer that allows both adults and children alike to harness tech skills and let imaginations run wild.

With it, you can learn the basics of coding, or use it as the foundation to gain more advanced technical skills. This also includes various penetrations testing tricks and some cyber security capabilities. Many have used it as a route into robotics, software development and, unfortunately, hacking. The device is relatively cheap, small, and super portable, making it ideal for almost any DIY task.

What's more, it's very simple to get started, as this IT Pro guide will explain.

Setup a thermal camera with a Raspberry Pi 4

Raspberry Pi-based thermal camera

Thermal, or infrared, camera setups are expensive. Tom Shaffner discovered this when he tried to figure out how well insulated his home was. They can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds - or almost £50 to rent one for a day. So, Tom decided to build his own.

After a bit of research, Tom found that it's possible to mount the relatively cheap MLX90640 thermal camera, manufactured by Pimoroni, onto a Raspberry Pi 4. Although it lacks a lot of the advanced features of an expensive device, the MLX90640 has a 24×32 resolution, giving each frame 768 different temperature readings and with a bit of image enlargement, the end result gets the job done nicely. Users can stream the video over a local wireless network and can hold the camera in one hand, with their phone in the other to use as a screen.

"You'll probably need a portable battery for the device and, if you're not going to stream the video over your Wifi, you'll want a screen to attach to the Pi," Schaffner writes. "I went with the Wifi option so I can't speak to screens, but I'd imagine any of the many Pi-specific screens would be fine for this."

His solution is partly based on several other projects that can be found on the Python library and the entire instruction set for the build and software setup can be found on GitHub. As an extra bonus, Schaffner also notes that the device could also be used as a security camera.

Learn cyber security skills with Raspberry Pi Pac-Man

A preview of the Raspberry Pi Pac-Man project

Budding Pi enthusiasts and fans of retro arcade games can now learn basic cyber security skills with a Pac-Man-themed treasure hunt. By hacking your own Raspberry Pi, you can learn about running scripts and how malware works. The lessons are gained by getting Pac-Man to catch those pesky ghosts! 

Given the mass switch to remote working and the need for more national cyber skills, a fun introduction to the basics could be a good way to train employees. To begin, you'll need a Raspberry Pi computer with an SD card and an internet connection. Your device will also need to be using the latest version of the Raspberry Pi's operating system, which includes the terminal.

The game is all about learning to navigate the terminal and protecting your computer. The 'ghosts' act as a virus and Pac-Man is essentially a protection tool. The aim is to hack the terminal, find the ghosts, similar to a treasure hunt. You will learn about placing each ghost in a safe directory where you can inspect their files as if they were real-life malware. Each one you collect and inspect will earn you points. 

All the instructions can be found on the Raspberry Pi website, so head on over and get munching those ghosts. 

Control your Christmas tree lights with a Raspberry Pi

Do you want to add a little more razzamatazz to the old tree this Christmas? Look no further than YouTuber Osprey22 and his Raspberry Pi light show.

For this project, you'll need the Falcon Pi Player controller software installed and a USB drive to store songs and video the sequences. You'll also need a JST connector with 2 and 3 pins, screens, and a projector. Osprey22 also used a synthetic Christmas Tree, not a real one.

The project also requires some DIY as you'll need to house the Pi and its connectors in a box under your tree. This also supports the screens for your projected video. It's worth noting that this project might not be suitable for some homes and, given all the additional hardware you'll need, it's also a little on the expensive side.

Turn your Raspberry Pi into an aircraft tracker

It might seem like something that would require specialist hardware, but you can use a Raspberry Pi to create your very own aircraft tracker. It can be achieved using an inexpensive USB TV receiver, and the software is free. That means the entire package will set you back around £30, including a Pi Zero W.

For the receiver, you can use a standard DVB-T receiver, which is more commonly used for tuning into free-to-air digital TV and radio.

Setup is about as simple as plugging your DVB-T adapter into a USB socket, but there’s one trick to be aware of: although the telescopic antenna extends to around 35cm, it’s recommended to not pull it out all the way

You’ll then need to to install some software: FlightAware and Flightradar24. You can run them both together, but we’re going to start by installing FlightAware, as it’s easy to set up and includes a preconfigured ADS-B service that can then also be used by Flightradar24.

From here, there’s some tweaking and fine-tuning to do. You can find a full step-by-step guide here.

Create a portable security box

The portability and affordability of the Pi has made it a popular tool for red-teamers (people paid to break into security systems), penetration testers and other security personnel. Because it has a built-in Ethernet port, minimal power requirements and the ability to run any Linux software, it's ideal for sneakily integrating with target networks.

The software of choice for security operatives aiming to use the Pi in this manner is Kali, a Linux distro that's specifically built for hacking tasks. There's a purpose-built version of Kali for the Raspberry Pi, and installing it is relatively easy: check out our tutorial for a full guide to installing Kali on Raspberry Pi.

Once you've got Kali installed, not only can you use it in your security operations, you can also use it as a safe space to play around with new tools without risking damage to your primary machine - although, as always, you should only be hacking targets that have given you express permission.

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Network Performance Monitor

As we're all currently working from home, it's very important to be able to troubleshoot network issues - you don't want internet outages now - and Reddit user 'Mr Canoehead' has Raspberry Pi project that can help. 

It's a network performance monitor that's built on top of a Raspberry Pi 3 B+. It's designed to monitor network activity and performance by using data to create a report with critical information. It measures network speeds and bandwidth, which makes it easier to track issues as they arise.

Mr Canoehead's system runs on five networks, two of which are configured as a transparent Ethernet bridge for monitoring bandwidth between a router and the internet service provider's modem. All network testing results and bandwidth readings are written to a database, which is updated daily. The system can be set up and left on site for a while to collect network performance data that can be analysed at a later date.

Host a Wordpress site on Raspberry Pi

Hosting your own website is a great project for familiarising yourself with the Raspberry Pi. Running a Wordpress server will teach you how to work with MySQL, PHP and Apache software, as well as the practicalities of working with Linux.

The WordPress app on an iPhone

Not only that, but at the end of it, you'll also have a working Wordpress website that you can use to host your own content on! You'll need to register a domain name if you want it to be a proper website, but it's a great place to display things like CVs, creative portfolios or something as simple as a personal blog. For a comprehensive and in-depth guide to getting Wordpress up and running on the Pi, check out the Raspberry Pi Foundation's tutorial.

Install full Windows 10 on Raspberry Pi 3

The Windows on ARM (WoA) installer, available on GitHub, can be used to install Microsoft's operating system on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B or B+ boards. Previously, only the stripped-down Windows IoT Core operating systems were available on Raspberry Pi devices, but this new package offers the functionality of a full Windows 10 OS.

The installer is available on GitHub and is designed for simplicity and ease of use, requiring bundled binaries and the WoA core package.

YouTuber Novaspirit Tech posted a tutorial for installing Windows 10 on Raspberry Pi 3.

You'll need a set of binaries and software, all available on the GitHub page. You'll also need a Raspberry Pi 3 B or B+, a Windows 10 ARM64 image, which can be found linked on the GitHub page, and a decent microSD card with at least 16 GB of storage and an A1 rating.

Run Windows 10 IoT Core on Raspberry Pi

Fancy running an internet of things version of Windows 10 on your Raspberry Pi? With Windows 10 IoT Core, you can run a stripped back version of the operating system on the microcomputer.

Although it would be great to run the full version of the operating system on the Raspberry Pi Model B+, it doesn't have the processing power with just a 1GB of RAM and a 1.4GHz ARM-based processor.

So enter Windows 10 IoT Core, a basic version of Microsoft's OS that has been designed for running on less powerful platforms. It's actually a lightweight IoT app that allows you to run a single UWP app at a time. You don't need a licence unless you want to commercialise your creations and only very limited equipment is needed.

First up, you'll need Raspberry Pi 3 and a spare microSD card - plus a separate Windows computer with a microSD card reader. You'll also need Visual Studio, a text editor, the SDKs, add-ons, and certificates.

OK, so this may seem quite a lot, but at least you won't need to spend too much cash to start running Windows 10 IoT Core.

First, you'll need to set up the memory card for the Raspberry Pi you're using. You can make this easier with the New Out Of Box Software (NOOBS) installer. Create a bootable card from a Windows PC or laptop using Microsoft's IoT Dashboard app.

You can now set up the device using the Broadcom Raspberry Pi 2 & 3 option and OS build (Windows 10 IoT Core), then specify a password, choose a Wi-Fi network and install the OS onto the Raspberry Pi-compatible memory card.

Insert this into your Raspberry Pi and then you're ready to boot your device with the latest version of Windows IoT Core. For full instructions, follow our in-depth guide.

Set up Raspberry Pi as a VPN server

A VPN allows you to mask your online identity so your activity can't be tracked as you browse the internet, download content or participate in conversations. VPNs can be used on regular computers too and the process is pretty much the same when using a micro-computer like Raspberry Pi. There are lots of VPN programs available for Raspberry Pi, including Express VPN, HideMy Ass, IPVanish and  SaferVPN. 

But what takes this to the next level is using your Raspberry Pi as a VPN server creating a personal VPN hotspot to stop information about your identity being passed on to any website used on your network. By installing a client on the Raspberry Pi, connect it to your router and it'll scramble your identity before it hits the external network.

To set your Raspberry Pi up as a VPN server, first install Raspbian to access the command line and then you can use the PiVPN script to install a VPN client to protect your communications. We recommend using OpenVPN as your VPN client, although it can be used with lots of others too. For more detailed instructions to set your Raspberry Pi up as a VPN server, you can follow the guide on our sister site, Cloud Pro.

Host an Apache server

One of the easiest and most practical uses of the Raspberry Pi is as a low-cost web server, which you can use to host simple websites. Cloud-based hosting is arguably easier and more practical, but setting up a basic server is an excellent way to get to grips with server and networking technology.

You'll need to pick which software you use to power your server, and Apache is one of the most popular options. Apache is open source, and free to download and use - the software is estimated to power almost 40% of all of the active websites in the world. The raspberry Pi foundation has created a handy guide to setting up an Apache server on the Pi, which you can find here.

Create a captive portal for your guest Wi-Fi

Captive portals are pieces of network software that restrict access to a network until the user who's attempting connect has undertaken some action - usually logging in, or agreeing to a set of terms and conditions. If you've ever used the guest Wi-Fi at a hotel, airport or coffee shop, you've almost certainly used a captive portal.

You can use a Raspberry Pi to create a captive portal for your own guest Wi-Fi network, which can be used to increase security, collect data and add an air of polish and professionalism to your network. You can use this in-depth guide to set up your captive portal, but be warned that it's a fairly complex process.

Give Pi some facial recognition

This project uses a Raspberry Pi to carry out facial recognition. Using a camera module add-on and some code, you can quickly set up a Raspberry Pi to recognise someone's face. In this case, the developer used a number of images of his face and also those of actor Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park to train the system.

Unfortunately, this one isn't for beginners, as you need to have knowledge of coding, or at least some basic principles. Fortunately, this project follows on from a tutorial on how to set up a facial recognition system using OpenCV, Python and deep learning.

More details on how to set this up can be found in this pretty comprehensive, but easy to follow guide.

Build your own Raspberry Pi-powered laptop

Understanding how computers work is the whole idea behind the Raspberry Pi, so what better way to do so than by constructing your very own laptop? You need to check out the Pi-Top, a creative kit that allows you to build your very own laptop powered by the little Raspberry Pi.

It includes a 14in 1080p screen, a complete full-sized keyboard, a trackpad and an internal cavity where you can fit in your own electronic creations. The Pi-Top is great for absolutely anyone who wants to jump into the world of hobby computing. And the best part? You get a fully-functional laptop at the end of it to play around with.

Make the Raspberry Pi 3 10mm thinner

A well-known hardware hacker called 'Node' has managed to shrink the Raspberry Pi 3 down from 17mm thick to 7mm, calling his invention the Raspberry Pi 3 Slim. Node explained he wanted to create a device with more power than the Pi Zero, but the same rough size and this meant removing the majority of the ports and unnecessary components from the microcomputer.

To ensure the modified Raspberry Pi 3 could still achieve Node's target of allowing it to operate without a display, keyboard, or mouse attached, he sawed off the existing USB and Ethernet ports and replaced them with three micro USB ports soldered inside the case.

"The main point of this, besides my obsession with making electronics smaller, is to create an easy, plug and plug headless computer," Node explained on his blog.

"Depending on what you're doing it could work well for a general headless system or server application. The small size also means it's more portable, and I could imagine it working well for some kind of wireless access point, piratebox or a general node of some sort."

He's now made the designs available to download for those who have a 3D printer and wish to reduce the size of their Raspberry Pi 3.

Build a proper desktop PC

While the Raspberry Pi technically has all the essential features of a desktop PC, there a couple of issues that hold it back from being a truly credible option for those that want a general-purpose computer.

Thankfully, official Raspberry Pi distributor Element 14 has come to the rescue, announcing a kit that will transform your Raspberry Pi 3 into a proper, fully-capable desktop unit. The kit includes a snazzy-looking case, a heat sink and support for an mSATA SSD up to 1TB in size. It's available from Element 14 for just 40. You'll have to supply your own drive, though.

Make a Smart Mirror

Tired of the lack of entertainment when you're brushing your teeth? Then it's time to make a smart mirror that will captivate you and ensure you're never bored. As you can see in this video by Hacker Shack, you'll need a wooden frame, a monitor and a Raspberry Pi.

For this project you might need some basic carpentry skills as you'll have to put the frame together yourself. Once that is complete, you need to install the mirror and attach a monitor to the back of it along with your Raspberry Pi. Then, you'll have to install the correct code into your device which will allow you to tap in to various APIs, such as from weather websites, depending on what information you want to display on your mirror.

You might need to rotate the screen of the device depending on whether you want your mirror to stand horizontally or vertically, but after that you should be good to go. Now you can browse the weather or news while brushing your teeth and ensure you stay up-to-date and maintain good hygiene at the same time.

Virtual Desktop for Raspberry Pi

You can thank RealVNC's partnership with the Raspberry Pi foundation since it means the latest versions of the Raspbian distro all come with pre-installed versions of VNC Server and VNC Viewer.

You can use this to create a virtual desktop, which is great for providing a graphical desktop interface to Pis that wouldn't have had one otherwise, like headless devices running IoT or robotics projects.

In order to activate this, make sure the VNC Server is set up and enabled on the target Raspberry Pi- find out how to do that by clicking here. You can then use either your Raspberry Pi's terminal or an SSH connection to run the 'vncserver' command.

Make sure you note down the IP address and display number that the VNC Server displays and then insert that information into VNC Viewer. Now you should be able to remotely operate the Pi as if it had a full graphical desktop.

Stratux

Raspberry Pi is the centre of hundreds of useful projects, but as this useful gadget shows, it can also help you to learn and satisfy your idle curiosity. 

Stratux is a project which was made to tell you information about the various aircraft in the sky around you, and the good news is that it's wonderfully simple to build.

plane cockpit

By receiving and translating the ADS-B broadcasts from airplanes in the sky nearby, Stratux gives you information such as the planes' altitudes, speeds, locations and callsigns.

It runs on the Raspberry Pi 3 Motherboard, and the decoding software can be downloaded onto a Micro SD card that you simply slot into the chip.

This page has a few alternative lists of parts, ranging in cost from a budget $95, to a common $145 package, up to a $260 list that's quick to build.

Build a Raspberry Pi weather station

As with any Raspberry Pi project, the number of approaches you can take to building a weather station are countless, but the route you take depends largely on the aspects of weather you'd like to measure - centring on indoors versus outdoors.

While outdoor weather stations can measure environmental factors such as wind speed and rainfall, indoor stations are better for metrics such as pressure change, air quality and temperature.

Ready-to-assemble kits are available, like this one from the Pi Hut, but you'll often need to source other materials such as a waterproof case. You can learn more about building your own Raspberry Pi weather station in our comprehensive guide, together with detailed instructions.

Raspberry Tor Router

Anonymising network Tor is beloved of privacy advocates everywhere, as well as Dark Web users with more nefarious purposes in mind. 

This project turns the Raspberry Pi into a router to send all your network traffic through Tor, rather than just browser sessions. Best of all, you can even slap a battery pack into it to take it wherever you go!

Get Whatsapp on your Raspberry Pi

Whatsapp has become one of the most popular cross-platform messaging service with over 600 million users. Now you can send messages directly from the Pi thanks to a tutorial from emmeshop.

All you need to do is to install the latest version of Raspbian, enter a few lines of code and confirm registration using your mobile.

Customised picture frame

Digital picture frames are becoming increasingly common but there are ways you can customise them. If you've got a spare monitor or an existing digital picture frame with a USB connection, the chances are you can connect your Raspberry Pi to it with a USB-HDMI adaptor. Cameron Wiebe has come up with some scripts which allow the Pi to automatically download pictures from Deviant Art everyday and display them in a slideshow.

The BeetBox

The wackiest project on the list is the BeetBox. Created by artist Scott Garner, it's an interactive drum kit made of vegetables. You tap the beets to create a beat, just like a real drum kit.

The secret sauce is a capacitive touch sensor that connects to a Raspberry Pi, which sends signals to an amp inside a handmade wooden case. Surreal? Yes. Functional? Yes. Fun? Hell yes.

The PiPhone

Forget the Batphone, it's all about the PiPhone.Stuart Johnson took the classic red GPO 746 rotary-dial phone, gutted out the old circuit board, and replaced it with a Raspberry Pi.

With a little elbow grease in C# he synced the Pi to the phone's dial-pulse system, turning it into a functioning internet phone. At the last update, he had applied to Microsoft to make calls over Skype. 

Pi in the Sky

Vying with BeetBox for the coolest name, is the Pi in the Sky. Balloon enthusiast Dave Ackerman sent his Raspberry Pi into space using a weather balloon.

Boldly going where Pi had gone before, it travelled 30km, survived temperatures of -50C and 1 per cent atmosphere with the help of specialised heat sinks and a GPS transmitter. More images are available on Ackerman's blog.

The Mini Mac

Dedicated Apple fan John Badger used his Raspberry Pi to build the world's smallest Macintosh. The Mini Mac is one-third the size of the original Mac and is built to scale with some PVC and off-the-shelf computer parts.

The Pi serves as its motherboard and it uses Linux to run System 6, one of the original versions of Mac OS.

"This is one of those because I can' projects with no practical use my favorite kind!" Badger wrote on his blog.

Behind its 3.5in LCD display is support for USB, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. After some soldering, he managed to cut the components down enough to even include an HDMI-out port.

Live Calendar

Instructables user Piney filled the empty space on his wall with a Google Calendar.

Using a spare PC monitor and his Raspberry Pi, Piney set up the OS to always open Google Calendar over his home Wi-Fi with some clever scripting. One wall mount later, he had a live digital calendar on his wall.

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